preview Apple’s second new smartphone this year is basically last year’s model wrapped in a new, colourful, Nokia Lumia-esque polycarbonate shell. Will this be enough to persuade buyers to upgrade? Read on to find out.
Note: This article represents an advanced look at the design, features and likely performance of this product, but we haven’t actually tested or played with it extensively ourselves it yet. A follow-up full review will be published when we have.
We haven’t yet had the chance to fondle one directly yet, but it seems pretty clear that the design of the iPhone 5C represents would happen if one of Nokia’s colourful Lumia models got down and jiggy with Apple’s last year model, the iPhone 5. The genes would mix and match, and what you would get is a phone which is pretty much the same in every respect as an iPhone 5, from where its ports and inputs are to its size and weight (the dimensions are pretty close), but in a variety of different colours and a polycarbonate plastic casing which replace the previous aluminium feel of the iPhone 5.
Is this a good thing? In our opinion, overwhelmingly yes. The iPhone 5 was already a fantastic model and still remains one of the best smartphones on the market. When we first reviewed the model (see our review here), we praised its lightness, its thinness and its build quality. The iPhone 5 represented a massive upgrade over the previous generation iPhone 4S, and the iPhone 5C very much offers the same benefits, but with a lot more colour variety.
We’ve long been fans of the colourful polycarbonate cases which Nokia has been building its Lumia line in. In comparison, Apple’s much more restrained iPhone line has come across as a little stern and locked down; an unusual posture for a company which re-established its reputation for great consumer products with its colourful iMac line in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The original iMac came in a variety of great colours, and it’s fantastic to see Apple finally adding in some material and colour variety to its smartphones, shifting away from the pure metal focus it has had for the past few years.
The iPhone 5C comes in white, pink, yellow, blue and green, and the background shading of its user interface, using its new iOS 7 mobile operating system, will by default be set to match the colour shading of the iPhone 5C’s physical case, as we’ve also seen with various Windows Phone models over the past several years. There are also a variety of Apple-made extra cases that can be added to the iPhone 5C’s case, for a ‘mix and match’ effect reminiscent of Motorola’s upcoming Moto X smartphone, which has not yet launched in Australia.
Apple has been restrained in its design for too long; it’s good to see the company having fun again.
When it comes to the iPhone 5C’s featureset, there are very few features which have changed compared with the iPhone 5. You get the same processor, the same main camera, the same inputs and outputs. You can find the complete list in our iPhone 5 review.
Is this a bad thing? No, it’s not. We rated the iPhone 5’s featureset as one of the strongest on the market when it launched in late 2012, and it still remains one of the best smartphones available today. We particularly liked the iPhone 5’s stellar camera (which we find consistently one of the best cameras on a smartphone), the iPhone 5’s processing performance is very fast and more than capable of handling any iOS app thrown at it, and its battery life is decent.
With the iPhone 5C, there are a few features that Apple has added to the new model. Its front-facing ‘FaceTime’ camera has been slightly improved, its battery is a little larger, and there is a model supporting the so-called ‘dual-mode’ LTE/4G mobile broadband access which Optus has launched in Australia.
For the next several years, we can’t see the iPhone 5C being outclassed enough by newer models that you’d really feel the need to upgrade immediately. Sure, the iPhone 5s offers a significantly enhanced processor, but we haven’t seen the applications available yet that are going to be able to take full advantage of these processing speeds.
In a certain sense, what’s happening at the moment in smartphone featuresets is that many people have realised that the latest generation of smartphones doesn’t offer many huge advantages over the previous generation. Experience testing new models has shown that a 16 megapixel camera isn’t necessarily better in the real world than an 8 megapixel camera, for example, and that only incremental gains are being made in areas such as battery life.
In this context, Apple’s decision to concentrate on using the guts of its existing iPhone 5 model in its iPhone 5C makes sense. By essentially continuing to manufacturer the iPhone 5 line, which is still a stellar model, the company can gain economies of scale and push the price down on the iPhone 5C, while still giving consumers additional design options that give them the ‘new phone’ experience.
Of course, there will inevitably come a point when the iPhone 5C’s features do look dated. If the fingerprint sensors introduced with the iPhone 5s come into widespread use, if applications emerge which can take significant advantage of newer, faster processors, and if better battery life becomes an option on newer models, the iPhone 5C will start to look dated. But we don’t believe that will happen for another couple of years.
Lastly, with the iPhone 5S and its sibling the 5c, Apple is introducing a new version of its iOS operating system, iOS 7. In fact, iOS 7 is also available as a free upgrade to owners of other iOS devices such as recent iPhones and iPads. I’ve already upgraded our household iPhones and iPads (which are not the latest models) to the new release.
It would be a bit hard to go into all the new features and design included in iOS 7 as part of this review. However, suffice it to say that the platform feels radically different in terms of its user interface than the previous version, iOS 6, with Apple having revamped its imagery, icons and user interface elements along more modern lines. From what your writer has seen of the new interface, it’s fantastic, slick and represents a solid step ahead for Apple, although the colours strike us as being a bit bright and ‘fluoro’ at times.
In terms of features, Apple has introduced countless improvements in iOS 7, from ‘Control Centre’ — quick, Android-like access to controls such as Wi-Fi, volume and brightness from any screen — to a new notification centre, to better multitasking, to a massively improved camera app, to improvements to included apps such as Photos, Safari, Siri and others. The popular ‘AirDrop’ feature from Mac OS X, which lets you quickly and easily send another device files if they’re close by, makes an appearance, and there are also new security features to prevent iPhone thieves from erasing the device or turning off the ‘Find My iPhone’ functionality.
Organisations which have corporate iOS fleets also get improvements with iOS 7 — from setting per-app VPNs, to App Store licence management, new mobile device management configuration options, enterprise single sign-on, third-party app daya protection and so on.
Because the iPhone 5C is based on the iPhone 5, we already know a lot about its performance. And the news is overwhelmingly good. Basically, the iPhone 5C has one of the best cameras available in a smartphone, its battery life is better than average (but not fantastic, as it’s a 4G model), its network speeds are very good and up to its technical specifications, and its user interface performance is very fast.
Our major complaint with the iPhone 5 was in relation to its software. In our original review, we wrote:
“In a world which has the vibrancy of Android (especially with add-ons such as HTC Sense) and the slick sliding menus of Windows Phone 8, iOS is looking dated. It’s the most functional mobile operating system on the planet, but it’s no longer the most beautiful; and it’s not hard to see why when you consider that the iOS user interface was designed more than half a decade ago. Things have moved on since then in mobile OS UI, and we’d like to see some of this new dynamic thinking come to iOS. The iPhone 5’s hardware is stellar; its app support unparalleled; but it’s basic user interface needs some more vibrancy to get us excited all over again.”
We’ve been testing iOS 7 on an iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S over the past several days, and it’s safe to say that this specific complaint has been addressed. While iOS 7 does have some bugs, and while it will take a while for all of the third-party apps in Apple’s iOS ecosystem to be upgraded to match the new user interface paradigm, at this stage it’s safe to say that iOS 7 is looking like precisely what it is supposed to be — a worthy upgrade to Apple’s mobile platform that adds some major and a host of minor features, delivers a revamped and simplified UI, while also handing users some of the bling they had been missing from the ageing iOS 6.
Overall, the iPhone 5C is looking like a winner in terms of its performance. It adds only minor upgrades to the existing iPhone 5, but that handset is still one of the fastest and best-performing models on the market. The addition of iOS 7 helps address the issues we did have with the iPhone 5 when it launched.
There’s no doubt about it — the iPhone 5s is a faster, more powerful model, with a host of minor improvements over the iPhone 5. If you want the best iPhone money can buy, that’s the model you should be looking at. The iPhone 5C isn’t up to spec, on paper at least, when it’s compared to its big brother.
However, when you leave the iPhone 5s out of the equation and look at the iPhone 5C as a stand-alone model, you almost start to wonder why, if you were in the market for an iPhone, you wouldn’t just buy an iPhone 5C instead of an iPhone 5s.
After all, the iPhone 5C is significantly cheaper (starting at $739 compared with the iPhone 5s’s starting price of $869), it runs all the same apps the iPhone 5s does, it has the same network access speeds, it’s got the same screen, a very similar camera, very similar battery life, and so on. And does anyone really need a fingerprint sensor at this point?
if you compare the iPhone 5C to other models on the market — in either the Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry universes, it also still comes off strongly. Sure, it’s got a much smaller screen than models such as the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 … but then, that’s still true of Apple’s other models as well. And the iPhone 5C’s price brings it closer to those models than the 5s is.
The Verge’s review of the iPhone 5s posited that buying the smartphone was really an investment in the future:
“Today, the 5S is but a minor improvement over the 5, with only the camera and perhaps Touch ID truly counting as purchase-worthy upgrades. But as Apple learns to make use of its motion processor, its 64-bit operating system, and its fingerprint sensor, and teaches its developers to do the same, the 5S will get far better.”
My point of view is a little different, however. Smartphones have a two-year lifespan; for many people, a one year lifespan. They are consumer accessories as much as anything else. Right now, there isn’t a lot that the iPhone 5s offers that the iPhone 5C doesn’t. If you want to be on the bleeding edge, and want to pay for it, then sure, jump on the 5s. But if you are on legacy gear and want an iPhone that will get you through the next two years (at the very least), then the iPhone 5C will do that — and in a colourful package.
It’s important to ask yourself who this smartphone is targeted at. It’s certainly not targeted at existing iPhone 5 owners. Those who already own last year’s Apple model will see no reason to swap that model out for an iPhone 5C — after all, the guts of the iPhone 5C are largely the same as the iPhone 5, and colour changes can be made to an iPhone 5 through adding on any one of the massive number of quality and colourful cases available for the handset.
But to someone who owns a previous Apple smartphone, say the iPhone 4S or 4, and who doesn’t want to spend the high prices Apple is asking for its new top-end model, the iPhone 5s, the iPhone 5C’s design, coupled with its lower prices, should be very appealing. We doubt it’ll bring many of the Android or Windows Phone crowd back into the fold. But for most everyone else, the iPhone 5C is looking like a very worthy contender. We’ll have further thoughts when we get to test the model for ourselves.
Image credit: Apple