Apple iPhone 5C review: The colorful, very capable low-cost iPhone

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The Good The iPhone 5C is available for $99 or less on contract, and in five bright colors. Compared with the 2012 iPhone 5, it’s got more widely compatible global LTE coverage, an upgraded front-facing camera, and slightly better battery life.

The Bad This phone is 2012 tech dressed up in a brighter package for 2013; the four-inch Retina Display feels small compared with most Android phones.

The Bottom Line The iPhone 5C is a great $99 phone that basically replicates the well-reviewed iPhone 5 in a more colorful case.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Editors' note (September 19, 2014): The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are now the flagship phones in Apple's 2014-2015 product line. However, in addition to the iPhone 5S, Apple is also still sellingthe iPhone 5C -- but only in a single 8GB capacity, down from its original 16GB and 32GB models. It's priced at $450 in the US ("free" with a 2-year contract), £319 in the UK, and AU$529 in Australia. If you can't find an older 16GB or higher model available for sale, the paltry 8GB capacity makes this 2014 update of the 5C tougher to recommend.

The iPhone 5C is kinda, sorta, technically a new product -- colorful, cute, with a variety of interchangeable color cases much like the recently released Motorola Moto X -- but under the hood it's really an iPhone 5 with a new paint job, and a cheaper price: $99 on contract (or even less, if you shop around).

To be clear, we loved the iPhone 5 when it first hit in 2012. It met every one of our needs, kept up with the competition, and presented a sweet spot of features: fast LTE wireless, a larger 4-inch screen, plenty of performance tweaks, a faster processor, and a really great camera. All of those features are back with the 5C.

The only new additions to the 5C (versus the old 5) are iOS 7 coming preinstalled, new LTE antennas that work with more international carriers, a better low-light-sensitive front-facing FaceTime HD camera, and a slightly increased internal battery versus last year's model -- better on paper, but not on a magnitude that most people would appreciate.

What the iPhone 5C isn't is a radical "budget" iPhone. It's not the affordable contract-free prepaid device some dreamed of. Instead, it's an iPhone 5 with a candy-colored polycarbonate shell. If you want something more advanced under the hood, the iPhone 5S is what you're looking for; if you want a bigger screen, nearly any Android phone will be a better choice.

Still, despite largely year-old tech inside, the iPhone 5C does a fine job for most people. Don't be surprised if it's a go-to choice for kids, for instance, who may value the color choices (and parents looking to get out of the store for less than $100.) It's the Basic White MacBook of iPhones. And, for everyday tasks, you'll have a hard time right now noticing the performance gap between it and the 5S with the naked eye. That's likely to change in a few months or a year, as Apple evolves iOS computing to areas where, perhaps, only the bleeding-edge 64-bit A7 chip in the iPhone 5S can reach. But for everyday people who aren't following every evolutionary step of the iPhone, the 5C covers most of the important bases. Just make sure you set your expectations to "last year's iPhone 5."

Editors' note (September 19, 2013): Call quality section with audio sample added. We will continue to update this review in the coming days, based on subsequent testing. Ratings should be considered tentative, and may evolve as testing continues.

Configurations and carriers
The iPhone 5C comes in 16GB and 32GB variations, for $99 and $199 on contract, respectively, or contract-free for $549 and $649. That's a hundred dollars less than an iPhone 5S at identical storage capacities across the board. In the US, the 5C is available on all four major carriers: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile. And T-Mobile's new "Uncarrier" model lets you buy the phone for zero (16GB) or $99 (32GB) down and spread the cost of the hardware over a two-year period, for $20 extra a month.

iPhone 5C
CNET staff

The 5C not only looks more like an iPod Touch, it even comes packaged in an iPod Touch-like jewel box with clear plastic. Inside you get the phone, a Lightning cable (with AC adapter), and pair of EarPod in-ear headphones with a built-in mic.

What do you give up over the 5S?
This is the question everyone's going to ask: what am I missing out on between the iPhone 5C and 5S for that extra hundred dollars? For starters, the 5S has that crisp metal design. It also has a newer, faster A7 processor, a fingerprint-sensing Home button, an even better camera with faster autofocus, burst shooting, better low-light and antiblur features, and a Slow-Mo video recording mode that records at 120 frames per second at 720p. What's more, the 5S is capable of 64-bit computing, has better graphics, and has an M7 processor for enabling future built-in motion-tracking and health/fitness apps. And it's also available in a 64GB capacity, versus just 16GB or 32GB for the 5C.

The iPhone 5 family
CNET staff

A lot of those features are theoretical, or embedded so deeply the casual person wouldn't notice. The 5C and 5S have the same screen size and Retina resolution, and the same LTE antenna bands. Those are features most people will notice a lot more. The 5C, from an everyday boot-up, application-loading standpoint, feels similar to the 5S. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see the phones' speed begin to diverge as the months and years progress -- once more advanced apps begin to appear that are optimized for the more sophisticated hardware of the 5S.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A brightly colored plastic iPhone: it sounds like something new, doesn't it? Not exactly: Apple's had brightly colored iPods for years, and the iPod Touch got its multicolored refresh in 2012. The iPhone 5C just feels like the extension of that bright-color philosophy into the iPhone line.

It doesn't feel like cheap plastic, though; the smooth, shiny polycarbonate shell around the back feels like a candy lacquer coating. It's a dense device, heavier than the iPhone 5 by nearly an ounce, but it has a comfortable feel -- maybe even better than the more hard-angled metal iPhone 5/5S. It's a return to the plastic iPhone, three years later.

iPhone 5C (left) and iPhone 3GS (right): similar spirit. Sarah Tew/CNET

The funny thing is, pull out an old iPhone 3G or 3GS and you'll see a remarkably similar finish. The 3GS looks bulbous and squat by comparison -- the 5C is flat-backed and longer, but it shares the wrap-around polycarbonate feel. This is not new so much as old and familiar.

The cosmetic differences between the 5C and the 5S feel like the old white MacBook versus the MacBook Pro line: plastic versus metal. Maybe this is meant to paint the iPhone 5S as a "pro" device. The 5C is comfortable, smooth and clean; the 5 and 5S have an angular, descended-from-a-spaceship industrial design.

The 5C is a hair longer (4.9 versus 4.87 inches), a hair wider (2.33 versus 2.31 inches), and a little thicker (0.35 versus 0.3 inches) than the iPhone 5 and 5S. What this really means is you can't put most iPhone 5 cases on it.

It's also heavier: 4.65 ounces, versus the iPhone 5S' 3.95 ounces. But it's still a little thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4S, if you're keeping score.

iPhone 5C
CNET staff

Just like the iPhone 5 and 5S, the headphone jack's on the bottom. Audio comes from a small four-holed grille on the bottom, and is as loud as that from the iPhone 5. The home button below the display remains exactly the same as previous iPhones: there's no fingerprint sensor here.

The iPhone 5C will be a far more appealing phone for kids: it seems less fragile, warmer, even simpler. It feels like an iPod: even the side volume rocker buttons are more elongated and iPod Touch-like. The colors are bright and oddly pastel, except for the white-backed 5C I ended up reviewing. All the iPhone 5Cs, incidentally, have black fronts. iOS 7 comes preinstalled with color-matched wallpaper and themes for each phone, which helps tie the whole color package together. The EarPods...well, those are still white.

Case and accessories
A new design means new cases: Apple's selling its own, at $29 each, in a variety of bright colors, made of the same polyurethane/microfiber material as the iPad Smart Covers and Smart Cases. The bright cases are attractive; they're punched with large holes, so the iPhone's colors and the case colors play off each other for color combinations. You can only imagine third-party case manufacturers are going to be all over this type of idea.

iPhone 5C with Apple's case
CNET staff

Apple's own cases are comfy, but oddly designed: the open holes expose some of the stamped FCC and model information on the back of the iPhone. Peeking at bits of text ruins a bit of the ultra-clean effect. Why not shift those holes higher up, or place the text elsewhere? It's nitpicky, but Apple's design usually prides itself on these sorts of details.

Display and speakers
The iPhone 5C's 4-inch, 1,136x640-pixel Retina Display seems every bit as bright and crisp as on the iPhone 5. But, it's also the same exact display: no extra pixel resolution, no added screen size. In a world of ever-larger smartphones, the iPhone 5C is more on its own now than it would have been in 2012. There's a lot of extra unused space above and below the screen.

iPhone 5C
CNET staff

That being said, Apple's iPhone 5 Retina Display remains one of the brightest and most color-accurate displays CNET's tested. It's an excellent display, and has very good 326 ppi pixel density. It could just be...well, a little bigger. There are 4.3- and 4.7-inch-display Android phones that don't feel honkingly large to hold, and perhaps show how Apple could have worked in a little extra screen.

iPhone 5C speakers
CNET staff

A single speaker to the right of the Lightning port pumps out equivalently loud audio to the iPhone 5. Just like previous iPhones, it's possible to accidentally bottle up all noise by pressing a thumb to the speaker grille while playing a game or watching a movie.

The same iSight rear-facing 8-megapixel camera that was in the iPhone 5 is in the 5C. iOS 7 adds a few more extras, such as digital zoom when recording video. Both 1080p video recording, photos and panoramic pictures all look great, but the iPhone 5S camera is even more refined, and adds slow-motion recording and multiburst.

iPhone 5C camera
CNET staff

A front-facing FaceTime HD camera has been slightly improved, adding better light sensitivity. Dimly lit selfies in my apartment hallway came out better on the 5C.

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