Imagining iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C: Casing, display, and design

Analyzing rumors and speculation surrounding Apple's 2013 iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c unibodies, displays, and overall designs

When it comes to the iPhone, Apple has gotten into a pattern of tick-tock hardware releases. One year they unveil bold new designs and manufacturing processes, the next year they improve the chips, cameras, radios, and other components inside it. If Apple sticks to that pattern, we're in a tock year and that means the general design of the iPhone 5s should be pretty much the same as last year's iPhone 5... though with a potential twist. iMore already told you about the gold iPhone 5s - and there's also likely to be the equal but opposite iPhone 5c this year as well. "Equal but opposite" in that iPhone 5c might save all its changes for the outside. So what does that mean?

iPhone 5s: Same start, new finish(es)

iPhone 5c mockup

The original iPhone had an aluminum body with a black plastic strip along the bottom to let the radios function. The iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS traded in the aluminum for full plastic bodies. For the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, Apple ditched plastic entirely and went with a stainless steel antenna array sandwiched between two layers of chemically hardened gas. Then, with the iPhone 5, Apple went back to aluminum, this time a unibody with glass RF windows on the top and bottom.

Based on past patterns and parts leaks to date, the iPhone 5s - or whatever Apple calls the 7th generation iPhone - should look pretty much the same as the current iPhone 5. That includes the same Sleep/Wake button at the top, Ringer/Mute button and Volume Up/Down buttons on the side, and the same Home button on the front beneath the screen (well, except for the finger print scanner, but we'll talk about that in a future article.) That also includes the same duo-tone glass and aluminium shell. Mostly.

Last year Apple debuted the iPhone 5, a phone no other company in the world could have manufactured, let alone at the scale Apple ships. It was, to put it mildly, manufacturing porn. Yet, because it had the same rounded-rectangle silhouette as previous years, many thought it boring. Since a triangle phone is probably out of the question, and since better manufacturing doesn't seem to matter, this year it looks like Apple is going to give the market what it truly, desperately wants - superficiality. The semblance of change. The same body, the same duo-tone design, but in a new color.


A gold iPhone 5s won't *be* different, but it will *look* different, and to many people that's all that matters.

Light gold, not Threepio gold. Think the current silver model tinted gold. A gold iPhone 5s won't be different, but it will look different, and to many people that's all that matters. That's how everyone else knows they have the new iPhone. It's also a hugely popular color in the after market, will appeal to Asian markets as well, and fits into the premium palette Apple's been using on the high end. It partially addresses the iPhone 5s problem.

There have also been some part leaks to suggest a steel gray color has been at least tested as well. Black is really hard to anodize, and black iPhone 5 models have held up worse to wear than their white counterparts, so perhaps Apple has experimented with different shades of slate, or - though I've heard nothing to suggest this - they'll be field an all-metalic line of silver, gold, slate, and steel this fall. Absent more steel gray parts leaks, however, it seems less likely that's being pushed to scale.

At least this year.

Either way, hopefully Apple has been working the kinks out of their anodizing process, or considering more layers, so that we get a great looking and durable finish.

As for the screen, it should also be similar to if not the same as last year's 4-inch, 1136x640 16:9 Retina display. The in-cell technology used to bond the touch sensor and panel, which made the pixels look like they were in the glass rather than under it, did have some problems with rapid diagonal swipe detection. However, there's been little to no indication of Apple switching technologies at this point in the product cycle. That means dreams of indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) and self-refresh might still be a ways off, at least for the iPhone line. Since Apple dislikes large sized active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) panels, and with good reason, we'll likely keep the same light-emitting diode (LED) backlit, inter-plane switching (ISP) panel as last year, with all the great color, vibrance, and viewing angle that comes with it.

iPhone 5c: As in color. Plastic color.

iPhone 5c green case leak

iPhone 5c - or, again, whatever Apple ends up calling the less expensive 6th generation iPhone variant - might just be the opposite of Apple's usual tock strategy. Instead of taking last year's model and updating all the internals for this year, Apple could well be taking last year's model, leaving the internals the same, but giving it a new, plastic, more visibly differentiated back casing.

There are several reasons why a less expensive iPhone makes sense, and why Apple would make an iPhone 5c when they chose not to make an iPhone 4C. Ultimately, it's all about increasing the addressable market at the lower end, while still making a great product and preserving as much margin as possible.

Apple will save money is by skipping the ludicrous iPhone 5 case manufacturing process, and going back to plastic.

Based on the leaks, it looks like one of the ways Apple will save money is by skipping the ludicrous iPhone 5 case manufacturing process, and going back to plastic. That likely means we'll see polycarbonate just like we did with the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, and like Nokia uses to great effect on their Lumia series. Hopefully Apple's made their plastics, which used to be prone to cracking around the edges, even better and more resilient. It certainly looks like they've made it more colorful.

Red, green, blue, yellow, and white seem to be this year's slate. Some have suggested that's meant to tie into iOS 7's palette. It's not dissimilar to past colors from the iPod line, however. Though the lack of a black option is incredibly conspicuous.

When it comes to popularity, black is king. Withholding black (and metal) from the less expensive line means people who want that color (and that treatment) will still be more inclined to go premium with the iPhone 5s. It protects the top line.

There's no evidence of a soft-touch finish, so it could be similar to the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS finish, though like the iPhone 5s, hopefully advances in material engineering make it even more durable, if not rugged.

Other than that, expect the same buttons, ports, screen, etc. as the 2012 iPhone 5.

iPhone 5c parts leak

More to come!

We'll be imagining a lot more about the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including designs, screens, cameras, chipsets, finger-print readers and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when someone at Apple holds it - or them - up on stage, presumably on September 10.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.