And the back camera? You're still dealing with the 720's 6.7-megapixel sensor and a wide-angle f/1.9 lens, so the story hasn't changed much versus a year ago. It's fine for the price range, but the quality varies wildly depending on the situation. While images are often vivid and sharp in good lighting, there are occasional moments when the results are lifeless or flat-out inaccurate; like many Lumias, it periodically wrecks the color balance for no apparent reason. As with the front shooter, the main cam's dynamic range is limited and tends to hide detail in both highlights and shadows. It's capable enough in low-light situations, but don't let that sweet-sounding aperture fool you -- you'll still have to keep a steady hand for night shots.
Microsoft partly makes up for these shortcomings through its superb Nokia Camera app. The software doesn't just give you far-reaching control over elements like focus, sensitivity and white balance, but also presents all that control in a meaningful way. You'll see the effects of most changes in real time, and they're simple enough that you're encouraged to experiment. Case in point: Fully automatic shooting ruined a nighttime river scene, but the manual controls let me take a long-exposure, low-sensitivity image that was far more pleasing. You can also tie Nokia Camera into other apps through software add-ons ("lenses"), so you're only a quick hop away from the likes of Bing Vision searching or 6-second Vine clips.
Video recording on either of the 735's cameras (both of which can handle 1080p) mirrors the visual quality you get with stills, just with reduced input over the picture. You're mostly restricted to tuning white balance and focus when shooting with the main camera, and those few options go away with the front unit. Microsoft's real ace in the hole here is audio recording. As with many recent Lumias, there's a Rich Recording setup that prevents very loud noises from overwhelming the microphones, such as bass at a concert. The Lumia can be overzealous in muffling sounds with the default settings; occasionally, it sounds like you were recording from a closet. Nonetheless, that's still preferable to the unlistenable messes you frequently get from other phones.
Performance and battery life
Gauging the Lumia 735's speed is difficult. If all you're doing is measuring specs, it's no great shakes. Although the quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM are miles above the dual-core chip and 512MB of RAM of the 720, they're strictly par for the course among low-end phones these days. In fact, the extra memory is this phone's only real performance advantage (albeit an important one) over the Lumia 630 and 635. Why would you pay Microsoft's asking price when something like the Moto G has similar innards for less?
Because specs don't tell the full story; that's why. No, the 735 won't outrun high-end beasts like the Lumia Icon or One M8 for Windows, but it thrashes the Moto G in the SunSpider web browser test (1,237ms vs 1,534ms) -- proof that Microsoft can wring out additional performance through software. You'd be hard-pressed to tell that this wasn't a flagship just by steering through the basic Windows Phone interface. Scrolling is fast and fluid; transitions happen at a brisk pace; and many apps respond as quickly as you'd hope. If all you're doing is checking Facebook and playing music, this lower-end Lumia will serve you as well as something costing twice as much. It's certainly a better pick than the 630 and 635, whose low memory is going to curb your ability to run games and other intensive apps.
There's only so much Microsoft can do, however, and it's when you dive into demanding apps that it becomes clear you're not using a powerhouse. Besides slower web-browsing performance (it's roughly half as quick as the Icon in SunSpider), the 735 just isn't great for 3D gaming. A modest title like Wings on Fire plays smoothly, but you can expect stuttering in a visually rich arcade racer like Asphalt 8. No, it wouldn't be reasonable to demand blistering frame rates from a device so cheap, but you will have to dial your expectations back a notch.
You won't have to worry much about battery life. That 2,220mAh pack isn't huge in an era when some mid-size phones pack upwards of 3,000mAh, but it's also driving modest hardware. That's reflected in the healthy longevity I got during my stint. The Lumia 735 managed 9.5 hours in a battery-rundown test that involved looping an HD video at medium brightness with email, Facebook and Twitter running in the background; that's actually half an hour better than Microsoft's official estimate. It's more than enough to get through a day of moderate use that includes Instagram, Twitter, Swarm check-ins and instant messaging, although I would get nervous if someone invited me to enjoy a long night out.
No matter what, cellular performance comes up aces. The unlocked 735 I tried sadly didn't support North American LTE frequencies (only bands 3, 7 and 20), but it still managed very respectable averages of 21 Mbps for downloads and 8 Mbps for uploads on Rogers' dual-carrier HSPA+ network in Ottawa, Canada. It should play nicely on AT&T's network in the US, if you get the same model. Call quality, meanwhile, is excellent. Both ends of the conversation are loud and clear, while the noise-cancellation feature does a fine job of squelching background audio -- a recipient couldn't even tell that I had loud music playing in the background during one test. You should anticipate similarly stellar voice calls on the Lumia 730's two lines, but it's going to be slower given that it only supports single-carrier HSPA+ data.
The Lumia 735 is entering a crowded field of not-quite-entry-level smartphones, and your choices are going to vary dramatically depending on what platforms you're willing to use and where you live. You're likely to run into a few common alternatives, though, so let's dig in.
When you limit yourself to Windows Phone, the 735 is a fairly safe bet -- in part because it's tough to find brand-new handsets that directly compete in both price and size. A lot of what's available is a clear step down in both memory and screen quality, such as the Lumia 635 or Huawei's Ascend W2. If you have a set spending limit, you may want to consider the Lumia 1320. You'll give up the 735's camera prowess and quad-core processing, but you'll get both a gigantic 6-inch display and a long-lasting battery. If anything, the biggest threat to the 735 is the next step up, the Lumia 830. You'll lose some quality in selfies, but you'll also get a more powerful 10-megapixel rear camera, a hardware camera key, more storage and a slightly larger 5-inch screen. Even then, it's still tempting to pick the 735. It delivers nearly all of the 830's performance and display quality in a package that leaves lots of cash left over for accessories.
If you're not wedded to Microsoft's ecosystem, the rivalry becomes much fiercer... and frankly, the Lumia doesn't emerge unscathed. Not surprisingly, the elephant in the room is Motorola's second-generation Moto G. You're getting most of the experience for a smaller outlay (€199 or less in Europe, $180 in the US), and you'll get both a higher-resolution rear camera and a larger screen, to boot. While the 735 does have LTE data, wireless charging and better selfies, you'd have to value those a good deal to justify the premium. HTC's Desire 616 offers a similar bargain, although it's not as easy to find. Samsung's comparably priced Galaxy Grand 2 is no real threat, but do look at Huawei's Ascend G6 -- while you lose screen sharpness, you're getting a good selfie cam and a higher-resolution rear shooter for less cash.
I won't lie: I came into this review worried that the Lumia 735 would lean too hard on the selfie angle at the expense of other features, much like the 720 did. Happily, this isn't the case. The 735 (and by extension, the 730) is really a capable, stylish budget smartphone that just happens to take some nice self-portraits. Microsoft Mobile has ironed out many of the kinks from the 720 while simultaneously lowering the price. How can you not like that? To me, the 735 is the real successor to Nokia's cult favorite, the Lumia 620. It costs a bit more, but it still strikes a fine balance among attractive design, affordability and solid performance. The 630 and 635 are only worth considering if you simply must have a modern Lumia and can't justify spending more.
Having said this, there are a few big items on my upgrade wish list. The 735's cameras could stand to perform better, particularly in darker scenes; it really needs a camera key, or at least a lock screen shortcut; it'd be nice to get both a faster processor as well as more built-in storage. And yes, the app supply remains a concern. The Lumia 735 is a very good phone for what you're paying, particularly if you're committed to Windows, but it stops short of greatness.