Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB)

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 1

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.

Since 2007, iLounge has independently tested every iPhone model, annually purchasing multiple phones, conducting numerous and time-consuming tests, and bringing together the sometimes differing opinions of our team of editors. There have been some memorably exciting moments over the years—various phones arrived with the first truly amazing iOS games, the first really great photos and video recordings, the first Retina screen and first FaceTime calling abilities—as well as numerous small steps of progress; we’ve also conducted countless hours of rote battery, wireless, and nitty gritty testing that ultimately get summed up as dry statistics. We can’t make the test results seem more exciting than they really are, but they matter: Apple’s performance claims aren’t always spot-on, and especially when they’re not, prospective customers need to know as much.

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 2

This year, Apple broke with tradition by releasing two new iPhones as replacements for last year’s iPhone 5. One is the iPhone 5c ($99/16GB, $199/32GB), which is nearly identical in functionality to the iPhone 5, but offered in one of five colored plastic shells instead of the prior metal and glass frame. The other is the $199-$399 iPhone 5s (full review here), which looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5 and has the same 16GB to 64GB storage capacities, but offers four key differences: speed, a tweaked rear camera, a fingerprint scanner, and new color choices. Buyers of the prior iPhone 5 should understand each of these models to be so modestly different from last year’s phone that trading up to either one would be all but pointless, but they go in different directions: the iPhone 5c is a downgrade, at least on the outside, while the iPhone 5s is an upgrade, primarily on the inside. Neither of them delivers one of those memorably exciting moments, but the iPhone 5s comes closer, and has a better prospect of doing so in the future.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 3

Rather than repeating last year’s review, we’re going to stick largely to discussing what’s new in these phones. They certainly aren’t the most exciting new iPhone updates Apple has offered, but as history has demonstrated, small tweaks to already good and great products can be enough to keep sequels viable for another year. Read on to see why the iPhone 5s merited our A- rating and high recommendation, as the iPhone 5c drops to a B+ rating and general recommendation.

The Big Picture: iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c + iOS 7

Understanding the growing appeal of the iPhone family begins with an acknowledgement of Apple’s established design philosophy: Apple creates both the hardware and the operating system software for its devices, separately iterating upon both sides of the equation each year. There hasn’t been a truly “revolutionary” iPhone since the original model debuted in 2007; rather, every version has taken several steps forward (and typically one step back) to refine and improve upon the same concept. Apple doesn’t expect or even strongly encourage customers to buy a new model each year—instead, the company uses a “tick-tock” strategy that spreads major hardware improvements out over the two models introduced during a two-year period, paralleling the typical two-year subsidized phone contracts offered by most U.S. carriers. Its goal is to entice existing customers to upgrade every two or three years, as well as to bring new customers in with each version. The 2008 iPhone 3G, 2010 iPhone 4, and 2012 iPhone 5 became the “base” models with redesigned bodies, while sequels called iPhone 3GS (2009), iPhone 4S (2011), and iPhone 5s (2013) improve a bit upon their predecessors’ formulas. Breaking modestly with tradition, this year’s iPhone 5c is merely a less expensive replacement for the iPhone 5, and not a step forward.

Although hardware is only half of the iPhone story, it’s an important part because it needs to be compelling enough to tempt customers to commit hundreds of dollars up front and a thousand or more dollars to cellular service contracts over the next two years. This year, Apple’s strategy is to offer the glass and metal iPhone 5s as its flagship model, the plastic and glass iPhone 5c as its mid-range model, and the smaller, less powerful metal and glass iPhone 4S as its entry-level model—outside the United States, the aged iPhone 4 is being offered at even lower prices for some customers, as well. Too similar to the iPhone 5s and 5c to keep around, the iPhone 5 was discontinued, using the 5c’s cheaper colored chassis to creating a larger perceived gap between the top and middle of the iPhone line.

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 4

At the same time as Apple is working on hardware improvements, a mostly separate team is iterating upon iOS, the operating system software that runs on all iPhones. Each year’s major iOS update is offered free of charge to owners of prior-generation iPhones, and each iPhone typically works with three major releases of iOS—say iOS 7, iOS 8, and iOS 9. Consequently, iOS updates give an old iPhone two opportunities to feel somewhat new again, enabling mid-contract customers to enjoy an improved experience without buying new hardware.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 5

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 6

Historically, iOS also saw iterative changes from year to year, but this year, Apple introduced iOS 7, which is largely the same under the hood as its predecessor, but looks almost completely different. iOS 7’s cartoony, oddly-designed Home Screen has been called into question by many people (including us), but its core functionality is superb, radically simplifying everything from phone calling to photo and video recording to sharing content. Our complete guide to iOS 7 and iOS 7 review provide additional information on the software, which will surely evolve during 2014 and 2015.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 7

Beyond its built-in features, iOS 7 offers a huge advantage over competing smartphone platforms: a treasure trove of high-quality, affordable downloadable software called “apps.” As of this writing, over 1 million iOS apps have been released into Apple’s App Store—roughly 900,000 still available for download—with well over 50 billion downloads. This month, Apple announced that some of its own best-of-class iOS apps would become free for new iPhone users, so the awesome photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, and iWork productivity apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are now offered as free downloads when the iPhone 5c and 5s are used to visit the App Store for the first time. Apple also offers previously free apps iBooks, iTunes U, Podcasts, Find My Friends and Find My iPhone automatically at the same time. Together, these apps let iPhone 5s and 5c users create office documents, improve photos and videos, read books, locate lost devices, and find iPhone-toting family and friends. Apple’s apps are generally excellent, and as free downloads, they give every new iPhone user a ton of great tools to play with. When iOS device users talk about being “locked in” to Apple’s ecosystem, apps like these are a major incentive not to switch to rival platforms.

What’s Changed: The iPhone 5c’s Design + Packaging

Although Apple has suggested that the iPhone 5c was never intended to be a “low-cost” model, reports from overseas consistently suggested that the company was aiming to release an inexpensive iPhone—one that could be sold at a lower price in China, India, and other developing countries. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen, so the iPhone 5c became the equivalent of 2008’s iPhone 3G, merely shedding the prior model’s expensive metallic body in favor of glossy plastic while making relatively minor tweaks to the hardware. Measuring 4.9” tall by 2.33” wide by 0.35” deep, the iPhone 5c’s exterior is thus nearly identical dimensionally to the iPhone 5 but 0.2” to 0.5” larger in each dimension, and 0.7 ounces heavier at 4.65 ounces.

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 8

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 9

In curves and concept, the 5c is effectively a fifth-generation iPod touch made from plastic rather than anodized aluminum, roughly 50% thicker and losing the chamfered front edges. Because it’s a phone, the iPhone 5c adds a speaker above the 4” diagonal Retina Display—here, always on a black glass face—a ringer switch on the left side, and a SIM card slot on the right, while losing the rear iPod touch loop attachment point, but they’re otherwise extremely similar devices. Even the bottom speaker, headphone port, and Lightning port are in precisely the same places; Apple has added one new hole for a bottom microphone, and removed one of the five for the speaker, very small tweaks indeed.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 10

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 11

What iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 users will notice most is Apple’s shift away from metal, a decided downgrade that the company has attempted to spin with marketing phrases such as “beautifully, unapologetically plastic,” offered in five colors “with uncommon beauty and depth.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see through these claims; the iPhone 5c isn’t so much beautiful as workmanlike. To Apple’s credit, the iPhone 5c does feel solid thanks to a metal internal frame, a dense bundling of internal components, and an external lacquer coating that shines in the light like the plastic iPhone 3G and 3GS did years ago; our impression is that it will resist cracks and scratches better than Apple’s last plastic devices. One of our five review units had a little give in the screen, but not enough to matter to most people.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 12

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 13

But there are a couple of noticeable changes that drop the iPhone 5c decidedly below the iPhone 3G and 3GS in class. First, Apple has stripped this model of the front metal bezel that traditionally appears on iPhones, and similarly switched every previous metal element to plastic, ranging from the Apple logo to buttons and port rings. The plastic elements don’t even attempt to look special; Apple’s logo and the rear text all have a dull dark gray tone without a hint of energy or sparkle. Consequently, iPhone 5c doesn’t look like a midrange smartphone, but like a budget model, reminiscent of the original all-plastic iPod shuffle before Apple switched back to aluminum for subsequent versions.

 

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Second, Apple has selected an initial set of colors that are surprisingly weak—less impressive, even, than the somewhat questionable tones selected last year for the iPod touch. Safest is the white version, which is as ultra-bright as all of Apple’s products, lacking only obvious visual evidence of a thick clear coat.

 

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Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 16

Blue and green are milquetoast tones not terribly dissimilar to the original iPod minis and early iPod nanos, minus the metallic luster. The iPhone 5c’s yellow is the sort of faint shade one winds up with accidentally, either going too yellow when trying to warm up white, or running out of pigment when attempting to achieve a bright yellow. Pink is the tone of farm-raised, artificially-colored salmon, similar to but flatter than the current iPod touch color.

 

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Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 18

In any case, Apple has paired each iPhone 5c shell color with default iOS 7 wallpaper that’s somewhat matched to its tone; the white 5c has light gray wallpaper, the blue 5c wallpaper fades from light blue to aqua, the pink is salmony with a hint of hot pink at the bottom, green fades down to yellow, and yellow transitions to orange. Apple includes all of the other wallpaper colors, plus a dark gray and plenty of other options as alternatives. Designed with simple dots and gradients, the default paper is as forgettable as the current-generation iPod nano’s; Apple’s pre-iOS 7 wallpaper for the iPod touch was at least more interesting.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 19

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 20

Considered as a set, the plastic shells evoke the weak inks of decades-old posters rather than vibrant modern tones, and we can’t say that we like any of them except for the white—perhaps that’s by design, deliberately selected by Apple to avoid stepping on the iPhone 5s’s toes. None of them has the intense reach-out-and-grab-you saturation of Apple’s best colored iPods, and no iPhone 5c looks as nice as a less expensive iPod touch, either. The only thing we prefer to the prior iPhone 3G/3GS design—somewhat—is the new shape, which won’t rock around on a flat surface when the phone is vibrating. Even so, the curved iPhone 3G/3GS felt better in the hand.

 

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The iPhone 5c is the first iPhone to ship in a plastic box rather than cardboard—a hybrid of recent iPod touch and iPhone packages. White plastic is used for the bottom two-thirds of the box, which is curved on all sides rather than flat-edged, while a clear plastic top third shows off the iOS 7 Home Screen-stickered iPhone 5c on a clear tray.

 

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Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 23

There’s nothing daring about the design besides its elimination of two of the white cardboard inserts we’re accustomed to seeing in past Apple boxes, one that previously hid the packed-in accessories and paper inserts, the other an envelope that held the inserts inside.

 

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Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 25

This time, you open the box, pull out the iPhone, and find a thin white card that says “Hello” without having any other purpose; this isn’t typical Apple. Below it are a Quick Start Guide, warranty card, Apple logo stickers, and sometimes—carrier-dependent—a SIM card removal tool. Apple’s EarPods earphones are included inside a carrying case, alongside a 1-meter Lightning to USB cable and 5-Watt USB Power Adapter. All of these components are exactly as expected.

What’s Changed: The iPhone 5c’s Front Camera + Battery

Judged on raw specifications, the iPhone 5c’s front camera hasn’t changed much from the iPhone 5: it’s still limited to 1280×960 still images or 1280×720 (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.

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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.

 

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Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 28

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 480×368—much lower than the 1280×720 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.

 

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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.

Cases, Accessories + What’s Stayed (Mostly) The Same

Cases and Accessories

As a general statement, most of the accessories developed specifically for the iPhone 5 will not work for the iPhone 5c—the plastic model’s body is just a little larger and has slightly different curves than its metal predecessor, so all of the iPhone 5-specific battery packs and cases we’ve tested are incompatible, as are model-specific add-ons such as OlloClip’s attachable lenses. Apple has even made a separate iPhone 5c Dock from the iPhone 5/5s version just released as the iPhone 5s Dock, and designed the latter to be physically incompatible with the 5c.

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 30

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 31

Apple’s Docks aside, accessories designed to be compatible broadly with Apple’s Lightning connector standard will work with the iPhone 5c, including Lightning speakers, Lightning Car Chargers, and Lightning Power Adapters. A new collection of iPhone 5c-specific cases is already arriving in stores, as well, typically at the same prices as iPhone 5 cases, with similar designs.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 32

Revealed alongside the iPhone 5c, Apple’s iPhone 5c Case is a bizarre design that follows Apple’s track record of debuting polarizing official options. On the plus side, it’s relatively inexpensive by Apple case standards at only $29, and comes in six colors—five matching the iPhone 5c, plus black. They’re primarily rubber, lined with microfiber, and surprisingly stiff with integrated button protection. Unfortunately, the design has been near-universally panned due to its use of a 5-by-7 grid of large holes on the back, oddly alternating between covering and exposing parts of the device’s iPhone and certification markings. Apple has pitched the multiple case and 5c color combinations as a selling point, but they look and feel pretty trashy. Should you need a case, look elsewhere; our iPhone 5-family case gallery already has plenty of better options, and we expect even more well before year’s end.

What’s Stayed (Pretty Much) The Same From iPhone 5 to iPhone 5c

Apart from the items discussed above, very little has changed from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 5c—the user experience is virtually identical. Geekbench 3, the latest version of the popular processor benchmarking app, rated the iPhone 5c as a 697 in single-core mode and 1268 in dual-core mode, compared with 715 and 1269 for the iPhone 5, scores so close as to be practically indistinguishable. By comparison, the iPhone 5s rated 1418 and 2560, around twice the iPhone 5 and 5c’s performance—effectively in a different league. For the time being, apps and games that can run on all three of these devices look and feel highly similar, but when iPhone 5s-optimized titles are released over the next year, they’ll be capable of much greater feats; the iPhone 5c versions will perform exactly the same as iPhone 5 games.

 

Review: Apple iPhone 5c (16GB/32GB) 33

For all intents and purposes, the iPhone 5c’s screen is the same as the iPhone 5’s—brightness, color rendition, viewing angles and resolution were virtually identical between the units we tested. Apple now sources screens for each iPhone model from multiple vendors, and many displays over the years have varied between slight cool (blue) or warm (yellow) tints; nothing is different there in the units we tested. At times, we thought that the touch surfaces on the iPhone 5c and 5s appeared to be just a little peppier with finger input than the iPhone 5.

 

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If anything, the iPhone 5c’s audio sounds a little better than the iPhone 5’s. Direct comparisons we ran between models using extremely high-end Ultimate Ears earphones suggested that the iPhone 5c produces slightly cleaner audio—lower distortion across the spectrum—plus just a little extra treble and bass, resulting in songs that sound modestly smoother and more dynamic than with the iPhone 5. We’d characterize the differences as too small to be evident in lower-end earphones, such as the ones packed-in with the iPhone 5c, but they’re there to reward audiophiles who dare to connect their best gear to the plastic-bodied model. Speakerphone and general phone calling performance was effectively identical across all three phones during our testing; the bottom speakers sound equally loud and clear on the iPhone 5, 5c, and 5s, and callers told us that we sounded the same to them, as well. It’s worth a brief mention that the Verizon iPhone 5c still does not let users make phone calls and use cellular data at the same time.

Wireless tests of the iPhone 5, 5c, and 5 units started with what appeared to be identical speed performance on downloading and uploading tests over Wi-Fi, hitting the 20Mbps/2Mbps caps of our residential testing location; faster performance is possible with faster broadband packages. It’s worth a note that Apple has kept 802.11a/b/g/n hardware in the new units rather than pushing forward to the increasingly popular 802.11ac standard. Similarly, cellular speed tests over 4G and LTE revealed no real performance differences between the models. In an area with reported 4-5 bar LTE strength, the iPhone 5c and 5s models both achieved AT&T download/upload speeds in the 15Mbps/10Mbps range, versus Verizon download/upload speeds in the 10Mbps/5Mbps range, markedly down from last year when the companies’ LTE networks were new and comparatively unsaturated with customers. Just as with the iPhone 5, it’s possible to find areas where each phone will hit download speeds four to five times higher than these numbers.

Conclusions

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.

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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.

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple Inc.

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPhone 5c

Price: $99/16GB or $199/32GB with New 2-Year Contract, $549/$649 without

Compatible: PC/Mac/iCloud

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