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Which iPhone? The iPhone 5c versus iPhone 5s

updated 03:21 am EDT, Wed October 9, 2013

The iPhone 5c brings color, customization, iPhone 5s power, features

Although both the iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s leaked out well ahead of their September launch, the arrival of two new high-end iPhones caught people by surprise. Many thought that the polycarbonate iPhone 5c would be a lower-end iPhone simply because it is made from plastic. Yet, few it seems, stopped to consider the impact that the actual specifications of the shipping product would have on its positioning in Apple's iPhone line up. Now that people know the answers to those questions, which iPhone should you buy?

In some markets, the iPhone 5c has been particularly successful in pushing users to the flagship iPhone 5s, an outcome that is probably the result of a perception that the plastic iPhone 5c lacks the same prestige as the aluminum iPhone 5s. On closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that the iPhone 5c exists because Apple wants to sell more high-end smartphones to customers by appealing to a younger audience as well as more adventurous traditional iPhone customers. There is evidence that some younger customers are looking for something different from an iPhone model, which is where the color appeal and customizability of the iPhone 5c and its companion cases comes to the fore. The iPhone 5, which if it had slotted in to the space currently occupied by the iPhone 5c, may have still appealed, but the iPhone 5c is particularly eye-catching.

While Apple fans have often scoffed at the plastic build of Samsung's flagship Galaxy range of smartphones, Samsung has certainly had few problems shifting millions of plastic devices priced at the high-end. It has managed to do so by incorporating high-quality specifications into its devices. At first glance, the iPhone 5c looks to be based on the essentially the same specifications as the iPhone 5 (which still compares well to the Samsung Galaxy S4 flagship in performance benchmarks). In reality, it actually incorporates several key enhancements over that model, adding two more hours of battery life, an upgraded 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera from the iPhone 5s, a sapphire crystal lens over the rear-facing iSight camera and support for multiple 4G LTE bands. In other words, it is not simply a colorful version of the iPhone 5 - it actually improves on it in several very useful ways.

When you actually pick up an iPhone 5c and hold one in your hands, there can be no questioning its credentials from the perspective of quality and fit and finish. All of these traits are worthy of a product that is positioned where the iPhone 5c is in Apple's range and against the competition. Judged in isolation, no one would question why Apple considers the iPhone 5c a premium product. The single, unified piece of polycarbonate, which is reinforced with an aluminum inner frame that results is incredibly solid and reassuring. There are few, if any, other smartphones made from plastic that can compete with just how nice the iPhone 5c feels in the hand. Its Retina display is exactly the same as the display in the iPhone 5s, which means that it looks superb.

So why choose polycarbonate and not aluminum? After all, Apple's iPod range also features aluminum finishes that are available in a wide range of colors designed to appeal to a younger audience, couldn't Apple have taken that path as well? Probably, but while plastic is a slightly less costly material than aluminum (potentially helping Apple's margins), Apple chose polycarbonate to create an iPhone with much brighter colors coupled with glossier finishes than it could achieved using an aluminum base. There is no doubt that the colors on the iPhone 5c 'pop' more brightly than the colors on the iPod range. Its iPods are still very attractive, but the color intensity in the iPhone 5c is much stronger and more striking as a result, while the product differentiation between the two is also much clearer.

To this extent, the iPhone 5c is all about injecting the fun of Apple's wildly popular iPod line up into the iPhone -- to steal a phrase from Apple's marketing for the fourth generation of the iPod touch, it's the 'funnest' iPhone yet. That, however, does not mean it is all about style over substance. The iPhone 5c retains the iPhone 5's vaunted A6 dual-core processor, its highly respected 8-megapixel iSight camera, its well-regarded audio quality, and as previously mentioned, its high-end Retina display and 4G LTE cellular connectivity. Apple's completely overhauled iOS 7 looks equally stunning on the iPhone 5c as it does on the iPhone 5s, but it also works just as well from an end user perspective - speed and performance remains excellent. For all intents and purposes, the iPhone 5c offers a near equivalent customer experience to the iPhone 5s.

However, for power users and those who must simply have the best iPhone that Apple has to offer, the iPhone 5s stands to attest to Apple's software and hardware engineering prowess, with its breakthrough 64-bit software and hardware mobile architecture. Its performance is up to twice as fast as the iPhone 5c in benchmarks, while it also offers the Touch ID fingerprint authentication scanner, enhanced iSight camera capabilities and the M7 motion coprocessor. Not to mention its handsome aluminum and glass finish, and the option for up to 64GB of storage. Like the iPhone 5c, its build quality, fit and finish is immaculate.

There can be little doubt that for those that can afford it, the iPhone 5s is still the iPhone of choice. The addition of the new gold model, coupled with its limited availability at launch has also boosted the cache of owning the flagship device if you can get it. Given the choice between the two, we would still opt for the iPhone 5s, not so much because of its sleek aluminum and glass finish, but for three other reasons in particular. Firstly it weighs less at 112 grams against 132 grams. Secondly, Touch ID is a real convenience; it makes it so much easier to keep your iPhone secure while making its functions easy to access. Thirdly, its ability to shoot in in 720p@120fps, along with Touch ID, are the coolest iPhone feature additions in recent generations.

Yet, the iPhone 5c is still a compelling choice. Its colorful appearance helps it to make it stand out from the crowd, while one device can be changed to look like several different models simply by opting to change the case. iOS 7's color palette also works particularly well with the iPhone 5c as well. If individuality is most important to you, the iPhone 5c is the device to choose, but the addition of a black model, or even a (PRODUCT) Red edition would help to seal the deal for us. It is also $100 cheaper at each of its 16GB and 32GB capacities, while still offering the fastest available cellular connectivity that, like the iPhone 5s, can be used on more LTE bands than competing devices from other companies. While picking between the two new iPhone models is a tougher than expected choice, the good news is that either way you go, you can't go wrong.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

by MacNN Staff



  1. Inkling

    Senior User

    Joined: 07-25-06

    Ah yes, an article written by a true Apple fanboy, one even claiming that last year's guts and the same brightly color plastic design as a hundred other phones will appeal to the " more adventurous traditional iPhone customers." The 5c probably selling mostly to teen girls who think it's "cute."

    Those who can afford a two-year contract should get the vastly more powerful and attractive 5s. Those who can't, should pick up a used iPhone 5 and go contract-free.

  1. bjojade

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-07-07

    Why bother going contract free? A 5c costs $50-100 with contract. Finding a used 5 for under $300 is a challenge, and the used phone likely won't have warranty left on it. So for essentially the same phone, you're paying $200 more to not have a contract. What exactly is the point?

  1. Flying Meat

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 01-25-07

    You wonder why some folks even bother to wake up in the morning... It just means more irritation and grumbling. You kids get off my lawn!

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    As the article itself points out, the iPhone 5c offers a set of actual improvements over the iPhone 5. So there's what bjojade mentioned about value, there's actual improvements in the unit over an iPhone 5 ...

    On a personal level, I'm mystified by those who dismiss the 5c as "aimed at teen girls who think it's cute." Um ... there's a huge market for that, and an opportunity for Apple to cement its reach with younger, "trendier" customers (and we were all there ourselves once) with a phone that is by all accounts faster and better than the flagship competition. And once you're in Apple's eco-system, you don't generally leave.

    People like me may not be -- or no longer be, more accurately -- the target demographic for a product like the iPhone 5c, but so what? What's wrong with Apple offering something trendy, particularly if it attracts or continues to attract younger and new customers? Particularly if its a really strong, high-quality product? It's not like they don't have a more "professional" alternative for those of us who don't want that, so where does the resentment come from?

  1. Flying Meat

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 01-25-07

    Chafing, I'm guessing. ;)

  1. Inkling

    Senior User

    Joined: 07-25-06

    Quote: "On a personal level, I'm mystified by those who dismiss the 5c as "aimed at teen girls who think it's cute." Um ... there's a huge market for that..."

    There certainly is, as there would be an even larger market for a ruggedized sport model, perhaps one that meets various Mil Spec standards. ICOM makes commercial and amateur radios to those standards. Why not Apple? They could keep the guts the same and charge a hefty premium for the case.

    But since Steve Jobs returned, making niche products hasn't been Apple's policy. And it's not that Apple has created a niche product, it's that Apple seems to think that the 5c is not a niche product. It seems to think that an iPhone that looks like dozens of other phones is distinctive. It seems think that that a color scheme that tilts heavily to pastels, will have a broad appeal.

    That contrasts with the beautiful design and three well-chosen colors for the iPhone S. It's almost like Apple were two separate companies, one smart and the other utterly clueless.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by InklingView Post

    Quote: "On a personal level, I'm mystified by those who dismiss the 5c as "aimed at teen girls who think it's cute." Um ... there's a huge market for that..."

    There certainly is, as there would be an even larger market for a ruggedized sport model, perhaps one that meets various Mil Spec standards. ICOM makes commercial and amateur radios to those standards. Why not Apple? They could keep the guts the same and charge a hefty premium for the case.

    They already do.

    It's just that they concentrate on the guts, and leave the ruggedization up to others (to great effect):

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