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iPhone 5s and 5c: comparing Apple's latest against the best phones out there

iPhone 5s and 5c: comparing Apple's latest against the best phones out there

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Gallery Photo: Gold iPhone 5s
Gallery Photo: Gold iPhone 5s

iPhone buyers have never had it this good. With two similar and competitive iPhones about to hit stores, the options are more compelling — if not harder to choose between — than ever. We’re taking a look across Apple’s new pair of iPhones to see how they stand up to one another, and how they can handle the crowd of competitors at large.

Apple's new iPhones


Until today, it almost always made sense to go for the best iPhone you could buy. The flagship always had the best features, while the lower-cost models were usually just recycled from last year. But today, that's changed, and both new iPhone models in Apple’s latest lineup have their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what the line’s basic breakdown looks like:

  • iPhone 5c: $99 on contract, internals similar to an iPhone 5, bright plastic case in a new design
  • iPhone 5s: $199 on contract, same design as the iPhone 5, includes an improved camera with a larger sensor, and a built-in fingerprint scanner for security

If that final list of features doesn’t impress you, then the iPhone 5c could easily steal your attention. The lower-cost iPhone looks great with its bright colors, and because it has basically the same internal setup that the iPhone 5 does, it’s almost certain to be a strong performer.

Will the iPhone 5c's processor hold up?

Where the iPhone 5c may falter the most is its A6 processor — the same one that’s been in the iPhone 5 all year. Though the A6 has held up well, as developers start coding for the iPhone 5s’ new A7 processor, the iPhone 5c may slowly start struggling to keep up. When buying an iPhone on a two-year contract, that’s not a huge issue because it only comes into play during your second year. But if the trend continues, the iPhone 5c may not be at its finest hour come next September. It’s a risk buyers will have to take, and it could be worth it if you're into the iPhone 5c's stylish colors and lower pricing.

The iPhone 5s has plenty going for it to make up for that $100 price jump, not the least of which is what Apple says is a big camera upgrade through both physical and software improvements. Among those is a larger sensor area, a wider aperture, and software that will automatically take multiple photos and choose the best one. The built-in fingerprint scanner also ought to make keeping the device secure easier than ever — but it could be overkill for those who rarely let their phones stray far from their pocket.

The best flagship smartphones around

It’s one thing to decide between iPhones, and another to decide between the best phones out there. On Android, that means Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and HTC’s One, and on Windows Phone, Nokia’s Lumia 1020.

The iPhone's screen is sharp, but others are sharper

Even after getting a bit bigger last year, the iPhone’s screen still feels small. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 is the nearest in size, coming in at 4.5 inches, while the One and Galaxy S4 step it up consecutively to 4.7 and 5 inches respectively. If you’re looking to go big, there’s a good change the iPhone was never in the running anyway. But if you’re just out for a display that looks good, then the iPhone is a strong competitor with its 326 pixels per inch (PPI) display.

Even though the iPhone’s Retina display is plenty sharp, most of its competitors have started to one-up it. The Lumia 1020 imperceptibly edges it out, and the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One take a huge leap up with highly dense 441 and 468 PPI 1080p displays. That might not mean much to the average onlooker, but for those paying attention to detail, the One and Galaxy S4 should look sharper.

All of the phones should perform well in day-to-day tasks for now, but there’s one area where they’ll face heated competition: the camera. The iPhone 5s is said to improve upon what's already a great camera, so it’s almost certain that it’ll be a strong choice. It isn't the only powerful shooter out there, though. The Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel sensor and a ton of different shooting modes, while the Lumia 1020 is in a whole other league thanks to its large sensor and 41 megapixel oversampling technique.

A great camera will make a big difference

That makes the final decision a tough one, and it’s no surprise that you’ll still need to choose which operating system makes the most sense for you. Apple has made some big improvements in its latest version of iOS and established a visual direction that’s in many ways more appealing. But if you’re part of Google or Microsoft’s ecosystems, there may be a compelling enough reason to give up Apple’s vibrant app ecosystem for another platform.

Battle of the basics


What’s the real appeal of the iPhone 5c? Some combination of price, size, and its array of colors. That’s a secret that Motorola has already picked up on with the wildly customizable Moto X — that good design and reliability matter over sheer brawn. But the iPhone 5c also does something else remarkable: it pares down the flagship iPhone without losing what makes it an iPhone. HTC and Nokia have tried for something similar with the One mini and Lumia 925, both of which refine earlier phones into trimmer form factors.

iPhone 5c and Moto X for colors, One mini and Lumia 925 for metal

One thing is immediately clear: if you're looking for build quality, HTC and Nokia have you covered with their metal bodies. The iPhone 5c's plastic shell isn't likely to fall apart on you anytime soon, but time and again we've seen that phones made primarily with metal exteriors have a distinctly premium feel to them. But material alone isn't the whole story. Both the iPhone 5c and the Moto X put a major focus on making phones look a little more fun and personal. The iPhone 5c has a selection of five colors — and that can be great if one happens to be just your style — but nothing can quite match the level of customization that Motorola allows on its latest flagship.

The camera on the iPhone 5c should be among the best of the bunch though, and that's a big benefit. The HTC One mini has the same occasionally muddy "UltraPixel" camera of its larger sibling, and the Moto X's "clear pixel" sensor makes shots that aren't as crisp and clear as you might expect. The Lumia 925 ought to be a tough competitor, however. It's almost exactly what's on the formidable Lumia 920, but with some minor improvements that make it hold up just a bit better — and it's great for low-light shooting.

Once again, the smallest of the bunch

The phones cover a range of display sizes, from 4 inches on the iPhone 5c up to 4.7 inches on the Moto X, but the story is the same across the board: they all have sharp displays, just not the absolute sharpest ones out there. The iPhone 5c — like its more expensive sibling — is also the smallest of the bunch here. That can certainly be a positive for some, but large displays are in, and devices like the Moto X are able to handle them while keeping their packages comparably tiny.


Apple's ecosystem, build quality, and strong feature set are generally hard to beat. But other devices have become formidable competitors, and this year more than ever Apple is doing what it can to set itself apart. For the average phone buyer, the iPhone 5c might be the right choice — though the company's flagship device is once again a tough one to resist. Whether that stands up to your favorite devices running Android and Windows Phone is another question. Smartphones are starting to differentiate themselves, be it through cameras, security features, or customization, and being well-rounded may not be as meaningful as being truly great at what a buyer values the most.