Nokia's family of Windows Phone 8 handsets just continues to grow. The Finnish smartphone maker is pushing its Lumia devices into the low- and mid-range with devices like the Lumia 620 and 520, but a surprising entry in the form of the Lumia 720 makes Nokia’s budget smartphones a lot more interesting. While the Lumia 920 includes high-end specs and an impressive camera, it's a bulky and heavy device that doesn’t appeal to everyone. Likewise, the Lumia 820 lacks any wow factor with a bland and hefty design and mid-range specs. But the 720 appears to combine the right size with the right design, something the middle of Nokia's lineup has lacked.
Nokia’s strategy in the US and elsewhere has seen it partner with carriers and ship 14.3 million Lumias worldwide. With its rolling thunder approach to the US market still a slow starter, Nokia has turned its attentions to the Lumia 720. A thinner and lighter Lumia sounds appealing, but is the Lumia 720 the Nokia device we've finally been looking for?
Lumia on a diet
When I first laid my hands on the Lumia 720 at this year's Mobile World Congress, I was impressed with Nokia's latest smartphone. It feels and looks like a flagship device, with a polycarbonate body and Zune HD-like appearance.
This is the design I've been waiting for from Nokia. I use the Lumia 920 as my primary phone, but the 4.5-inch display and bulk are often irritating for one-handed use when I travel on buses and trains in London. The Lumia 720 is a perfect match for a single hand, thanks to its 4.3-inch display and slim 9mm frame. Nokia hasn't opted for a giant display, nor has the company made this handset any bigger or heavier than it needs to be.
Simple, stylish, and practical
The curved edges meet at the front of the display to form what looks like a squared device that's very similar to HTC's 8X, and it's almost exactly the same weight as well. Compared to the Lumia 920’s heft, the Lumia 720 certainly feels a lot more comfortable. The design is simplistic, with some curvature at the rear and sides, but that's one of the appealing aspects to the Lumia 720. With a matte finish instead of the glossy colors found on the Lumia 920, Nokia is once again delivering its trademark polycarbonate in a way that’s stylish and practical. I’ve always been a fan of the Lumia 800 and 900 with matte finished colors, and Nokia’s switch to glossy for the majority of colors on the 920 was disappointing. I like my smartphones to feel secure in my hand rather than slippery, and glossiness produces unsightly fingerprints as well.
Wireless charging is an optional add-on
Between wireless charging support, a microSD slot, and a wide-angle forward-facing camera, it doesn't look like Nokia has passed on specifications initially, but dig a little deeper and it's clear this is a mid-range handset. With 8GB of internal storage, a dual-core 1GHz processor, and just 512MB of RAM powering the Windows Phone UI and its apps, its spec sheet is more low-end than it is even mid-range. The polycarbonate back isn't removable, but at least wireless charging is optional — using an additional sleeve that snaps onto the rear of the device, making the body a bit thicker. This is also the first time that Nokia has integrated a microSD slot into its unibody design, located on the left-hand side of the handset and accessible with a SIM tool — and you may need a microSD card with just 8GB of storage on board.
There's the usual array of Windows Phone capacitive hardware buttons, and Nokia's traditional three-button layout on the left-hand side is still present with volume, power, and camera buttons. As the rear is non-removable, there's no way to access the 2,000 mAh battery, but luckily I didn't find this to be an issue. A 6.7-megapixel camera can also be found at the rear of the device, along with a small circular speaker and the contact points for the wireless charging shells. Other than that, this is the standard layout for a Nokia Lumia.
Why WVGA today?
On paper, Nokia's Lumia 720 display sounds disappointing. A 4.3-inch IPS LCD screen provides the main interaction with Windows Phone's vibrant UI, at a low resolution of 480 x 800. However, it's not as bad as it sounds. Although you only get 217 pixels per inch, half of what some high-end phones offer, Nokia has done a good job of balancing the colors and blacks to reduce blurriness and jagged edges. Viewing angles are solid, and I found the screen is bright enough in daylight to be readable and usable.
A low resolution, but otherwise high-quality display
Like the Lumia 920 and 820, the 720 has a "sunlight readability mode" that automatically kicks in and the ability to use gloves thanks to a high touch sensitive display. It's still disappointing not to see a 720p display in Nokia's mid-range devices, especially as 1080p is becoming the standard for high-end Android smartphones, but until Windows Phone supports 1080p it's likely that manufacturers will continue to ship WVGA displays in mid-range units.
PureView is trickling down
In a typical mid-range smartphone, manufacturers tend to shy away from including a decent camera, but Nokia has placed perfectly capable cameras in on both sides of the Lumia 720. Nokia made a big deal about its rear camera on the 720 at its launch event earlier this year, promising that parts of its PureView technology are getting pushed down to lower price points. The "PureView" marketing term is used by Nokia on high-end devices that include features like optical imaging stabilisation and improved low-light performance, and while the Lumia 720 isn't branded PureView, I did find that its rear 6.7-megapixel camera performs rather well in low-light situations. Like the Lumia 920, Nokia is optimizing the automatic camera settings to favor low-light situations: you'll get a decent result in low light, even without needing a flash or having to play around with night mode or change ISO and exposure settings. The low-light pictures are fairly noisy but they're adequate enough for a smartphone.
A step up from the average smartphone camera
In daylight, though, I found that the 720 tends to wash out pictures — likely a result of that low-light prioritization. I regularly had to wipe the lens to ensure it was clean before I took a picture as otherwise the images would result in light bleed, especially indoors. The end results were very mixed, but most of the time I ended up with images that were blurry when viewed at the full resolution of 2848 x 2144. The Lumia 920 experienced some initial issues with its daylight performance too, though, but Nokia was quick to correct them and the 920 now has a well balanced camera as a result. The 720's rear camera isn't capable of recording 1080p video, but the 720p recording is exactly what you'd expect from a smartphone. It responds to panning and light changes well, and the autofocus is quick.
On the front, Nokia has equipped the Lumia 720 with a wide-angle 1.3-megapixel camera. It's unusual to see Nokia opt for a wide-angle like HTC on the 8X, but it's a welcome addition. The front-facing camera is also capable of recording at 720p resolution, and the results, like the rear shooter, are what you'd expect from a smartphone. It appears that the front-facing camera accompanies a new Glam Me app for Windows Phone designed specifically for self portraits.
Same old Windows Phone
If you're familiar with Windows Phone 8, then you won’t find many surprises here. While Nokia differentiates with additional apps and photo enhancement software, at the heart of this phone is Microsoft's operating system. Nokia is taking advantage of the microSD support and lenses apps in Windows Phone 8, just as it has done with other Lumia devices. From a software aspect, nothing really stands out here to differentiate between other Lumia handsets. The usual Here Maps and Here Drive are present, along with Nokia Music, but all of these apps can be found on all Lumia handsets.
512MB of RAM will prevent you from playing the latest games
The 720's biggest software problem is actually a hardware problem: it only includes 512MB of RAM. While this was sufficient in the Windows Phone 7 era, Windows Phone 8 apps and games are starting to push the boundaries of this amount of RAM. Temple Run recently arrived on Windows Phone 8, but if you search for it on the Windows Phone Store from the Lumia 720 then it's nowhere to be found. It's hidden, as are other apps that simply don't run on devices with 512MB of RAM, presumably to avoid disappointing owners. If you manage to access Temple Run from a link, you'll be informed of the 1GB RAM restriction for this particular game. This is just one example, but there are others and increasingly this could become an issue for owners picking up mid-range devices with 512MB of RAM, especially for access to games.
On the performance side, it's a fairly standard affair for Windows Phone 8 here. While the Lumia 720 only includes a 1GHz dual-core processor, the interface and apps are quick to launch and load the majority of times. However, as with HTC's 8S, I found that this particular Qualcomm chipset (the MSM8227) still has some issues with Windows Phone 8. It's greatly improved from my experience with the 8S, but the Lumia 720 occasionally took a long time to resume apps or to transition through the animated menus of the Windows Phone UI. Some of the issues I experienced could be related to the 512MB of RAM in the handset, but It's clear that Microsoft still needs to optimize its operating system for this particular chipset, but for the vast majority of time it works as expected.
Windows Phone 8 still lacks quality apps
Windows Phone 8 still lacks quality apps, and it's surprising that nearly six months after its release the situation hasn't changed much. Microsoft and its partners are on the back foot, and while they continue to make inroads on some apps, the latest and greatest still launch on Android and iOS ahead of Microsoft's mobile platform. This is a big drawback to Windows Phone if you're addicted to apps and games, but if you're a casual smartphone user then the app selection and built-in features of Windows Phone will serve you well. For other aspects of Windows Phone 8, please see our full review here.
This phone goes on, and on, and on...
Solid battery life for a modern smartphone
Nokia's Lumia 720 includes a non-removable 2,000 mAh battery. That's a big battery for a device of this size and it puts it on level with the Lumia 920, sitting above the capacity of the Lumia 820 and HTC's 8X. It's surprising that Nokia packed such a high-capacity battery inside this mid-range device, but it has paid off for battery life. I found that I could easily use the Lumia 720 for two days solid before I had to plug in and charge again. Nokia claims you'll get around 13hrs of talk time on 3G, with 520 hrs of standby. During my own testing I found that the Lumia 720 performs very well for battery life, something that's rare in modern smartphones.
I never experienced any dropped calls during my testing of the Lumia 720, and the call quality was what you'd expect. The loudspeaker produces enough volume to be used hands-free and the earpiece volume is more than enough. The big drawback to the Lumia 720 is the lack of LTE. HSDPA is sufficient in most European countries, but the lack of LTE means the 720 will likely never grace US shores. It means that while the Lumia 720 has a great design, it’s already behind the times. Given most carrier contracts are two years, you’ll be stuck on 3G even if your carrier moves over to LTE.
I'm longing for a high-end device that looks like this
Nokia's Lumia 720 is the Lumia design I've been waiting for, but it's not the whole package. It's the design and the body that should house the Lumia 920, but its mid-range specifications make me long for Nokia to put its high-end camera and components from the 920 into the shape and weight of the 720. The 512MB of RAM restriction will lock you out of some apps and games (and more all the time), and the camera performance of the Lumia 920 is still the king. If Nokia can create a combination of its 920 internals and 720 exterior for the next flagship then they're onto a winner, but for now the Lumia 720 sits firmly in the mid-range. I wish the Lumia 720 were the answer, but it’s just part of the puzzle.
On the other hand, While the Lumia 820's numbering might place it above the Lumia 720, I would confidently recommend the 720 over the 820. The forward-facing camera improvement and optional wireless charging make the 820 tempting, but the lightweight frame and impressive battery performance really makes it an easy choice over the 820. It’s a solid mid-range device, and while the display should really be 720p, Nokia has made it readable and one of the best WVGA screens I’ve used recently.
Nokia has now fleshed out its entire range from low (Lumia 520) to high (Lumia 920) and everything inbetween. The Lumia 720 is a solid mid-range device that’s worth picking over the 520, 620, and even the 820. If you really need high performance and a great camera then the Lumia 920 is an obvious choice, but the 720 offers everything else that Nokia’s flagship provides with a few drawbacks. If this design sets the stage for future flagship Lumia devices then it’s a direction that many will approve of, but for now this appealing design is available in the mid-range Lumia 720 and that’s a great thing for smartphone bargain hunters.