iPhone 5c review

The iPhone 5c represents not only the first time Apple's introduced a second phone in one year, but the first time they've taken their most popular product in a decidedly pop direction.

I've been hearing about a second iPhone for years. Something that would sit below the flagship line and make Apple even more competitive in the mainstream market. I thought it was going to be purely a less-expensive play. The iPhone equivalent of the iPod mini, Mac mini, or iPad mini - that something would be taken away to make it even more accessible. I was wrong. Sometimes it isn't what you take away but what you change or even add. Sometimes accessibility is trumped by appeal. The iPhone 5c, it turns out, wasn't a pure budget play at all. It's play was pure pop.

Yes, it costs less than what Apple typically charges for a new iPhone, but the iPhone 5c is in no way typical. Unlike the new iPhone 5s, on the inside it's the same platform as last year's iPhone 5 with support for slightly more LTE bands and a slightly better FaceTime camera. But on the outside it has new candy-colored shells that perfectly match the new palette presented in iOS 7. Not only does that make the iPhone 5c easier for Apple to manufacturer, it makes it even more interesting to an even wider range of potential customers. Like nano-chromatic iPods before it, it makes the iPhone 5c fun. But does it make it the phone for you?

iPhone evolution

More than any new iPhone in history, the iPhone 5c builds on what came before it. It shares so much in common with last year's iPhone 5, beyond the name, instead of repeating it all here, I'll direct you to that review, and to the reviews that preceded it. If you're curious about the iSight camera and the Lightning adapter, the 4-inch 16:9 in-cell Retina display, the NanoSIM and EarPods, you can find all that, and more, in the review below.

iPhone 5c packaging

Unlike any other iPhone in history, the iPhone 5c doesn't come in am opaque cardboard box. Instead, it comes in an a transparent plastic capsule identical to those used for iPods, right down to the sticker that emulates a fully lit Home screen. Arguably, this further highlight the iPhone 5c's place in the lineup, once again more popular than premium. Just as arguably it highlights the iPhone 5c's design. No other iPhone has ever popped the way the bright colors and brightly matched wallpaper of the iPhone 5c and iOS 7 have.

iPhone 5s can cause lineups and sellouts, get held by ticket and wait behind the counter for a sales rep to fetch it and bring it out on a silver - or gold - platter. iPhone 5c is meant to sit on the shelf for the long holiday burn. It's packed not to demand attention but to attract it. It's not the home run, it's the sleeper hit.

It also, of course, includes a Lightning cable, USB power adapter, Apple EarPods headset, and the usual informational booklets.

iPhone 5c design

iPhone 5c design

From the front the iPhone 5c has the same rounded rectangular shape as last year's iPhone 5. It has the same speaker and camera layout up top and the same, iconic Home button below. In between it has the same 4-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 1136x640 pixel, 326ppi, LED-backlit Retina display with in-plane switching (IPS) and in-cell construction that makes graphics and text look less like they're under glass and more like they're part of it. All of that is the same. It's around back and up over the sides that's changed. A lot.

On the iPhone 5c, the casing has gone from aluminium silver/white and slate/black with chamfered bevels to hard coated polycarbonate in 5 bright, bold colors. Green as the Hulk. Blue as a Smurf. Yellow as Pikachu. Pink as a Power Puff. White as Space Ghost. I like them all, with the exception of the pink. It's a bit too salmon for my tastes. The white, while elegant, also feels a bit like it's playing straight-person to its flashier compatriots. The lack of a black is curious. It's usually the most popular color, so perhaps Apple decided to reserve it for the space gray iPhone 5s. All the iPhone 5c colors, including white, do have black faceplates, but you can see the edge of the color all away around them, like a band. It's a great effect.

The iPhone 5c follows the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS as the third plastic iPhone Apple's made, but it's also the first new one since 2009. And it feels great. The rounded edges are comfortable to hold, the plastic isn't as cold to the touch, and thanks to a metal antenna frame inside (and lack of a battery door), it's as study and solid as any polycarbonate phone I've ever held. The hard coating is slick but not slippery. Still, for those who want extra grip, matte and soft-touch would have been the way to go. (Apple left that for the iPhone cs cases, see below.)

Apple calls the plastic unapologetic. Even their logo looks impregnated into it, rather than screened on top of it the way the silvery iPhone 3GS' did. Time will tell how well the iPhone 5c holds up to scratches and scrapes, bumps and drops. Likewise whether or not Apple's been able to overcome the cracking around the edges that plagued their previous plastics.

Comparing the iPhone 5c to the 2012 iPhone 5 or 2013 iPhone 5s, it's ever-so-slightly bigger and heavier. 4.90 inches (124.4 mm) by 2.33 inches (59.2 mm) by 0.35 inch (8.97 mm) and weighing in at 4.65 ounces (132 grams). That's 0.03 inches (0.6mm), 0.02 inches (0.5mm), 0.05 inches (1.36 mm), and 0.7 ounces (20 grams) bigger and heavier to be precise. It's noticeable, but not noticeable - you can tell the difference, but only if you stop and think about it. By most modern standards, the iPhone 5c is still a remarkably light and thin phone.

Comparing the iPhone 5c to the 2012 iPod touch, which also went multi-chromatic, I prefer to the colors of the iPod touch. The red is much nicer than the pink, the aluminium nicer than the plastic, and the metallic finish nicer than the plastic.

Apple says they couldn't have gotten the exact colors and look they wanted without going to polycarbonate. I'm not sure that should have been a deal-breaker for them. If manufacturing costs were a reason, if premium vs. popular positioning was a factor, if RF transparency needed to be considered - the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s have glass cutouts top and bottom, the iPod touch a plastic ellipse on the back - then polycarbonate is absolutely a more understandable choice.

iPhone 5c LTE radios

Apple added Long Term Evolution (LTE) cellular networking in 2012 with the iPhone 5, and they did a pretty good job of it. With 3 models, including one compatible with CDMA in the U.S. they managed to support a fairly good range of bands in a fairly good number of countries. The LTE radio in the iPhone 5c ups that support to 13 bands, albeit over 5 different models. Here are the models and the bands they support:

  • A1532 (GSM): UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 13, 17, 19, 20, 25)
  • A1532 (CDMA): CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 13, 17, 19, 20, 25)
  • A1456: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26)
  • A1507: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20)
  • A1529: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); FDD-LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20); TD-LTE (Bands 38, 39, 40)

Unfortunately, the bands alone are not enough. Even if you have an unlocked iPhone 5c that supports the right bands, Apple won't enable a carrier for LTE unless they have a deal in place. Apple keeps an updated list of the countries and carriers with official LTE support.

Coverage and reliability will be the same as the iPhone 5 or any similar-generation LTE device. When it comes to speed, it should also be similar. Here are Ally Kazmucha's SpeedTest.net results on AT&T. From left to right, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5.

Here are my results for Rogers. From left to right, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5.

Anecdotally, there's not much difference, certainly nothing consistently appreciable. The biggest difference will be the new bands bringing LTE to new places, if and when Apple announces deals with the carriers in those places.

Other than that, LTE still doesn't support simultaneous voice and data, and Apple still doesn't elect to sacrifice battery life and architecture just to open a second radio channel for Verizon and Sprint in the U.S., CMDA-laggarts that they are. That means, just like with the iPhone 5, GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., and most carriers around the world, will drop data to the still fast HSPA+ when you're on a call, and Verizon and Sprint, which don't support HSPA+ and whose legacy EVDO Rev. A networks also don't support simultaneous voice and data, will simply drop data entirely. (Wi-Fi will still work fine.)

Speaking of Wi-Fi, the iPhone 5c has the same 802.11n support on both 2.4 and 5GHz as the iPhone 5, and the same top-of-the-line Bluetooth 4.0 Low-Energy (LE). That'll let you do things like setup an Apple TV with just a tap, and in the near-future, work with iBeacons and other compatible devices.

iPhone 5c FaceTime HD camera

iPhone 5s vs iPhone 5c vs iPhone 5: FaceTime HD selfie shootout!

The iPhone 5c has a bigger, better FaceTime HD camera on the front, which is meant to improve everything from your FaceTime video calls to self-portraits (selfies). That's thanks to a larger 1.9 micron pixels, and a back illuminated sensor (BSI).

In daylight, the iPhone 5c easily holds its own against the iPhone 5s. But then again, so do last year's, less well-equipped iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5. The iPhone 5c has better tonal range, however, as does the iPhone 5s, and that's certainly something. From left to right, top to bottom: iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5, iPod touch 5.

In low-light the difference should be more obvious, and it is. From left to right, top to bottom: iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5, iPod touch 5.

When it comes to video, good lighting once again shows how well even the older FaceTime HD cameras show up. Low-light, however, shows where the iPhone 5s ISP really shines, correcting color to a level beyond what the iPhone 5c can match.

So yes, the iPhone 5c FaceTime HD camera is slightly better than the iPhone 5 or any previous generation iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad before it, especially in low-light. It's not quite as good as the Apple A7-powered iPhone 5s in low-light, but that's to be expected.

iPhone 5c performance and battery life

iPhone 5c performance and battery life

The iPhone 5c has the same Apple A6 processor as last year's iPhone 5. That means it enjoys the same performance as last year's iPhone 5. Half as fast as the new Apple A7, 32-bit instead of 64-bit, ARMv7 instruction set instead of ARMv8, Swift CPU instead of Cyclone, PowerVR SGX543MP3 graphics processor instead of PowerVR Series 6 "Rogue", Open GL ES 2.0 instead of Open GL 3.0, with a less feature-filled image signal processor, no secure enclave for Touch ID (also no Touch ID), and no Apple M7 motion coprocessor, it's still plenty fast and good enough for most people, most of the time.

It can run iOS 7 and run it well, with very few instances of slow down, lag, or glitches of any kind. It can process compress videos for email fast enough, and run complex 3D games well enough. Unless you're a serious alpha geek, or do tons of video or audio crunching on your phone, or want to play the most extreme games in the most extreme way, the iPhone 5c will do you fine.

Here are the perfunctory benchmarks to prove it. In order, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5 results on Geekbench (CPU), SunSpider (JavaScript), and GFXBench (GPU):

When it comes to battery life, in my tests the iPhone 5c on iOS 7 lasted every bit as long for me this week as the iPhone 5 did the week before. I alternated days with the iPhone 5s, which means I've only had 3 days or so of real-world experience, so I'll be using the iPhone 5c more and monitoring it more as the year continues.

I barely ever actually talk on the phone any more, but when I did there was no excessive drain. Nor was there any on standby. I use the internet a lot, for interstitial things like checking messages and continuous things like listening to podcasts and watching videos. In all cases, I never had to reach for the charger until the evening, which is when I had to reach for it with the iPhone 5 as well.

Apple is one of the very few companies that gives dependable battery life numbers, occasional bugs notwithstanding. Expect the iPhone 5c to do what they say it does.

iPhone 5c and iOS 7

The iPhone 5c ships with iOS 7, the latest version of Apple's mobile software and the most significant redesign since the platform first launched in 2007. Almost everything about iOS 7 functions in the same way on the iPhone 5c as it does on any other device, but Apple has added a few flourishes specifically for the iPhone 5c. And yes, they're fun too.

The colors of iOS 7 match the colors of the iPhone 5c. The palettes, by design, match perfectly. From icons to text, software and hardware are completely coordinated.

It might seem silly at first, but if you go to Settings > Wallpaper & Brightness > Choose Wallpaper you'll find both dynamic and still wallpapers to choose from. The dynamic wallpapers are all new. They use iOS 7's new physics and particle engine to fill your screen with colored circles in a variety of sizes that fade in and out. And because your iPhone 5c has motion detection, they'll move as you move, making everything feel more alive. What's more, like the still wallpapers, they're color matched to the iPhone 5c, so you have the same Hulk green, Pikachu yellow, Smurf blue, ower Puff pink, and Space Ghost white as find on the outside casing, along with Batman black just in case you want to match the one color Apple's new iPhone 5c cases come in that the device itself does not.

Thanks to iOS 7, however, it doesn't stop with the wallpaper, dynamic or static. Because so much of iOS 7 is layered on the z-axis, and translucent, it picks up the color of the wallpaper underneath, and even the motion. Swipe over to enter your passcode, and your wallpaper shines through. Pull down Notification Center or Control Center and your wallpaper tints it. Anywhere and everywhere there's a layer, the color comes through.

It doesn't sound like much, but when combined with the color of the iPhone 5c casing, it looks fantastic, and highlights the thought that went into everything about the experience. It's what makes the pop art pop.

There are a lot of other great new features, including a complete physics and particle engine-based redesign that's cleaner if not always clearer, improvements to Siri, a Today screen for Notification Center, the all new Control Center, better multitasking visualization and just-in time background access for all apps, improved Camera and Photos apps, a new Safari browser, AirDrop transfers, and iTunes Radio (U.S. only at the moment).

Particularly interesting for a phone designed to be as popular as the iPhone 5c is the new FaceTime audio feature. Just like iMessage let iPhone owners send messages without going through the carriers and the exorbitant SMS plans, FaceTime audio lets iPhone owners place voice calls the same way they've been placing video calls for the last few years. It works great, thanks to full integration with the iOS Phone app and Contacts system, and it sounds great, thanks to much wider band support than most carriers are equipped to handle.

There's a lot more to iOS 7, however, so make sure you read the full review.

iPhone 5c and apps

Perfect Weather

The iPhone 5c ships with over two-dozen built-in apps, including Messages, Calendar, Photos, Camera, Weather, Clock, Maps, Videos, Notes, Reminders, Stocks, Game Center, Newsstand, iTunes Store, App Store, Passbook, Compass, Settings, Contacts, Calculator, Voice Memos, and FaceTime. Apple also provides numerous free apps on the App Store, including iBooks, Podcasts, iTunes U, Find my iPhone, Apple Store, Find my Friends, Remote, Trailers, AirPort Utility, and the newly-made-free iLife and iWork suites of iMovie and iPhoto, and Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. Also, GarageBand for $4.99.

Google also provides free apps for most of the popular services, including Google Search (with Google Now), Google Maps, Google+, Gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, Google Voice, Hangouts, Chrome, and many, many more. Same with Microsoft with Bing, SkyDrive, PhotoSynth, Office Mobile for Office 365, Kinectimals, and more. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much everyone you can think of are on the App Store as well. Even BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is coming soon. As app support goes, that's pretty much unprecedented.

There are hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps available and the iPhone 5c is compatible with almost all of them. The only potential exceptions software, or features of software, written specifically for the iPhone 5s 64-bit processor, OpenGL 3.0 graphics chip, or M7 motion co-processor.

iPhone 5c services and support

iCloud comes free with every Apple device. On the iPhone 5c it lets you wireless backup your data to Apple's servers, and wirelessly restore it if you ever need to re-install iOS or you switch devices. iCloud also lets you re-download anything you've bought on iTunes, the App Store, or the iBookstore, including music, movies, TV shows, apps, games, and iBooks. Photo Stream keeps recent photos both safe and ubiquitously available, as does Documents in the Cloud with files, and there's even an online version of the iWork suite coming soon to iCloud. There's a free version of the currently U.S.-only iTunes Radio service, as well as the paid iTunes Match music locker service. If you want additional iCloud storage, it's expensive but you can buy it.

Apple Stores, especially when combined with iCloud, whether extended by AppleCare+ or not, provide remarkable customer support for iPhone 5s owners. Apple specialists can help you test a phone to make sure it's what you want, help you set it up, teach you how to use it, and if anything goes wrong, help you fix it. It's a feature not always included on competitive checklists but anyone who's ever needed to avail themselves of it knows just how important a feature it is.

iPhone 5c and accessories

The iPhone 5c isn't compatible with most existing iPhone 5 cases due to its slightly larger size. Especially roomy pouches and bags might work, but those will be the exceptions, not the rules. Apple, however, offers their own set of cases specifically for the iPhone 5c. They're as bright and bold as the phone itself. If... a little croc-ishly, non-ishly awkward. In addition to Hulk green, Smurf blue, Pikachu yellow, Power Puff pink, and Space Ghost white, matched as perfectly as the icons and wallpapers of iOS 7, and as polycarbonate and silicone allow, there's also Batman black. 5 phones times 6 cases allows for 30 colorful combinations. Each case only costs $29, and Apple will happily entice you to get all of them via displays and the iPad smart signs in their stores.

What makes the cases so colorful is that they let the phones shine through. To achieve that they all have large rows and columns of Home button sizes holes in them. 5 by 7 of them, 35 in all, arrayed in a grid pattern. In concept, it's great. It lets a ton of the color beneath shine through. Unfortunately, there's no finesse to them; they let part of the printing shine through as well. Most infamously, "non" or "hon" from the "iPhone" branding. And it's inelegant to the point of being distracting. Leaving a solid band that hid the branding and markings would, perhaps, have lead to a better result.

The soft-touch silicone on the outside looks and feels great. It contrasts not only the hard-coated polycarbonate of the phone itself but coats the smooth, slickness of that surface with far more give and grip. They're an absolute pleasure to hold, and beyond that, a reassurance whenever you put your iPhone 5c down that it won't slide off a sofa or carseat.

After spending 4 days with the blue and yellow cases on my green iPhone 5s, I can't say I'm disappointed with them, but I'm not entirely thrilled with them either. And that's a shame, if only because of what could have been. Fantastic but flawed, inexpensive but not cheap, they're worth getting if you want the complete Apple package, but there'll likely be a ton of better options soon enough.

After snubbing the iPhone 5, Apple also decided to release a dock for the iPhone 5c. If you're familiar with Apple's old iPhone 4/iPhone 4s dock, then you're familiar with the iPhone 5s dock. If not, it's white, it's plastic, it charges via Lightning cable, and there's little else too it.

Other accessories, be they tethered battery chargers, Bluetooth headsets and speakers, toys and remote controlled peripherals, Lightning cables and adapters, screen protectors and stylus pens, should all work fine with the iPhone 5c. Again, the only exceptions will be those dependent on exact case size, like plug-on photo lenses, docks specifically shaped for the iPhone 5, etc. And, of course, the Apple TV works just great.

iPhone 5c pricing and availability

The iPhone 5c comes in two capacities, 16GB and 32GB. On contract, with full subsidy, those are typically $99 and $199 in the U.S. Off contract, full price, those are typically $549 and $649.

It's currently available in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore and the U.K. from Apple, carriers, and authorized resellers. Additional countries and carriers will launch in the coming weeks and Apple has announced they'll be blanketing the earth with the iPhone 5c, as usual, by year's end.

iPhone 5c buyers guide

All phones are becoming smart, and there are so many decent ones on the market now, it can be tough to figure out which one gives you the most value for your time and money. Should the iPhone 5c be your first phone? Should you switch to the iPhone 5c from Android, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry? Should you upgrade to the iPhone 5c from an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 or iPhone 4s? Is there any reason why you'd even consider upgrading from an iPhone 5?

If you decide the iPhone 5c will be your next phone, there's still the matter of color, capacity, carrier, and more. No matter where you are on your decision path, the 2013 iMore iPhone buyers guide can help:

If you have specific questions:

iPhone 5c bottom line

For the last few years, whenever Apple has introduced a new, flagship iPhone, they've kept the previous year's model around, dropped its price by $100, and made it their middle-ground. No longer, The 2013 iPhone 5c may sport mostly 2012 iPhone 5 guts, and it may sit in that same $100 off slot, but the first time, it's a first-class member of the product lineup. It's new, even if every part inside it isn't. That's a big change to how Apple handles the iPhone market, and if the iPhone 5c latches onto the mainstream market, if it becomes the popular iPhone I expect it to become, then it's also a very smart one.

I'll admit it, I like the iPhone 5c more than I thought I would. After using it non-stop last weekend, I missed it when I switched to the iPhone 5s. I missed its color. I missed its feel. The iPhone 5s screams premium, all gorgeously metallic and scorchingly fast. But the iPhone 5c really is fun. When I put it down, that's what I missed. And when I switched back to it on alternate days, that's what I enjoyed.

I'm a geek and my brain is all-in on the iPhone 5s. But a little piece of my heart is with the 5c. If a non-geek member of my family were asking for a recommendation, the iPhone 5c would more than likely be it. My mother, a history of art and architecture professor, iPad and flip-phone user, has already seen the commercials and expressed her interest. Colorful, she said. Fun, she said. Warhol, she said. I know just exactly what she means.

The iPhone 5c isn't the greatest iPhone on the market today. It isn't the most powerful, the fastest, or the most cutting edge. It lacks forward thinking technology like the souped up iSight camera, Apple A7 and M7 processors, and Touch ID fingerprint identification sensor. All of those things scream future. They scream cool. But for many people, for mainstream people, for first time smartphone or any phone buyers, for people who are slightly more price sensitive but who also have a certain vibe and vibrance to their tastes - for those people the iPhone 5c might not be the greatest iPhone on the market today, but it just might be the best.

Ally Kazmucha, Richard Devine, Peter Cohen, Georgia, Anthony, and Joe Keller contributed photography, videography, research, testing, and/or large amounts of time and effort to this review.

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.