“There are some things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder.”
That’s a quote from singer/songwriter Elvis Costello. He’s never been my favorite musician, but as he was the special musical guest at today’s Apple event in Cupertino, it seemed an appropriate fit to kick off this piece on why I’m considering the lesser of two iPhones.
Today, Apple broke with its long-standing tradition of releasing only a single new iPhone per year. In this morning’s launch event (which we covered live via a special Editorial Roundtable), the company announced that it would replace its current iPhone 5 not just with a single high-end model –the iPhone 5S– but with the midrange iPhone 5C, as well.
Each device is impressive in its own way, but the 5S is definitely closer to what most people would expect from an “iPhone upgrade.” Along with a new champagne-gold color option, it features a much more powerful A7 (64-bit) processor alongside a new “contextual” M7 core, a handful of compelling camera improvements, and novel features like a fingerprint scanner. It’s the phone that, as a tech geek, I’m supposed to like more. And don’t get me wrong – a part of me does.
But another part of me thinks I’d prefer the 5C instead.
Now, the 5C offers almost none of the advantages of the higher-end 5S. It’s basically an iPhone 5 wrapped in a new casing. There’s really no reason someone who values a cutting-edge smartphone experience (as I do) would opt for the 5C – unless you consider a mutable casing an important part of the overall experience (as I also do). You see my dilemma.
Casing customization has always been a big deal to me, but it wasn’t until recently that the market started catering to that desire – the most visible example is Motorola’s Moto X, whose MotoMaker custom phone-building suite offers loads of options to tailor your device to your own particular tastes. But other manufacturers have brought their own custom options as well. Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 3 is the most recent example, offering an avalanche of color choices for its battery doors and carry-wallets. And Nokia beat Samsung to the punch by years, kicking off the modern era of colorful mass-market smartphones with its Lumia line for Windows Phone.
While it’s no surprise to see Apple finally warming to the notion of offering its halo smartphone in multiple hues, it’s also somewhat disappointing to see the company confine that customization to the lower-end model. This is something we’ve seen before, and it’s no less frustrating now.
Nokia, some of you may recall, wasn’t the only manufacturer to inject some color into the Windows Phone hardware landscape. Rival phone-maker HTC quickly countered with its own hardware, an assortment of brilliantly colored handsets led off by the HTC 8X. But it was actually the lower-end 8S that brought real flavor to the catalog, adding an off-color stripe and different accents to the body color to make for a very bold-looking device. In many ways, I found the 8S more attractive than the 8X when the devices were announced, and I said so in a piece written around that time. The down-side, I lamented, was that in order to get the bolder look of the 8S, you also had to settle for its midrange features.
That unfortunate reality remains true for the new iPhones, as well.
Apple has never been at the forefront of the customization push. For years, the only color options available to iPhone purchasers were black and white – and it took a comically long period for the old iPhone 4 to come out in the latter shade. So it’s actually quite a big step for Apple to offer its high-end 5S in three finishes (white, gray, and the aforementioned champagne).
But that pales in comparison to the options available on the lower-end model. The holes in the 5C’s snap-on case allow for the color of the phone to poke through, leading to a nifty visual effect not present on the 5S’s unbroken custom cases. Additionally, five color choices for the “fuselage” and six for the optional snap-on case mean the iPhone 5C is available in 30 different color combinations. Sure, it’s not the 250+ of the Moto X, but it’s a huge step for a company like Apple. And the folks at Cupertino seem keenly aware of the importance of offering customer-selected hues, with a blurb on the 5C’s website declaring that “color is more than just a hue. It expresses a feeling. Makes a statement. Declares an allegiance. Color reveals your personality.” Sure, it’s mawkish marketing mumbo-jumbo at its finest, but it’s a sentiment that also moves a lot of phones. Were I to move from the choice-heavy world of Android or Windows Phone to the iPhones’s traditionally more-staid territory, you better believe I’d buy the hell out a 5C.
Like the Costello quote says, though, there’s only so much that aesthetics can make up for. In choosing looks over substance, I’d be losing a lot: the new A7/M7 processor combo doesn’t have a home in the 5C, and the refined camera and password-eliminating fingerprint scanner are nowhere to be seen, either. At its core, once again, the 5C is just a spruced-up iPhone 5.
But every year, millions of people make the decision to buy the previous-generation iPhone, at a significant discount. Indeed, that’s been Apple’s “entry-level” approach for as long as it’s been building phones. Just last night, I overheard two friends on the train discussing their iPhone options, during which one of them said, “well, I can just get last year’s model for cheaper. I’ll probably do that.” From that perspective, the iPhone 5C is just a more-intelligent means of reheating yesterday’s dinner for today’s lunch.
Finally, from a personal standpoint, it’s been five years since I last owned an iPhone. Even without the bleeding-edge hardware of the 5S, I’m still apt to be blown away by the modern iOS experience. Yes, I’ll miss some of the more “forward-thinking” enhancements, but in exchange, I’ll get a phone I can closely tailor to my own personal aesthetic, while saving some dough in the process. And if our own experience is any indication, it should run the new iOS 7 software quite nicely.
That’s a heck of a pitch. And it’s why I think the iPhone 5C will not only be a huge hit for Apple, but why it just might find a place in my own pocket come September 20th.