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.
In an alternate reality, the iPhone 5 would have followed past Apple precedent, dropping in price to $99 while a markedly more powerful iPhone 5S debuted at $199, $299, and $399 price points. Under that scenario, the iPhone 5c either wouldn’t have existed, or would have debuted as an entry-level iPhone with less powerful hardware and a subsidized contract price of $0. But that didn’t happen; instead, Apple has broken its past pattern solely to deliver a markedly cheaper-looking device than would have been expected this year for $99, with the option to pick from two storage capacities. Apart from very small front camera and battery performance differences, there’s nothing that makes the iPhone 5c better than the iPhone 5, unless you really love one of the new colorful plastic shells.
For all of Apple’s claims that the iPhone 5c offers a somehow remarkable plastic enclosure, we can’t say that we agree—the company previously set a higher mark with the iPhone 3GS, which despite fewer color options looked and felt nicer in the versions that were available. Between the oddly weak pastel colors, zero-metal exterior, and decidedly plain shape, Apple has pared the iPhone 5c down to the point where no one familiar with its predecessors will find anything—save for added color options—particularly new or excellent. As an entry-priced model, that would have been fine, but as a mid-range phone replacing the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5c looks too cheap. There are no apparent cost savings being passed on to the consumer; for now, the only beneficiary appears to be Apple.
None of this is to say that the iPhone 5c is a bad or merely okay phone; in fact, for the $99 on-contract asking price, the 16GB version is capable of doing far more than last year’s $99 iPhone 4S, including tangible improvements to the screen quality and size, both cameras, cellular LTE performance, improved phone calling quality, and dramatically better graphics in games. The plastic is also likely to be more resilient than the easily shattered iPhone 4S. Additionally, while the market for a $199 32GB iPhone 5c doesn’t strike us as huge, we could understand a person trading the substantially fancier body, improved camera, and faster processor of the $199 iPhone 5s for an extra 16GB of storage capacity for apps, videos, and photos. Under most circumstances, we’d more strongly recommend the 5s.
Last year, a nearly identical product at a higher price point earned our high recommendation, and the iPhone 5 has been such an excellent performer since then that we haven’t felt a strong need to replace it. The iPhone 5c falls short of the total excellence offered by its predecessor, however, and it’s a shame that Apple felt the need to physically cheapen a winning prior model in order to make adequate room for its sequel. Our advice would be to consider this model primarily for younger users and first-time iPhone owners who really don’t need or care about the superior design and features in the iPhone 5s. If you opt for the iPhone 5c, you’ll save a little money, and find that it does more than enough right now to satisfy cost-conscious customers today.