Apple's iPhone just got a splash of color. While it has the same internal components as last year's iPhone 5, the new iPhone 5c comes wrapped in a brightly colored plastic shell. Available for $99 in one of five bold hues, the 5c also runs iOS 7, Apple's equally colorful operating system, which is more functional than its predecessor. Overall, the iPhone 5c is easily one of the top smartphones selling for less than $100.
Many times, when a smartphone has a plastic back, it feels cheap: it flexes, picks up fingerprints easily and generally seems like it won't last the length of your contract. Not so with the iPhone 5c. Reinforced with a steel frame that also acts as an antenna, the 5c feels durable. It's not the kind of premium feature you get with the metal 5s, but this handset still doesn't scream "budget."
And it's colorful! Re-embracing a trend the company started with the iMac 15 years ago, Apple offers the iPhone 5c in five colors: Blue, Green, Pink, White and Yellow. Those choices don't approach the multitude of options available for the Motorola Moto X, but there's plenty of variety for the majority of consumers. Cleverly, the default background image on the phone's screen matches the device's exterior.
If you want to further customize the 5c, Apple also offers six cases (in Blue, Green, Pink, White, Yellow and Black) for $29 each, which complement or contrast with the color of the 5c itself. We're not fans of the way the holes look on the back of the case, but some may not mind.
The bottom of the 5c has one speaker port, along with its Lightning connector and 3.5-mm headphone jack.
At 4.9 x 2.33 x 0.35 inches and weighing 4.65 ounces, the iPhone 5c is slightly larger and thicker than the iPhone 5s (4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3 inches) and 0.7 ounces heavier. The Motorola Droid Mini (4.81 x 2.41 x 0.35 inches) is slightly wider but a touch lighter, at 4.5 ounces. While a larger 5.2 x 2.5 x 0.36 inches, the aluminum-bodied HTC One Mini is a lighter 4.4 ounces.
It was leading the pack last year, but the 4-inch, 1136 x 640-pixel display on the iPhone 5c is not only smaller, but also offers lower resolution than the competition. With 326 pixels per inch, the 5c's screen falls short of the Droid Mini and One Mini, both of which have 4.3-inch, 1280 x 720 screens with 341 ppi.
Still, we found that movies, games and Web pages all rendered well on the iPhone 5c's display. Thor's crimson cape was richly saturated, and we could make out the detailed scrollwork in Asgard while watching "Thor: The Dark World."
With a brightness of 505 lux, the iPhone 5c's display is about 100 lux brighter than the smartphone average (397 lux) and also well above the HTC One Mini (422 lux). But the Droid Mini was far brighter, at 540 lux.
Although it has only one speaker on the bottom, audio from the iPhone 5c sounded just as good as the iPhone 5. U2's "Beautiful Day" rang out clearly, and there was a sufficient amount of bass, even though this is a smartphone. However, the speaker's placement can be problematic if you're holding the phone in landscape mode. When playing games such as "Infinity Blade III," we often covered the speaker with our right index finger, completely blocking all sound.
The iPhone 5c's keyboard has a slightly different look with iOS 7. It's just as accurate as before, but with a thinner font. One small annoyance is the vague indication when caps lock is on: the arrow on the key goes from an outline to being filled in. We'd much rather see the letters on the keys themselves change. Also, there's no Swype-like tracing option or predictive text function, as you'll find on Android keyboards.
The biggest change in the iPhone 5c isn't the hardware; it's the software. The new, minimalist look of iOS 7 replaces the previous system's visual metaphors -- like the leather background in the Calendar app or wood paneling in the Newsstand. This provides a more basic, but less hokey look. It's a welcome refresh for an interface that was feeling dated.
New function accompanies the new form, too. A Control Center, activated by swiping up from the bottom, gives you quick access to settings such as Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi and music, as well as the camera, calculator, flashlight and timer apps. Too bad you can't add your own shortcuts here, too.
Swipe down from the top of the screen to open the updated Notification Center, which shows missed Tweets, Facebook updates and email, as well as weather and stock updates. We wish, though, that you could respond to messages from here, instead of having to open the corresponding app.
Another feature prompts the question, "Why bump when you can AirDrop?" Like its OS X version, this feature lets you wirelessly transfer files between iOS 7 devices using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. We transferred a photo from one phone to another in less than a second. However, we just wish we could use this feature to send files to our Mac as well.
In all, iOS 7 is a welcome update, but Apple still needs to catch up to Android in a few areas. For example, we wish we could open two apps side by side and add apps to the lock screen. We'd also like icons that were more interactive (like on Windows Phone 8).
MORE: iOS 7 Full Review
The iPhone 5c has essentially the same components as last year's iPhone 5 -- Apple's A6 processor -- so it wasn't surprising that the two turned in similar scores on our benchmark tests.
On Geekbench, the iPhone 5c's score of 1,281 was below the smartphone average of 1,806, but bested the Droid Mini (1,253) and the HTC One Mini (838).
On the graphics test 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme, the iPhone 5c's score of 3,312 was less than half that of the Droid Mini (6,922) and well below the average of 5,240, but beat the One Mini (2,475) by a fair margin.
The 5c was responsive when we were opening and closing apps, or playing movies and games. Our playthrough of "Infinity Blade III" was smooth, and the 5c kept up with our sword slashes and parries. However, the phone loaded the game in an average of 21.1 seconds, about 7 seconds slower than the iPhone 5s (13.6 seconds).
Just as with the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5c's 8-MP camera took excellent photos. We especially like the HDR mode, which exposed both a black boat in the foreground and a bright, blue sky. While some of the detail in the boat was lost, we could still make out its features, as well as the boats and sky in the background.
A 1080p video shot of passing boats on the Hudson River was crisp; we could make out plenty of details in the Manhattan skyline. But the microphone picked up nothing but wind noise. We do like that Apple added a second shutter button, so you can take still shots while recording video.
While the iPhone 5c has the same camera as the iPhone 5, the iOS 7's camera app got a makeover. A large shutter button at the bottom sites beneath four shooting modes: Photo, Video, Pano and Square. To the right of the shutter, you'll find another icon that you can use to choose from eight different filters, a la Instagram. However, the 5c lacks the slo-mo video recording and the burst mode found in the 5s.
In addition to the interface, Apple also gave the minimalist treatment to its homegrown apps. Safari has a nifty new Tabs view, which is reminiscent of CoverFlow, and a unified search and URL bar. With iTunes Radio, you can stream music (similar to Pandora), choosing from more than 300 stations, or creating your own. Even the Compass app has a sleeker look, and now includes a built-in level that's a model of efficient app-design.
MORE: 25 Best iPhone 5c Apps
Kudos to Apple for making its suite of productivity and multimedia apps free. You can now get iMovie, Keynote, Pages, iPhoto and Numbers at no cost. While you're probably not going to create many spreadsheets on the 5c's screen, it's nice to know you can edit your work on the go and have everything synced up via iCloud and ready for you when you get back to your desk.
Siri now gives you the choice of male or female voices; the app now also checks what people are saying on Twitter and uses both Wikipedia and Bing as sources for searches. Siri can also activate features, such as Wi-Fi or Airplane mode. Doing this takes a touch longer than just going to the Control Center, but it's nice to have options.
Apple's App Store not only looks sleeker with the iOS 7 update, but also offers new ways to discover the hundreds of thousands of apps available for the iPhone. The new Kids section lets you shop for apps by age or collection (like Shapes & Colors).
The App Store can also leverage your location. When we tapped Near Me in our office, the list of apps that appeared included a number of public transit apps. No, the Maps app still doesn't have subway or bus routes.
In the downtown section of Jersey City, N.J., we saw excellent throughput on Verizon's LTE network. When we used Speedtest.net, the iPhone 5c averaged 13.6 Mbps downloads, with highs of 25.79Mbps and a low of 5.38 Mbps. Uploads were fairly good, too, averaging 3 Mbps, with a high of 4.78 Mbps and a low of 1.2 Mbps.
In New York City, however, the 5c didn't deliver 4G-like results. In the Flatiron District, this phone averaged a measly 1.6 Mbps for downloads and 0.18 Mbps for uploads.
Using the Laptop Battery Test iOS app, which simulates Web surfing via LTE with the screen at 40 percent brightness, the iPhone 5c lasted 6 hours and 21 minutes. This score is slightly higher than the category average of 6:16, but much better than competing phones. The HTC One Mini lasted 5:38 on AT&T's network, and the Droid Mini lasted 5:04 on Verizon.
In addition to the five color options, consumers can purchase the iPhone 5c with 16GB of storage for $99, or 32GB of storage for $199. As with all of Apple's phones, the storage is not expandable.
The $99 iPhone 5c represents a shift in strategy for Apple. Before now, the company released just one new phone a year. Now, you can choose from the higher-end iPhone 5s, which costs $100 more up front, but features a much faster processor and better camera. Or you can choose the iPhone 5c, which comes with the same screen and processor, and at the same price, as the iPhone 5 -- also still available on Verizon for $99 (at least for now).
Like last year's model, the iPhone 5c is an excellent smartphone. And while its display is not as high-res as the Droid Mini's or HTC One Mini's, the new iPhone outlasted both those phones on our battery test. Overall, the iPhone 5c is a smartphone that combines good looks, a slick OS and a top-notch app selection, making it one of our favorite sub-$100 smartphones.