Never done one of these before, so here goes.
I spent a long, long time deciding on my new camera. I needed a camera that was small enough to fit in my pocket but which still offered enough manual features to satisfy my creative side. Ideally, I would have bought an SLR, however size and price constraints ruled that option out (for now). My next obvious choice was the Canon G9, and after trying it out I thought my mind was set. However, I eventually turned it down in favour of buying a cheaper compact now and then buying one of the new series of DSLR's when I travel to the USA in September.
I eventually found the A720, and immediately like it. It appeared to have almost all the features of the G9, but at a much cheaper price (£140)- perfect for my needs.
For such a cheap camera, the amount of features is fantastic. It has the usual set of scene/automatic modes found on most compact cameras but also has full manual, aperture priority and shutter priority. These are not restricted modes like on some 'serious' compact cameras, but have pretty much the same range of apertures and shutter speeds as the Canon G9 and Nikon P5100 (F2.8-8.0, 15seconds- 1/2000th). The camera has 3 metering modes (centre weighted, spot and evaluative), a large ISO range (80-1600), effective image stabilistaion, face detection and an excellent movie mode. The screen is 2.5 inches with 115,000 pixels and the lens is 6x optical zoom, 35-210mm and accepts telephoto and wide angle converters.
For a small camera, handling is very good. The grip is a decent size, allowing for steady shooting and the whole body feels pretty solid (although this is one area where the extra cost of the G9 is clearly evident). The layout of the buttons is simple but effective. The shutter release has a very distinct half way point, and the surrounding zoom ring is responsive and smooth. On the top is a mode dial to select between scene and manual modes, on the back is the rather pointless optical viewfinder, screen, 4 way control and buttons to access shooting menus and change display functions. There is also a switch to enter playback mode. On the side is a cover hiding USB and TV out connectors and the button has a tripod socket and the AA battery/memory card compartment.
In practice, there arent any areas where the camera is let down by its design. Changing aperture/shutter speed is very easy, as is changing flash settings, manual focus and all other shooting features. One things that would have been nice to see is dedicated buttons for image stabilisation and auto-focus modes.
All areas of performance in this camera surpassed my expectations. Startup and focus speeds were very good- faster then much more expensive compacts. Focusing was reliable in most conditions, altough for macro work the manual focus feature is invaluable. The flash, while effective is slow to recharge however, taking around 4 seconds. This doesnt restrict me too much, but may be an issue for some people. Playback of images was rapid and comprehensive. Like the G9, the A720 allows auto-rotation of images when the camera body is rotated (excellent), and detailed shooting history (exposure modes etc), including a brightness histogram! The camera also allows some image processing such as red eye reduction and resizing.
Pictures themselves are very, very good. Standard lighting conditions are handled perfectly, with good colours, contrast, sharpness and detail recorded. Barrel distortion and fringing is minimal, and only evident in extreme lighting conditions. The camera however, does tend to slightly overexpose reflective surfaces (overexposed areas are highlighted in the playback). ISO handling is standard for compact cameras. Pictures are fine up to ISO400, above which noise becomes a real issue. The flash is good, with several advanced options such as sync speeds and flash compensation. This allows the camera to excel at indoor work- more so then most point and shoot cameras. The movie mode is very good, with smooth, artifact free video at 640x480 and 30fps. Audio is not fantastic, but a marked improvement over my (supposedly camera orientated) mobile phone.
So why does this camera cost so much less then the G9? Well there are a number of features missing, but the main area is the build quality and handling. The G9 has many more controls, hotshoe options and a larger screen. It also has an all metal contruction.
However, if you can live without these things then the A720 is much better value, offering 90% of the features but at half the price. It makes a perfect accompaniment to a DSLR for taking quick snapshots where an SLR is just too bulky but also makes a fantastic standalone compact. It would be nice to have a larger, clearer screen, a 28mm lens, a scroll wheel for navigation and features such as auto-bracketing but to be honest, I can easily live without these and anyone who is serisously in need of more advanced manual features really should just buy an SLR.
Overall rating: 90%
Hope this was useful to anyone considering this camera. Ill add some pictures and additional notes later. Bare in mind, this is just a preliminary review. Some things, especially image quality, I havent fully tested out yet...