- Review Date: 9/21/2013
- Bottom line: The colorful, plastic iPhone 5c is a welcome upgrade for existing iPhone 4 and 4S owners, and a great introduction to Apple's awesome app platform at a nice price. It's the best $99 phone you'll find on Verizon Wireless, but otherwise, there's not much new to see here.
- Pros: Bright and cheerful new colors. Solid value. iPhone 5 internals are still solid. Stronger RF reception than iPhone 5. iOS 7 is a dramatic upgrade.
- Cons: That 4-inch screen is starting to feel small. No significant new hardware features.
If you think you know the new Apple iPhone 5c ($99 for 16GB/$199 for 32GB with contract), you do. It's the guts of the iPhone 5 wrapped in a colorful enclosure, with a new front-facing camera and battery. That's basically it. Still, the iPhone 5c marks the first time you can get an iPhone in an array of bright colors, recalling the cheerful iMacs and iBooks of the late 1990s. The 5c is a solid play for existing iPhone 4 and 4S owners, as well as those with older Android and BlackBerry phones, and it's a terrific introduction to Apple's app platform at a reasonable price. It's the best new smartphone you can get on Verizon Wireless for $100. But there's zero gee-whiz factor surrounding the iPhone 5c; for that, you need to cough up $100 more for the iPhone 5s—or, for that matter, the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Design, Enclosure, and Case
What's intriguing here is that typically, Apple doesn't sell a newly designed phone for $99; instead, it lowers last year's flagship model to $99, and introduces its new top-of-the-line product with a $199 start price. This time around, the company discontinued the iPhone 5 after just one year, replaced it with the iPhone 5s at $199, and introduced this new lower-price iPhone 5c.
With that out of the way, let's talk details. The iPhone 5c is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPhone 5 and 5s. It measures 4.9 by 2.33 by 0.35 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.65 ounces. Compare that to the iPhone 5s, which measures 4.87 by 2.31 by 0.30 inches and weighs 3.95 ounces. It doesn't make much of a difference, unless you're really picky. Notably, all five color options (blue, green, pink, yellow, or white) are bright and cheerful; there are no neutrals, earth tones, or Droid-esque dystopian-future shades available. Each model also comes with matching home screen colors and wallpaper, which is a nice touch.
But the strangest thing about the iPhone 5c is that it's slippery. You're aware of it while holding it, and you can actually slide it across a desk, in a way that you can't with a Galaxy S 4. It's something about the glossy clearcoat finish over the polycarbonate. It definitely looks and feels smooth and solid. The hardware controls are mostly the same, with the only difference being the volume controls, which are long and thin instead of round. The enclosure also seems more durable; aluminum-bodied iPhones feel richer and more luxurious, of course, but they're also known for getting pretty scratched up if you don't buy a case. There's a reason Samsung has stuck with polycarbonate bodies for its Galaxy phones all this time.
Speaking of cases, Apple's $29 silicone case for the iPhone 5c is much grippier. It's easy to slip the iPhone 5c in and out of, and it lets some of the original color through, thanks to the neatly arranged circular cutouts on the back. The case itself is lined with microfiber, which cushions the phone nicely, and you can get it in an array of colors, which means you can make your own custom color combo. (For more iPhone 5c cases, check out our roundup.)
Connectivity, Call Quality, and Reception
Internally, almost everything in the iPhone 5 is in the iPhone 5c, including the A6 processor, LTE compatibility, 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with f/2.4 aperture, and the 1,136-by-640-pixel 4-inch display. None of these features are suddenly lacking; the iPhone 5's camera remains one of the best you can get, and all current iOS apps run as fast as they need to here. The display is sufficiently sharp, and the new iOS 7 fonts look terrific. But you could definitely argue it's time the display was bumped up in size. Four inches can feel mighty small if you've spent any length of time using a late-model Android phone.
Performance-wise, the iPhone 5c is identical to the iPhone 5. That means it's snappy in day-to-day use, and especially smooth with iOS 7, which features nifty movement and parallax tricks that weren't in the old OS. Downloading Web pages and firing up apps are just as fast as usual, and the iPhone's sensitive multi-touch support and ultra-smooth page scrolling are still the best in the business.
That said, connectivity, call quality, and reception are the places where the iPhone 5c can differ from the iPhone 5, so let's focus on those.
I tested the iPhone 5c side by side with a Verizon iPhone 5 running iOS 7 (more on that later). In a series of speed tests around midtown Manhattan, the iPhone 5c generally pulled in the same disappointing LTE results of 1-3Mbps down and about 1Mbps up that the iPhone 5 scored. But there's a marked, if sometimes inconsistent, improvement in reception; taking both phones out of my pants pocket, the iPhone 5c almost always locked onto LTE faster, while the iPhone 5 waffled between 3G, LTE, and sometimes even 1x for a while.
In our office building's basement, we made test calls and ran data speed tests with the iPhone 5c, 5s, 5, the LG G2, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. The LG G2 had the most trouble connecting calls, and the Galaxy S4 the least, and the newer iPhones leading the iPhone 5.For voice calls, both the iPhone 5 and 5c are fine, and neither is great. The 5c's earpiece went a bit louder, which was unexpected. Both phones sound identical through the microphone, with the same middling external noise rejection. I heard some static on one of the iPhone 5 test calls, which makes me think reception is playing a role there, too.
It became obvious that call quality was limited by the network when we compared a standard Verizon voice call to Apple's FaceTime Audio, which uses the data network. On Verizon's network, voices sounded clipped and sometimes computerized. On a FaceTime Audio call over our Wi-Fi network, voices became much richer; we heard the person on the other end breathing and typing on a keyboard as he was talking.
On the other hand, FaceTime Audio requires a data connection with decent quality of service, which the carriers don't currently guarantee. In a park in midtown Manhattan with three circles of LTE signal, we were able to connect voice calls but couldn't get FaceTime to work because the data connection was too slow and saturated.
Apple also upgraded the battery in the iPhone 5c, though the company doesn't specify how; iFixit found that the unit is now 1,580mAh instead of 1,440mAh. The iPhone 5 on Verizon Wireless scored 9 hours, 44 minutes of 3G talk time, although that was running iOS 6, not iOS 7. We're still doing battery testing and will update this review as soon as we have those results. Like the iPhone 5 and 5s, the 5c also uses Apple's new Lightning connector, so if you're upgrading from an older iPhone 4 or 4S, don't forget you'll need to replace compatible accessories. Apple includes its surprisingly good-sounding EarPod earbuds in the box.
Software, Multimedia, and Conclusions
The iPhone 5c runs iOS 7, which is a dramatically redesigned operating system that marks the first major change in the platform since its introduction in 2007. For more on that, read our full iOS 7 review; suffice to say here that it's slick, fast, and picks up a lot of what makes Android phones great these days, while retaining its Apple core. It will also let you take advantage of all of the 900,000+ third-party apps in Apple's App Store, and you now get the iWork productivity suite (including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), iPhoto, and iMovie for free, in addition to iBooks. Go download 'em, because they're all pretty good. In fact, iOS 7 prompts you to download them all in one shot the first time you hit the App Store on the phone.
iPhones have always been great multimedia devices, and the iPhone 5c is no exception. The one key difference is that the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera now snaps photos with larger pixels, and the backlight illumination sensor is improved. In testing, this results in brighter, crisper photos, especially outdoors. Recorded 720p videos from the front-facing camera are still a little weak, though, with blown out highlights. The rear camera is identical to the one in the iPhone 5, which means you'll get stellar outdoor shots, middling to good indoor shots in low light (for a cell phone camera at least), and fast performance, the latter partially thanks to upgrades in the iOS 7 Camera app.
So all this leaves us with a question: Exactly who is the iPhone 5c for? On the one hand, it's tough to get excited about, since it's basically last year's iPhone in a colorful case. The real action, hardware-wise, is happening with the iPhone 5s. But Apple is clearly angling for new customers looking for a new phone at the $100 price point. To these folks, the iPhone 5c will be new, and it won't matter so much what's underneath the surface. The other thing is that the iPhone 5 hardware still holds up well. The faster CPU, quick-acting fingerprint sensor, and improved camera in the 5s are considerable upgrades, but the iPhone 5c is no worse for not having them, and it's half the price.
I'll leave the iPhone 5c's potential attractiveness to developing markets to the appropriate financial analysts, and just say instead that for our purposes here in the U.S., the iPhone 5c is a fine phone if you've got $100 burning a hole in your pocket and need a new phone on Verizon. The Android-powered Motorola Droid Mini is a similarly sized option, with a sharper 720p 4.3-inch display and superior voice activation capabilities, while the HTC One and Moto X are both also worth a close look for their larger 4.7-inch displays that are still relatively easy to hold single-handedly. The Galaxy S4 remains our top pick, thanks to its awesome 5-inch 1080p display and fast quad-core processor.
Finally, if you've got $199 instead of $99, we'd strongly advise getting the iPhone 5s instead of a bump to 32GB. While 16GB can get tight with today's large games and 1080p video, iCloud can help you manage that, and you'll get the best hardware Apple has to offer today. But if you want to run iOS apps on an iPhone, and you don't need the absolute latest and greatest hardware, the iPhone 5c is an ideal choice at just $99 up front.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.