iPhone 5C review: Plastic Fantastic?

Reviews Richard Goodwin 16:24, 13 Jun 2014

Apple released two iPhone handsets for the first time in 2013. Here, we’re delivering our final verdict on the iPhone 5C

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£469.00
Pros: 
Excellent build quality, iOS 7 rocks, A6 still a very decent setup, Better sharing options, Improved Camera UI, Better battery life
Cons: 
Display is still 4-inches and the iPhone 5C is not quite as cheap as we were hoping
Verdict: 
Taking everything that made the iPhone 5 great and adding in a few more bells and whistles. The iPhone 5C is not the iPhone 5S, but it’s still a great little handset in its own right. Should prices come down –– which they inevitably will –– this handset could become very, very, popular.

In 2013, Apple broke a tradition that had been in place since 2007 – it released two smartphones in one go: the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c. The 5s is the true heir to the iPhone 5’s throne, while the iPhone 5c is something of an enigma – it’s not a budget device per se, but it’s not a flagship either. So what exactly is it? Here we endeavour to find out.

Here’s how I see it, Apple had to make a choice with the iPhone 5C: either to go cheap and sell big in the sub-£200 sector or to keep it premium and offer a more polished device at a slightly reduced price point compared to the new flagship. Apple went with Plan B, in this respect – a repackaged iPhone 5 sold on contract at a slightly lower cost than its bigger brother.

Apple says the iPhone 5c isn’t about cost or making in-roads into the middle portion of the smartphone space. No, Apple says the iPhone 5c is about choice. And when it says choice, what it really means is you get to pick from a range of colours. Aside from that the only other choice you really have is whether you get the 5c over the 5s or any other type of handset.

Another critique levelled at the 5c is that Steve Jobs would never have signed off on it –– this couldn’t be further from the truth. Upon his return to Apple in the late-90s, Jobs cut staff and product lines and commissioned Apple’s first iMac. That iMac, the brainchild of one Jony Ive, was colourful, used plastics, and was cheaper than Apple’s previous offerings –– but only by a small margin. Sort of like the iPhone 5C, no?

Kind of – but the iPhone 5c isn’t a desktop computer like the iMac. It’s a phone, and that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. Which begs the question: is a colourful bit of plastic and not much else enough to persuade users away from handsets like the Moto G and Nexus 5 and into Apple’s ecosystem? Read on to find out. 

Design and Build

I’m just going to come right out and say it –– I love the way the iPhone 5C looks. Following its launch I was fortunate enough to have two iPhone 5Cs in my possession –– a lime green one and a white one. I don’t know which one I liked best, probably the white one, but what I do know is that I like this phone – I like it a lot.

The new plastic chassis does add a bit of heft but the added bulk doesn’t feel amiss in the context of Apple’s redesign –– in fact, it works rather well. The 5C feels very robust and sturdy in the hand compared to the feather-like iPhone 5/5s. The iPhone 5C is 9mm thick and weighs 132g, while the iPhone 5 is 7.6mm and weighs just 112g. 

The handset itself is built around a steel frame that also doubles as a wide-band antenna. The frame is then laser-welded to the polycarbonate outer casing for what Apple describes as “precise fit.”

Available in five colours (white, pink, yellow, blue and lime green), Apple says it “turned down thousands of colours” whilst deliberating which five colours best represented what the 5c was all about. Most look great in person, although the yellow version has a rather custardy look about it, which really isn’t my bag at all.

With regards to the build materials Apple says plastic was essential. It wanted to do colour, and doing colour just wasn’t possible with the material it used on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. Only plastic would work. But, of course, Apple doesn’t just do plastic – it “rethinks” plastics.

The end result is nice and feels very premium in the hand. It’s also exceptionally robust and solid, meaning you can rest assured if the handset slips out of your grip it won't take a serious beating. I’ve dropped my review unit numerous times and the handset, aside from a few minor scuffs here and there, looks as good as new.

I do prefer the way Nokia deals with plastics, if I’m honest. There’s just something infinitely more appealing about the matte finish used aboard handsets like the Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520. The 5c does look great – especially in green and white – it’s just a bit slippery in the hand. 

All the hardware keys are in the same locations (audio jack on the bottom left, volume and mute keys on the left-hand side, and the power/unlock on the top right-hand side). The Lightning connector is located on the bottom of the device and to the right of it is the speaker grille. It all feels very familiar. 

Display

The iPhone 5C uses exactly the same display setup as the iPhone 5 –– a 4-inch 640x1136 pixel IPS LCD panel with a pixel density of 326 ppi. Apple’s “Retina Display” is a solid performer with excellent colour reproduction, viewing angles and brightness levels. It’s not 1080p but aside from that it really cannot faulted.

Apple, of course, did not up the ante with regards to size. The iPhone 5C –– like the iPhone 5 before it and the new iPhone 5S –– uses a 4-inch setup. Compared to almost everything else on the market, this is pretty tiny.

Apple says 4-inches is the perfect size for a smartphone as it’s great for watching video but it also allows for one-handed use. In some respects Apple is right but I do wish it was slightly bigger and I know I am not alone in thinking this, which is very frustrating because the display size is literally the only thing I’d change on Apple’s iPhone –– everything else is about as good as it gets.

Hardware & Performance

It might look playful on the outside but the iPhone 5C is pretty stacked when it comes to hardware, featuring more or less the same internal spec as last year’s iPhone 5. The 5C is available in two storage flavours –– 16GB and 32GB –– and there’s no microSD support.

Apple has now confirmed the recently rumoured 8GB version of the iPhone 5C. But, contrary to what everyone was expecting it is still not particularly cheap with a SIM-free price tag of, wait for it...£429.

That's rather surprising, it's only a mere £40 cheaper than the 16GB model. If you were hoping for a really affordable iPhone then your only saving grace now may be how networks price up their iPhone 5C 8GB tariff deals - and that's still very much up in the air at this point.

The iPhone 5C also uses the same A6 processor as the iPhone 5 –– two 32-bit ARM CPU cores based on Apple's custom "Swift" architecture –– and the same amount of RAM, too – 1GB of DDR2. Internally the iPhone 5C is a clone of the iPhone 5. The only difference is the addition of Qualcomm’s WTR1605L transceiver, which allows for “global” LTE support.

Apple is a master of optimizing its hardware and software to ensure near-seamless performance across the board, so whether you’re multitasking, playing games, or browsing the web everything rockets along without a hint of lag or stutter. The iPhone 5C like its predecessor does not disappoint in this regard.

The iPhone 5C won’t cause any top-flight Android handsets any grief and devices like the Galaxy Note 3, with its quad-core Snapdragon 800 chipset and 3GB of RAM, will leave it well and truly in the dust. However, this isn’t an Android handset –– it’s an iOS handset optimized to work within Apple’s iOS ecosystem, so it’s kind of a moot point.

Apple designs its phones to work within its ecosystem and, for the most part, is not interested in the specs race –– everything it does is for the betterment of its own ecosystem. That’s why there’s still no NFC. If you buy this handset you’re buying into Apple. If you want gross specs you’re better off with Android. Simple.

It’s also worth noting that Apple’s A6 chipset does out-perform Qualcomm’s S4 Snapdragon Pro and the Snapdragon 400 chipsets. You’ll find these quad-core setups inside the Nexus 4, HTC One Mini and others, and given the pitch of Apple’s iPhone 5C –– it’s marketed as a competitor to the likes of the HTC One Mini –– that is pretty significant.

Connectivity

With regards to connectivity the iPhone 5C comes fully loaded with Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth 4.0 and full support for Apple’s AirPlay and AirDrop clients.

For mobile data you’ve got full 2G, 3G (DC-HSPA and HSPA+) and support for an absolute raft of 4G LTE bands –– the iPhone 5C will work on practically any 4G network in the world. Our handset was running on Vodafone’s LTE network and the results were incredibly good as you can see below. 

iOS 7

Apple’s reinvented mobile operating system, iOS 7, is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of both the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S. It’s the one thing out of all Apple’s Q4 launches that has had a complete overhaul –– it looks completely different, swapping out skeumorphism in favour of a bolder more colourful layout.

Personally, I love iOS 7 –– my only issue with it is that it didn’t happen sooner. You can check out our full review of iOS 7 here. In the context of this review we’ll be taking a closer look at certain “stand out” aspects of iOS 7, the USPs if you will.

For me there are several elements inside iOS 7 that are worth getting excited about: Safari, AirDrop, Multitasking, the Camera app and Control Center. There are lots of other things going on inside the iOS 7, but these are the aspects which really stood out to me.

Safari has been completely redesigned and now features full-screen browsing and a new tab view (see below). The UI –– like the rest of iOS 7 –– is cleaner and less cluttered, which creates a sense of roominess despite Apple not increasing the display size one iota. It’s also very easy to share content to social networks, email, or AirDrop – just tap the share button, select an option, and you’re done. 

      

Safari is also significantly faster than Chrome within iOS 7, although that is to be expected. Apple’s browser was designed with Apple’s hardware in mind; Google’s was not. The extent of the difference is pretty significant, as you can see below from our SunSpider benchmarks below. Safari is on the left and Chrome on the right (Note: a lower score is better): 

AirDrop is a pretty useful addition, too. With it you can quickly share photos, videos, contacts, webpages –– or anything else from inside an app –– with people nearby. There’s no setup required and all transfers are encrypted. Like AirPlay this feature works seamlessly. My only gripe is that it’s not supported on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Other than that it does exactly what it says in the tin.

Another surprise inside iOS 7 is Maps. Once the joke of the tech-world, Apple seems to have taken the criticism to heart and has set about making the application a lot better. It’s still no Google Maps but the difference between what we saw inside iOS 6 and the one present in iOS 7 is palpable. 

Maps now loads quicker, has better looking 3D maps and, most importantly, it knows where things are –– I’m beginning to trust it, and that’s a big deal. The first iteration of Apple Maps was utterly appalling. Inside iOS 7 it’s gotten better and while Maps is still a ways behind the competition, it’s a huge improvement and is one of the more pleasant surprises locked away inside iOS 7.

It even recommends popular apps based on your location, and is the sole reason why I found the life-changing app that is London Bus Live Countdown, which has changed the way I travel in London. So thanks for that Apple Maps. Now all we need is better POIs and more USPs, which we shouldn’t have to wait too long for –– Apple is apparently doubling its efforts in this regard, so expect to see more improvements inside future iOS updates. 

Multitasking on iOS 7 is perhaps the most interesting addition of all. Double tap the Home key and you’re presented with a carousal-like card system where all your open applications are displayed. It’s very Windows Phone but it works well enough and is a vast improvement of Apple’s previous solution. To close an app simply swipe it up off the display, just as you would in HTC’s Sense 5 UI.

What’s most irksome about iOS 7’s multitasking, however, is that it could have been added in AGES ago. The iPhone 5C, with its iPhone 5 spec, multitasks with ease, allowing you open and run a multitude of applications all at once. There’s no lag or stutter and iOS seems like a natural multitasker, which sort of begs the question: why did we have to wait this long?

Another notable style change to iOS 7 is in the Camera app. Before it was okay to use with everything within tapping distance, but it was pretty sparse. In iOS 7 the UI itself has been completely remodeled and there’s a host of new features like the ability to skin images with Instagram-like effects prior to taking a shot, which add a whole new dimension to the application and the process of taking snaps.

Switching between modes –– video, photo, square, and pano –– is done by swiping left-to-right and you can toggle HDR mode and Flash on at the top with a single tap. The effects make a big difference to shots and while it’s not quite as feature rich as what you'll find aboard the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4/Note 3/Galaxy Camera, it’s a welcome improvement over previous iOS iterations.

The same can also be said about Siri, which is now out of beta and features a lot more functionality. It’s an improvement of what came before, but for those of us accustomed to Google Now it still feels a bit like a work in progress.  I just didn’t find myself ever using it aside from the occasional enquiry about the weather.

Siri will now scan Twitter, Wikipedia and Bing to find answers for your questions. You can also get Siri to playback your voice mail, change settings within your phone –– switch profile to silent, for instance –– and return calls and texts. 

Siri cannot, however, tell you when the next bus is or what your best route home is based on your location. It also seems to take a lot longer to understand and answer questions than Google Now. And I prefer the smug git that does Google Now’s voice.

iCloud isn’t new to iOS 7, but I'm sort of new to iCloud, if I'm honest. I used the iPhone 4S pretty extensively before switching to Android, and upon my triumphant return to iOS imagine my surprise to find everything as I left it –– my notes, contacts, pictures, apps and video. Everything. All I had to do was sign in with my iCloud login and it was all pulled down to the iPhone 5C.

Apple isn’t the only manufacturer using the cloud to great effect, Google and Microsoft have also got plenty of cool cloud-based functionality inside Android and Windows Phone. But, for me, none work quite as slickly as iCloud. Now, if Apple would only sort out the paltry amount of free storage you get –– 5GB is nowehere near enough, try 10GB to 15GB, and it’d be the best in the business by a country mile. Come on, Apple. Sort it out.

iOS 7.1 is HERE!!!

Apple has just released iOS 7.1, heralding a new version of Siri, support for CarPlay and lots more besides. The camera app has also been updated with Automatic HDR mode and subscribing to iTunes Match is now even easier. 

Apple has left much of the visual look and feel of iOS alone. It’s still iOS 7 through and through. However, there is a new Month View in the Calendar app, as well as a few, incremental design changes to the UX. Notably, improved contrast and more legible buttons and icons.  

Siri now features push-to-talk functionality, whereby the user holds down the Home button, issues a command and then releases the key to let Siri know they’re done. It only saves you seconds. But over a year that’s quite a bit of time. The personal assistant app now offers a choice of Male and Female voices, too, with support for Mandarin Chinese, UK English, Australian English, and Japanese.

Apple has also made subscribing to iTunes Match a little easier, too. You can now do it all via an iPhone or iPad inside iRadio. With the camera app, you have a new Automatic HDR mode, which applies HDR filters to objects and scenes before image capture. 

TouchID is still as locked down as ever; payments are coming, however, but not until iOS 8 later this year. TouchID setup is now faster and Apple has improved the overall responsiveness of the sensor, as well as fixing the oft reported “soft reboot issue”.

iOS 7.1 also comes fully-loaded with support for CarPlay, although the first cars to benefit from the tech won’t be available until later on this year. Still, good to know everything is up and running in Apple’s corner. 

Check out our iOS 7.1 review

iOS 8 On The Way This Autumn

All of Apple’s current device range will be receiving an update to its latest iOS 8 software in “the fall” following the company’s reveal of the platform version at WWDC 2014. That includes the iPhone 5C.

What do you get with the new software? On the one hand a boatload of new tweaks and changes that will have an immediate effect on the user experience, but a good dollop of Apple’s announcement relates to services, features or development capabilities that point to longer-term potential for iOS users.

Unsurprisingly, Apple has not made massive changes to the UI, having already done an extensive overhaul with iOS 7. What has changed is that the new features have been built-upon. The notifications centre, for example, now allows you to interact with certain notifications directly from that menu – you can respond to a message or like Facebook posts from within the notification, even from the lockscreen. The multitasking Task Switcher now also features quick access to your favourite and recent contacts.

Group messaging now has more features for who you include in your conversations, how long they go on for before they expire, and you can name a conversation thread. More importantly you’re now able to send and receive video and audio clips.

Another key component is iCloud Drive, which expands on Apple’s existing iCloud service by allowing a proper, customisable file system, similar to DropBox. iCloud Drive is pervasive throughout the OS, allowing you to sync a bunch of content to the cloud via integrated controls.

Apple has expanded its built-in sharing features to accommodate the family unit, or similar co-operative arrangements. You can have up to six users sharing the same content via one credit card, though it’s still authorised by the cardholder, who will receive a prompt.

Siri now works without the need of a button press, responding immediately to your voice, while Apple has added support for third-party widgets in the notification centre and third-party keyboards.

Other stuff has potential for long term. Apple has introduced inter-operability support for apps to feed off each other, while Touch ID has been opened to developers to allow for more payment and security options accessed via your fingerprint - although this won't help iPhone 5C users as the handset doesn't have a scanner. Apple also introduced Healthkit, which will aggregate data from your health-related apps and may even liaise with your healthcare professional automatically.

Camera

Again, the iPhone 5C’s camera setup is exactly the same as the one inside the iPhone 5. So you have an 8-megapixel iSight camera with 1/3.2'' sensor size, 1.4 µm pixel size, simultaneous HD video and image recording abilities, touch focus, geo-tagging, face detection, HDR panorama, and HDR photo.

There’s nothing really new to report here. The iPhone 5’s camera was great for a smartphone shooter, and the iPhone 5C’s is exactly the same. Images look sharp with great colour reproduction and well-above-average detail. 

The 1.2-megapixel FaceTime unit on the front of the 5C has been improved ever-so-slightly and now performs better in low light. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but seeing as you’ll only be using it for selfies and FaceTime that’s hardly cause for concern.

If you want to see what a seriously updated camera looks like then you'd be advised to check out the iPhone 5S –– its new imaging unit is an absolute monster of epic proportions. 

Battery

I’ve called the iPhone 5C an iPhone 5 clone quite a bit in this review, but that’s not entirely fair. The iPhone 5C has a slightly larger capacity battery (1510 mAh) than its predecessor. It’s not quite as big as the one inside the iPhone 5S (1560 mAh) but it does make a difference –– battery life is much better on both. 

In our Django test, where we play the entirety of Django Unchained with the screen on full whack and Wi-Fi turned on, the iPhone 5C came out with just under 52% of its battery life left, which isn’t as good as the Note 3 but is actually pretty damn impressive when you consider the difference in battery sizes.

In real-world use you’ll get a full day from the iPhone 5C providing you’re not texting,  emailing and gaming every hour that god sends. In our batch tests –– where we run multiple phones at once under the same conditions –– it outlasted both the Nexus 4 and the HTC One by quite a margin (just over 2 hours).

Conclusion

Yes, it is plastic. Yes, it doesn’t have the same updated specs of the iPhone 5S. And, yes, it is basically the iPhone 5 encased in a new plastic unibody chassis. But none of these facts are necessarily a bad thing. The iPhone 5 was a great handset, and the iPhone 5C is too, even more so when you factor in its improved battery life and jazzy new outer-casing. 

But for me what’s most interesting about the iPhone 5C is what it says about the changing culture within Apple under the stewardship of Tim Cook. It is becoming more egalitarian and seems to be actively looking for a new breeds of disciples to add to its growing flock. 

The iPhone 5C, whether you like the handset or not, represents a significant shift in Apple’s business philosophy. Apple is no longer just a premium handset maker, operating at the heady heights of the mobile space. Previously Apple went after the snobs and it had one phone. Now it’s still chasing the snobs, but the 5C shows that it is also very interested in everybody else now too. 

Specifications

Length 124.4mm
Width 59.2mm
Thickness 9mm
Weight 132g
Screen Size 640 x 1136 pixels, 4.0 inches (~326 ppi pixel density)
Camera Resolution 8 MP, 3264x2448 pixels, autofocus, LED flash – 1/3.2'' sensor size, 1.4 µm pixel size, simultaneous HD video and image recording, touch focus, geo-tagging, face detection, HDR panorama, HDR photo
Operating System iOS 7
Processor A6 chipset + 1GB of RAM
High-speed Data DC-HSDPA, 42 Mbps; HSDPA, 21 Mbps; HSUPA, 5.76 Mbps, LTE, 100 Mbps; EV-DO Rev. A, up to 3.1 Mbps
Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot
Built-in Memory 16GB, 32GB or 64GB
Battery Standby Up to 250 h (2G) / Up to 250 h (3G)

Disqus - noscript

Fanboy yawn.

Fandroid yawn!

How is he a fandroid? Are you retarded? Did he even mention anything Android related in his comment? The review sucks because it's biased. DEAL with jt

This is a very tiresome accusation. There's no such thing as a review which isn't biased, however, what people fail to understand on a regular basis is that bias (the perception of which in journalism is coloured badly based on bias in political or social subjects which have actual gravitas - not opinion on consumer products) isn't some terrible evil when it comes to consumer products unless it's manipulated by an agenda or personal gain.

We have nothing to gain from being nice or nasty about particular handsets. We have to give most of them back and being nice usually doesn't help us get stuff in quicker in the future, sadly, such is life. What's more on a personal level we have no interest in playing that game even if it did turn things in our favour, you'll just have to take my word on that one. Or not, whatever.

As Rich's colleague I can say with some certainty that he is not biased to a particular operating system, because much to my amusement he flip-flops faster than anyone from one to another on a regular basis. Last month he favoured Android, before that it was BB10, before that it was Android and before that it was iOS. Now he's come full circle and is back on iOS again.

If a product has genuine appeal, particularly through appealing changes made to it, then we're going to say we like it - that's a kind of bias - liking something immediately biases you towards it - but it's not a bad kind of bias, it's just knowing what we like. It's really as simple as that. People always bang on about "objective reviews" as the holy grail but the reality is that reviews are, by nature, opinion pieces, and therefore innately and intrinsically not objective - you read them to see what someone personally thinks about a product having tried it.

And as a final note, this is the same reviewer who gave the Galaxy S4 four stars out of five. Hardly 'Fanboy' territory.

The last para in the conclusion totally misses the truth.

Apple released the iPhone 5c with the same guts as the iPhone 5, with a cheaper to make plastic shell, which is barely countered with a newer LTE chip's possibly higher price.

And, Apple released it at the same price which it does for a year-old iPhone.
In some cases, even more, depending on the country.

Conclusion: Apple made a cheaper-to-build phone, and sold it at a costlier-to-make phone's price. Result: more profit.

I wont say that the review is biased. It goes haywire in the very last para of its conclusion.

As l said from day 1 - the iPhone5C looks cheap any nasty. If people already had the iPhone5 it doesn't warrant the upgrade for the iPhone5C. When it's the same phone on in loud wacky colours & it's in plastic.

Ok fair play the iPhone5S is worthy of being called an up grade. Where the iPhone5C isn't worthy.
I admit l am an apple fan but l sore the iPhone5c pointless. There was nothing that new accept for the size, wacky colours and it being plastic.

the primary reason to consider an iPhone 5C over an iPhone 5 is the global lte chipset. this has 13 LTE channels compared to 4 in the old one. the iPhone 5 has its LTE speed pretty much tied to the carrier you purchased your phone. this is not the case with the iPhone 5c 5s iPad air and iPad mini retina, this allows you to bring your verizon iPhone 5c to AT&T and T-Mobile and not suffer any speed degradation, with the purchase of your iPhone 5c or 5s your basically saving money down the road if you are considering switching carriers . however it won't connect to tmobile's new 700 mhz spectrum when it comes out, or dish network's LTE they are planning as well

this is the first actual review of the 5c i have ever read that actually mentions the new global LTE chipset that is in the 5c as well as the 5s, iPad air, and iPad mini retina

all the other reviews i have read basically say there is no difference between a 5c and a 5 and its just a different case.

thanks for the article

if you are on veizon and hate your share everything plan, and have money to spend, why not just pick up an extra $70 unlimited sim from t-mobile and watch a bunch of movies or download your entire iTunes match library to your iPhone???? while keeping your verizon contract. with the new global LTE chipset you can

the only thing you can't do with the new global lte chipset is switch from an unlocked tmobile/att phone to sprint or verizon or switch from verizon to sprint or sprint to verizon. with an iPad you can switch from AT&T to verizon or sprint but they make you jump through hurdles. with the 5c and 5s you can obtain any nano sim (3G) from practically any company in the united sates and you will be able to connect to that network at the highest possible speed they offer for the forcible future, because of all the lte channels the 5c has

So apple is paying you to say these things? I did not think it was possible for anybody to like this overpriced piece of plastic. The phone is a joke in itself, offering some terrible new features for 400$ more than they should be charging. I was forced by my mobile company to upgrade from a 4s to a 5c. The phone screen shattered within the first week, a problem I didn't have with 2 years with a 4s. The headphone jack has already become slanted due the genius idea to put it on the bottom (sarcasm). Another issue that I will have to deal with out of my own pocket, because I know what my years of Apple loyalty are actually worth.

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