iPhone 6c render leak
Rendering shows what the iPhone 6c in multiple colours would look like next to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus 9to5Mac

The year may have only just begun, but that hasn't stopped the Apple rumour mills from claiming 2016 will be the year we see the iPhone 6c, a handset with flagship performance and design, but in a smaller form than the current range. First there were computer renders, and now photos of a prototype appear to have leaked out.

Photographs, published by renowned and often accurate smartphone leaker Steve Hemmerstoffer, show a phone with the same aluminium design as the iPhone 6 and 6S, but with a smaller screen. The phone is white and silver, and has a Touch ID fingerprint centre on its Home button, but does not appear to be switched on.

But, as is always the case with leaks like this, we urge our readers to exercise caution. Hemmerstoffer's "Lol" caption doesn't help with the authenticity here, and neither do claims that this could simply be a Chinese knock-off built to look like a smaller iPhone 6.

iPhone 6c
Photograph shows either an iPhone 6c prototype or a Chinese knock-off. Without seeing the software it is impossible to tell Steve Hemmerstoffer

However, Apple has form for building cheaper handsets – the iPhone 5c was a brightly-coloured plastic version of the iPhone 5, and if the popularity of Sony's Xperia Z Compact range is anything to go by, there is still demand for smaller handsets with high-end performance.

The 3D renders published at the end of 2015 show what an iPhone 6c in multiple colours could look like. Next to a silver iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the fictional (for now) phone was shown off in silver, Space Grey, gold, rose gold, pink and blue, echoing the bright pastel colours of the iPhone 5c. Previous rumours suggest the phone would have a 4in screen – the same as the iPhone 5 – run iOS on an A9 processor with 2GB of RAM, and have at least 32GB of storage as standard.

A research note from KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, seen by MacRumors, said the model will serve as a successor to the two-year-old iPhone 5s, the last 4-inch phone made by Apple. It is also expected to be equipped with a cover glass with curved edges like on the iPhone 6s, and identical camera specifications to the iPhone 5s.

"While [the] new model may not generate huge sales, Apple still has good reasons to launch," the note says. "We estimate 15-17 million 4-inch iPhones will be shipped in 2015. We estimate the new 4-inch model will account for 8-9% of total iPhone shipments in 2016, [and have an] expected price of $400-500 (£260-£330) with the aim of penetrating emerging markets and consumers on smaller budgets."

Apple is expected to announce the new iPhone 7 at a media event in September 2016. This could be where the iPhone 6c (or perhaps 7c) will make its debut.