iPhone 5C: What we expect about the announcement, specs, and release date of Apple's rumored cheaper iPhone

Apple's cheaper iPhone 5C doesn't officially exist, but plenty of gossip suggests that it does. CNET details what we know, what we think we know, and what we don't know.

Could this be the iPhone 5C? Sonny Dickson

The low-cost iPhone continues to be one of those rumors that just won't quit. But as we approach Apple's September 10 event , the rumor finally appears to be close to reality.

As Josh Lowensohn said last month , despite Apple's vow to clamp down on leaks, the last few weeks have delivered a steady stream of gossip about a cheaper iPhone, which the tech blogosphere has collectively dubbed the "iPhone 5C" (the "C" denoting the multicolored backs, or simply just "cheaper"). The official product name is anyone's guess.

We've see some alleged specs and a few credible photos not taken by the usual Mr. Blurrycam. Of course, Apple has yet to comment on the dish and won't do so until it's good and ready. So until then, here's what we know about this still elusive -- but increasingly certain -- device.

CNET's live coverage of Apple's September 10 event

What we know

Frankly, not much of anything. Yes, it will be less expensive, but that's not exactly a cogent analysis of the 5C chatter.

What we think we know

When it will be announced
As mentioned, Apple is holding its next special event on Tuesday at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Exactly what we'll see remains a mystery, but we expect that the company will show off the 5C and the next-generation iPhone 5S and announce a release date for iOS 7. CNET will be there to bring you all the action in a live blog.

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The true cost
We won't believe anything until we hear it from CEO Tim Cook, but Morgan Stanley predicts that it will cost between $349 and $399 unlocked (or, at least, off-contract). Though that's significantly more than what the 16GB iPhone 5 costs with a contract ($199), that's a big savings from the $450 that Apple currently charges for an unlocked 8GB iPhone 4. Carrier subsidies would change that dynamic, but the 5C may be sold only without a contract. Whatever it costs, though, one analyst believes that the 5C (and the 5S) will bring Apple a lot of money.

A plastic back
Apple needs to make the 5C cheaper somehow, and a plastic body would be a great way do it. Not only is plastic an easier material to mold than aluminum, but Morgan Stanley estimates that using it could cut the cost of the mechanical parts of the 5C in half, from $33 to $16. In late August, A French site showed a photo of what is said were iPhone 5Cs with plastic shells being tested in what looked like a refrigerator.

Remember me? CNET

if you're wondering if plastic will make the 5C less durable , the answer is not necessarily. Remember that Apple used plastic on both the iPhone 3G and 3GS without causing a rash of broken handsets. What's more, though the switch to a glass (iPhone 4 and 4S) and then metal body (iPhone 5) has seemed like a move toward more durability, anyone who's cracked the rear end of an iPhone after dropping it will disagree.

Fewer features
That's likely since Apple will have to find other ways to save dollars. Some analysts think Siri, which first appeared in the iPhone 4S, is a likely candidate for the axe , but we also may see a different screen resolution, less memory capacity, no LTE, or a less powerful camera. It's also probable that the 5C won't include any brand-new features that we might see in the 5S, such as the rumored fingerprint sensor . Or perhaps most of the main features will be intact, but it will simply have an older or slower processor (like the current iPad Mini versus the full-size iPad).

A world of colors
While the current iPhone is only available in black or white (with gold/champagne likely on deck for the 5S), it appears the basic iPhone will follow the iPod "rainbow" approach, with availability in a wider range of colors. Even the packaging is supposed to be colorful .

In addition to white and black , it looks like we'll see it in several other colors , as demonstrated in the below photo from Australian blogger Sonny Dickson.

SonnyDickson

What we don't know

Release date
If Apple announces the 5C on September 10 as we expect, then it should go on sale the next week, most likely by September 20 . That 10-day cycle could follow Apple's usual pattern. What's more, AppleInsider reported earlier this week that AppleCare employees are largely blocked from taking vacation the last half of next month.

Where it will be available
After whether the handset even exists, this is one of the biggest 5C questions. Some speculation suggests that because the 5C will be made for an unlocked "bring-your-own-SIM" scenario then it may miss the carrier-dominated US market. Of course, that dynamic is changing with T-Mobile's new contractless service plans , but we're still waiting for the other big service providers to follow that model.

Apple/CNET

Alternatively, the 5C may be Apple's shot at increasing its presence in developing markets (in which case, the "C" stands for "China" ). In fact, Apple has scheduled a separate media event in Beijing for Sept. 11 and the Wall Street Journal reported that the 5C will land at China Mobile (Chinese site TechWeb has said the same thing ).

Remember that Google's Android has long been on a wide range of phones, from very cheap to very expensive. The 5C could be Apple shot at competing with the budget-price Android handsets that are positioned as starter smartphones.

Until September 10

Until we know more, that's all we can say. And for more about the iPhone 5S, check out our rumor roundup and the dream 5S that CNET readers want. Also, CNET's Scott Stein tells us what he wants to see on Tuesday .

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