Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn’t sell very well

A couple of weeks ago we looked back at the iPod touch – an iPhone minus the phone part and also the cheapest way to get into the iOS ecosystem in the early days. Apple’s devices (phones and others) have typically been expensive, but the company does try to offer affordable options every now and then.

One of those – the iPhone 5c from 2013 – is the topic of today’s story. It launched alongside the premium 5s and instead of a sleek metal exterior, it opted for a colorful plastic shell. For what it’s worth, it was a nice break from the usual Silver/Black/Gold color palette.

The C iPhone was available in White, Blue, Green, Yellow and Pink and cost just $100 with a 2-year contract. It launched in the usual markets as well as in China, an attempt to capture the growing market. A failed attempt, we should say, as production was quickly cut down to half and later to just a quarter, despite Apple slashing the price by 30% in an attempt to boost sales. In the end, the pricier 5s outsold the 5c 4 to 1.

Originally, the phone was available with 16GB and 32GB storage, but Apple decided to try dropping the price even lower and introduced an 8GB version in early 2014. In the UK, that model cost £430, compared to £470 and £550 for the 16GB and 32GB models, respectively. In Germany those prices looked like €550, €600 and €650. Not a huge discount for losing half the non-expandable storage that always seemed too small every time an iOS update arrived.

Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn't sell very well

When September of 2014 rolled around it was time for the annual price cut – the 5c (8 GB) became free with contract, the 5s was $100. For comparison, the newly-introduced 6 and 6 Plus were $200 and $300, respectively. Don’t get the impression that Apple just kept slashing at those prices, in October of 2013 there was actually a tiny price increase in France – the 5c and 5s went up by €10-12.

What made the iPhone 5c “the cheap model”? Well, it was in effect an iPhone 5 in a plastic casing. This meant that it used the Apple A6 chipset from the year before instead of the new A7 – the first mobile chipset using the 64-bit ARMv8 architecture (that’s an interesting story for another time). This meant that it couldn’t update to iOS 11, while the 5s did go up to v12.

Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn't sell very well

Of course, the premium feel of the metal body of the 5 and 5s was gone, replaced by colorful polycarbonate (the “c” in “5c” allegedly stood for “color”). The plastic phone was both thicker (9 mm vs. 7.6 mm) and heavier (132g vs. 112g) than the 5s, which didn’t help things.

Also, the fingerprint reader introduced by the 5s was left out. There were less noticeable differences too – for example, the 8MP camera was also taken from the older model – that meant a darker aperture (f/2.4 vs. f/2.2) and smaller pixels (1.4µm vs. 1.5µm) compared to the 5s.

By the way, who remembers the perforated cases? So many color combinations were possible, all of them with that coveted Crocs aesthetics. We didn’t really love how those holes aligned with the printed labels on the back and we’re not sure whether Jony Ive had to be sedated before this design was approved.

Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn't sell very well

There were rumors of an iPhone 6c and even though that never appeared, that didn’t stop wagging tongues from predicting an iPhone 7c. Those rumors proved false, but Apple did not abandon the idea of a cheap iPhone. It launched the iPhone SE – a 4.0” phone based on the 5s – alongside the 6s generation and followed that up with the second edition SE last year. We hear there’s a new iPhone SE (with 5G) scheduled for launch in early 2022.

Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn't sell very well

Apple is in the enviable position of being the sole manufacturer of iOS-powered phones. However, that puts consumers in the unenviable position of having to buy from Apple if they want an iOS phone. So, while cheap Androids are a dime a dozen (not literally, but you know what we mean), iPhones are pricey – even the cheap ones.

To their credit, iPhones have great resale value on the second-hand market and Apple does cut prices of old models on a schedule. Still, between the iPod touch and the iPhone 5c, getting an iOS device on the cheap always meant making some compromises.

Flashback: iPhone 5c, the cheap and cheerful phone that didn't sell very well

Compromises that don’t seem popular with Apple users – the iPhone 5s and 5c launch broke the company’s sales record by moving 9 million units in the first three days of availability. However, globally the 5s outsold the 5c 3 to 1. Maybe we shouldn’t wonder why Apple doesn’t put more effort into releasing cheapo iPhones.

Cupertino is a bit like Goldilocks – people scoff at iPhones that are too pricey and they don’t seem too keen on ones that are too cheap. But sometimes the middle option is just right – for example, the iPhone 11 is still selling like hotcakes, the iPhone XR before it was also a top-seller.

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