Yesterday, we saw Apple introduce a new plastic iPhone. Why plastic? Because it's cheaper, sure. But Apple’s shrewd decision to use plastic is about more than just money.
Manufacturing the 5C: Harder, Better, Stronger
I can't put a dollar figure on what Apple's bill of materials for the 5C is, but it's safe to say that by going with plastic, they're saving a lot. And not just on material costs—also on time and labor. An aluminum iPhone has to undergo multiple stages of CNC machining and anodizing. These are very time consuming processes that require an enormous number of man hours to oversee them. In contrast, an injection-molded plastic shell can be produced in just one or two operations.
But the real key to the 5C design isn't just injection molding it out of plastic. It's injection molding it out of a single piece of plastic. This creates a stronger, simpler part—and it's going to produce much faster yield rates than Apple can currently get with the iPhone 5/5S.
This efficiency is the key to reducing costs on the iPhone 5C compared to aluminum iPhones. In the time it takes Apple to produce just one housing for the aluminum iPhone, they can make multiple plastic iPhones. The ability to produce iPhones quicker is a key feature for Apple as they try meet demand, especially in developing countries.
So yes—the iPhone 5C's plastic housing is cheaper because the material is less expensive. But the primary cost reduction is due to the fact that it takes fewer steps manufacture, which reduces the time and labor involved. I have no doubt that the 5C will become the best seller in Apple’s iPhone lineup overnight, and the ability to produce iPhones quicker is a key feature.
Is Apple's design team giving up much, in terms of the 5C's aesthetics? Plastic is cheap, but it also feels cheap, right? Well, that depends on the quality of the plastic, but more crucially, the injection molding process. In this area, Apple is world class. Just look at the quality of the plastic housing on Apple TV, AirPort routers, or the EarPods.
The iPhone 5C’s hard plastic back gives us a glimpse into Apple's design process. Most plastic cases are made using a mold that includes holes for the speakers, buttons, and the camera. But with the 5C casing, Apple is choosing to use a CNC machine to create these holes after the shell has already been made. Why? First of all, this yields a stronger part. If those holes were included in the injection molding process, hot plastic would have to flow around them. This creates weak points in the plastic. By machining those holes out, the plastic around the holes is just as strong as the rest of the shell. These cases will be stronger than the norm.
Second, the CNC solution allows Apple to focus on making the housing as seamless as possible. In most plastic products, you can see a faint line—called a "witness line"—that reveals where the two parts of the mold came together. By not molding the holes, Apple only has to make sure they eliminate one witness line—along the glass display edge of the housing. In fact, you can see the CNC polishing wheel process they use for eliminating that witness line here:
Third, CNC machining these holes gives them a much tighter tolerance than if they were simply molded into the part. Visually, this makes them look crisper and makes the fit between components like the SIM card tray and buttons feel very precise.
Apple also added an additional step of spray coating the backplate with a clear lacquer hard coat. This gives the plastic some of the qualities glazing gives pottery: It helps prevent scratching, makes the shell look extremely glossy, and completely changes how it feels in our hands. Instead of feeling like glossy plastic, the 5C should feel like ceramic.
Even the most minute elements of the 5C were designed to reduce the amount of detail found on the body of the 5S. The volume and lock buttons are the same color as the plastic back, which means they blend into the housing. The headphone jack, lightning connector, and screws have all been tinted black to match the black display glass, too. I’ll say it again: Less. Visual. Clutter.
Hamburger and Steak
What will be missing from the 5C, though, is the feeling the 5/5S has when you pick it up. Even a year later, the aluminum iPhone feels impossibly thin and light. But comparing the plastic iPhone to the aluminum iPhone is a bit like comparing a gourmet hamburger to a gourmet steak. Both use the highest quality ingredients, but they’re designed for different audiences and occasions.
I prefer hamburger. In white, thank you. The iPhone 5C has fewer speaker holes, no dual-sided chamfers, no secondary glass pieces at the top and bottom, and no thin plastic dividers on the sides to make the external antenna work. It’s almost like Apple decided to use one of those simplified, outlined icons in its “Made for iPhone” program as the basis for this design.
It’s this simplicity that makes the 5C a much cleaner option compared to the aluminum 5S. By working within the constraints of the plastic manufacturing process, but maintaining many of the same design goals they had with the aluminum 5S, Apple's designers have delivered a solution that maintains their standard of quality at a lower price point.