Canon knows not to fix what isn't broken. Last year's PowerShot A710 IS impressed us with its broad suite of features, solid design, and good value. The 8-megapixel PowerShot A720 IS does little to change that formula, sticking very close to the path traveled by the A710 IS.
Save for a few internal upgrades, the A720 IS stands nearly identical to its predecessor. Both cameras share the same 35-210mm equivalent, f/2.8-4.8 lens, the same optical image stabilization, and the same 2.5-inch LCD screen. The A720 IS even shares its predecessor's physical design, right down to the placement of the buttons. The A710 IS' grip featured a rubberized texture that this new version lacks, but otherwise you would be hard-pressed to distinguish between these two cameras at a glance.
Fundamentally, the only changes the A720 IS offers over the A710 IS are its new sensor and image processor. The camera's 8-megapixel CCD can reach ISO 1600, beating its older brother's limit of ISO 800. The camera uses Canon's Digic III image processor, an upgrade over the older Digic II processor that offers face-detecting autofocus and autoexposure, an increasingly common feature that helps when framing portraits and family photos. Besides those upgrades, it might as well be the same camera as the A710 IS.
Fortunately the A710 IS worked so well that the A720 IS really doesn't need to change that much. Like its predecessor, this chunky new camera puts function over form, with large, accessible buttons and a solid, grippable body design. The A720 IS weighs a hefty 8.6 ounces with batteries and SD card--just 0.4 ounce less than the A710 IS. Like its older brother, the A720 IS features a full selection of manual exposure controls, including program/aperture/shutter/manual modes readily accessible through the camera's mode dial.
Like most Canon PowerShot A-series cameras, the A720 IS performs quite fast when not using the flash. After a scant 1.4-second wait from power-on to capturing its first shot, the camera could take a new photo every 1.8 seconds thereafter with the onboard flash disabled. With the flash turned on, that wait balloons to 4.3 seconds. The shutter feels responsive, lagging only 0.5 second with our high-contrast target and 1.2 seconds with our low-contrast target. In burst mode, the camera captured 15 pictures in 10.8 seconds for an average rate of 1.4 frames per second.
The A720 IS's photos look exceptional, particularly at low sensitivity levels. Shots taken at ISO 200 or lower appear remarkably crisp and show impressive fine detail. At ISO 400, you can start to make out distinct noise on a computer monitor, though prints will still come out clean. ISO 800 shots produce noise that shows up on large prints, but they remain at least somewhat useable. Noise significantly jumps at ISO 1600, rendering shots nearly unusable. Very few compact cameras successfully pull off ISO 1600 or higher shots, so I can't judge the A720 IS too harshly for it.