With the roaring success of Apple’s ever dependable iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy line of smartphones and the army of bigger and better Android in hot pursuit , it is often easy to forget that there is a whole section of the market that isn’t well, high end. When looking at what the best phone is out there, the tendency is to look to the bright lights but once a person expresses their needs from a phone, the importance of focusing one’s gaze towards the more humble but still relevant mid to low end of the market is often highlighted. It is taken for granted I guess that everyone wants the latest and best technology but that is not always the case.
Yesteryear’s hero device, today’s midrange warrior
That has been my experience over the past two weeks with Nokia’s Lumia 720. Compared to the likes of the Lumia 920 and the Lumia 1020 it is an understated touchscreen slab, with seemingly no bells and whistles on offer. My review unit was a simple black number, and something that struck me was how compact and comfortable it felt in the hand, a far cry to the monstrously sized devices that dominate the smartphone space, the iPhone and Sony’s upcoming Z1 f ‘mini’ flagship excepted.
Having said that, one must remember that as unabashedly midrange as the Lumia 720 might be today, two years this would have been, camera aside (and that’s more due to the success of the emphasis of quantinty with the megapixel race in smartphones), a slice of high end beauty. Indeed when I took on the Lumia 720 for review, I was primarily using a Samsung Galaxy S2, a 2011 smartphone that was a top end device back in it’s day.
|Samsung Galaxy S2||Nokia Lumia 720|
|Display||4.3” WVGA Super AMOLED Plus||4.3” WVGA IPS LCD with super sensitive touch|
|Processor||1.2 GHz dual core||1 GHz dual core|
|Memory||1 GB||512 MB|
|Storage||16/32 GB withy miscroSD (up to 32 GB)||8 GB with microSD (up to 64 GB)|
Rear: 8MP AF, f/2.65 LED flash
Front: 2 MP
Rear: 6.7 MP AF, f/1.9, LED flash
Front: 1.3 MP, f/2.4
|Battery||1650 mAh||2000 mAh|
|Weight||116 g||128 g|
This comparison is not to diminish the value of the Lumia 720, but as the Galaxy S2 is still very much usable today it rather highlights that a midrange device today is really on paper, not at all that bad! Indeed just from a build quality perspective, the Lumia 720 exceeds that of the Galaxy S2. The uni-body polycarbonate shell just feels solid and gives a perception of quality.
The device has a very nice screen, with more that acceptable outdoor legibility. I know in these days of retina displays and 720p/1080p panels elsewhere, 800×480 would seem rather low but I’m one of those that has never been bothered by resolution of display, preferring to judge it on brightness, colour reproduction, viewing angles and sunlight legibility. On that score the Lumia 720 display is more than adequate. The display is said to be of the super sensitive variety and I was surprised that it worked well with gloves of moderate thickness.
Elsewhere the device offers no surprises with the usual ports and buttons (volume rocker, power button and a camera shutter key). The SIM and microSD card slots however are accessed by using the supplied SIM door key. It’s annoying as one wouldn’t carry this with them but a paper clip can suffice as a replacement.
Windows Phone Inside
The Lumia 720 continues the expansion of Nokia’s growing Windows Phone (WP) 8 line. WP is an interesting proposition in a world of increasing Android and iOS domination. This isn’t my first experience with Windows Phone having used each iteration of the OS so far, WP7 (Lumia 800), WP7.5 Mango (Lumia 900) and WP8 (Lumia 820), for at least 2 weeks and as long as 4 weeks as was the case with the Lumia 800.
One thing that WP has going for it is looks. I keep expecting I will get bored of the basic design, the squares, the sweeping canvas layout and the minimalism, but it just further reinforces how loud for example the skins of many Android phones are. Both approaches work mind you, but I for one prefer the uncluttered look. And by it’s very nature the WP experience across the OS is very consistent and there is a feeling of familiarity across both system and third party apps. Again some might view this as a negative since everything in essence just looks the same!
WP is at its most basic level just the start screen and the app drawer. The start screen is the primary portal for accessing apps and services, customizable with live tiles that depending on that app will deliver relevant notifications and information. It’s not as flexible or detailed as Android (and *cough* Symbian *cough*) but a touch more informative than the app icon paradigm of iOS.
The app list itself is just an alphabetically sorted list
With the absence of a unified notification centre and only transient ‘toast’ notifications otherwise, the start screen is the primary means of knowing what is happening with your phone. The lock screen can be customized to show notifications for up to six apps (five as quick status, ie a counter, and one detailed). To populate the start screen, you simply pin stuff to it, apps, contacts, bookmarks, location, artists, albums and playlists, videos etc.
Related apps and services on WP are arranged as hubs. So you get the Music and Video hub, People hub, Me hub, Photos hub…you get the idea. When you download a third party app, it will get incorporated into the appropriate hub.
Some of the early limitations of WP, like the lack of multitasking have been addressed, and other than having to wait for example for the phone to download map data with HERE Maps (160 MB on a 1Mbps line is an age), it works okay.
Previously one had to remember to resume an app from the multitasking pane (accessed by long pressing the back button) but this doesn’t seen to be the case anymore with most apps resuming where you left off, though I did encounter a few that didn’t. Speaking of apps resuming, that is one thing I noticed…I spent a bit of time waiting for apps to resume and I became very familiar with this screen:
While I credit the minimalist approach with WP there is a downside however and to give an example of where the minimalism is taken too far, one only has to look how volume control is implemented, or rather not implemented at all. Somehow Microsoft seems to believe that having a universal volume control for calls, notifications, alarms and music is a good idea. Trust me, it’s not!
There is also a lack of flexibility in other areas too. I download the Nokia Xpress browser but of course when opening links, these would only open by default in Internet Explorer. My solution was to click a link, stop the page loading, then copy and past into Xpress. Sharing between apps, something that one takes for granted on Android for example, is very limited with Windows Phone.
Overall, it must be said that WP is a smooth and whizzy OS. Lag is such a dirty word and it really was absent for the most part, except curiously when entering text in some apps, especially the store. I would type a search term and there was a very obvious delay with the text field being filled.
Communication and Productivity
Messaging on Windows Phone is handled well. I found the Me and People tiles a tad redundant. While they are decent for accessing social networks with, the lack of basic functionality meant using dedicated apps was in my mind better. I just preferred to have the Phone tile on the homescreen, which still meant I was two taps away from the people hub and a third from the me hub. The Me and People hub on Windows Phone are meant to bring all your social networking and messaging apps together but I just found the twitter and facebook access very limited. On paper it’s a great if only the hubs to bring full functionality. They are useful for a quick glance and status updates etc but not much more
I like the way Windows Phone deals with contacts. Tapping through to a contact from the People hub gives you not just the contacts information but one swipe away is a chronological history of your conversations, whether text, calls or emails, with them. The messaging app handles both text message as well instant messaging. I also think email is handled well. Of course if you are a Gmail user it might lack some features of that service but I wasn’t expecting it to do so anyway. The panoramic view of apps really works work and is a swipers delight!
Call quality on the Lumia 720 was really good, calls were crisp and loud enough with reception in familiar areas as good as any other phone I’ve used.
On the productivity side, Windows Phone comes with Microsoft Office bundled in for viewing, creating and editing, word and excel documents. You can’t create powerpoint files but can edit existing files. Personally office applications on a phone appear cumbersome and I generally use them for reviewing documents but can see the benefit of having a full editor on board.
The Lumia 720 ships with both Microsoft’s Music and Video hub as well as Nokia Music, just one app in a growing list of Nokia’s ‘value added’ offerings. Nokia Music is interesting, with the Nokia Mix services which I really like. It’s a collection of curated mixes from a variety of genres that can be either streamed or downloaded for offline listening though the number of mixes that can be downloaded is limited. The service can be upgraded for a fee to allow unlimited skips and mix downloads. Nokia Store is also available for purchasing music as well as gig listing. Neat! Nokia Music also allowed one to play music stored on the device so in that sense duplicates the core player, though just the music part. Videos and pocasts (limited by region, not available in South Africa for example) are still handled by the Music and Video hub. One also has access to lock screen music controls whether using Nokia Music or the Music and Video hub.
As mentioned the Lumia 720 has an unusual 6.7 MP camera with a fast f/1.9 lens to aid low light performance. While on paper the Lumia 720 might not appear camera centric there was a post published by Nokia on the camera showing that they were taking the camera seriously. It must also be noted that like the N9, 808 and most other Lumia like the 920 the Lumia 720 doesn’t actually take 6.7 MP photos. Instead the sensor is designed such that the full width of the sensor is used when taking photos at an aspect ration os 16:9. Actual resolutions are 5.4 MP in 16:9 and 6.1 MP in 4:3. While I have seen and used better, I was quietly impressed with the photos the phone produced.
Photos are stored in the Photos hub, which also pulls down photos from social networks. There is also a basic photo editor. Photos captured can be uploaded directly to SkyDrive or to Flickr (if one has the app installed), or shared via various messaging platforms, Twitter or Facebook. When sharing to Twitter the photo is uploaded to SkyDrive first and a link posted through your Twitter account. For uploading videos, SkyDrive is the primary option but you can download Nokia’s Video Upload utility.
It is often argued that apps are the bedrock of a great smartphone experience, and while this has always been in many ways the Achilles heel of WP, it’s seemingly becoming less and less so. Yes there are a number of apps ‘missing’ but the gets are being plugged by third party developers. Nokia must also be credited with being proactive, for example with the previously mentioned Video uploader. But there are still stumbling blocks, with WP a clear third tier priority and also the sorry saga that has played out with Google over the YouTube app. I’m no expert in these matters, have no clue how anti-trust and that sort of thing works, but in my mind I don’t see that Google is compelled to build a YouTube app for WP, no matter how much Microsoft and WP users want one.
I used to be a very heavy app downloader but started to experience check-in fatigue and as such have been culling my web services over the past 12 months. I have been able then to use WP without any sign of FOMO for the most part. However, recently when the IAAF world athletics championships were held, while an app was released for iOS and Android, it was not for WP (or BlackBerry for that matter). It does put one in two minds when choosing a platform. As a former Symbian user I know all about being left behind the curve, and one is very app centric, the present is far less important that the future prospects of the platform.
The Nokia collection is, on the Lumia 720 in South Africa, 36 apps strong, with a mix of games and utilities including the superlative HERE Maps and Drive. I’ve expressed my love for Nokia maps before and even rebranded as HERE, it’s still a great mapping and navigation experience. I have been making use of Google Maps on my Android phone and it really dawned on me over the past two just how much better Nokia’s offering is, especially as the search and POI database has improved in leaps and bounds from the old Symbian days.
The ‘little’ phone that could?
It still baffles me a little bit that in 2011 this would have been, a few compromises aside, a very acceptable higher end device. And while it pales in the shadow of the behemoths on offer today, I found myself drawn to this underdog that punches somewhat above it’s weight. I would go so far as to say that of all the Lumia devices I have spent a decent amount of time with (800, 900, 820) this has been the most enjoyable to use. Part of it to be honest is that has no ambition be a high end device and that changes the level of expectation. I was disappointed by the Lumia 800 and 900, a lot to do with Windows 7 and 7.5, but I was judging them as the best of the best. The Lumia 820 was better than either of those two devices. The Lumia 720 trumps them all on a combination of managed expectation and delivering value for money.
I was impressed with the hardware of the device. The phone is built well, the screen is really good and I was actually impressed by both the loudspeaker and in-ear sound quality. Calls quality was good and objectively reception in familiar areas was as good as any phone I’ve used. I was surprised too by the camera. It delivered to my eyes photos with decent detail and dynamic range and a consistent and good colour accuracy. Low light photos were not too bad either, if a little noisy, and in good light the signs of over-processing, especially the paintbrush effect were there when pixel peeping. But on a computer screen the pictures produced were well balanced.
Performance wise too the phone was good overall but apps do spend an awful lot of time resuming and the keyboard lag could get annoying. I know some may say what’s a few seconds here and there but I grew increasingly familiar with that screen over my two weeks with the device. Battery life was excellent on the device, and as a renowned battery killer, I was impressed to find the phone comfortably heading into a second day with plenty of life left.
The decision to invest in or switch to a given OS is really so subjective especially since, as much we like to pretend otherwise, the major players are more similar than they are not. I’ve been using Android for a reasonable stretch of time now and am pretty set in my ways and found certain aspects of the Windows Phone experience a little bit jarring. Equally though Windows Phone was at times refreshing to use and it’s marriage to the Lumia 720 is a delightful package. Having said that, when balancing the pros and cons I don’t think I could abandon ship and switch to a Windows Phone device. The overall experience is a lot better than it has been for me in the past but when weighted against the opposition it really does amount to whether the Nokia hardware overcomes the platform’s limitations and is worth making the switch for. For some people it might and I personally know some people that will or have made the switch.
For me personally, I just don’t think it is.