Should You Buy the iPhone 5c or the iPhone 5s? A Helpful Recommendation Guide

On September 10th, 2013, Apple introduced two new iPhones: iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5c comes in an array of colors, is made of polycarbonate, and is marketed as an everyday fun phone. Apple's flagship model, the iPhone 5s, is made of premium materials like glass and aluminum, and is presented as a phone that showcases upcoming technologies that will eventually become standard. This guide is designed to help you choose the phone that's right for you.

If you currently have the iPhone 5, don't worry. The latest technologies announced with the iPhone 5s will still be there in Apple's next flagship phone with refinements and mature apps that take advantage of it all. Wait another year if you're locked into a two year contract.

If you have the iPhone 4S or an earlier model, and you're near the end of your two year contract, it's time to upgrade.

While the following advice is specific to those living in the United States, mainly due to pricing and availability, much of the advice is applicable worldwide.

Practical and affordable. The iPhone 5c.

The iPhone 5c is a reskinned and rebranded iPhone 5. To everyone else it's a completely new phone. No matter how you look at it, it's still a tempting proposition.

The 5c brings forward the most ideal features of previous iPhones like the 3G and 3GS. It brings back the robust polycarbonate shell, the contoured edges, and it's overall much thinner than the aforementioned early-generation models. It's a phone where you don't have to worry about chipping the chamfered diamond-cut edges or scratching the anodized aluminum frame. I don't think that kind of freedom can be understated. It's wrong to call this an iPhone for teens. It's an iPhone meant for most people - people who just want to use their phones as phones. It's the MacBook Air of iPhones as John Gruber wrote in his thoughts about this week's unveiling.

If you listen to music, watch videos, download a few apps, play one or two games, and maybe even take a few pictures, the 5c is proven and now more robust than ever. If you're looking for an all around great daily driver, the 5c is the phone you should buy. It's a phone that you don't have to use with a protective case, where the case instead becomes a way to accessorize and individualize your phone. It's designed to be a phone that's dependable and just works. It's a phone that's "good enough."

Learn more about the iPhone 5c in our need-to-know guide. You can also learn more at Apple.com.

Luxurious and feature rich. The iPhone 5s.

Then there's the iPhone 5s. It's Apple's flagship phone, and it's perhaps the most advanced piece of technology they have ever sold. It has camera software that's more advanced than a lot of actual point-and-shoot cameras, it's supposed to deliver twice the performance of the 5c (which is twice as fast as the 4s), and it has the killer feature: a fingerprint sensor that makes it so you don't have to swipe to unlock or enter a password to buy apps on the App Store. The fingerprint sensor alone is something that could save people several seconds, if not minutes, a day doing the stuff they regularly do while making the phone much more secure against theft.

The 5s is presented as a showcase phone. For Apple's most advanced piece of hardware, it's shown after the 5c on Apple's website, and it's only shown in the most luxurious color: gold. It's classy, constructed of premium materials, and packed full of features that make it attractive to people who are already embedded into Apple's ecosystem.

The thing I wouldn't get hung up on is 64-bit. Apple extols how advanced their A7 processor is, but it really is future thinking. If you're primarily using your phone for mobile email, web browsing, Instagram, and Twitter or Facebook, then you're not really going to see the full benefit of it. In fact, I think the apps that will take advantage of Apple's latest processor early on are cutting edge mobile games and Apple's own camera software.

The 5s also includes a new, separate motion processor that lets the iPhone track your daily movements, determining where you are (walking or in the car) and what you're doing. It's cool technology that will initially have a showcase app for it in the form of Nike+ Move. If already have a FuelBand, Jawbone UP, or a FitBit, or already use a running app,  it's not going to be immediately helpful. The motion processor gives Apple some feedback as they take note of how app makers will use it, and it's a technology that feels slated for a potential wearable gadget.

The fingerprint sensor is admittedly the coolest feature. It demos very well, and while it's early technology which is most beneficial for simply unlocking your phone, it adds a layer of security you don't have to think about. To keep your fingerprint safe, Apple doesn't scan your actual fingerprint. Instead, they read the grooves and lines in your finger and translate that to a sort of digital schematic, which is then encrypted and stored in a physical lockbox on the A7 processor. The data of your fingerprint is something that stays locally on your iPhone, meaning it will never be backed up to iCloud. It's helpful but early technology, which as mentioned above, will initially only be useful for a few things, such as making purchases on the iTunes Store without having to enter a password.

It's the camera technology that makes the 5s a real winner if you take pictures. Installed is a better sensor, and there are significant advantages built into the camera software. You can take burst photos, and the iPhone will do things like choose the best one in the series of pictures taken. It has a combination of white and amber flashes that work in tandem to take the best photographs. You can record in higher framerates so you can create slow motion videos. The iPhone, with its A7 processor, does the work in figuring out how to produce the best photo no matter what you decide to aim it at, being a still portrait or an action shot. Apple essentially says they are doing all the work and that you just have to tap the camera button.

If you like having the most storage, appreciate the latest technological advancements from Apple, and want to play the most graphically intense games, this is the phone you want. The 5s is especially suited to photographers.

Learn more about the iPhone 5s in our complete overview.You can also learn more on Apple.com.

If you want the optimal model iPhone 5c or iPhone 5s, the difference isn't just $100.

What's interesting, and what makes the iPhone 5s (initially) a great value proposition is that it's just $100 more than the iPhone 5c. On contract, the 16 GB 5c is $99 , and the 16 GB 5s is $199. Both of these phones are very affordable, and when expensive two-year contracts are taken into consideration, the obvious answer is to get the 5s. But I don't think it's that simple.

How you typically use your current phone should dictate which one you buy. Most people would be fine with the 16 GB  iPhone 5c. Pocket the extra $100, or put it towards more storage if you like to try apps and play games. The 32 GB model also allows for more options when traveling, since you could download a movie and take pictures off the grid without taking up most of your available storage. You're likely going to have it for two years so get the most storage you can afford. (More on this in a minute - because AppleCare+ and iCloud storage are going to add expenses that people don't think about.)

As for the iPhone 5s, I would highly recommend at least the 32 GB model, which is $299 on contract. Suddenly that $100 difference in price is now $200, and I think it's a necessary choice. Geeks and the I-must-have-its should get the 32 GB iPhone 5s.

The 5s' camera features mean you're going to be using a lot of storage between photos and video, and you're going to want to use this phone to its fullest extent. The kinds of games that will really take advantage of the iPhone 5s and its processor are going to be very large in size, and will eat up a lot of space very quickly. If you can afford it, I would go a step further and get the top tier 64 GB 5s, which costs $399 on contract. People who take a lot of pictures on a daily basis should get the 64 GB iPhone 5s. If you take a ton of pictures, I would not recommend the iPhone 5c.

No matter what phone you buy, you're going to want to protect your purchase. When your purchase your iPhone, you're going to have to the option to enroll in AppleCare+. AppleCare+ extends the limited hardware repair warranty and phone support from one year and 90 days respectively to two years each. Additionally, you become eligible to get accidental damage repaired for a simple, flat rate. AppleCare+, a $99 value, is recommended with the purchase of your iPhone. With the plan, up to two accidental repairs (for things like spilling liquids on your phone or dropping it and cracking the faceplate) will cost $79 each versus actual labor and component costs. Even if you never end up breaking your phone, AppleCare+ pays for itself if you ever have to contact Apple's support team.

Lastly, there's iCloud storage. When you sign up for an iCloud account (a process you may have to go through if this is your first iPhone), you'll be given 5 GB of free storage to use for storing data or backups in the cloud. You can get away with the given storage if you have a 16 GB model, although you may have to consider purchasing extra storage if you purchase a 32 GB or 64 GB model and want to conveniently backup your iPhone up to the cloud while it's charging overnight. You may also want to purchase extra storage if you have multiple iOS devices, like iPods and iPads. Depending on how much data you have to backup on your iPhone, you may have to spend at least $20 a year for 10 additional GBs of iCloud storage for iCloud Backup.

The verdict: something at every price point.

If you're deciding on an iPhone, this is what you should consider.

  • $99 - 16 GB iPhone 5c for most people who download an app once in a while, listen to music, browse the web, and use messaging apps.
  • $199 - 32 GB iPhone 5c for people who travel frequently, download video, and like to play games.
  • $299 - 32 GB iPhone 5s for people who want to take advantage of all the latest features or are already embedded in Apple's ecosystem.
  • $399 - 64 GB iPhone 5s if you take a lot of pictures, play the most demanding games, and download lots of apps.

The 16 GB iPhone 5s is a non recommendation. While it's available at an affordable entry-level price for the latest technologies, you'll be limited on taking advantage of its full capabilities with this amount of storage. Personally, I would rather have more storage over nice-to-have but not need-to-have features. Storage is something that's time consuming to manage and you can never have enough of it.

The iPhone 4S is still available for free on contract, but I wouldn't recommend it considering that it isn't compatible with LTE networks.

Consider whether you'll purchase a $99 AppleCare+ plan at checkout before buying your phone, and keep in mind that for the recommended iPhone 5s models, you may need to pay a yearly $20 fee for iCloud storage if you plan on using iCloud Backup.

The iPhone 5c can pre-ordered from Apple's online store Friday, September 13. The iPhone 5s will not be available for pre-order. Both phones will be available on Apple's online store and at Apple Retail Stores (which will open at 8:00am) on September 20th.

This guide was updated on September 15th, 2013, to make some language friendlier and clarify some price points.