Two iPhones Diverged…

What I’m about to say may be considered blasphemy amongst a certain group of my peers: I think I like the iPhone 5c more than the iPhone 5s.

This unexpected revelation came about as I’ve been testing both devices this past week. Like others, I figured I wouldn’t pay much mind to the iPhone 5c since it’s largely the same device as the iPhone 5 just in a new shell (with a few other minor differences as well). But I kept finding myself being drawn back to using it. It’s just so well done.

To be clear, I still expect that I’ll be purchasing an iPhone 5s when these review units go back to Apple and once the hoopla dies down around the gold iPhone and they’re actually available. But that’s only because the iPhone is the device I use the most in my life — by far. And I want to make sure that I’m completely optimized for speed and efficiency going forward. And that’s what the iPhone 5s is all about.

Still, the iPhone 5c is a thing of beauty. And I didn’t expect to feel that way.

Apple gave me both a “Space Gray” iPhone 5s and a blue iPhone 5c to try out. This isn’t meant to be a full review — for that, check out Darrell’s 5s, 5c, and iOS 7 reviews. Instead, I thought I’d just share my general thoughts on using both devices.


The iPhone 5c

Following Apple’s unveiling of the two new iPhones a couple weeks ago, I wrote that the iPhone 5c seemed like the phone Jony Ive wanted to create for his first stab at software, iOS 7. After having used the device extensively, I now feel even more strongly that this is the case.

The iPhone 5c and iOS 7 are perfect together. The obvious connection is the colorful coating on both the software and the hardware. But it feels beyond superficial. The fact that the color wraps around the hardware to surface itself around the edges of the familiar front plate is a seemingly little touch that matters. This is something you will stare at day-in and day-out — much more so than the back of the device.

While the back color you select may be about outward expression, this front-facing outer ring of color gives the device personality. Previous iterations of the iPhone have been all about letting everything front-facing take a backseat to the screen. That’s not the case here for the first time.

And that’s even more true when you turn the device on. Apple has pre-loaded a colored wallpaper that matches the color of the iPhone 5c you’ve chosen. Again, a little thing, but important in giving this device more personality than any iPhone to come before it. (You can, of course, change this wallpaper later to whatever you choose.)

After a brief period of hands-on time with the iPhone 5c after the launch event, I tweeted that I thought the side buttons seemed a little “janky”. I was wrong about that. They are plastic, and as such, undoubtedly cheaper than the buttons found on the iPhone 5s, but in no way are they chintzy-feeling. They’re strong and firm. And there is no discernible gaps around them. They seem one with the body of the device.

And unlike the buttons on the 5s, these buttons match the elongated shape of the mute slider. They also mirror the shape of the SIM tray on the other side of the device. And the shape of the speaker on the front of the device. They perfectly match the power button at the top of the device. And they even more closely resemble the shape of the Lightning port at the bottom of the device. The same cannot be said of the circular volume buttons on the iPhone 5s.

Even after the iPhone 5c was revealed to not actually be all that cheap, there was concern that the use of plastic would make the device seem cheap. If you hold this device for a few seconds, you won’t feel that way. It is plastic, but it doesn’t feel plastic-y. To get a better sense of that, try holding the container that the iPhone 5c comes in — which is very plastic-y — and compare it to the plastic of the phone. One feels cheap, the other feels solid. The 5c feels more like an extremely well-polished stone — one you might skip on a river. (Accentuated by the fact that the smoothness of the front of the device now feels similar to the smoothness of the back of the device.)

To that end, in my opinion, the 5c feels better in your hand than the 5s (or iPhone 5, 4S, 4, etc). It’s more similar to holding an old iPhone 3GS or 3G, which also had a plastic back, but it feels better than those devices. The 5c has a flatter back versus the more curved back of the 3G and 3GS. So that aspect is more similar to the design of the last few generations of the iPhone, but with smooth, curved edges. By comparison, the iPhone 5s feels downright industrial. Or almost like a weapon.

Certainly, some people will like the feel of the iPhone 5s more, it’s just a matter of taste. It’s cold aluminum and straight lines versus extremely polished plastic and curves. Interestingly enough, the iPod touch now seems to fit as an exact combination of the two: the cold aluminum of the 5s with the curves (and chiclet buttons) of the 5c. Side-by-side-by-side, it remains incredible just how thin the iPod touch is.

Prior to the announcement, Ben Thompson wrote that we may be getting a cheaper iPhone now because the iPhone 5 hardware was finally “good enough”. Cheapness debate aside, I believe he was right about the hardware aspect — the iPhone 5 hardware, now inside the iPhone 5c does still feel fast enough.

Having owned and used every iteration of the device, I distinctly recall the great performance gains of iPhones past. Some speed upgrades were more pronounced than others (I still think iPhone 3G-to-iPhone 3GS may have been the biggest jump), but this feels like the smallest leap yet.

I know that on paper, the gains are supposed to be fairly substantial (2x CPU). And perhaps it’s just a matter of apps not yet being tailored to take advantage of the new A7 chip and/or the 64-bit architecture. But using the 5s and the 5c side-by-side, there simply doesn’t seem to be a huge speed difference. Apps open slightly faster on the 5s and content loads a bit faster. But it’s not as noticeable of an upgrade as it once was.

That’s one reason why I find myself happy with the iPhone 5c. With previous upgrades, once I started using the faster iPhone, it was beyond annoying to switch back to the slower, elder version. This past week I’ve been switching between the 5s and the 5c regularly without noticing much difference in normal usage.


The iPhone 5s

The killer feature of the 5s is, of course, Touch ID. I said it immediately after a bit of hands-on time, and it remains true using it regularly: the feature works really, really, really well. It’s one of those things that works so well that it seems obvious now that many devices will have it in the future. And I often find myself using another iPhone device (like the 5c) and trying to trigger Touch ID by holding my finger on the home button, only to realize I’m not using the 5s. (It’s similar to the phenomenon where I now regularly go to touch the screen on my MacBook after using the iPad for extended periods of time.)

In the least surprising news of the year, hackers have already been attacking the security of the feature and have found some ways to get around it. Newsflash: the only way to have a truly, 100 percent secure smartphone is to not have one at all. Touch ID still seems like a significant security upgrade over the most-used alternative: nothing.

More importantly to me, Touch ID makes unlocking your iPhone and buying content on iTunes and the App Store so much faster. And so much less annoying. It’s brilliant. I’m still in disbelief of how well it works given how many other companies have tried and failed in this arena in the past. But that’s the M.O. of Apple: taking others’ mediocrity and turning it into something spectacular.

I hope that once the faux controversy over the Touch ID hacking blows over, that Apple can come up with a secure way to allow third parties to use the feature for passwords within other apps as well. And maybe down the road there will be something interesting to do here with payments. Though that would be just asking to take the current “controversy” and multiply it by about a trillion. But certainly some of what Apple has in store with iCloud Keychain seems to align well…

The other key upgrade (because again, I don’t view the speed as a major upgrade — at least not yet) of the 5s is the camera. Honestly, it’s hard to tell on the small screen how much improvement the larger pixels in the new camera offer. It’s easier to see when you move these images over to something like iPhoto. But the real key difference seems to be in low-light situations.

The new two-tone flash is clearly a big upgrade over the LED flash found on the iPhone 5 (and now 5c). But I rarely use a flash in any picture I take except if it’s by accident, which happens all the time when I download a new app with picture-taking capabilities (thanks developers).

The best part of the new camera is the “Slo-Mo” feature. Again, slow motion capture isn’t anything new, but Apple does it so well here. The result are videos that look professionally edited. Or, at the very least, videos that are significantly more interesting than your usual playing-fetch-with-the-dog captures.

Burst mode is cool too.

Having gotten the Space Gray model, I will say that it seems like an improvement over the previous black iPhone 5. I never really liked how it wasn’t fully black — presumably because it’s hard to color aluminum to be fully black. Space Gray is much lighter than the faux black of old and it looks better as a result.

It also seems like Apple was able to fix the issue where the chamfered sides of the black iPhone 5 would get chipped relatively easily, causing them to turn silver. This looked awful. I haven’t had this device long enough to know for sure if that’s been resolved, but it appears that at the very least it will be less of an issue.


In case

One more point goes to the iPhone 5c versus the iPhone 5s when it comes to the cases available for each. The 5c cases simply seem better in every way, in my opinion.

I was given a brown leather case for the 5s and a pink silicone case for the 5c. Not only are the 5c cases more visually appealing when paired with their colorful counterparts, they’re significantly easier to slip on and off. Getting the 5s case off of the device is a lesson in frustration. It reminds me of the one-size-too-small cases Amazon likes to sell alongside the Kindles.

The right way to make a case is the way Apple has done it with the 5c. It’s easy to get on and off and it adds something beyond protection thanks to the fun color schemes. My only quibble is that the dots on the back of the case extend too far down, revealing not only the “iPhone” wording on the device, but the FCC markings. It’s sort of a sloppy oversight. I would much prefer that the bottom three rows of dots be removed (with perhaps one additional row added above the current top row — though that may show the bottom of the Apple logo).

I also love the way the color of the 5c peeks out from beneath the case around the front of the device, leaving the smallest hint of the color of the device mixed with the color of the case. A classic Apple design touch.

I will say that the leather case for the 5s, while not exactly my cup of tea, did manage to save my device from a nasty fall. It tore up the upper right corner of the leather, but largely protected the device itself (there are a couple minor scuffs along the bottom chamfered edge). So yes, these things do serve a purpose beyond cosmetics and giving Apple yet another product with insanely high margins.


The Divergence

Following the unveiling of the new iPhones, one interesting thought that surfaced quickly was the notion that perhaps the iPhone 5c is the new baseline product for regular consumers and the iPhone 5s is the new “Pro” model for users with more advanced needs. Certainly, Apple’s own marketing for the devices suggest this as well — “Forward thinking.

While using the 5c and the 5s at the same time, I kept coming back to this thought. To me, the 5s now seems like an aluminum MacBook Pro while the 5c seems like one of the old white plastic MacBooks. (Or, if you want to go back even further, a PowerBook versus an iBook.) The 5c feels more approachable — we’ll see if the sales pan out that way. While Apple isn’t (and likely won’t be) giving any detailed breakdowns of sales, some early data suggests the 5s is still outselling the 5c by a healthy margin. But that data could also be skewed by a launch weekend full of power users.

I was surprised by my affection for the iPhone 5c. Far from a “cheap” iPhone, it feels like the perfect compliment to iOS 7. And if you don’t mind having just a mere excellent camera as opposed to an extremely excellent camera, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending the 5c. Again, I view the speed of the 5c as more than adequate for basically anything you’re going to want to do with it — at least for now, and I imagine at least for the next year.

Now I’m left with a strange dilemma: the phone I want is basically the iPhone 5c body with the iPhone 5s internals. Luckily, something tells me that Apple will be selling such a device next year. Unfortunately, there will undoubtedly be a new state of the art iPhone by then as well. And I’m a sucker for the high end. Especially when it comes in gold.

And this predicament is the essence of why Apple sees lots and lots of green.