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iPhone 5c review: The other high-end iPhone

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:43PM EST
Apple iPhone 5c Review

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Apple took the wind out of a lot of sails when it unveiled the iPhone 5c earlier this month. It’s not that the device itself was disappointing — quite the contrary, in fact. Apple’s new iPhone 5c is exactly what we were expecting it to be after months of rumors and leaked parts. In a nutshell, it’s an iPhone 5 wrapped in a new plastic shell that comes in five bright new colors. But of course there is much more to Apple’s colorful new smartphone than meets the eye. While some pundits spent days following the 5c’s unveiling discussing how much of a departure it is from the Apple of old, that notion really couldn’t be any further from the truth. In fact whether or not Apple itself knew this when it first debuted the iPhone back in 2007, the iPhone 5c was an inevitability.

The iPhone is evolving. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone because the path of the iPhone’s evolution is beyond familiar in the Apple ecosystem.

As it did with the iPod, Apple started with one device and dominated the industry fairly quickly. Then as that device matured and improved, Apple branched out over time with the iPod mini, iPod nano, iPod shuffle and iPod touch.

Start small and focused, refine and dominate, expand.

This strategy worked quite well with the iPod, which remains the most popular dedicated media player line to this day, a month shy of 12 years since it was first released. Now, Apple is following suit with the iPhone and it’s starting out with a very familiar formula.

As it did with early iMac computers and then with various iPod models, Apple is using color to brighten up its iPhone lineup. Bold, bright, eye-catching colors.

Those who prefer to fly under the radar will want to stick with the white iPhone 5c because any other model will undoubtedly draw attention, especially in the coming weeks and months until the novelty of brightly colored iPhones begins to wear off. Several people have approached me in public to ask me about the new 5c when they saw me using it. Interestingly, more than one person has asked me why I would want the iPhone 5c over the 5s after looking it over for a few moments, which is a good indication that the flagship model is still very much “the iPhone” as far as consumers at large are concerned.

The unit I bought to review is blue and I like the color a great deal, though I wouldn’t carry such a bright phone personally.

Moving on to the device itself, the iPhone 5c is exactly what you expect it might be because you’ve probably used it before. It’s an iPhone 5.

In terms of key internals, very little has changed between the iPhone 5 and 5c. It does include a slightly bigger battery but beyond that, it’s the same phone as far as users should be concerned.

That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad thing.

Despite its age, the iPhone 5 is still a great smartphone and so too is the 5c. The Retina display is absolutely gorgeous as long as you don’t mind its tiny canvas compared to other leading smartphones. And in terms of performance, it gets no better than Apple’s iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone 5c might not have an eight-core processor and 3GB of RAM, but we know those numbers don’t mean much on their own. The 5c still offers one of the most fluid and consistent user experiences you’ll find in a smartphone.

iOS 7 glides around on the 5c with ease and tripping up the interface is next to impossible. Transition animations are silky smooth, though they’re a bit longer than I’d like them to be. Switching between apps with the new webOS app-switcher interface is great, and the phone continues to hum along as you hop from app to app even with under a relatively heavy load.

In short, the iPhone 5c provides just the sort of experience we have come to expect from an Apple phone.

For more on the iPhone 5c’s software experience, be sure to read our full iOS 7 review.

Where hardware and feel are concerned, the 5c feels like no other plastic smartphone you have ever used. That said, it still feels like a plastic smartphone. A nice plastic smartphone, but a plastic smartphone nevertheless.

Apple’s polycarbonate housing on the iPhone 5c isn’t thin and pliable like the case on Samsung’s Galaxy S4, and it also isn’t chunky and hollow feeling like the LG G2. This isn’t to say the 5c case is better or worse than the Galaxy S4 and G2 per se, it’s just different.

The iPhone 5c does not feel like a premium smartphone in the same way an iPhone 5 or 5s does. It still feels very solid, but not the way aluminum and glass handsets like the iPhone 5s or HTC One do. This was a necessary move to keep costs down a bit and still play with bright colors; anodized aluminum cases like the one on the iPhone 5s are much pricier than plastic.

If you’re like me though, and you weren’t expecting much from the iPhone 5c’s plastic case, you will be very surprised. The glossy lacquer-coated plastic 5c housing looks and feels great. In fact, it really does feel like an Apple product despite its plastic case. That said, it’s slippery. Very slippery. I am extremely careful with my handsets and I have already dropped this phone twice and had about three more close calls. For comparison, I think I dropped my iPhone 5 two or three times total in the year that I have owned it.

Apple’s iPhone 5c also collects oil from hands and dust from surfaces, though it doesn’t show the grime quite as much as some other smartphones like LG’s flagship G2. It’s there and it can be seen if you hold the back of the phone at certain angles to the light, but the lacquer finish hides it well.

I never put protective cases on my smartphones. I hate them. Vendors spend months upon months and millions of dollars perfecting the look of their smartphones, and then you’re going to ruin them with bulky, cheap cases? There is absolutely no way I would carry the iPhone 5c without a protective case, however. If you don’t use a case, you will drop this phone. It’s just too slippery. And if early drop tests are any indication, there’s a good chance it will break. Luckily my 5c has survived both times I dropped it, but I have no intention of tempting fate.

So again, do not use this phone without a protective case — even if it’s a hideous one like Apple’s OEM iPhone 5c case, which I am fairly certain was designed by the same person who made iOS 7’s appalling icons.

A final note on the iPhone 5c’s build: compared to Apple’s other recent iPhones, the 5c is very heavy. Some people will like the heft because it gives the phone a more substantial feel. Others who prefer a lighter phone might not like it. For reference, the iPhone 5c weighs 4.65 ounces compared to the iPhone 5s at 3.95 ounces, so the 5c is 18% heavier than its flagship counterpart.

In usage beyond the software experience, the iPhone 5c excels in all the same areas the iPhone 5 did and is lacking in the same areas the iPhone 5 was, of course. Audio quality on voice calls is impressive. Sound quality of music played through the phone’s loudspeaker is not terribly impressive.

Of note, I have performed several tests with iOS 7’s new FaceTime audio calling feature and the quality really is fantastic. There are occasional sonic artifacts but overall, the service quality is outstanding.

Photos and videos captured by the iPhone 5c’s camera are gorgeous. Apple’s year-old 8-megapixel shooter might not pack as many pixels as rival handsets, but the colors, contrast and clarity of pictures captured on the 5c are far better than most rivals. Low-light images are less impressive than those snapped with some recent Nokia phones, but there likely isn’t a better all-around camera phone in America at the $99 price point.

The last thing to note for those considering the iPhone 5c is that battery life is noticeably better than the battery on the iPhone 5. The difference isn’t huge, but I have found that the 5c can easily take me through a full day with a good amount of charge left in the battery, whereas the iPhone 5 couldn’t carry me quite as far.

With the iPhone 5c, Apple is betting everything you’ve read from market research firms about the high-end smartphone market in 2013 and 2014 is wrong. Apple is betting that there is still room to grow at the high end. So much room, in fact, that it now sells two high-end smartphones.

That’s right, forget every rumor you read leading up to September 10th. The iPhone 5c is not a budget iPhone and it’s not a mid-range iPhone. The iPhone 5S is a high-end iPhone.

On one hand, betting against market research firms isn’t necessarily a bad idea, given their track records in the mobile space. According to estimates made six or seven years ago, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry should have long since taken over the world.

The problem, though, is that Apple already had the high end covered. The iPhone 5 is the best-selling smartphone model on the planet. Before that, the iPhone 4S was the best-selling smartphone model on the planet.

So in the end, the question becomes this: Is the iPhone 5c a great new option for iPhone buyers, or for smartphone buyers?

It is entirely possible that Apple’s new iPhone 5c will attract a new wave of buyers from outside Apple’s current customer base. Perhaps they’ll be mesmerized by the flashy colors. But another possibility is that the iPhone 5c will appeal mainly to people who would have purchased a new iPhone anyway over the next 12 months. Will it also woo buyers who wouldn’t have otherwise purchased an iPhone?

At $99 on contract this year and presumably at $0 next year, the iPhone 5c and its successors could very well become the modern-day RAZR V3. The phone everyone buys. For people young and old who want a phone but don’t have a particular model in mind, the iPhone 5c could definitely become the go-to device.

But another important question pertains to emerging markets, where Apple still has plenty of room to grow. Will the iPhone 5c draw business away from vendors selling surprisingly capable Android smartphones for $250, $150, $100 or even less?

In China, the iPhone 5c costs about $730. Let’s think about this for a moment.

According to World Bank, China’s gross national income per capita in 2012 was $9,210. That means an iPhone 5c purchase in China is equal to about a month’s pay, on average. Again, that’s one full month of gross pay.

In the United States, the gross national income per capita was $49,965.27 in 2012. Would you buy a $4,100 iPhone?

If you subscribe to the school of thought that Apple needs to make a big play in emerging markets in order to maintain solid growth, the iPhone 5c did nothing to ease your mind. Sure, it will sell pretty well among some consumers in countries like China and Brazil who can afford it, but it probably won’t bring in the flood of new business that analysts have been talking up for the past nine months. And it certainly won’t do anything to slow the momentum of low-end smartphone vendors selling Android phones for $100 a pop.

For those who currently own an iPhone 5, the 5c is not an upgrade. This is important to note. Unless a third-party case just won’t cut it for you and you absolutely need to get your hands on this bright glossy plastic, there’s really no reason for an iPhone 5 user to switch to an iPhone 5c. The only upgrade path there, of course, is the iPhone 5s.

For those coming from the iPhone 4S or an older version of Apple’s handset, the 5c is a fantastic upgrade. The plastic housing might be a step backwards compared to glass and aluminum, but the performance improvements are significant. The display on the iPhone 5c is also a big improvement compared the iPhone 4S — the benefits afforded by the new taller 4-inch panel are minimal versus Apple’s old 3.5-inch displays, but the quality of the display is a big step forward compared to the 4S’s relatively dull screen.

Those who currently do not own iPhones and who might be thinking of purchasing one for the first time will find a fantastic option in the iPhone 5c. At the $99 price level on contract in the U.S., I’m not sure a better phone exists than the 16GB iPhone 5c.

Climbing to the $199 price level for the 32GB model, it’s a much tougher sell. Hero phones like the iPhone 5s, HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4 and others dwell at this price point, and I can’t say I would recommend the 5c over any of those flagship phones.

Apple’s strategy with the iPhone 5c is either brilliant or a huge blunder — only time will tell which, though early numbers are certainly looking positive.

If it succeeds, the 5c will draw in some new business in markets where Apple is currently struggling, and it will also help keep iPhone 4 and 4S users in Apple’s pocket for another couple of years. And the best part is that it’s the same phone Apple launched last year, but with a fresh coat of paint and $100 trim, so the company’s margins won’t take much of a hit.

If it fails, Apple’s colorful new smartphone will get clobbered in emerging markets by dirt-cheap Android rivals as Apple’s position in these key regions continues to weaken. And in developed countries that are currently Apple’s strongholds, the 5c could potentially cannibalize iPhone 5s sales if a good percentage of buyers who want a brand new iPhone decide to save some money on their new purchase.

Even though the 5c is really just an iPhone 5 in a new case, most will perceive it as “new.” A buyer in the mindset of purchasing a “new” iPhone this year now has a $99 option. In the past, he or she would have had to climb up to the $199+ range.

Apple’s iPhone 5c is a great phone that few others can touch at $99 on contract. It is most certainly not an affordable device that will be the company’s savior in emerging markets, however. It’s the other high-end iPhone.

The 5c is also the start of a new chapter in the story of the iPhone. Following the same path it took with the Mac and then with the iPod, Apple is branching out. Will it continue down this road and someday carry three or even more different iPhone models simultaneously? If and when it does, it shouldn’t surprise you — this is the Apple formula.

In the meantime, the iPhone 5c will serve as a litmus test to see if there is indeed room enough in the global market for more than one high-end iPhone.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.