iPhone 5c review: The no-brainer upgrade for iPhone 4 or 4s

Apple iPhone 5C

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At a Glance
  • Apple iPhone 5c

When a new device comes out, it’s only natural to compare it to its immediate predecessor: Does this thing do something new the last thing couldn’t do? It’s a measuring stick, a way to put the new device into context. And when we’re talking iPhones, it’s a perfectly standard practice.

But I think that comparing the iPhone 5c only to the model it replaces would be a mistake.

In part that's because the 5c so closely matches the specs and features of its predecessor, last year’s iPhone 5. (Apple’s other 2013-model phone, the iPhone 5s, received the more compelling feature upgrades.) But it’s also because of how people buy smartphones in an era of two-year commitments to carriers. If you signed away 24 months of your life to the likes of AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint last fall for an iPhone 5, a color change and an improved front-facing camera probably aren't enough to get you to reevaluate things one spin around the sun later.

On the other hand, if you have an iPhone 4 or 4s—or God help you, a smartphone running an operating system other than iOS—the circumstances are very different. If that's your situation, you'll be intrigued by the promise of a full-featured phone with a more-than-reasonable price tag. And not coincidentally, you're exactly the type of person Apple has built the iPhone 5c for.

Color me impressed

Returning to the comfort of iPhone 5-versus-iPhone 5c comparisons for a moment, you can spot the most noticeable change in the newer model instantly: Apple has injected more than a bit of color into the iPhone’s previously black-and-white world. You can opt for the 5c in blue, green, pink, yellow, or white.

Image: Robert Cardin

Color is a personal preference, obviously. But I find the iPhone 5c’s array of colors stylish—bright without being garish, distinctive without making the phone look like a toy. That’s consistent with Apple’s philosophy: Consider the rainbow’s worth of iPod nanos that came out of Cupertino over the years, extending the appeal of Apple’s money-making music player. And in an especially Apple-esque touch, the iPhone 5c’s lock screen and wallpaper, by default, match the color of the phone’s exterior. You can change that if you’re the sort of person who dislikes pretty things, but I'm a fan—especially of the wallpaper option that adds dynamic movement to the colors in the background.

The 5c has a new feel to go with its new look: This model replaces the metal-and-glass materials of other iPhones with a hard-coated polycarbonate shell. That’s a fancy way of saying “plastic,” but it doesn't mean you’re getting some flimsy phone that will fall apart at the first touch. The iPhone 5c feels durable and sturdy; that may be because steel reinforcement underlies the colorful surface. I certainly find the 5c easier to grip than older models, including my ridged iPhone 4. (And that’s a good thing: As the cracks in my aging iPhone 4's screen will attest, gripping an iPhone is not among my core competencies.)

The 5c feels heavier than the iPhone 5, too—and it is, at 4.65 ounces to the 5’s 3.95. Again, though, the extra weight is not necessarily a bad thing. I always found the iPhone 5 a little too light for my tastes, as if lifting it up would cause it to fly out of my hand. The 5c's extra half-ounce of heft makes it feel less fragile than its polycarbonate shell might suggest.

And not that I go around smashing new phones the minute I have them in hand, but I can offer some anecdotal evidence that the polycarbonate shell can withstand some rough treatment. The evidence comes courtesy of my two-year-old daughter who, upon seeing the iPhone 5c, declared “That’s my phone,” grabbed it, and ran off. Two-year-olds are not generally known for their careful handling of mobile devices, and indeed, the iPhone 5c took a few terrifying tumbles toward the ground. All I can say is that Apple choose the 5c’s material well: The back casing of the phone looks none the worse for wear, maintaining its bright blue sheen.

Image: Robert Cardin

I wouldn’t argue that you don’t need a case to protect your iPhone 5c, though it does seem a shame to cover up the phone’s colorful new back. If you decide that the additional protection is worth the loss in aesthetic appeal, though, you'll probably be able to find better third-party offerings than the $29 cases Apple offers as an option for the 5c. Apple's case colors don’t feel as vibrant as the colors adorning the phone itself, and Apple’s decision to put an array of holes on the back of the protective case is...curious.

Networks and cameras

The iPhone 5c offers more compatibility with different flavors of LTE cellular networks than the iPhone 5 does—13 in all, according to Apple, which is more than any other smartphone in the world (except for the 5s, of course). Admittedly, it’s an improvement that doesn’t exactly fire the imagination; but if you’re jumping from a previous generation of the iPhone as I am, you’ll be impressed with the faster, Wi-Fi–like speeds of LTE when browsing the Web or consuming streaming media on the go. (You'll be less thrilled with the faster clip at you which you go through your allotted data when using LTE, however.)

Even with added LTE compatibility, you should pay attention to which network carriers provide the best coverage in the places where you plan to use your iPhone 5c, and choose your provider accordingly. My home, for example, occupies a tract of land that is impervious to AT&T’s network coverage, so I’ll be taking my business elsewhere for the next two years.

That leaves the front-facing camera for the iPhone 5c as the only notable hardware upgrade relative to the iPhone 5. The 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera shoots 1280-by-960-pixel images and records 720p HD video; it also performs better than the iPhone 5's camera in low-light situations and delivers larger pixels. Overall, you’ll get slightly sharper pictures than you would with the front-facing camera in the 5—and it’s not even fair to compare the 5c's camera to the VGA versions found in the iPhone 4 and 4s. That’s good news for self-portrait enthusiasts, as the shots of the handsome gentleman below will attest.

From left to right, self-portraits shot with the front-facing camera on an iPhone 4, iPhone 5, and iPhone 5c show a progressive improvement in resolution.

You’ll also use that improved FaceTime camera to beam images of yourself during video calls to family and friends. In my testing, I found the improvement negligible: That video of my smiling face has to be compressed before traveling across a network to whoever’s on the other end of the line, and I think they’d have a hard time telling whether I’m calling from an iPhone 5 or a 5c. That said, the 5c’s capabilities in lower-light settings could prove handy here.

One of these FaceTime images (right) is being beamed to my colleague Roman Loyola from an iPhone 5 and the other from an iPhone 5c (left), but I’d be hard-pressed to spot much of a difference.

As for the other camera on the iPhone 5c, it’s the same 8-megapixel iSight camera you’ll find on the iPhone 5. That may not excite current iPhone 5 owners, but it’s very exciting if you’re still getting by with an older phone. My iPhone 4, for example, has a perfectly adequate 5-megapixel rear-facing camera that produces fine images—but take the same shot with an iPhone 5c, and you’ll end up with a much more detailed final product.

This photo, shot with an iPhone 4’s 5-megapixel camera, is all right...
... but the same picture shot from an iPhone 5c camera is a little bit better.

Because your smartphone camera is always close to hand, it’s the one you’re most likely to use. Upgrading to an iPhone 5c from an earlier iPhone will mean better pictures.

Peak performer

Internally, the iPhone 4 I’ve carried around the past few years hasn’t changed at all; however, the software I’m running on it has. Operating systems get updated. Mobile apps add new features. And that means a phone that could handle anything two years ago now shows its age.

That’s one of the more compelling reasons for iPhone 4 and 4s users to consider an iPhone 5c upgrade: The new phone will deliver a noticeable performance boost without costing as much as the iPhone 5s.

The iPhone 5c runs on the same A6 processor that powers the iPhone 5. In our benchmark tests, those two models turned in comparable performance. The iPhone 5 tallied a slightly better Geekbench 3 score than the 5c and edged it in SunSpider JavaScript tests as well. Still, those differences, as well as the nearly identical scores for the iPhone 5 and 5c in GFXBench testing, can be filed under Close Enough for Government Work.

But compare the iPhone 5c's numbers to those for the iPhone 4 and 4s. The iPhone 5c’s Geekbench 3 scores roughly triple the iPhone 4s’s. The 5c completed the SunSpider JavaScript test in about half the time the 4s took. The new phone dramatically bested the 4s on GFXBench for graphics, too.

Geekbench 3 (Single-Core Score)
  • iPhone 5s 1393.0
  • iPhone 5c 671.0
  • iPhone 5 723.0
  • iPhone 4S 217.0
  • iPhone 4 213.0
  • HTC One 591.0
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 667.0

Higher scores/longer bars are better.

Geekbench 3 (Multicore Score)
  • iPhone 5s 2485.0
  • iPhone 5c 1180.0
  • iPhone 5 1302.0
  • iPhone 4S 412.0
  • iPhone 4210.0
  • HTC One 1507.0
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 1862.0

Higher scores/longer bars are better.

SunSpider 1.0.1
  • iPhone 5s 454.0
  • iPhone 5c 715.6
  • iPhone 5 707.6
  • iPhone 4S 1573.1
  • iPhone 4 2682.9
  • HTC One 1117.4
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 1210.5

Lower scores/shorter bars are better.

GFXBench 2.7 (T-Rex C24Z16 offscreen)
  • iPhone 5s 25.0
  • iPhone 5c 6.8
  • iPhone 5 6.8
  • iPhone 4S 2.8
  • .0.4 (iPhone 4)
  • HTC One 15.0
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 15.0

Results are in frames per second. Higher scores/longer bars are better.

If those numbers mean little to you, consider this anecdotal evidence. Games that push the processor of my iPhone 4 to its limit perform without a hitch on the iPhone 5c. Ski Safari, a thoroughly enjoyable side-scrolling game, stutters on my iPhone 4 as the phone struggles to keep up with the endless action; it runs flawlessly on the 5c. I had stopped playing one of my favorite shoot-’em-ups, Zombie Gunship, because the torpid action on the iPhone 4 had made the game essentially unplayable; on the iPhone 5c, I’m back to panning easily around the screen, looking for zombies to blast back to kingdom come.

Battery boost

The improved performance doesn’t come at the expense of battery life. With my iPhone 4, I’ve found that keeping the phone charged until I leave for work in the morning usually gives it enough juice to last until I get home in the evening. I’ve found the same to be true of the iPhone 5c, during my limited time with it, though it seems to have a little more juice left at the end of the day.

Battery Life Looping Video
  • iPhone 5s 11:03
  • iPhone 5c 10:19
  • iPhone 5 9:37
  • iPhone 4S 8:31
  • HTC One 6:44
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 7:01

Higher times/longer bars are better.

Our lab testing bears out my experience. In our looping video test, the 5c hung on for 10 hours, 19 minutes—42 minutes longer than the iPhone 5 and 1 hour, 48 minutes longer than the iPhone 4s. Notably, the Android-based HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 conked out after 6 hours, 44 minutes and 7 hours, 1 minute, respectively, in this test.

Price points

Of course, no one clings to an aging smartphone because of an extreme partiality for all things 2010. Rather, they just want to get the most out of their dollar, and upgrading to every latest-and-greatest smartphone doesn’t fit into that game plan. So this time around, Apple figured out a way to appeal to the frugal technophile: Come out with a phone that offers slightly fewer state-of-the-art features in exchange for a significantly lower price tag.

The 16GB iPhone 5c costs $99—$100 less than you'd have paid for an iPhone 5 when it debuted in 2012 and $100 less than you'd pay for a similar-size iPhone 5s today. A 32GB iPhone 5c gets a comparably discounted $199 price tag. (Alas, if you want a 64GB phone, you’ll have to pony up for a 5s.)

This arrangement is a slight departure from Apple’s previous discount phone policy, in which it would offer the previous year’s model for a lower price. A nitpicker might argue that the iPhone 5c is last year’s model, save for the colorful new look and improved FaceTime camera. We can debate about the number of feature angels dancing on the heads of discounted iPhones, or we can simply acknowledge that, for many owners of an iPhone 4s or older, a $99 iPhone 5c with most of the features of its pricier counterpart is new enough.

Bottom line

When the history of Apple’s 2013 iPhone-a-palooza is written, the iPhone 5c will inevitably be viewed as the opening act to the iPhone 5s’s headliner. But anyone who chooses the more colorful iPhone will hardly care. The iPhone 5c’s compelling mixture of features, performance, and price is likely to persuade people with older models to upgrade. And it’s an appealing, lower-cost option that should attract disaffected Android and Windows Phone users to the iOS fold.

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At a Glance
  • The iPhone 5c offers enough new features at an attractive enough price to make it an affordable upgrade to anyone who still owns a iPhone 4 or 4s.


    • 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera
    • Dramatically better performance than iPhone 4 and 4s
    • Better battery life than previous models


    • Colored plastic case may not be to everyone's liking
    • Not a dramatic change from iPhone 5
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