At first blush, the iPhone 5c looks a bit like the iPhone 5 had a baby with the plastic-backed iPhone 3GS. It’s the size and shape of the iPhone 5—long and thin—just a hair bigger in every direction, and about 20 grams heavier. And it marks the first time that the iPhone comes in anything beyond black and white: You can pick up an iPhone 5c in pink, yellow, blue, green, or white—if you’re a fan of black, you’ll probably want to look to the iPhone 5s.
The polycarbonate shell is, of course, the most obvious change. It’s crafted from a single piece of plastic, and—as Apple design maven Jonathan Ive said in a video played during the Apple media event introducing the phone—you won’t find a single seam or joint in the unibody-style design. (It reminded us of nothing so much as the final edition of the white polycarbonate MacBook.)
The iPhone 5c feels good in the hand: It’s got a nice, solid build, without seeming heavy. Whereas Apple bragged about the diamond-cut chamfers on the 5 and 5s, the iPhone 5c features curved edges that feel a little more comfortable to hold. Between the hard plastic case and the metal frame underneath it, the entire phone feels solid, and not cheap.
The volume buttons, the Ring/Silent switch, and the On/Off switch are all made out of colored plastic; in our admittedly brief hands-on time, they too seemed to have the high build-quality you’d expect from Apple, without any looseness or wiggling. (Here’s a free piece of trivia: Only one iPhone 5c doesn’t show you an orange line when you flip the Ring/Silent switch to mute—the pink version, which instead displays a white line. The orange line likely lacked the contrast necessary to be useful on the salmon-hued model.)
The polycarbonate surface is grippy, and the colors are bright and vibrant. A single piece of glass fronts the phone, just as on the iPhone 5 and 5s, and you get just the slightest hint of the color when viewing the device from the front. If nothing else, that may make things easier in multi-iPhone households, preventing you from accidentally picking up somebody else’s device.
Apple has heavily emphasized its new case for the iPhone 5c. Made from silicone, it has a soft microfiber interior and button overlays for the On/Off and volume buttons, as well as holes for the Ring/Silent switch, and then more holes all over the back.
In our limited time using it, we weren’t really big fans of the case. There are several problems: Those rear holes do the job of letting through the color of the iPhone 5c underneath, allowing you to mix and match colors (say, a blue case with a bright green iPhone 5c showing through). Unfortunately, they also show a dismaying inattention to detail: They allow various bits of text imprinted upon the rear of the iPhone to peek through in dopey ways. With an iPhone 5c case on, the iPhone’s back looks as though it's imprinted with “non” or “hon”—the parts of the word “iPhone” that fit within the cutouts. And the FCC-related text looks even worse in the glimpses that the holes afford.
We’re not sure what the ideal solution would have been, but it likely would involve either moving the text or moving the holes. As is, the overall effect is sloppy.
Also, we noticed that the holes on the back tended to collect a decent amount of dust and schmutz. Between the ridges of each cutout and the microfiber lining the case, those holes seemed like significant dirt attractors. We also noted that the cases actually seemed to hold onto (and thus show) distinctly more finger cruft than the polycarbonate iPhone 5c shells themselves. That is, while the case feels like a dirt magnet, in our limited experience, the naked iPhone 5c units on display seemed much cleaner. Apple’s press representatives frequently wipe down handheld devices at press hands-on gatherings like this one—but that cleaning process is usually limited to device touchscreens. At this event, the reps continually wiped down the iPhone 5c cases themselves as well.
One appealing aspect of the cases, though, was the ability to mix and match the colors. The two-tone effect that you get from combining case and phone is nice, and lends an element of personalization. (Apple says that it expects customers to buy more than one and swap them out according to their mood—we’re not sure we’d go that far, but at least there’s the option.)