A hands-off quasi-review of the iPhone 5C and 5S

As expected, Tim Cook & Co. materialized this past Tuesday to confirm 98% of the leaks their supply chain "partners" had let fly over the past few months in regards to the iPhone 5C and 5S. The 5C (for "Cheap," "China," or "Charo") is basically the soon-to-die iPhone 5 with a polycarbonate shell, a slightly better camera, a larger battery, and 20 grams of extra poundage. The 5S maintains the 5's external trappings while sporting new innards and new colors, which I refer to as Space Silver, Space Gray and Space Grey Poupon. The latter of the trio is the gold/champagne version that got a fair amount of chatter flowing for no good reason.

I attempted to dub this version "The Continental," but that sobriquet has yet to catch on. A meme machine I apparently am not.

Anyway, back to the 5C. Prior to Tuesday's announcement, when leaks were as uncontainable as Miley's tongue (now try getting that image out of your head), the mass of tech punditry posited that the 5C was going to be a low-cost alternative for what polite econ wonks would dub "emerging Asian markets that rhyme with angina." While that may indeed be part of Apple's overall strategy, it doesn't really feel like it. After all, the 5C, in both 16GB and 32GB configurations, is just $100 less than the 5S. While I have no doubt that a number of folks just coming into the Wonderful World of Lifetime iPhone Upgrades would rather pocket the $100 than enjoy the 5S's biometric home button or new camera hardware, I don't think the 5C is really aimed at wooing the Chinese masses on price alone.

No, to me, it seems Apple simply grew tired of releasing an upgraded handset and then lowering the price of the existing model. It's as if they want it to be obvious that someone chose a lesser iPhone. Or, perhaps, more obvious that someone opted for the 5S. It reminds me of the white, plastic iBooks compared to the MacBook Pros. Only this new iBook is actually better than the current MBP. I don't know; it just strikes me as weird, but I've only had one cup of coffee as I write this and, not going to lie, I don't care a whole lot about the 5C. I'm sure my wife would love it, because she's still sporting a 3GS that she has come to loathe for its increasing slowness. But she'll never know. If we upgrade phones, I'll give her my 5 and get myself the 5S. I know that sounds selfish, but, slowness or not, my wife would use the 3GS until it self-immolated while trying to decipher Facebook's latest privacy changes.

The 5S, of course, is supernew, supershiny and, if certain pundits are to be believed, a massive superfail. Forget its new 64-bit A7 chip or M7 motion coprocessor. Or its upgraded camera with an f/2.2 lens and color temp-adjusting dual LED flash. Or its seemingly fail-proof biometric finger scanner of a home button. No, the 5S still fits in a normal pocket, doesn't resemble a small tablet (I refuse to use the word "phablet" unless I'm dropping mad beatz as my alter ego MC J-Fro), and still won't cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I get it. The new hardware, while a significant upgrade spec-wise, lacks any wowee-zowee, life-altering features. (Although I would argue that the biometric home button is rather astounding. I am one of the Apple-claimed 50% who do not passcode-protect their phones, and I'm sure the button's uses will expand over time.) And that's the rub. Ever since Apple split up the announcement of the latest iOS from the latest iPhone, the reveal of the hardware has been a bit anticlimactic. After all, most of the awesomeness of the iPhone is contained within iOS. Each successive hardware upgrade usually gives us better battery life and a better camera (and I am impressed with the 5S camera), along with one or two decently significant new items like the Retina display, wide-screen display, or Lightning connector. But as cool as such things are—yes, I believe the Lightning connector was a significant upgrade—they're all rather meaningless without the OS and apps. And since Apple lets most of the iOS goodness out of the bag at WWDC every year, those wow moments of new hardware running new software are more or less gone.

None of which will have any impact on sales, of course. I wish Apple would be a bit more adventurous in their upgrades, but the truth is that their form of a prevent defense actually works, in stark contrast to the Kansas Chiefs teams of the late 1990s. As much as I grow weary of incremental improvements—an issue that extends far beyond Apple in my world—the pattern will hold until someone like Samsung or, heaven forbid, Nokia does something truly game-changing instead of merely different or slightly better. (While the competitions' phones have improved markedly over the years and are, in some ways, probably better, there is a big difference between being a viable alternative and being a must-have.)

So, as the owner of an iPhone 5, will I lay down the cash for a 5S? I honestly don't know. I think it really will take a hands-on, thumbs-on demo to sway me on this one. But if I do, you know I'll be getting a champagne-tinged handset with a custom-printed Walken case.



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