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iPhone 5c REVIEW: Calm, Cool and Collected

by Brandon Russell | October 3, 2013October 3, 2013 12:00 pm PDT
iPhone 5C in Blue with yellow case screen
The iPhone 5c is an easy device to write off. Essentially a repackaged iPhone 5, Apple’s cheaper and more colorful handset ditches metal for plastic, subtlety for pop. If ever there was an Apple product that was designed to be seen, this would be it—and that’s the point. Instead of chamfered space gray edges or lavish gold paint jobs, the iPhone 5c sports vibrant hues of blue, pink, green, yellow and white.
The expanded palette is very reminiscent of Apple’s own iPod lineup. Or, if it even matters, Nokia’s Lumia family, which also proudly wears bright colors. For the most part, the 5c is like every iPhone over the past few years: familiar, impressively engineered, not particularly exceptional. Against Apple’s own teched out 5s, which comes with Touch ID and a revamped camera, the 5c is an obvious strategic move, catering especially to the average consumer, someone looking for a cheap smartphone that works well; this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, for the hardcore enthusiast—it’s also not quite as bad as you might think.

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Considered a mid-range Apple smartphone, the iPhone 5c sports (nearly) the same specs as the iPhone 5, a device that came out this time last year; the screen is the same size and resolution, the processor, storage options and rear-facing camera are all the same. The only internal differences—front-facing camera, battery—are things you won’t really notice. Apple’s new device is clearly, almost exclusively, about looks. Jony Ive even said as much by referring to the 5c as “unapologetically plastic.”
Having used the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c, I had my reservations about Apple’s decision to run back into the clutches of plastic. Why ditch the iPhone 5, which is still one of the most beautifully designed smartphones on the market, and “downgrade” to material largely perceived as inferior? My guess is Apple wanted to differentiate between two distinct iPhone devices; one is fun, colorful, almost indestructible in its construction, while the other has specs and features only diehard fans would appreciate.
Imagine a buyer, who is platform agnostic, going into a store and seeing Apple’s colorful devices lined up side-by-side; that person then starts to associate those colors with other things (not technology-related) that they love, which in turn begins to make the iPhone 5c an attractive product. Specs don’t matter; all that person knows is that the operating system is easy to use and the camera is terrific. It’s perfect as an entry device; maybe for a teenager, or for mom or dad, neither of which cares much for quad-core chips or giant screens.
Android has dominated the lower-end spectrum, and the 5c is meant to disrupt that. Oh, Apple has a cheap iPhone now? I’ll take that.
iPhone 5C in Blue with iPhone 5 iPhone 5c in Blue bottom speaker grille iPhone 5C in Blue with yellow case camera closeup
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In the past, Apple has used the color strategy to good effect; the 5c gives the company wider reach into largely untapped markets, and keeps the design feeling fresh. And what a wonderful design it is. With more rounded edges and a solid piece of plastic, the 5c feels much better than I or anyone in TechnoBuffalo’s Irvine office expected.
Obviously not quite as premium as the 5s, but you can tell Apple didn’t cut any corners when designing its cheaper handset—that’s thanks, in large part, to the metal skeleton below the colorful plastic exterior. Plastic is often associated with cheap; this year in particular there’s been a lot of fuss made in the industry. But the iPhone 5c in no way, shape, or form feels cheap in its construction. It actually feels just as nice as any other more expensive devices out there. You don’t feel like it’ll scratch or get chipped, and you’re not afraid to just plop it down onto a table. It might be my more obsessive tendencies, but with my iPhone 5 I’m always worried it’ll get scratched or otherwise mutilated through no fault of my own.
Not so with the 5c. For context, it feels just as strong as any high-end Lumia, though not a squarish and heavy. Worth noting: the iPhone 5s does attract quite a few fingerprints, but what device doesn’t? I can see now why there’s no black option.
Personally, I have no issue with Apple sticking with a 4-inch screen. I wouldn’t mind something larger, maybe as big as the Moto X, but I don’t pine for more real estate every time the device comes out of my pocket (others will obviously disagree, and that’s fine). Maybe it’s because I’m not a “power user”—for the most part, I simply take pictures, browse websites, and text—but I don’t need a 5.7-inch display. However, as more and more handsets jump into phablet territory, there’s certainly pressure on Apple to conform, and rumors suggest the company will next year.
But I wouldn’t refrain from recommending an iPhone based solely on screen size alone; that’s up to personal preference, of course.
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Performance-wise, the iPhone 5c is perfectly acceptable; you won’t even notice it’s equipped with year-old specs, nor will you care. Expectations these days are so overblown. Apps load quickly, pictures snap in an instant, and everything else runs smooth as butter.
Apple has a reputation for optimizing hardware/software, and that’s on full display here. No, it’s not quite as powerful as Apple’s own iPhone 5s, which comes with a new A7 chip, but Apple’s ecosystem is so fine-tuned and polished that the differences (as of now) are imperceptible. You don’t get the benefits of slow motion video capture, or a burst shooting mode, but otherwise the iPhone 5c is just as capable as its more expensive brother.
When Apple officially unveiled the 5c, the company’s executives made a huge point to highlight the seamlessness between the device’s design and iOS 7, which had been reborn under Jony Ive. The two, Apple said, were designed together, meant to create an experience where each divide is bridged into a single entity; the colors, icons and contours could be described as one. “You feel color throughout the entire experience,” Apple said. Having used the 5c since the day it launched, I have no issue saying Apple thoroughly achieved this. Compared to my iPhone 5, the experience of iOS 7 on a bright blue iPhone 5c felt more intuitive, complementary, clearly borne from the same womb.
Apple’s new software is by itself a fresh experience, unrestricted by its skeuomorphic past. No more leather, no more felt. The camera app is now much more intuitive, while multi-tasking borrows from webOS’s famous cards implementation. Notification Center is more densely packed with information, there’s a new Control Center for easy settings access, and iTunes Radio, a service aimed squarely at Pandora, is built-in. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but they’re done very well, and in a very Apple-y way.
That’s not to say iOS 7 is a perfect reimagining; calendar is confusing, animations are literally nauseating, and the neon colors are an acquired taste. Overall, though, we really like the direction Apple is going. The rest of the iPhone 5c, unsurprisingly, works very well, because it’s basically an iPhone 5. Speakers are loud, phone calls are crisp, and the camera itself is still very good. The volume buttons aren’t circular like they are on the 5/5s, but that’s of no consequence—you press them like any other buttons. I had no Wi-Fi issues, and data was speedy where I live. Battery life was also quite good—again, I’m not a power user—and easily lasted me through the day, though your mileage will vary depending on how much you use your device.
iPhone 5c in Blue in hand. iPhone 5C in Blue with iPhone 5 bottom angle Apple iPhone 5s-VS-5c-Camera
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Conclusion

The colorful design, terrific construction and wonderful synthesis of hardware/software makes the iPhone 5c a great mid-range device.

Many people are hung up on the 5c being an iPhone 5 “with a case” like it’s a bad thing. Maybe if you want the latest specs in a huge device, it is. Maybe. There’s no denying the 5c is behind many top Android devices, but looking at it so narrowly completely ignores the fact that Apple has created a very wonderful experience. Think of the 5c as Apple’s version of the “mini” epidemic in the Android camp. At $100 (or even less, depending on where you look), it’s perhaps not quite as cheap as some people hoped. But if don’t want the latest technology—technology that has untapped potential—and you prefer Apple’s ecosystem, the 5c is a very solid option. It offers many different colors to match a person’s bright and bubbly personality, sturdy construction and one of the best examples of hardware/software synthesis out there.

Brandon used the iPhone 5c as his daily drive from Sept. 20 to Oct. 1.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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