We've taken quite a liking to the design philosophy Nokia has carried through its Windows Phone 8 range to date, and the 720 is further proof the company has a good eye. A simple, clean rectangle, the handset measures 127.9 x 67.5 x 9mm (5.04 x 2.65 x 0.35 inches), making it one the thinnest WP8 offerings. It shares obvious traits with HTC's 8X and Huawei's Ascend W1, which have the same sharp angles that feel like a tangible manifestation of Microsoft's Live Tile UI. While its hard lines give the 720 an air of sophistication, Nokia hasn't forgotten to add that playful Lumia flair. The round edges of the device balloon ever so slightly from the single piece of sculpted Gorilla Glass 2 that covers the entire front face, before tapering inwards to the flat back. The corners, sides and back are all one piece of polycarbonate, which in our case was red. Well, mostly red -- it has a nice two-tone effect (albeit subtler than the 620's "dual-shot color" shells) that causes it to glow with more of an orange hue when brightly lit. There are also models bearing the other familiar Lumia colors of cyan, yellow, white and black, but here in the UK, the 720's currently exclusive to O2 in red (although our review handset came unlocked from Nokia.)
Nokia hasn't forgotten to add that playful Lumia flair.
Those rounded edges serve as a buffer to the sharp overall aesthetic and, along with the flat back, make for a really comfortable hold. The grippy polycarbonate shell helps keep it anchored in the palm, and at 128 grams (4.5 ounces), it's deceptively light for such a solid-feeling handset. It may not be forged from metal, but build quality is robust and gives the 720 a premium vibe. In terms of footprint, the 720 is just shy of matching Samsung's Galaxy S III, despite having half an inch less of display on the diagonal. That said, the 720 doesn't look or feel like bloated hardware around a small screen -- there isn't an excess of bezel to the left or right of the panel and all other space is allotted proportionally. Also, your thumb won't have any trouble getting where it needs to go.
Now, gather round for the tour. Joining the 4.3-inch display under the Gorilla Glass 2 sheet that consumes the 720's face are the standard back, home and search capacitive keys. Above the screen, you'll find a small, grey Nokia logo below the earpiece, with the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera just to the left. The bottom edge is home to a micro-USB port and mic, while the left side is bare apart from the microSD drawer at the earpiece end. On the top edge are a 3.5mm headphone socket and another drawer for the micro-SIM, with the volume rocker, power button and two-stage camera button in Nokia's standard layout on the right-hand side.
The back panel is as clean and understated as the rest of the device. Up top is the 6.7-megapixel main shooter with a small flash off to its left and tiny black Carl Zeiss branding below it. In the center is a black Nokia logo embossed lengthwise into the body, and at the bottom-right corner is a subtle rounded-square loudspeaker grille. Towards the middle of the bottom lie three round metallic pads, which, when paired with an optional cover, grant the 720 Qi wireless charging for its sizable 2,000mAh non-removable battery. In the right lighting, you can see the dark innards which spread upwards from the three points on the bottom to envelop the battery. Committing halfway to wireless charging and requiring additional hardware to utilize it are curious design decisions, and it feels like an unnecessary inclusion.
Right at the bottom of the back panel is a glossy CE mark (a European certification) with "Model: 720 Made in China" in almost illegibly small font below. Unfortunately, this looks altogether messy on what's otherwise a tidy handset. Continuing with the nitpicking, the spring-loaded microSD and micro-SIM drawers sink into the body a trifle (i.e., they don't sit flush with the edges), and we were able to force a slight wiggle from the cage on our model. While the phone as a whole is definitively inflexible, the center of the back panel gives ever so slightly when squeezed, producing a light cracking sound -- this is more of an observation and not something for concern. Highlighting such minor issues should give you a hint as to what we think of the hardware design in general. We like it... we like it a lot.
Let's get the specs out of the way first: 4.3-inch IPS LCD with ClearBlack technology and Sensitive Touch, 800 x 480 resolution, 217 ppi. What the makers of flagships with HD screens don't want you know is that WVGA is still a pretty common resolution, especially for Windows Phone 8 devices. In fact, the 520, 620, 720, 820, 8S and Ascend W1 all have 800 x 480 displays between 3.8 and 4.3 inches in size. We could reason that WVGA screens, and the resources needed for them, make for more affordable smartphones; or, that the Live Tile-based WP8 landing screen and all-around minimalistic UI render wonderfully at this res. But, if you lost interest after seeing "800 x 480," here's our Hail Mary elevator pitch: it's kinda awesome.
Pixelation in apps and menus isn't really an issue. It's there to some extent if you look hard enough, but the WP8 UI helps disguise it. We're surprised there isn't a noticeable drop in quality when compared with the Lumia 620's screen, which crams the WVGA resolution into its smaller 3.8-inch panel (246 ppi). Colors are rich and vibrant; whites are accurate; and blacks rank among the best we've seen, helped by Nokia's ClearBlack technology. The black of the screen is often indiscernible from the darkness of the bezel, making the entire front face look like it's supporting the Live Tile grid. Viewing angles, outdoor visibility, brightness (and the auto-adjust setting) are all great. Color us impressed, but we can't totally overlook the resolution. Whether from local files, YouTube or Netflix, it's a perfectly adequate screen upon which to watch moving pictures (the loudspeakers have a bit of punch, too), but you know you're missing out on those finer details. This would also be the case for games, but those with more advanced graphics aren't compatible with handsets rocking 512MB of RAM.
You're probably well aware by now: the Lumia 720 runs Windows Phone 8. You can check out our full review of the latest version of Microsoft's mobile OS here, but let's break it down briefly. WP8 is stripped back and simple. Beyond the lock screen is your Live Tile home screen and, on an adjacent panel, is a list of all your apps and core features like settings, messages, emails, et al. It's really easy to get the hang of, and Microsoft has built an OS that runs great on hardware that Android handsets laugh at. The OS is a major, if not the deciding factor when considering new handsets, so pondering whether WP8 is right for you isn't wasted time. On WP8, you're basically tied to Internet Explorer, so be ready to invest some time in moving those bookmarks across if IE isn't your default browser elsewhere.
Because this is a Lumia, you've got access to a bunch of exclusive apps.
Once you're all set up, though, WP8 is relatively transparent, easy to navigate and a cinch to understand. Our handset came straight from Nokia, so it was just a case of uninstalling the Angry Birds Roost pseudo-store to rid it of bloatware. Because this is a Lumia, you've got access to a bunch of exclusive apps not available on other Windows Phones, such as PhotoBeamer, Nokia Music and Pulse messenger (currently in beta). There is also a host of imaging apps that afford you advanced features not available within the stock camera software: Cinemagraph, Creative Studio, Glam Me, Panorama and Smart Shoot. Several of these and Nokia's Here navigation aids come pre-installed on the 720, with any omissions easily downloadable from the software store.
Of the Here apps for the 720, only City Lens is exclusive to Lumias. Curiously, Here Drive+ beta, which is bundled with the arguably lower-end 620, doesn't make an appearance. Instead, you get Here Drive (available on all Windows Phones) -- a satnav app that is limited to the country your micro-SIM is allied to. Drive+, on the other hand, is global, and considering the 720 is launching at a relatively high price point for second-tier WP8 phones, its absence feels a little cheap on Nokia's part. You've also got to remember that the 720 lacks support for a handful of apps by default, due to RAM requirements. But, at least the Twitter client is slick, right?
The 720's rear-facing camera is one of the main components that sets it apart from other WP8 models with otherwise similar core specs. While the 520, 620, 8S and Ascend W1 all have five megapixels to work with, the 720 has a 6.7-megapixel BSI sensor, Carl Zeiss lens and f/1.9 aperture. Before we get to that, though, let's take a quick pass over the 1.3-megapixel selfie shooter on the front face. The wide-angle lens with f/2.4 aperture is capable of taking some crisp and well-colored photos in daylight (read: good conditions), but starve it of light or bring it inside and the resulting pictures are extremely noisy. Under artificial light, you can see the exposure compensation stuttering in the viewfinder as it struggles to adjust.
Shooting 720p video on the front-facer results in much the same experience. If you're inside or caught by failing light, it's going to be just like the stills: grainy. In favorable conditions, video exhibits an acceptable frame rate and quality, but has a tendency to radically shift white balance if filming on the auto setting, making for inconsistent clips. Let's be honest: front-facing cameras aren't selling points. You're not going to be overcome with disappointment when using it for the odd video call or self-portrait. Nokia's Glam Me airbrushing / filter app specifically for front-facing shots comes pre-installed on the 720, so there's that to play with.
Like most touchscreen handsets, you can tap on the screen to direct focus and take a picture, but, as with all Windows Phones, there's a physical, two-stage camera button available to focus the main camera before shooting. We found this toggle a little too sensitive on other review handsets, but that's not the case on our 720. The two levels are clearly defined, so no frustrations there. Shutter response, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It takes a good two seconds for the lens to focus, the picture to be taken and the saving animation to finish before you're ready for the next close-up. It's pretty painful, and a steady hand is essential during the sluggish process to avoid filling a microSD card full of blurry shots.
Shutter response leaves a lot to be desired.
If you're unfamiliar with the core WP8 camera app, it's pretty basic with only a handful of settings for both picture and video modes: scene type, ISO, exposure, white balance and aspect ratio. Within the subsections, there are limited options and we only strayed from automatic settings to shoot in low light. On the viewfinder screen, you can set the flash type, switch between cameras and toggle still / video modes, as well as access the other photography apps. There aren't any advanced features in the core app like HDR, burst capture, panorama, slow-motion video, etc. To get at these, you're kicked out of the standard camera interface into discrete apps, with loading screens in between. We've got Cinemagraph, Glam Me, Panorama, Smart Shoot and Microsoft's Photosynth app installed. Panorama is a solid app that's easy to use and does a great job of stitching snaps together, even if exposure sometimes varies across the canvas. Smart Shoot is Nokia's take on the burst-capture mode, but the app can't improve the shutter lag on the 720, so it's only slightly quicker than taking a couple of regular shots in succession.
So, how about that 6.7-megapixel, Carl Zeiss lens camera round the back? Overall, we've got mixed feelings. When taking our sample shots, we didn't tinker with the settings much apart from selecting the appropriate scene type (night, close-up, etc.). Finding the best results came when we left the 720 to make up its own mind in auto. By doing that, however, you're at the handset's mercy. Some shots came out crisp, with HDR-esque vibrancy and contrast, while others were dark or appeared to have all the color sucked out of them. Macro shots were agreeably consistent, by and large. Without the help of the sun, things got a little worse. Colors just weren't represented correctly in artificial light. With those bulbs turned off and given the right distance, the small flash kicked out enough rays to keep overexposure to a minimum. We don't expect you'll be using the flash that often, though, as the f/1.9 aperture and BSI sensor suck up every bit of light in dim conditions and made for some impressive snaps. We found some tradeoffs in quality, and the focus failed 50 percent of the time, but Nokia's low-light pedigree was very apparent here. It doesn't equal the low-light performance of the Lumia 920 by any means, but it's close enough for comparison, which is a good thing.