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The iPhone 5S vs. iPhone 5C: Which Model Should You Buy?

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Apple iPhone5S Chart

Apple's new flagship smartphone, the iPhone 5S, made its debut today, but for the first time in the company's history, there was more than one smartphone announcement. Apple also released the iPhone 5C, a budget-minded, colorful $99 iPhone with a 2-year contract that replaces the iPhone 5 in the lineup (in that the iPhone 5's price point won't decrease, but it will instead be discontinued).

While both the 5S and 5C carry the same iPhone DNA, they're also starkly different. Thus, shoppers looking for a new smartphone may be wondering which model is right for them; is the iPhone 5S worth the $100 premium with a 2-year contract, or can the iPhone 5C satisfy even power users? We compared both phones to find out.

64-Bit CPU Brings Better Performance

As expected, the new iPhone 5S is an evolution of the previous-generation iPhone, keeping most of the same design elements of its predecessor. However, internally the iPhone 5S counts on a number of significant upgrades, many of which the iPhone 5C didn't get.

For starters, the iPhone 5S is built around a new 64-bit A7 processor that, according to Apple, promises speeds twice as fast as the older A6 CPU, the latter of which can now be found in the iPhone 5C. That's not to say that the iPhone 5C is underpowered, but if you want top-notch performance from your games and apps, the 5S is unparalleled. Already we know that Infinity Blade III will take advantage of the iPhone 5S' 64-bit architecture to allow for better graphics and gameplay. So it initially appears that certain games will play better on the iPhone 5S. But if you think the new A7 chip is for gamers only, keep in mind that iOS 7 was also built with the iPhone 5S's new 64-bit architecture in mind. So all of the new built-in apps will run smoother and snappier on Apple's premium handset.

M7 Coprocessor Lets Fitness Buffs Enjoy New Apps

In addition to better overall performance, the iPhone 5S is the only iPhone to house Apple's new M7 motion coprocessor. The job of this chip is to gather data from the accelorometer, gyroscope, and compass so it can offload work from the A7 CPU, providing improved power efficiency all around. And because the M7 continually measures your motion data, the iPhone 5S will be able to run a new breed of fitness apps that will go beyond the typical pedometers we've become accustomed to. The iPhone 5C, unfortunately, doesn't feature this new chip.

iPhone 5S-Only Hardware Upgrades

Although the iPhone 5C got a new FaceTime HD camera, only the the iPhone 5S got a new iSight camera with a larger sensor and better low-light performance. True Tone flash, Slo-Mo video, and a new Burst Mode are among the other iPhone 5S-only camera updates. And it doesn't end there. The iPhone 5S also got a new security feature called Touch ID. This new touch sensor, which is built into the iPhone's home button, uses your fingerprint to unlock your phone and purchase apps and music from the iTunes Store.

A Budget Phone That Doesn't Act Like One

With its new candy-colored shell, there's no denying the iPhone 5C's playfulness. However, on the inside this smartphone still means business. Sure, it's missing a lot of key features found only on the iPhone 5S, but at $99, it's the best deal you'll find on a new subsidized iPhone. However, for consumers still tied to a cellular contract, the iPhone 5C's $549 (16GB) and $649 (32GB) unsubsidized price is anything but affordable, in which case you'll want to look at refurbs of previous models for the most savings.

And while the iPhone 4S is now free on contract, it lacks the larger screen and 4G connectivity found on the iPhone 5C. And for these reasons we'd choose the iPhone 5C over both the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5S. And since the 5C is the "budget" iPhone, it'll most likely see discounts sooner than the iPhone 5S.

That said, if spending an extra $100 isn't a significant expenditure for you, then the 5S does have a lot of nifty features that make the extra money worth it, given your mobile behavior; and when it comes down to it, you're likely committing to an item for two years at least if you upgrade with a new contract, so you'll likely appreciate the bumped-up specs with time.


Senior Features Writer

With over a decade of experience covering technology, Louis Ramirez has written for CNET, Laptop, Gizmodo, and various other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @louisramirez.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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10 comments
nimer
@BboJim: If you get good coverage with Sprint AND plan to upgrade every two years, you are right, Sprint and T-Mo turn out to be the same. However, T-Mo has advantage over sprint in terms of technology; a used AT&T iPhone 4s is selling for $50 - $100 more on Ebay than its counterpart from Sprint, simply because the AT&T one can be used with any MVNO carrier.

T-Mo makes a lot of sense for individuals coming from AT&T and Verizon. Also for families of 3 or more, T-Mo is significantly cheaper than the big 3.
BboJim
I'm currently on Sprint, I really don't see a price advantage to T-Mobile if I'm going to upgrade my phone every 2 years. I'd have to pay almost $20 more per month for 2 years to T-Mobile for the same phone. I'll stick with a subsidised 5s.
Slaz5
Either way, I don't see much improvement over what is out now, a constant Apple theme. The thing looks the same, runs a little faster and you can do a couple fancy things with a camera that will be fun for the first few times you use it.
dealnews-Lindsay
@nimer They most certainly are changing! And for the better, for the consumer who wants to save money. Let's hope more people are open to the possibilities of subsidy-free phones in the future.
tinzi
If i am on a budget, of course i'll only be buying a $600 phone.
nimer
True Lindsay - they actually end up paying more for them over the course of two years. What I'm talking about is the true cost of ownership, a concept that more and more people are becoming aware of thanks to T-Mo's recent changes.

Even Apple themselves used to delay the 'unlocked' version by at least 5 weeks to give carriers advantage, not anymore; 5s and 5c unlocked versions will be released the same day. Times are changing
dealnews-Lindsay
Almost 3/4 of cell phone users are on contract and thus are likely to buy phones through subsidization. That may change, but the fact remains that the majority of people considering the iPhone aren't going to be paying $550 or $650 for their phone.
beanie4me
Nimer is right. Subsidized pricing is misleading.
nimer
Any comparison between the two phones should include the real prices of the phones:

iPhone 5c 16 GB: $550
iPhone 5s 16 GB: $650

I know the 'c' has been branded as 'budget' phone, but it's hardly a good value. You get 64 bit, twice the speed, better finish, and overall nicer phone for just 18% more.
soonerjim
Don't buy either of them, get a real phone, an android phone! Galaxy S4 FTW!
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