With new iPhones, Apple chose style over screen size

Apple's iPhone 5C lineup
Apple's iPhone 5C lineup

There were no real surprises at the Apple press event in Cupertino, Calif., but we finally got a chance to see the iPhone 5S and 5C up close. While the flagship 5S does come with some engineering excellence, these phones on the whole play to Apple's core strength: Style. The pastel rainbow of 5C models really did "brighten up everyone's day," as Apple promised, and that new gold iPhone is surprisingly elegant in person.

Nerds may really dig the 5S — it's got numerous under-the-hood improvements including a speedy new processor for graphics-intensive gaming, and a "motion co-processor" geared to increase the use of the phone's sensors without draining the battery. It's even got a fingerprint scanner — effectively a third on-board camera — tucked into the home button.

But those hardware advantages will only come into play as developers make use of them in apps and services. Apple did not wow the crowd with random (at times gimmicky) interface tricks like we've seen during the last few Samsung events, and the screen on both new iPhone models is still four inches. Let's get this out of the way: If the smartphone tug-of-war is solely going to be fought over screen size, then this move leaves Apple open to losing customers. 

The only possibility of an Apple screen-size coup in 2013 would be if the company went nuts and gave the 7.9-inch iPad Mini full cellular data and voice capability. That's not likely — though it would be quite an item.

Apple's iPhone 5S lineup
Apple's iPhone 5S lineup

No, Apple is appealing to customers in a different way, with lots of color choices, with slimmer, shimmery form factors, and with a new operating system that's not just flatter and more modern, but livelier and more colorful than any of its starker competitors. If that sounds like an appeal to the many women who aren't interested in a black plastic slate that can barely fit in their hands, that's because it probably is.

Tech analyst Richard Doherty, who I bumped into at the event, said he didn't think the company was ignoring the screen-size challenges; rather, he said that his research shows women don't like the bigger screens, and that the iPhone is currently an ideal size.

Colorful cases for iPhone 5C
Colorful cases give the iPhone 5C even more color possibilities.

Colors, too, are key here. Design consultant Robert Brunner, who once worked at Apple, says that if colors are introduced at the right time in a product's lifeline, they will boost sales. It's about differentiation, about a personal statement, especially in the youth market. I want a gold iPhone 5S; you want a hot pink iPhone 5C — we both have iPhones, but our choices show that we're very different people.

This may be the combination that helps iPhones rocket past those monster "phablet" Galaxy Notes — and even the slightly smaller but nevertheless huge and feature-packed Samsung Galaxy S4 — at the cellphone store. (Apple's not the only one thinking along these lines, mind you: The Moto X from Google-owned Motorola is very much about playful differentiation, and its screen isn't too huge either.)

The gold finish on the iPhone 5S
The gold finish on the iPhone 5S is surprisingly elegant in person.

Beyond those making style-conscious decisions, who else will buy the new iPhones? The 5S will certainly appeal to gamers who are already buying games in Apple's App Store. They'll certainly like the added graphics horsepower, which will come in handy when connected wirelessly, via Apple TV, to a big screen TV.

Camera buffs will appreciate the fact that Apple continues to innovate in the photography space, despite already having a leg up on the competition in photo quality. The dual-LED "True Tone" flash will be great when you desperately need illumination, and the larger sensor and optics should help in flash-free low-light situations — though we haven't tested it yet.

The 5C, of course, will appeal to people who had a hard time convincing their parents to buy them an iPhone before now. Yes, the teens who used to have just two choices — last year's iPhone or a low-end Android phone — now have a line on a colorful new $99 iPhone. That's the price with a two-year plan, of course; I am eager to hear how much it'll cost without a contract. Globally speaking, that lower-cost phone — with nearly all of the amenities of the current top iPhones, if not any of the 5S's cutting-edge engineering — will be a huge draw.

Apple unveils its two newest iPhones 2:27
Apple's iPhone 5S features new colors, fingerprint scanner 4:48
Apple introduces colorful, lower-priced iPhone 5C 4:06

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.