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

Are there better cameras on phones? Absolutely. However, at this price range, the iPhone 5 still does a very, very good job.

Antenna and wireless connectivity
The iPhone 5C has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, just like the iPhone 5, along with Bluetooth 4.0. Apple's AirDrop technology in iOS 7 allows for local file sharing, perhaps minimizing the omission of NFC in the iPhone, but it's worth noting that NFC still isn't in any Apple device. Both the iPhone 5C and 5S also lack faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which has been introduced in many products, including 2013 MacBook Airs and AirPort routers. Also, note that like the iPhone 5, the CDMA iPhone 5C (so, the Verizon and Sprint versions) do not support simultaneous voice and data.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Call quality
Not a surprise, but the iPhone 5C's call quality seems equivalent to the iPhone 5 and 5S. That's good to know, since the 5C sports a slightly different antenna construction than the 5/5S, but network reception and audio quality seem on par.

I tried making a sample call on my AT&T review unit to a land line answering machine for an audio sample: you can hear it below.

iPhone 5C call quality sample

Listen now:

FaceTime Audio (available via iOS 7) calls made over Wi-Fi sounded far clearer, more like Skype audio. I predict that a lot of people will start moving to FaceTime audio, both for call quality and potential long distance call savings.

iOS 7
Both the iPhone 5C and 5S come preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple's latest version of the mobile operating system. Much like the iPhone 5 was to iPhone hardware last year, iOS 7 is a soup-to-nuts graphical and design overhaul: familiar apps have new layouts, Siri's been greatly enhanced to do more and show more, and there are even new ringtones and alert sounds.

iPhone 5C Control Center
CNET staff

As an operating system, iOS 7 runs smoothly on the iPhone 5C, but its aesthetics sometimes feel like a mixed bag. New display-maximizing layouts in many apps like Safari are a huge plus, but these come along with sometimes-confusing new interfaces and menus. Much like a Facebook redesign, I think many longtime users will find themselves suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) confused. Some additions, like an expanded Notifications pull-down screen, are welcome; others, like a new, confusing Calendar app that lacks appointment lists, will throw hard-core iPhone users off their game.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Luckily, iOS 7 does have its distinct advantages: AirDrop for local person-to-person wireless file sharing; crisp and excellent-sounding FaceTime Audio calls, which don't use up much bandwidth and can be used to make calls over Wi-Fi for free; and also the brilliant flip-up Control Panel, which puts many necessary settings and controls at your fingertips at any time. Siri's smarter and can do more things, like turn on Bluetooth or play requested movie trailers.

iTunes Radio, a free streaming music service similar to Pandora, comes baked into the Music app. Make-your-own artist-generated playlists had a good selection of content. The streaming's ad-supported, but iTunes Match customers get the experience ad-free. Considering it's free either way, it sounds pretty good and is nice to have.

iPhone 5C
CNET staff

Redesigned Camera and Photo apps are part of the iOS 7 package, as well, and both feel like big improvements. Digital zoom for video and added photo filters, plus an Instagram-esque "square" photo-crop mode, come built-in. The Photo app presents previous photos in a large timeline organized by year and location. It's a great way to sift through thousands of photos, but this level of presentation feels better-suited to a Mac version of iPhoto. That archive-style presentation would be a lot better if iCloud enabled full syncing and uploading of Mac/PC photo libraries.

Apple's also offering its core suite of iWork and GarageBand/iMovie iOS apps for free with new device purchases, a nice little package of tools that finally gives iOS devices the type of productivity software that's increasingly being bundled on competing mobile products.

The A6 processor, revisited
Compared to most cutting-edge phones in 2013, the iPhone 5's once bleeding-edge dual-core A6 processor doesn't feel quite as amazing. It still tested well in the benchmarks we used, but it's the iPhone 5S with its 64-bit dual-core A7 processor that makes the leap the iPhone 5 did last year. Across GeekBench 3, Linpack, 3DMark and Sunspider tests, the iPhone 5C looks like the same phone as the iPhone 5...which it is. Most tests show it performing at about half the speed of the iPhone 5S' A7 processor, though, and some more recent Android phones may outperform it.

The A6 remains an excellent processor for handling nearly every iPhone user's need, and is capable of impressive graphics. And, keep in mind, the iPhone 5C has a more powerful processor than the fifth-gen iPod Touch and 2012 iPad Mini, both of which use the older A5 instead.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
HTC One Mini

Linpack Multi-Thread (MFLOPS)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
HTC One Mini

Battery life
Apple claims there's a slightly larger battery in the 5C versus last year's 5. Using a video-playback battery drain at half-brightness and airplane mode turned on, it lasted 10 hours and 16 minutes via the first run, which is better than the iPhone 5. Stay tuned for final battery results.

Fully charged in the morning, the 5C lasted me most of a full day. It's not a super battery by any means, but it gets the job done.

The iPhone 5C versus the $99 competition
There are a lot of very good phones falling into the $99-with-a-new-contract territory. The Motorola Droid Mini and HTC One Mini are prime competitors. Lining their specs up side by side, (, despite being built from the guts of last year's iPhone model, the iPhone 5C remains quite a potent little mobile number. In fact, even when you compare it with its current high-end Android competition, this candy-colored handset may have a playful exterior but is all business when it comes to performance. The iPhone 5C can hold its own in terms of processing prowess with the likes of the more expensive HTC One ($199.99), Samsung Galaxy S4 ($199.99), and Moto X ($199.99) flagship models.

The iPhone 5C, equipped one of the best digital imaging systems to ever grace a smartphone (at least until the iPhone 5S), can also capture photos and video of comparable quality with Android's heavy hitters from Samsung, HTC, and Motorola. Now factor in the 5C's low $99 price and that's when things really get interesting. Its closest competitors -- namely the Droid Mini ($99.99, Verizon) and the One Mini ($99.99, AT&T) -- make more compromises than the 5C to reach the same price. For instance, while the 5C has the same Retina display as the 5S, both the One Mini and Droid Mini have inferior displays when compared with their full-size counterparts. At least the One Mini flaunts an aluminum-build quality, arguably better than the iPhone 5C's premium polycarbonate chassis, but the Droid Mini's cheap plastic design wouldn't impress anyone.

Who is this phone for?
Much like the White MacBook was to Apple laptops, the iPhone 5C feels like a perfect cover-all-your-needs smartphone, offering the average person a complete set of tools to get everything done. The extras on the iPhone 5S aren't necessarily ones you'll miss: unlike like last year's leap from the iPhone 4S to iPhone 5, all the basic requirements are covered.

Of course, a $99 iPhone isn't anything new. Apple's been selling "last year's iPhones" for years at a hundred-dollar discount alongside whatever new versions are sold. For the past 12 months, 2011's iPhone 4S sat in the $99 spot; it's now offered as a free phone with a new contract, in a take-it-or-leave-it 8GB version. But Apple's never offered a $99 iPhone this good, and with a redesign to boot.

Those who don't care about the latest and greatest graphics or camera quality, or are due for an upgrade -- like my mom -- would be a perfect fit for the iPhone 5C. It's a good year to make an upgrade if you haven't done so recently, because both the 5C and 5S are very polished phones.

But if you own an iPhone 5, you already have a 5C in metal. And you certainly don't need to upgrade.

Phone 5C
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Incidentally, I tried to convince my mom to get the iPhone 5C, until I realized that she upgrades so infrequently, and uses her phone so much as a camera for getting snapshots of her grandkids, that the iPhone 5S is probably worth her extra $100 investment. So might the argument go for many. But, more than before, Apple's new step-down iPhone is a great destination for newcomers. It feels like the new baseline for the mainstream iPhone. The 5S is the "pro" model with technologies that need to be worked out; the 5C has less to bank on.

In the end, I steered my mom to the iPhone 5S. You should too, unless you really, truly need to save a hundred dollars. In that case -- or in the event you really love brightly colored plastic -- get the iPhone 5C. Apple may not have set the global smartphone world on fire, but the 5C is another small step toward a more affordable iPhone. And if I were to pick an iPhone that wasn't cutting-edge but still had everything most people needed to do everything they wanted, the iPhone 5C is it.

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