Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB)
Pros: A more affordable version of 2012’s iPhone 5, still packing a 4” screen, LTE cellular support, and two very good cameras, with modestly improved low-light performance on the front camera. Features slightly improved headphone port audio, and still solid iOS 7 software foundation, newly augmented by a collection of excellent free iWork and iLife apps. Small improvements to battery performance. Now offered in five different colors and two different storage capacities.
Cons: Plastic shells are a major downgrade from both iPhone 5’s metal casing and earlier plastic enclosures developed for the iPhone 3GS, with mostly stale color options, and no trace of metallic sparkle. Real-world battery performance continues to fall below Apple’s best case estimates, most noticeably for cellular calling and data. LTE service remains inconsistent, now with not only widely varying data speeds and availability, but also increased user saturation in areas with “strong” signals. Verizon users still can’t talk and access cellular data at same time. FaceTime HD support has apparently been dropped in iOS 7 software for 720p video calling. Physically incompatible with cases and battery cases developed for the iPhone 5.
Judged on raw specifications, the iPhone 5c’s front camera hasn’t changed much from the iPhone 5: it’s still limited to 1280x960 still images or 1280x720 (720p) video recording—fine for “selfies” and FaceTime, but nowhere near as powerful as the rear iSight camera. Apple notes that the 5c sports a “new backside illumination sensor,” which it says is better than the iPhone 5 in low-light conditions.
In real-world testing, the difference isn’t huge, but in dim light, the iPhone 5c’s advantage is readily apparent in direct comparisons with the prior-generation sensor in the iPhone 5. There’s enough added light to help 5c video callers better distinguish dark brown hair from a medium-dark red background, see slightly brighter and more subtle gradations in skin tones, and make out additional background details. Our comparison photos here show the darker iPhone 5 camera on the left and the lighter iPhone 5c on the right. While we wouldn’t expect to see many iPhone 5 users transition to the iPhone 5c, users of the iPhone 4 or 4S will see an even more marked improvement during FaceTime calls—at least in exposure. Scenes that were highly grainy and dark before will be considerably easier to make out now.
Unfortunately, neither the front camera nor the rear camera are able to offer their best resolutions during FaceTime video calls. Apple’s web site now explicitly disclaims the resolution of FaceTime for Wi-Fi calls as only 480x368—much lower than the 1280x720 resolution previously offered by FaceTime HD. This is apparently the consequence of a patent dispute recently lost by Apple. It remains to be seen whether FaceTime will go back to offering HD video in the future, but for now, FaceTime calls look brighter on the iPhone 5c than before, but noticeably grainy on the Retina display, an issue that will affect all iOS devices.
The iPhone 5c’s New Battery
Apple’s iPhone battery philosophy has remained pretty much unchanged for years: the company prioritizes improved processing performance and reduced device size over major gains in run time, so no iPhone has truly delivered all-day battery life for reasonably active users. Each year’s model stays mostly the same as its predecessor across a handful of measured categories, but Apple occasionally touts an hour or two of supposed improvement, sometimes accurately and sometimes not.
The iPhone 5c battery has been modestly upgraded over the iPhone 5, jumping from 1440mAh to 1510mAh—an on-paper improvement of just under 5%, versus the 8% jump between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5s’s 1560mAh battery. We say “on paper” solely because it’s possible for real-world run time to decrease despite a larger battery, particularly if something else has changed inside the device. Since almost everything in the iPhone 5c is equivalent to the iPhone 5 except for the battery, we would have expected the numbers to be a little better on the iPhone 5c. Sometimes they were, and sometimes they weren’t, which appears to be attributable to issues with iOS 7.
Cellular Data: Apple claimed “up to 8 hours” of LTE or 3G Internet use for the iPhone 5, which we noted last year was a best-case scenario—closest to accurate in places with strong signals. For the iPhone 5c, Apple promises “up to 8 hours” on 3G, and “up to 10 hours on LTE.” Once again, Apple’s numbers were optimistic, assuming ever-strong 3G and LTE signals that in the real world are highly variable, resulting in higher battery drain and much lower cellular speeds than carriers advertise.
Using our standard continuous web page loading test, the iPhone 5c running at 3-bar strength on AT&T’s 3G/4G network ran for 6 hours and 52 minutes, versus 6 hours and 3 minutes on Verizon’s LTE network. While these numbers were below Apple’s 8-hour claims, both numbers are up relative to the iPhone 5, which hit 5 hours and 15 minutes on Verizon’s LTE network last year and 4 hours and 44 minutes on AT&T LTE. Results will vary by location; network differences and network strength can both swing each number by significant margins.
As we noted last year, AT&T and Verizon were still in the process of building out their LTE networks, a process that’s also underway with smaller U.S. rivals Sprint and T-Mobile. Sometimes, adding LTE involves replacing some 3G/4G towers with LTE—a change that has reduced signal strength and increased battery drain when phones connect to older networks. If you live in an area with strong LTE or 3G/4G signal strength, your numbers will be closer to Apple’s claims; if not, your numbers will be closer to the results above.
Wi-Fi Data: Just like the iPhone 5, Apple claims “up to 10 hours” of Wi-Fi Internet use for the iPhone 5c. With its cellular antenna turned on (but without actually making or receiving any phone calls), an iPhone 5c ran our standard Wi-Fi Internet test for 6 hours and 42 minutes, versus 6 hours and 24 minutes for the iPhone 5. We saw a two-hour jump last year when the iPhone 5’s cellular antenna was turned off, and would expect the same with the iPhone 5c.
Voice Calling: Last year, the iPhone 5 promised 8 hours of talk time over 3G, but actually was only modestly over 6 hours with the AT&T (6:15) and Verizon phones (6:06). This year, Apple promises “up to 10 hours on 3G,” but our test results weren’t even close to that supposedly improved number. The Verizon iPhone 5c hit a nearly identical 6 hours and 7 minutes, virtually unchanged from last year, while the AT&T iPhone 5c managed the exact same 6 hours and 15 minutes. Surprised by an even lower iPhone 5s result, we ran the AT&T test again, and for reasons unknown, the AT&T iPhone 5c achieved a 7 hour and 42 minute run time—far better than before, but still not close to Apple’s 10-hour claim. We have to assume from the disparities we’ve seen that something odd is going on with iOS 7 or local cellular towers to skew the results, but we’re unsure. In any case, the results are based on medium-level AT&T and Verizon signal strengths; battery life may well be higher where users get more bars of service. Due to the slightly larger battery, standby time for the iPhone 5c is now rated at 250 hours, versus 225 hours on the iPhone 5.
FaceTime Video Calling: The iPhone 5 ran for 3 hours and 2 minutes of continuous video calling on this test on iOS 6, versus 3 hours and 8 minutes under iOS 7 in a re-test this year. By comparison, the iPhone 5c on iOS 7 ran for 3 hours and 20 minutes, a modest improvement, and 22 minutes shy of the iPhone 5s.
1080p Video Recording: Last year, the iPhone 5 ran for 2 hours and 30 minutes of continuous rear camera video recording at 1080p resolution. The iPhone 5c delivered 2 hours and 43 minutes this year.
Video Playback: For several years, Apple has promised up to 10 hours of video playback with the screen and speaker each at 50%, and last year’s iPhone 5 went for 11 hours and 7 minutes on our standard video test. We were surprised that the iPhone 5c ran short, playing continuously for only 9 hours and 16 minutes, a surprising dip that again might be attributable to iOS 7.
Game Playback: We typically try to see how long each new iPhone can continuously play a flagship game before running out of juice—a particularly demanding test because it pushes the screen (on 50% brightness), speaker, CPU, and graphics processor at the same time with whatever a top developer can throw at the hardware. This year, we selected Epic Games’ Infinity Blade III, which was separately optimized for the iPhone 5 and 5s just before the new iPhones came out. The iPhone 5 ran it for 3 hours and 32 minutes, versus 3 hours and 42 minutes on the iPhone 5s, and 3 hours and 55 minutes on the iPhone 5c. We’d attribute the difference between the iPhone 5 and 5c to the latter’s larger battery, and the iPhone 5s’s slightly lower-than-5c number to the extra processing power that model requires for additional special effects. In any case, the differences aren’t major.
Audio Playback: Apple provides an “up to 40 hour” estimate for iPhone audio playback, which has remained the same for years. As we noted last year, an iPhone 5 in Airplane Mode (with the screen off and the volume set to 50% with headphones connected) lost only a single percentage point of power after three hours of audio playback, but the same iPhone 5 with cellular and Wi-Fi networks connected ran for 37 hours and 3 minutes, falling just below Apple’s estimate using its testing methodology. This year, the iPhone 5c ran for 43 hours and 28 minutes of continuous audio playback time while connected to Wi-Fi and unassociated with a cellular network. The takeaway point here is that audio playback takes very small sips from the battery pack; it’s really the passive use of wireless antennas that impacts run time.
Recharging: Last year, we noted that recharging a completely dead iPhone 5 from a 1-Amp power source took 2 hours and 17 minutes—a test we re-ran under iOS 7 with a slightly faster 2:04 result. The iPhone 5c under iOS 7 took 2 hours and 29 minutes, a bit longer, in part thanks to its larger battery pack. Note that iPhones are able to draw 1-Amp power only from compatible wall adapters and USB ports, falling backwards to 500mA half-speed charging when that’s all a port or adapter can supply. The 5W USB Power Adapter Apple provides with the iPhone 5s recharges the device at its full speed; using faster 2.1-Amp/10W iPad adapters doesn’t result in any improvement in charging time.