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There’s just no love for cheap plastic.

In the U.S., Apple’s gorgeous new iPhone 5S is seriously outselling the iPhone 5C. In stylish and luxury-loving Japan, it’s outselling the 5C by a massive 5 to one margin. And globally, in spite of the clear and obvious ability of cheap Android phones to vacuum up the low end of the smartphone migration, the margin is still a huge 3.4 to one.

And yet the iPhone 5C is a gorgeous, simple, stylish phone with all the power of Apple’s iPhone 5 — still a powerhouse among phones — that you can pick up for $99 on contract.

See also: iPhone 5S: the mostest, bestest, muchiest iPhone ever (review)

All of which makes the iPhone 5C the not-so-dusky jewel that few yet have begun to pluck — and it might just be the best value in Apple’s mobile cornucopia.

The good: There’s a great future in plastic

blue-iPhone5cWhen Apple unveiled the iPhone 5C not much more than a week ago, chief designer Jony Ive called the iPhone 5C “unapologetically plastic.” That’s a nice turn of phrase; and when you hold the actual phone in your hand and hold it up to your ear, it actually makes perfect sense.

The big-budget iPhone 5S is sex in your eyes, the ultimate reduction of form into function via milled metal and chamfered edges. It’s glass and steel, a Gattaca version of the scientific, rational, stylish future, softened only by those rounded corners Steve Jobs loved so much, the much-hyped diamond-cut chamfers that divide harsh 90-degree angles into twinned gentler 45s, and an anodized aluminum body.

Especially, of course, the charcoal-colored “space gray” version.

Relatively cheap-date iPhone 5C, on the other hand, is sex in your hand, with silky-smooth plastic that warms to your hand and feels like something you could hold all day without cutting your skin or breaking your bones. There are no hard edges, with the single-piece plastic forming gentle curves on the bottom of the phone, and even the top of the formed shell rounding slightly to the front glass. There’s steel there too — reinforcing the plastic body invisibly from the inside — but the visible surface is all soft curve and warm plastic.

5S is a supermodel who will pierce your heart with her beauty and slice you in pieces with her sharp edges; 5C is the girl next door who will be true blue (or pink, or yellow) and fits into a McDonald’s billfold, not just a Wolfgang Puck budget.

The also good: No slouch indeed

Technologically, on the spec sheet, the iPhone 5C is the iPhone 5 in new clothing.

iphone5CThat means it sports the same Apple A6 mobile chip, a 4″ retina display with 1,136 x 640 pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch (just as good as the one on the iPhone 5S), and the same 8 megapixel rear camera from the iPhone 5.

Those specs are nothing to be sneered at, even if they’re mostly off a phone platform that’s now a year old. They stand up well to the latest from Samsung and Motorola, and while it’s true they include nothing so gee-whiz as the Samsung Galaxy S4’s “air gestures,” which allow you to flip through pages of content without actually touching your phone, I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone actually using that feature for something other than a demo on one hand of an old-school samurai warrior with a spectacularly horrible record of abject failure and a very close and painful relationship with small, sharp knives.

A little more than a week ago, the 5C’s specs would have made it Apple’s top-of-the-line phone.

More importantly, while the iPhone 5S most certainly has that heavy-duty 64-bit processor, real-world speed tests in the apps you’ll be using almost all the time show little if any difference. Which means the 5C is still a no-compromise phone for those who want performance but also might want a little color in their lives — and maybe some gas money.

“In real-world testing, most of the [apps] are very similar,” Tom Richardson of Redmond Pie says. “The iPhone 5 is definitely no slouch … there’s only so much you can improve on an already very quick app launch.”

There are also a few specs where the 5C pushes past the 5, headlined by a better front-facing camera. It also has more support for global LTE bands, which doesn’t matter much unless you’re traveling, or in an area with a less popular standard. And the 5C has better battery life than the 5, which is always a major positive.

Still on good: And it’s purdy too

iphone5c-yellowApple, which has reinvented its mobile operating system with iOS 7 in significantly lighter, brighter colors, has been a little playful with the iPhone 5C, giving the phone options for white, green, blue, yellow, or pink. That’s a significant change for Apple, which had, until now, resisted offering the iPhone in any more than than its standard white and black versions. Until now, it’s offloaded the task of personalization and differentiation to the case market.

In a particularly daring move — for Apple — the operating system itself takes on the characteristics of the phone, with each color of 5C shell being mirrored in iOS 7.

Sure, it’s something that will appeal to a younger demographic, perhaps, although I’ve seen plenty of older women with very colorful iPhone cases, and some older men as well. And if you want a fairly tame iPhone 5C, white is always an option, as is a black case.

But the overall look, at least of the blue, green, and white phones, is modern, trendy, airy, and fun, none of which are bad. I personally wouldn’t carry the yellow or pink phones, but vive la difference, as the Francophones say.

The takeaway: Business tool or business fool

Apple has been under pressure to diversify its iPhone product line for years, and the iPhone 5C is really the secondfruits of that push. Previously, Apple simply kept older phones for a year or even years, selling the iPhone 3GS, 4, and 4S while the current main model was the 4, 4S, or 5.

The reality is that to address the size of the market that the original iPhone created, and to stop Android from eating its lunch and morning healthy snack too, Apple needed to do something. iPhone 5C is available for $100 on contract in the U.S., something Apple couldn’t achieve with any of its new iPhone models until now — and we’ve seen at least one deal where it’s $0 down. More importantly, it’s also available fairly cheaply — although that’s a relative term — in developing countries and China, where Android has been locking down massive market share leadership.

All of that means that whether you’d like to lay down your brand-new pink iPhone 5C on the boardroom table or not, the 5C was a smart decision by Apple, with only one question remaining: Should the company have priced it even cheaper to fight more aggressively for market share?


But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still a relatively cheap and overlooked option for iPhone purchasers in the U.S. and other developed nations.

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