Nokia Lumia 720 review

For years, Nokia has known that the best way to expand market share is to saturate every corner of it with a device. After an initial launch of just two devices in late 2011, Lumia devices are now available at seemingly every price point from £99 to £499, and one of the latest devices to join the range, the Lumia 720, sits firmly in the middle of this vast expanse, priced at around £249 unlocked. It follows on from the Lumia 710, which I reviewed last year and felt was a bargain considering its low price and high quality, but the 720 faces fierce competition from a sea of Android-powered handsets including diminutive versions of the top-selling flagships from HTC and Samsung. As such, is this mid-range combination of Windows Phone 8 and Nokia’s trademark hardware design worth your attention? Read on to find out.

Disclaimer: This was a review unit provided to us by Nokia. I used it for two weeks as my primary phone and will return it when my review period is complete.

Video Review

Hardware

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Nokia has long held a reputation for stunning hardware, and the Lumia 720 represents the latest iteration of the polycarbonate unibody design language that the company introduced in 2011 with the N9 and transferred to Windows Phone with the Lumia 800, a phone that has served me well for upwards of a year now. Devices that we have seen with this type of shell, most notably the 800, 900 and 920, have employed curvy designs in order to hide the natural bulk that this construction produces, a plan which has been mostly successful. The phones have all looked sleek and received acclaim for their aesthetics, although complaints have arisen centring around the weight. When I first picked up my Lumia 800, I did find it surprisingly hefty at 142g, and the Lumia 920, the flagship Windows Phone 8 handset from Espoo, hit the scales at 185g. Fans of the Lumia range including myself have found that over time they adjust to the mass as it provides a feeling of durability and ruggedness but, when combined with the ever expanding screens on smartphones today, one handed use can prove difficult on devices with displays heading increasingly (and frustratingly) north of 4″.

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The 720 is contained within Nokia’s first polycarbonate unibody that also remains thin and light. At 9mm thick and 128g, on paper it is clear that they achieved what they set out to do, and it feels even better than it looks. It resembles HTC’s 8X in shape more than any Lumia we’ve seen before, save for the possible exception of the 520, but Nokia’s unmistakable array of colours succeeds in ensuring that you know the 720 is a Nokia and not one of the many imitators. My review unit came in the cyan that I have loved so dearly on my 800, while yellow, red, black and white models are also available. Mercifully, all of these variants have matte finishes, meaning that they should remain relatively scratch-free throughout their lifetimes. Nokia’s method of manufacturing the polycarbonate also ensures that, in the event of you chipping a bit of the surface away, the colour runs through the entirety of the shell, meaning that your ‘little incidents’ will remain hidden from the world. All units have the same button and port placement, with a black plastic volume rocker, power key and two-stage camera key running down the right edge, a micro-USB port alongside a microphone at the base and a micro-SIM tray next to a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top of the device. The left edge, typically left as a clean slate on other Lumias, houses a microSD tray, which is a very welcome addition to the built-in 7.41GB of available storage. Be warned, though – apps, unlike photos and music, cannot be installed to the SD card.

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The Lumia 720 may ooze a premium feel from the outside, but the same cannot sadly be said for what is under the hood. With a 1GHz Snapdragon S4 MSM8227 powering the show the phone isn’t exactly a slouch, although 512MB of RAM proves a devil when it comes to some app compatibility which I shall talk about later. Connectivity options are just as you would expect, with chips supporting Bluetooth 3.0, 802.11n WiFi, NFC, 21.1Mbps HSPA+ and even GLONASS. Network performance, tested with 3, was generally fantastic. Calls were clear (and the ringer nice and loud) and download speeds around Sussex regularly hit over 10Mbps. Even within my own home, typically a deadzone for every mobile carrier, I was able to establish an occasional and functional HSPA+ connection.

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One area where Nokia have clearly cut a couple of corners is with the display. Unlike the AMOLED panels that appear on many of their flagship devices including the 925, 928 and 1020, the 720 sports a 4.3″ IPS LCD at a resolution of 800 x 480. It’s not a bad screen by any means – it’s clearly visible in direct sunlight thanks to some software tweaks, it’s plenty bright enough and blacks are relatively deep as you would expect from a panel carrying the company’s ClearBlack branding. The AMOLED vs. LCD battle will rage on until the end of time, and while both technologies have their benefits and drawbacks, the LCD panel here suffers from slightly washed-out colours and is simply no match for the AMOLED panels that we have seen on other handsets, despite their oversaturation. Mercifully, though, the panel here has a traditional RGB sub-pixel arrangement and as such text remains clear despite the panel not being the most dense in the world at 217ppi. A 720p display would be preferable, although the lower resolution helps to ease the load on the 2000mAh non-removable battery, which would typically carry me comfortably through the day with a mixture of music streaming, Twitter reading, catching up on my Pocket list and the odd bit of a game.

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Speaking of the battery, wireless charging support can be added to the device with the addition of a clip-on cover (CC-3064) available in the same hues as the device itself. Sadly I didn’t have a Qi-compatible charger to hand to test the function, but the case itself is very comfortable and fits snugly and securely onto the corners. It’s a perfect side dish to the phone’s main course, but it does tend to be a very large fingerprint magnet. You can pick them up in all the usual peripheral retailers for around £20, though it appears that two different designs of the same model exists. The one I used simply grips the vertices, while another model (as found on Amazon) clips around both sides with holes for the buttons. I prefer the former though both seem identical in function.

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Cameras

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Front camera sample image

Like almost every other phone on the market at the moment, the Lumia 720 comes equipped with a pair of cameras. The front one is capable of shooting 1.3MP images and 720p video with its wide angle lens, but these are par for the course and plenty sufficient for the occasional Skype call (or awkward selfie if you’re into that kind of thing). The rear shooter is where the business takes place and, while it hasn’t been graced with the PureView branding, it provides some very impressive images. The 720 has a 6.7MP sensor with 1.4µ pixels (the same size as those on the 808 PureView, allowing for good low-light shots) accompanied by an LED flash and Zeiss optics. Autofocus generally functions as advertised, and the stock camera app allows you manual control over white balance, ISO, exposure value, aspect ratio and the focus assist light. Nokia’s Smart Camera app, introduced with the Lumia 925, will become available for the 720 once it receives the OTA Amber update, which Nokia promises will hit all Windows Phone 8 Lumias by the end of September. Take a look here for some full resolution shots and a video sample from the camera.

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Rear camera sample image

Software

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Where many will instantly find an issue with the Lumia 720 is with Windows Phone 8, its operating system. The platform has recently slotted into a comfortable third place behind iOS and Android and those who love it swear by it. You could even count myself among these ranks as I’ve remained a stubborn user of my Lumia 800 for over a year, even though I was lumbered with Windows Phone 7.5 (and later 7.8) as Microsoft offered no software upgrade strategy to the new platform from legacy devices. As such, using the 720 gave me my first proper experience of Windows Phone 8, and as I expected the core operating system has impressed me considerably.

WP_20130817 10The out-of-box experience that Windows Phone offers is superb. Even on low-end and midrange hardware, flinging your way through the interface is a buttery smooth experience without even the slightest hint of lag. The Metro Modern design language looks as stunning as ever, and the live tiles on the homescreen help somewhat to make up for the lack of notification centre. Notifications on the lockscreen are far better now, as developers can make their app show either a numbered badge showing new items or a more detailed bit of information such as a text message or mention on Twitter. My two major bugbears with Windows Phone 7.x have also been rectified in the new operating system, as there is an option to make WiFi connections persist when the phone is locked and idle and multitasking now works very similarly to iOS and Android as you can resume open applications by either holding the back button for the multitasking menu or now by simply tapping on the app’s tile or app list icon. This makes the platform much better to use and, as a core operating system, it is definitely now in a position to rival the established crowd.

wp_ss_20130819_0001While the Windows Phone Store does now boast over 160,000 apps, on the surface things look pretty dire. Taking a peek at the top free apps will throw up all of the usual suspects (Skype, Twitter, Facebook etc.) but also a plethora of crappy Facebook, YouTube and fart apps. As such, it can be pretty difficult to find the absolute gems that do exist. Nokia aims to alleviate this difficulty by curating a collection within the store, and applications can be filtered by category. When you do find the gems – 6Sec, Rowi, Mehdoh, Podcast Lounge and Facebook to name a few – you’ll realise that much of what Windows Phone can offer is either on par or superior to first or third party counterparts on competing platfroms. If you’re an avid gamer, however, you may want to steer clear of the 720 due to its 512MB RAM. Some games that have recently hit the platform such as Halo: Spartan Assault and FIFA 13 require 1GB RAM to function. Within the Store app on the phone these apps, which are small in number but big in name, are hidden to attempt to prevent disappointment, but should you open a link to the apps you will be greeted with a message explaining that you need more memory to play. You’ll have to stick to Wordament.

WP_20130817 20One of the best things that Windows Phone has going for it is that, unlike Android, OEMs are unable to provide aesthetic customisations save for an additional accent colour or clock tile. This forces the device makers to offer exclusive apps and features to compel people to choose their hardware over the rest, and Nokia seems to be the only Windows Phone manufacturer actually trying in this respect. Nokia has exclusivity deals with many companies for certain applications, including Ubisoft, EA and Disney, while also releasing many tools themselves to bolster the Windows Phone application platform. Here Drive, for example, gives you free UK and Ireland GPS navigation with an optional upgrade to Here Drive+ (standard on higher-end devices) that extends this functionality to over 100 countries. Similarly, Nokia Music offers you free offline mixes that you can customise with a paid option to remove some limitations, and Cinemagraph lets you create GIFs at the touch of a button. Many of these applications from Nokia and partners come pre-installed, and any can be uninstalled if you so desire. In my situation, this uninstallation spree included DB Navigator, THE Football App and World of Red Bull.

WP_20130817 22Nokia also bakes in a few tweaks to Windows Phone itself to differentiate its devices from the competitors, including Dolby headphone optimisations and an equaliser that covers all sound output from the phone. The most notable tweak in the software build I used was the addition of the display and touch section under settings, which allows the user to adjust settings for sunlight readability, battery saver mode and to turn the super sensitive touch function on and off. This latter feature does not always function as advertised, however. It’s supposed to make the screen more sensitive so that you can still operate it while wearing thick gloves and this works most of the time, but when the phone is just idle in your pocket the screen has a tendency to pick up signals from your body that activate the phone. More than once I found my thigh skipping tracks in Spotify or trying to enter my passcode, but things returned to normalcy when I disabled this function, which isn’t really worth the hassle it causes.

WP_20130817 23As I alluded to earlier, Nokia is pre-empting the upcoming release of Windows Phone 8 GDR2 with their own update for all Windows Phone 8 Lumia devices, christened Amber. Although I did not receive the software during my review period, Nokia promises that the update will hit all devices regardless of location or carrier by the end of September, and it promises to add even more exclusive functionality. These features include flip to silence, double tap to unlock and the aforementioned support for the Smart Camera application. Should this software update come through before my review period concludes, I will update this post accordingly.

Conclusion

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With such visually appealing design and slick performance, I think that Nokia is onto a winner once again in the midrange of the market with the Lumia 720. The phone is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and Windows Phone 8, aided by Nokia’s useful software additions and enhancements, has made large strides forward from its predecessor to become a far more viable competitor to Apple and Google’s offerings. If you’re after a phone at around £250 unlocked that will perform the basic functions of a smartphone with ease and are willing to overlook the odd bit of incompatibility with big-name games and are prepared to mine deep into the Store to unearth the gems within, I would not hesitate to recommend the Lumia 720. Just make sure you bring that microSD card.

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