iPhone 5C review: last year’s Apple flagship gets a fancy new suit
For the first time in its history, “the new iPhone” is not a single device. It’s a one-two punch comprising the iPhone 5s and the midrange iPhone 5c, the phones separated by a small gap in functionality and a huge gulf in aesthetics. Whereas the “deluxe model” packs new features like an improved camera, fingerprint scanner, and 64-bit processor, the more humble iPhone 5c offers almost nothing to set it apart from last year’s iPhone 5 on the spec sheet.
But Apple has never been one to cater to the specification seekers. Instead, the iPhone 5c seems squarely aimed at the kind of customers who would buy a Nokia Lumia or an HTC Windows Phone – or, perhaps more fittingly, an iPod Touch. The 5c’s most apparent set-off is its new plastic casing, which comes in five different color options, all of them proudly showcased by Apple’s new transparent packaging. For those who’ve held off on buying an iPhone because the customization options end at “black or white,” the iPhone 5c represents a sharp -and welcome- departure from the norm.
But is a colorful casing enough to make 2013’s lower-end iPhone stand out? More importantly, is it a phone you should consider buying? Read on to find out.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
Video Review & Comparisons
Specs & Hardware
When it comes to re-painting last year’s parade float and rolling it down the street as a new-and-improved version, Apple has more experience than most. For years, its business model has remained the same: the new iPhone continues the progression of the line at the high end, while the old iPhone becomes the cheap alternative to bolster the low end. Despite the 5c’s new casing, that sales approach is alive and well here.
The iPhone 5c packs the same A6 system-on-a-chip as the iPhone 5, backed up by the same 1GB of RAM and nearly the same storage options (16 and 32GB flavors are here, but the high-capacity 64GB tier has been eliminated). The 4-inch, 1136×640 IPS display is the same as last year’s as well, and the 8MP camera around back is also identical. You’ve got to look pretty close to discern any differences at all: the iFixit teardown of the 5c has revealed an increased use of adhesives relative to its forebears, as well as some very minor hardware changes. The only notable improvements on the spec sheet are the substitution of a 1507mAh (5.74Wh) battery for the iPhone 5’s 1440mAh (5.35Wh) pack, and the mild upgrade of the 1.2MP front-facing camera from a 1.75µm sensor to a 1.9µm unit.
Apple’s solid workmanship is still in evidence here: the buttons, though plastic, all exhibit excellent tactile response; the Lightning connector pops home with a reassuring click in either orientation, which is still a nice trick; and the phone seems like it could take a drop or two without getting too bent out of shape.
Still, we’d be lying if we said the 5c’s hardware didn’t feel like a downgrade in quality. For years, Apple has been the patron saint of high-end metal-and-glass smartphones; they may not have always been the most rugged devices on the block, but in the hand, iPhones tended to feel more like finely-crafted pieces of jewelry than mobile phones (at least, until you threw a nasty-looking case on them). That’s not the situation with the 5c, which feels much more like a mid-tier Nokia. For any other manufacturer, that’d be a compliment -with few exceptions, we love Nokia’s build quality- but for Apple, it’s a step down. After a week of use, our review unit is already accumulating a pretty thick sheen of fingerprint-laden skin oil, which is easy to wipe off but hard to eliminate entirely. And amid a sea of larger, sharper screens, the iPhone’s 4-inch display continues to feel pretty limiting despite its excellent color reproduction and wide viewing angles.
Taylor Martin demos iOS 7 on an iPhone 5
We’re no strangers to iOS 7, having used Apple’s new platform -albeit in beta form- since it was announced several months ago. When the Gold Master of iOS 7 rolled out just prior to the new iPhone’s debut, our own Taylor Martin took the new software for the test drive embedded above, and also shot a second video pointing out some tips and tricks he found along the way.
The verdict: Apple’s new platform is a triple threat. It’s bold, beautiful, and responsive as ever. iOS 7 tackles the aesthetic problems of Apple’s earlier software head-on, eliminating the chrome and cruft in favor of a steamrolled translucent wonderland dominated by frosted-glass effects sliding across vibrant pastels. Everything has been brightened and streamlined, with thinned UI elements and ultralight system fonts lending an air of modernity to the interface – something iOS badly needed. And elements that were downright ugly or unusable before, like the notification area up top, have been given overhauls that make them much more valuable.
That value is further multiplied by Apple’s recent decision to make the entire iWork suite available to iPhone users at no charge. That’s not just the word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation abilities of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, either – it also includes the iPhoto and iMovie powerhouses that make editing pictures and video not just possible, but fairly easy as well. It’s a value-add that’s probably more usable on the larger iPad, but the ability to download these titles free of charge on the iPhone can’t be called anything but a very good thing.
Not everything on the software side is perfect. In its quest for buttery-smooth responsiveness, Apple has slowed down iOS animations somewhat, so hopping in and out of folders is a marginally slower experience than it was in earlier versions. The webOS-derived “fling” action to dismiss apps in the new multitasking view is as fun as ever, but it’s finicky and feels over-lubricated, meaning it doesn’t always work on the first try. And some of the old complaints about the OS remain unresolved: there’s still no system-wide sharing capability, for example, which will annoy Android transplants accustomed to being able to share almost anything anywhere, from within almost any app.
As we mentioned in a piece earlier this week covering the 5c, iOS 7 isn’t exactly an earth-shattering reinvention. Apple deserves credit for ably walking the line between refresh and consistency, and it keeps the same old UI conventions intact: the new iPhone features a static grid of app icons and folders over a wallpaper, just like almost every one before it. If you knew how to operate any of the previous generations of iPhone, you’ll know how to work the 5c. And if you want to use iOS 7’s refreshed Notification Center and toggle-laden Control Center, you can; if not, you can leave them be. Apple has done as good a job here as could be expected when taking the needs of a huge legacy customer base into account, and the result is a clean, responsive, and fun -if still limiting- interface. And it’ll only improve as developers update their third-party apps to fall in line with iOS 7’s revised styling.
The iPhone has long been a driving force behind the advancement of smartphone optics. It’s thanks to Apple that the term “HDR” entered the common parlance in the States, and the company’s simple, easy-to-use viewfinders have long served as a model for other manufacturers to emulate when crafting their own camera experience. Last year’s iPhone 5 was the apex of Apple’s optical achievements, its f/2.4 aperture camera building in sapphire crystal construction and a 5-element lens for sharper, less-noisy output compared to earlier devices. As this year’s iPhone 5c features the exact same “iSight” camera as the iPhone 5, its performance is also identical for all intents and purposes.
But while that was big news in 2012, it’s not quite as impressive a year later. Few areas of smartphone development have advanced more rapidly than camera performance in the past year, and with optically stabilized 13MP, 20MP, and even 41MP cameras dotting the smartphone landscape, the iPhone 5c’s 8MP non-stabilized shooter comes off a bit less impressive – especially in low-light situations.
While its performance is wonderful under well-lit conditions, there’s still quite a bit of noise apparent in many of the 5c’s shots. It’s nothing that’ll show up at normal size when viewed on the phone, but blowing the pictures up on a computer reveals just how far we’ve come in the past year – and reminds us what a shame it is that the iPhone 5c didn’t come along for the ride. Still, for a mid-range phone, these photos are excellent – and the new viewfinder, while a bit more convoluted than its predecessors, does at least add some features in exchange for the complications.
Video performance is, again, just as we left it in 2012: the shot can be a bit on the shaky side unless you’re concentrating on keeping your hand still, and stopping on a single frame will still yield a small amount of detectable noise. But the color is brilliant, the auto-exposure is quick, and the audio pickup is loud and clear, even in intermittent breeze. Just as with the still photos, the iPhone 5c delivers better-than-average results for a mid-tier smartphone.
Sometimes, the Performance section of a Pocketnow review is dominated by benchmarks or endurance scores, with graphs or lists depicting superiority in gigahertz or milliamp-hours. That kind of nuts-and-bolts report is all well and good for Android powerhouses, but for the iPhone 5c, we think it’s missing the point. With the iPhone 5c, the “performance” worth talking about is the device’s handling of day-to-day, task-to-task, moment-to-moment demands – and in this respect, the phone is almost unmatched. It is an outstanding smartphone.
Disregard the smaller-than-average screen for a moment, and tune out the tired old mantra of the comment-section motorheads, with their complaints about “last year’s specs.” The actual act of using the iPhone 5c is a distinct pleasure. This is why Apple sells millions of them, and it’s why many average consumers covet them: the device does nearly everything well. The UI is incredibly difficult to trip up in any meaningful way, almost always featuring 1:1 responsiveness that instills a trust not found on many other phones. The new Control Center toggles and convenience apps bring additional utility without bogging everything down. And the improved aesthetics are the icing on the cake. From the subtle parallax effect between the homescreen icons and the wallpaper to the more-friendly, more-casual phrasing of upcoming alerts on the Today screen, all that responsiveness is tempered with a fun, friendly, human touch that’s just extraordinary. With iOS 7, no longer does the iPhone “just work.” Now, it’s fun enough to make work feel like play.
Unfortunately, you’ll want to temper the amount of play you indulge in, at least until you can secure an external power pack for your device. Maybe it’s because we were using the inefficient “Fetch” method for our twin Gmail accounts rather than the Google-made app, or maybe it’s because we were so busy Instagramming during our test period that we seldom put the device down, but we rarely got through a full day with the iPhone 5c. Despite its larger battery, the phone usually petered out after 6 to 7 hours of heavy use while within AT&T’s 3G and 4G-LTE coverage areas. While that’s certainly not the worst endurance we’ve ever seen, it pales in comparison to similarly-positioned devices like the Moto X.
Back on the plus side, speeds over AT&T’s LTE network were excellent as usual, and even HSPA throughput wasn’t bad during our seven-day test period between suburban Greater Boston and rural New York. (Incidentally, the iPhone 5c does support more LTE bands than its predecessor, so buyers in new LTE global markets can expect better support here.) In terms of voice performance, callers said we sounded about average, rating our call quality at about 7.5 out of 10 on their end – a score that applied to our side as well when using the earpiece. Fortunately, the speakerphone is louder than most devices, especially during media playback: it may not quite reach the clarity of HTC BoomSound, but the iPhone’s loudspeaker can at least out-shout most others on the market.
+ Outstanding user experience overall
+ Reliable, responsive, beautiful software
+ Better-than-average camera
+ Solid screen quality
– Plastic casing won’t age well
– Screen size limits utility
– Small embedded battery, nonexpandable storage
– Insufficient innovation to justify new model name
Pricing and Availability
The iPhone 5c went on sale alongside the iPhone 5c on September 20th. In the US, it’s available from Apple directly or via any of the four national carriers. Don’t let the plastic build fool you: while it’s still a Benjamin cheaper than the higher-end iPhone 5s, the 5c retails for a steep $649 for the 32GB version ($549 for 16GB) off-contract. While subsidized pricing starts as low as $199/$99 for the same models, it carries with it the requirement of a two-year contract as always.
To see whether the iPhone supports your local LTE bands (outside the US), check here.
Taking the iPhone 5c in context, that last entry in the “Cons” section above is a sticking point. During the Apple announcement heralding the new iPhones’ arrival, we called the 5c an “iPhone 5 in a new casing,” and besides the minor exceptions noted above, that’s proven fairly accurate. The 5c is indeed last night’s dinner reheated and served on a new plate, a move we lambasted competitor Samsung for when it unveiled its Galaxy S 4 earlier this year. Here, the move to a new model name seems even less justified, and it’s not entirely clear that you’re getting a better device if you choose the 5c over the discontinued iPhone 5, as our comparison video makes clear.
Nevertheless, the 5c is Apple’s new “affordable” smartphone. And, truth be told, there are many worse devices to repackage and resell than last year’s iPhone 5. So if you’re in the market for a less-expensive iOS handheld and you don’t care whether it knows your fingerprint, should you consider the iPhone 5c? Absolutely. It offers a solid set of hardware features mated to some of the smartest, most reliable software we’ve ever used – and it’s all bundled up in a case that, while a little chintzy, is at least available in different colors.
Most importantly, though, is the holistic view. The iPhone 5c continues Apple’s track record of absolutely nailing the overall user experience. Using this device is such an overwhelmingly positive experience that you’re encouraged to look past its defects, rather than dwell upon them. And that performance is backed up by the most robust hardware and software ecosystem around, along with the best customer-support structure you’re likely to find. All that, taken together, makes the iPhone 5c a pretty big win in our book.