Do you use Facebook a lot? Like, a lot a lot? If the answer is yes, then the HTC First may be the smartphone for you. It’s the first to include Facebook’s new mobile software, called Home, which attempts to remake the smartphone experience around your friends’ Facebook activity. If, on the other hand, you’re not a heavy user of Facebook, then the First, and its new interface, may leave you rolling your eyes or scratching your head.
Home, which Facebook unveiled last week, hides the array of apps that dominate most smartphone home screens and instead puts Facebook activity front and center. Home runs on top of a newish version of the latest iteration of Google’s Android software, Jelly Bean. It will be available Friday as a free download for a handful of newer Android phones or preloaded on the HTC handset, which I was able to test out.
Home splashes status updates across your entire lock and home screens, making it easy to see and respond to your friends’ posts. It also makes Facebook’s messenger application ever-present with little “Chat Heads” that follow you from app to app and make it easy to keep up conversations.
Home is a big deal for Facebook as it tries to address the fact that its users increasingly access the social network from smartphones and tablets, where ad revenues are more elusive. If Home resonates with these users, they could spend a lot more time on the social network, generating more data to help Facebook improve its ad targeting. For HTC, which has struggled to remain relevant with smartphone buyers, being the first handset maker to include Home from the get-go is a nice coup.
There isn’t that much to say about the First’s hardware. It looks like other nicely designed midrange smartphone, with rounded corners and a soft-feeling plastic back and sides. The only physical indication that there’s anything different about this handset is a tiny Facebook logo on the back, alongside those of HTC and AT&T. It has a 4.3-inch touchscreen and a ho-hum five-megapixel camera, and it generally felt zippy over AT&T’s 4G network. For $99, with a two-year AT&T contract, it’s a decent smartphone.
Turning it on, however, makes clear that this is not your average Android phone. Facebook status updates fill the home and lock screens with text, links, and images; you can either let them rotate on their own or swipe to see the next one. A quick double-tap lets you “like” a post, and you can tap near the bottom of the screen to post a comment.
The coolest part of Home is the tiny, circular “Chat Heads” that appear on the screen when you’re having a conversation via Facebook Messenger or SMS. They conveniently stack on top of each other when you have several conversations going at once, and you can tap on the stack to get back to a conversation, or swipe to move it somewhere else on the screen (they always stick to the margins, though). Chat Heads remain overlaid on any app you’re using, so you can look up directions or check e-mail without having to find your way back to the conversation. This is especially helpful when you need to hunt down information online during a chat.
But Facebook’s Home is not without problems. The first thing I noticed was the age of the status updates—frankly, they seemed pretty stale, with many from several hours ago or even the previous day. Tapping on friends’ user icons to get to their full profile within the Facebook app revealed newer updates that Facebook, presumably, thought weren’t as relevant to me or weren’t appropriate to be displayed prominently on my phone.
Parts of Home also feel needlessly complicated. For example, accessing several main functions requires pressing a finger on a tiny, circular version of your Facebook profile photo that resides near the bottom of the screen (if this is an image of yourself, then you’ll be staring at your own face throughout the day) and then dragging it in a particular direction to select the function. Dragging up, for example, selects Home’s app launcher, which houses your favorite apps and offers shortcuts for posting Facebook status updates. It seemed a shame that Home has relegated all my other apps to oblivion. And wouldn’t it be easier to just let me double-tap or slide my own face downward to update my status?
It also seemed odd that by default Home obscures the network signal, battery icon, and clock at the very top of the screen. For me, this is pretty important information—more important than even a cute photo of my friend’s baby.
Fortunately, you can make some modifications to Home, such as bringing back the status bar and showing the First’s Android lock screen rather than the Home version. You can even turn Home off completely, if you so desire.
Thanks to Facebook Home, the HTC First makes it very easy to see and respond to status updates and carry on conversations with friends. With more than a billion Facebook users out there, no doubt plenty of them will be willing to install Home on their Android phone or buy the First. But I suspect that for the majority of us, the app’s immersive social experience—much less a phone devoted to it—will feel a little unnecessary.