Should You Wait for an iPhone 5s, or Trade Down to a 5c?

Not surprisingly, Apple's newest top-of-the-line product -- the iPhone 5s -- is a big hit. Apple stores nationwide (and in some foreign countries) experienced lines that were even longer than those seen for last year's iPhone 5 launch. By the end of launch day, iPhone 5s inventory was running low and the gold version was already back-ordered until October!

The gold version of Apple's new iPhone 5s has been particularly popular. Image source: Apple.

These delays have not gotten much better yet, so it could take weeks to get an iPhone 5s -- depending on where you want to buy it. If you're in the market for an iPhone, is it really worth the wait? Or would you be better off trading down to the iPhone 5c instead?

Shortages remain
Nearly three weeks after its launch, iPhone 5s inventory is still tight. Apple is currently listing a vague shipping date of "October" for all flavors of the iPhone 5s on its online store. If you order through one of Apple's carrier partners, you could be in for an even longer wait.

Sprint seems to be having the biggest problems. The carrier's online store is quoting a four- to six-week delay for the white and "space gray" colors, and a whopping eight weeks for the gold iPhone 5s. That means you might not get your phone until December! Verizon seems to have a slightly better supply situation, but you will still have to wait until the end of the month for the white and space gray models. The gold iPhone 5s is in high demand there, too, with estimated shipping dates in early November.

AT&T appears to have the best supply, which is not surprising given its long history with Apple (it was the exclusive U.S. carrier for the iPhone until 2011). Still, it is projecting a 28-42 business day wait for the gold iPhone 5s due to the high demand for that model.

Worth the wait?
While demand for the iPhone 5s has overwhelmed Apple's production capacity, the iPhone 5c is available immediately through most sales channels. For many people, the 5c may be a good enough alternative to the 5s that it isn't worth waiting for the higher-end model.

For many prospective buyers, the iPhone 5c may be good enough. Image source: Apple.

As many people know, the iPhone 5c is essentially a repackaged iPhone 5 with a plastic casing and a few upgrades to the battery, camera, and modem. If you are adamantly opposed to a phone with a plastic backing, then you should probably wait for the iPhone 5s. However, plenty of other high-end phones are made of plastic, including Samsung's high-end Galaxy S4.

Fortunately, the iPhone 5c maintains a premium feel despite the use of a plastic casing. (I've been using an iPhone 5c for a little over a week now, and it doesn't feel flimsy or cheap to me.) Most other reviewers seem to agree that the 5c is more solid than other plastic smartphones on the market.

In terms of functionality, the biggest difference between the iPhone 5s and the 5c is processing power. (The 5s also has a fingerprint sensor, which could eventually become important for mobile payments.) The 5s uses Apple's new A7 chip and a new M7 "motion coprocessor" that helps monitor all of the iPhone's motion sensors. By contrast, the 5c keeps the A6 chip from last year's iPhone 5 and does not include a separate motion coprocessor.

The A7 chip is certainly faster than the A6. However, so far, very few apps can take advantage of its cutting-edge 64-bit architecture. Indeed, industry executives seem to be split in their thinking about whether or not the 64-bit architecture will actually be useful to consumers. If you use your phone primarily for web browsing, email, and social media, you probably won't notice much of a difference.

On the other hand, if you are looking to upgrade from the iPhone 4 or 4S (or another 3G phone), you will notice a big boost in data speeds with either of Apple's new iPhones: both offer 4G LTE service. Getting faster data service now could be reason enough to pick the iPhone 5c rather than waiting for the 5s.

Price cut
If you're choosing between the 5s and the 5c, you could also save a bit of money by going with the iPhone 5c. The 5c starts at $99 with a two-year contract when ordered from a phone company or directly from Apple, whereas the 5s starts at $199. Alternatively, if you need more storage, you can get a 32 GB iPhone 5c for the same price as a 16 GB 5s.

Moreover, a number of retailers have started offering discounts on the 5c in order to drive customer traffic. Most notably, Wal-Mart is selling the iPhone 5c for $45 with a 2-year contract, less than half of the suggested subsidized price.

Foolish bottom line
The iPhone 5c isn't for everyone. If you're an early adopter or you are looking to upgrade an iPhone 5 after a year, the 5s is probably right for you. However, for many (perhaps most) iPhone users, the advantages of the 5s over the 5c are modest.

If you're planning to use your iPhone mostly for basic tasks like web browsing rather than for games or other complex apps, you may be better off trading down to the 5c. You could save yourself weeks or even months of waiting for your new iPhone -- and start enjoying faster LTE service immediately -- and save some money, too!

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Fool contributor Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of Apple and is long January 2015 $390 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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