Which is why the iPhone 5c (MSRP $549.00, $99 on-contract from major carriers) is a little bit of an enigma. It doesn't have the flashy new features its big sister, the iPhone 5s, flaunts in every advertisement. It has last year's processor and features. It doesn't even have a slick aluminum case with those fancy diamond-chamfered edges everybody's been talking about.
However, for a smartphone novice, this is a very important device. It's a fresh take on the iPhone experience for less money than ever before, but it may not shave the price down enough to compete with other phones.
Apple made a name for itself by using high-quality materials in its mobile devices. From machined aluminum, to glass, to polycarbonates, the Cupertino company's iconic attention to detail is a big part of its resurgence and success in the past decade. The iPhone 5c is no exception, but it certainly goes in a different direction.
Though it was released at the same time as the iPhone 5s, the 5c makes its name on tasteful corner-cutting. Among other things, Apple ditched the fingerprint scanner, the latest camera, and the 64-gigabyte storage option. The result is a phone that still feels powerful while provides the iPhone experience at a slight discount.
We've used the adjective "plasticky" as a negative in the past. That's not to say that plastic is a bad material to make a gadget out of—quite the contrary. High-quality plastics can be incredibly satisfying to use, don't block wireless signals, and save on weight. The iPhone 5c is an excellent example of how to do plastic right. This is where Apple has differentiated the 5c from some Samsung phones that feel a little too chintzy. This device maintains the precision feel of past iPhones while sporting a solid, smooth plastic back case.
Unlike past iPhones, the 5c is also available in a range of five colors, thanks to that unique case. This phone has elicited comparisons to Nokia's colorful range of Lumia phones, but we beg to disagree. Nokia's brash smartphones have polarized design enthusiasts with more sculptural forms that play to the strengths of the materials. The 5c is a much safer design, staying in line with what's worn well in iPhones all the way back to the iPhone 4; it's a rounded-off rectangle—nothing more, nothing less.
The only interruptions to the brick are volume buttons and a silencer toggle on its right-hand side, a sleep/wake button on the top, and an indented home button on its face. A single speaker port on the bottom of the phone is called out with four playful holes in the plastic case opposite the headphone jack, with the phone's dock connector in the middle.
Like most recent iOS-based devices, the iPhone 5c sports one of our favorite Apple innovations of late. The reversible Lightning connector might not seem like a big deal at first, but once you've gotten used to it, it's hard to turn back. Plugging your USB cable in the wrong way only to have to flip it around may be the ultimate first-world problem, but it's a time-saver nonetheless. The only annoyance is that the cables are more expensive than a standard USB job, but it's a tradeoff to gain a really thoughtful convenience.
A consistently stellar experience.
The biggest feature that we can note about the iPhone 5c is actually how little the phone has changed. Even though it's a remix of last year's iPhone 5, that's not a bad thing at all. The iPhone 5 was a really good phone and the 5c—apart from aesthetics—has the exact same things on offer. It's based on a zippy dual-core Apple A6 processor, has a similar camera, the same 4-inch screen, and it's available in 16GB and 32GB versions.
If you're new to iOS, then the iPhone 5c's operating system should be pretty easy to learn on the fly. But, if this is an upgrade from an older iPhone 3GS or 4, the sweeping cosmetic changes will take some getting used to. Apple's iOS 7 is at once simpler and cleaner than Google's Android, yet not without quirks of its own. For instance, we find that the pull-down notification tray on the top of the screen feels cluttered and tries to do too much. The quick settings tray that you pull up from the bottom of the screen has many useful settings, but they're all basic on/off switches. Deeper changes to settings have to be made in the Settings app, often making the shortcuts pointless. The OS also has a frustrating default keyboard built-in that can't be swapped out for an easier-to-use option.
Apple was the first company to release high-density screens on its phones, making pixels nearly impossible to see. The iPhone 5C has one of these so-called "Retina" displays, and it's a decent little number. It'll only seem like a downgrade if you've grown accustomed to a big screen phone from a competing manufacturer. Additionally, the resolution (1280x640) isn't comparatively high, but it's more than good enough considering the screen's size.
Apple's mobile OS may not win points for customizability, as it's less dynamic than Android (with its homescreen widgets) and Windows Phone (with its flippy live tiles). But what it lacks in fizz it makes up for in ease-of-use, security, and all-encompassing content availability. You won't be left wanting when the latest app craze hits, as most developers release on the App Store first, Play Store second.
If there's one piece in the puzzle that has yet to be completely smoothed over by Apple, it's the pitfalls of its iCloud service. Introduced as a simple, hands-off backup, email, and messaging offering, it's deeply integrated in every iPhone. Apple, not known for its generosity, only gives users 5 GB of space pro bono, which fills up quickly, leaving non tech-savvy people unprotected from data loss. On top of that, reliability problems continue to plague iMessage, Apple's text message replacement service (just type "iMessage is" into Google—suggestions range from "iMessage issues" to "iMessage isn't working"). Even worse, Apple likes to keep its services in the family, excluding Android phones and others from Facetime-ing or iMessaging iPhone users.
Less than mindblowing, but perfect for light users.
The iPhone 5s broke onto the scene last year boasting some of the fastest performance ever in a phone, thanks to its dual-core, 64-bit A7 chip. While the cheaper case might convince you otherwise, the 5c is an iPhone through and through, with no significant weak points—unless you're a power user. The iPhone 5c doesn't blow the doors off the competition, but it's more than adequate. Though it's undoubtedly Apple's lowest-end option, the 5c fares a little better with day-to-day tasks than the Moto G does.
Even though the iPhone 5c and 5s share similar-looking screen specs, it's clear that the 5c has a slightly less nice LCD panel underneath that piece of scratch-resistant, oleophobic glass on the device's front. Though the peak brightness is higher on the 5c at a retina-melting 557.8 nits (cd/m2), its high black level (0.51 cd/m2) means a somewhat narrower contrast ratio (1093:1)—making images look a bit washed out. To its credit, the 5c does manage to dispel reflections a fair bit better than most smartphones, only sending 5.5% of all light shone on the screen back at the user.
Media hounds will appreciate the decent color performance, and the extremely even transition from white to black (gamma). Though the screen seems puny and low-res compared to the 5.5-inch 1080p displays found elsewhere on the market, the real-world difference is minimal. After a certain point, the differences really can't be seen.
If you're vacillating between Apple's latest iPhones—the 5s and 5c—and battery life is a critical factor, the 5c is by far and away the better choice. In our standard Peacekeeper high-intensity web browser battery test, the iPhone 5c got almost an hour more battery life—5.03 hours total in an extreme usage scenario. Both are fine for a single day, but the 5c will withstand your use for much longer.
Much of this is due to the way Apple trimmed the fat for this phone: The hardware reaches a certain standard, while offering an experience that doesn't feel any less premium. Sure, it doesn't hold a candle to most phones on the market in terms of performance, but it hits hard where it counts.
In the long shadow of the 5s, but not by much.
Taken on its own, the camera in the iPhone 5c is acceptable. It's fast, and sharp enough to replace a point-and-shoot for many people. But, when compared side-by-side with the more powerful iPhone 5s, it's clear that you'll have to weigh the $100 difference in price carefully depending on your needs.
The iPhone 5c's camera is the same as the iPhone 5's 8-megapixel shooter. We found in our time with the phone that it was adequate, but less-than-amazing. This is where the spec sheet can confuse the 5c's camera with the one found in the 5s, which is a bit better overall. The 5c's camera has an f/2.4 fixed aperture, which is a little less bright, meaning that the more expensive 5s likely has an edge in some low-light conditions. This was abundantly clear in our labs. We measured much more low-light noise on average from the 5c since the sensor has to push its sensitivity upwards to capture more light.
Even though the 5c loses in dim environments, it hangs in there pretty well in brightly lit settings. In our resolution test, we found that the 5c resolved 1520 line widths per picture height—not far behind the 5s in most cases. This is typical of low-end point and shoots, but it still isn't a replacement for your camera. Pictures are ever-so-slightly less sharp with this tiny camera, and it shows on larger images.
If you're planning on using your iPhone 5c for HD video, we found that it's almost as good as the 5s, within reason. We saw an average of 425 line pairs per picture height (LP/PH) in our lab test using a standard resolution chart. Video motion was acceptably smooth and detailed enough for YouTube or Vine. As always, you'll get better HD video from a dedicated point-and-shoot, but you could do worse for a smartphone camera.
A quality experience that's expertly tailored for normal people
Let's face it—nobody but early adopters really needs the latest-and-greatest these days. One of our favorite phones of late, Motorola's Moto G, won't win any competitions based on its spec sheet. But what it lacks in features it makes up in value. The iPhone 5c isn't anywhere near that kind of bargain—it's still $549.99 when purchased off-contract from Apple, only $100 less than the iPhone 5s—but in the no-discount-ever world of Apple phones, it's the cheapest way to get in the door.
We think that the simple and consistent nature of iOS is better for average folks. The app store is the best around, and you won't be left waiting very long for anything thanks to the device's performance—most of the time. The only sticking point is the lackluster nature of Apple's built-in cloud services, which should be more robust than they are this late in the game.
Since it'll likely get cheaper after new iPhones hit the market later this year, the iPhone 5c will be a no-brainer for new and old iPhone shoppers looking for a solid phone at a lower price. However, that price tag can be a tough pill to swallow if you don't have your heart set on an iPhone.
If the price is still too high for you—or you're looking for a better deal when you ditch a contract phone plan—there are a few options out there if you're okay with abandoning Apple. Even the entry-level Android phones are starting to turn the corner, and you can get exceptional value with something like the $130 Motorola Moto E. You can get a phone that is better than the iPhone 5c in most ways for less than half the price by nabbing a $220 off-contract Motorola Moto G, and better still with a $350 Google Nexus 5.
Still, by grabbing an iPhone 5c, you're getting an iOS device with a decent camera, good-enough performance, and great battery life. Honestly, this is as straightforward as it gets in the mobile world, and there's a certain value to that. The price might smart a little, but, in the Apple world, it's the only choice you have if you want to save a few bucks.
Meet the tester
Brendan is originally from California. Prior to writing for Reviewed.com, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz and did IT support and wrote for a technology blog in the mythical Silicon Valley. Brendan enjoys history, Marx Brothers films, Vietnamese food, cars, and laughing loudly.
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We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.Shoot us an email