Wait, Apple unveiled two completely different iPhones on the same day? In the same year? The answer is a resounding yes, though we have a feeling Tim Cook's little surprise wasn't the most well-kept secret in Cupertino. Known as the iPhone 5c, this is the less expensive (yet vibrant) sidekick to the 5s, and we've been playing with the device here at Apple HQ. The device will be available for pre-order starting September 13th, and will hit stores a week later on September 20th. All told, you get a choice of five colors. The 16GB version will be offered for $99 on contract, while the 32GB tacks on an extra $100 to the total; if contracts aren't your thing, the off-contract costs are $549 and $649, respectively.
It appears that the 5c ultimately keeps to the same spec list overall, with a 4-inch Retina Display, A6 processor, LTE, 8MP camera and more. A huge difference, however, is the actual build, which includes a full multitouch display on the front and a single hard-coated piece of polycarbonate strengthened by a frame of reinforced steel. Apple repeatedly mentioned during its event that it's "unapologetic" about the plastic build, and deservedly so -- not only does it feel great, it's the most solid polycarbonate build that we've ever laid hands on. There is absolutely nothing about this setup that makes us believe it's not capable of handling wear and tear, and the reinforced steel frame convinces us that it's even going to survive falls without a problem.
Speaking of which, the 5c has a glossy finish, but we were quite happy to find that it's not the fingerprint magnet that we've come to expect on other devices. It sufficiently handled the greasy fingerprints of a couple hundred journalists, so we doubt you need to be concerned about this phone looking dirty when it's just you handling it. In fact, it has a subtle shine to it that serves to complement the vibrant colors.
As we mentioned earlier, this is the spiritual successor to the iPhone 5, and much of the button layout reflects that. The camera, buttons and ports are all in the same place, with the only difference being the bottom edge of the device: instead of two sets of speakers flanking the lightning port, the 5c features only four individual holes lined up to its right.
Apple heavily emphasized the idea that iOS 7's colorful UI makes the 5c even better, and we have to believe it; given the five different hues, the new OS really works well this way when you choose a color scheme to match the hardware.
Overall, the 5c offers the same speed and performance as the iPhone 5, so this combined with the color options and solid build will help breathe new life into the mid-tier iPhone option. Given the price, it may not turn out to be the device for emerging markets, but it at least gives interested iPhone buyers more choice without making them feel like they're going with the "old" models.
Myriam Joire contributed to this report.