Apple's 'budget' phone boasts power, functionality, finish (September 25th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $99 as reviewed
- Good "hand feel" - Tried and true iPhone 5 hardware - Slightly boosted battery over predecessor
- No significant improvements over iPhone 5 - $199 32GB version? Get the iPhone 5s instead
For the last several years, with the introduction of a new iPhone, the replaced model or models shift down to fill lower spots on the ecosystem. This year, Cook and company out of Cupertino tried something different. While this is an "s" year, with the previous brand new model and form factor being uprated with new internals, the base model has been completely supplanted by a new model, in this case, the iPhone 5c. How different is the new model, really? MacNN aims to find out.
Plastic isn't a new material in smartphones. Apple and Samsung have both used it, with the iPhone 3g and 3gs back casing made from an Apple-specific polycarbonate blend. Plastic cases are less "resistant" to radio frequency than metal cases, in theory, giving a device so enclosed longer range, all other factors being equal. Durability can go either way -- metal can be more scratch resistant, but permanently dents more readily. Plastic won't deform as easily, but scratches may be an issue with long-term use, depending greatly on the formulation of the polycarbonate used in the casing and finish of the product after manufacture.
Spec-wise, the iPhone 5c doesn't diverge far from its predecessor, the iPhone 5. Both have the same Retina-class display, running at 1136x640 in a four-inch form factor. The A6 processor remains. The battery on the iPhone 5c has been slightly upgraded to 1507mAh, versus 1440mAh on the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5c's FaceTime camera is a bit better with 1.9µm pixels versus 1.75µm on the replaced model, with an improved backside illumination sensor on the newer phone giving the newer device slightly better low-light performance.
Dimensionally, the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c are very similar. The new iPhone 5c is 124.4 x 59.2 x 8.97 mm, larger in every dimension than the iPhone 5, which comes in at 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm. The iPhone 5c is 132 grams, versus 112 grams, with a difference in weight about the same as eight pennies.
We handled multiple units of all five 5c phones, and found them all pleasant to handle, with precisely machined buttons and switches, and zero "mold marks" or other such defects. The plastic had a nice dry feel to it, rather than the vaguely oily slickness found in some other manufacturer's handsets. The "slickness" is prevalent in most, if not all, of the Samsung polycarbonate-cased phones we've handled. We had a brief consultation with a plastics manufacturer regarding Apple's case polycarbonate, and we were told that the plastic's feel is a matter of chemistry, finish, or both. We're not sure which factor implemented in manufacturing in this case has eliminated the slick feel from the Apple device.
We ran some battery drain and speed tests on a factory-fresh 5 and the new 5c, and found some interesting results. Four-bar cell talk time came in at 9.9 hours on the 5c, and 8.9 hours on the iPhone 5. 4G LTE surfing time came in at 8.7 hours, with the iPhone 5 pulling down 8.1 hours. Wi-Fi surfing time had the smaller battery iPhone 5 on top, with 10.1 hours, versus 9.9 hours on the newer iPhone 5c. As expected with the same processor shared between the two phones, all the processor speed benchmark tests we ran came within one percent of each other.
Cases and other protective accessories are a large part of the iOS ecosystem, with Apple getting into the act since the iPhone 4. We've handled the iPhone 5c for just a few days now, and other than a screen protector, which we feel is a must with all smartphones, we're not sure we see a need for a case for anything more than a fashion statement assuming the phone isn't manhandled.
Our iPhone 5c has lived in our pocket with a too-large set of keys, and the phone hasn't seen any impingements so far. Now, the screen is still glass, so if any given user is accident-prone, cases that give the device serious durability and impact resistance like Newer's KX or the Otterbox will be available for the iPhone 5c shortly, we're sure.
A note on accessories: as we mentioned before, the iPhone 5c isn't the same size as its predecessor or the iPhone 5s. Caveat emptor clearly applies -- some cases engineered for the iPhone 5 just won't fit, but some will. All of the Lightning cables will probably work, but docks or audio devices with a Lightning plug may or may not, depending on the machining and the "chamber," for lack of a better term, that holds the phone in place.
Apple's choice to eradicate the original iPhone 5 as best as it could and replace it with the 5c was an interesting one. Case manufacture material and style is clearly a factor in the cost of constructing the phone, but we don't see where the processor or screen aren't greater expenditures, so replacing the case doesn't seem to us like it's saving Apple that much money in construction. Of course, we aren't privy to Apple's financial information on the construction of the device, but the iPhone 5c clearly isn't the rumored "low-cost phone" that industry mavens predicted not all that long ago.
The iPhone 5c is last year's iPhone 5, for all intents and purposes, just in a plastic casing. It doesn't bring anything new to the table, like near-field communication, a bigger screen, or any other improvements, but it's really not intended to. The iPhone 5 is still at retail for the time being, so if you must have a metal enclosed phone, then get that for about the same price as an iPhone 5c while you can. However, lacking the original iPhone 5, the 5c is intended to replace it at the marketplace, and it does an admirable job.