With a billion users, it'd be an understatement to say Facebook has done a good job conquering the desktop world. Mobile, however, is the social network's next frontier: although it has a significant presence on every major smartphone and tablet platform, the company has a reputation for bringing its key features to the PC environment long before they arrive on mobile -- if at all.
But the April 4th reveal of Facebook Home, a solidly built Android launcher, reflects a change in attitude for Mark Zuckerberg and Co. Instead of simply maintaining a smartphone presence, Facebook is ready to go to battle and is putting mobile on the top of its list of priorities. It's even adding a proper piece of hardware to its arsenal in the form of the HTC First, a 4.3-inch device on AT&T with LTE, reasonable mid-range specs and a gorgeous display. Is it worth $99 with a two-year commitment to purchase a handset dedicated to the social cause? Should you just wait until Home is available as a free download in the Google Play Store? Or is it best to ignore it altogether? Continue reading to find out.
The First is an above-average mid-range device, and Facebook Home is a solid 1.0 product with plenty of room to grow.
It would be an understatement to say the HTC First took a backseat to Facebook Home at the company's recent press conference; it was locked in the trunk and wasn't let out until a few hours after Mark Zuckerberg and a series of HTC / AT&T execs said their piece. That doesn't mean the First's hardware is chopped liver, but even so, the omission of specs is rarely a good sign. Aside from a nod to the LTE radio and a few pictures detailing the four available colors -- black, white, pale blue and red, if you're curious -- Facebook almost seemed to forget that new hardware was being introduced.
Now that we've had a chance to actually use the First for a few days, we can happily put an end to any confusion about the hardware. In today's market, an Android handset with a 4.3-inch display is considered petite, and the First definitely feels that way: at 125.99 x 65.04 x 8.89mm (4.96 x 2.56 x 0.35 inches), it nearly gets swallowed up in the hand, especially compared to all the 5-plus-inch devices we've been testing recently. It's also incredibly lightweight, barely registering on the scale at 4.37 ounces (124g).
Since the First was built to impress the Facebook-savvy, we shouldn't be surprised that this is one of the most playful-looking handsets HTC has ever made. It's not that there's anything extreme about the design; there's just something about the soft curves, multiple hues and soft-touch plastic shell that wraps around the entire device, similar to the Lumia 620. (Don't take that comparison too far, though -- the shell here isn't user-removable.) All told, it doesn't take itself too seriously; it's a phone that's focused on Facebook, and indeed, it looks the part.
In fact, one of the biggest surprises is that the First's design doesn't really scream HTC -- it's almost as if the company is going back to its ODM roots, creating whatever handset other businesses (Facebook, in this case) demand. Whether or not this is the beginning of a new strategy for the Taiwanese manufacturer remains to be seen, but we can't help but wonder if "First" connotes more than just the inaugural Facebook Home device.
On the front of the First, you'll find a 4.3-inch, 720p S-LCD2 display, which packs in an above-average pixel density of 341 ppi. Obviously, it doesn't hold a candle to all those 1080p behemoths we've been seeing, but these specs were top-of-the-line in 2012, and they still hold up well today. Viewing angles are better than average, colors are decently saturated (but not overly so) and text is pretty smooth, though it's expectedly not as good as what we've seen on the HTC One's 1080p screen. The only disappointment was the phone's subpar performance in direct sunlight -- even at full brightness, we found it difficult to make out images and text.
A 1.6MP front-facing camera resides above the screen, though it hangs out underneath the same panel of Gorilla Glass, along with the usual assortment of sensors and LED notification light. The speakers are squeezed inside a tiny, narrow grille, which sits in between the glass and the top edge of the phone. On the opposite end you'll find three capacitive keys: back, home and menu. (Recent apps pop up when you double-tap home, while a long-press of home pulls up Google Now.)
Turn the phone over and you'll discover a perfectly flat back featuring the 5MP rear camera and LED flash. If you only glance quickly, you may think that there isn't anything else happening on this side of the device, but look more closely and you'll see it: stenciled in incredibly light ink are logos for HTC, Facebook and AT&T, along with the obligatory FCC information underneath. The print is so small, so inoffensive, that it's actually hard to read in dimmer lighting conditions. This is something we want to see other companies mimic on their devices (Sprint has already taken a big step by removing logos from its branded phones). We're also happy to say the Beats Audio branding is nowhere to be seen, a rarity for a post-2011 HTC device.
Up top sits a 3.5mm headphone jack and mic, while the power button is located on the right. Since it sticks out from the frame by at least a millimeter or so, that button is very easy to press. Meanwhile, the right side houses the micro-SIM slot and micro-USB charging port. It's an unfortunate location for the latter, but the bottom of the device -- our preferred location for charging ports -- is taken up by a machine-drilled speaker grille. The volume rocker is found on the left side of the First. Finally, if you're looking for a microSD slot or dedicated camera shutter button, you'll be disappointed.
The First is an AT&T exclusive in the US, and it actively uses LTE bands 4 and 17, HSPA+ 850 / 1900 / 2100 and quad-band GSM / EDGE (its FCC docs also indicate the presence of LTE bands 2 and 5, as most AT&T smartphones do). The global model, on the other hand, promises LTE capacity on 850 / 1900 as well as HSPA+ 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100 and quad-band GSM / EDGE. Both devices also provide dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, FM radio, a non-removable 2,000mAh Lithium-polymer battery and 16GB of internal storage (11.9GB of which is user-accessible).
125.99 x 65.04 x 8.89mm (4.96 x 2.56 x 0.35 inches)
As we mentioned earlier, the hardware isn't necessarily made to impress -- it's just there to accommodate the pride of Menlo Park: Facebook Home. Even though Zuckerberg and the rest of the crew did a pretty good job of showing demos of this new feature in action, many people still had unanswered questions after the show.
What isn't Facebook Home? For starters, it's not a forked version of Android or its very own mobile operating system, as many had speculated before last week. It's also technically not a deeply integrated skin like Sense and TouchWiz. Stripped to its basics, it's nothing more than a really fancy Android app launcher: in other words, it's simply a replacement to the standard lock screens, home screen panels and app menus that we're used to seeing on a stock Android device. If you've played with launchers like Nova, GO Launcher or Apex, Facebook Home follows a similar setup. It'll be available as a free download in Google Play for a small assortment of flagship devices, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, the GS 4, the Galaxy Note II, the new HTC One and last year's One X+.
Yet, despite the fact that it'll be readily available on phones that have already been (or will soon be) released, Facebook asked HTC to produce hardware with Home pre-installed. If it can be downloaded on Play, what's the point? During the April 4th event, execs made it known that there are slight advantages to having Home pre-installed on devices: the setup process is much cleaner and, more importantly, by partnering with manufacturers, Facebook has access to certain core Android frameworks and functions it wouldn't otherwise be able to modify. In other words, the First offers a more deeply integrated and optimized Home experience. Specifically, while the downloadable version only offers Facebook-related notifications, the First integrates services like calendar, Visual Voicemail, email and most notifications you'd find in the standard pull-down tray -- even the "screenshot captured" notification appears front and center on Home until you swipe it away. It also features a Google Search bar in the app menu that you won't find on other devices running Home.
Now that we've defined Home and discussed why such a service justifies the existence of the First, we'll dive into the experience itself. The launcher focuses on two specific areas of the UX: visuals and gestures. Say what you want about Facebook and whether you feel the need to be constantly connected to it, but Home offers a visually stunning interface. The challenge is all about user-friendliness -- it's fun to look at, but will the new First owner instinctively know what to do with it?
Home can be broken down into three distinct sections: Cover Feed, which is a lock screen / home screen hybrid that displays dynamically changing images to reflect your news feed; the main app launcher, in which you can drop your favorite apps for easy access; and a vertical-scroll app tray, which brings back too many memories of the Gingerbread days.
Cover Feed is the first thing that pops up when you turn on or wake your phone from sleep (you can change this in the settings if you prefer). And it's like a surprise party every time you perform either action: the lights come on and you never know what you're going to get, since the screen dynamically changes to reflect the most recent Facebook or Instagram post. (Instagram only shows up in your feed if you sign into your account first.) Throughout our testing, we were pleasantly surprised with flowers, beautiful vistas and obligatory food shots. On the flipside, there were times in which we were greeted by flesh wounds and zombies in bikinis (yes, really). Naturally, just this one action may well be one of the most entertaining aspects of Home, especially if you follow an eclectic group of people.
Stripped to its basics, it's nothing more than a really fancy Android app launcher.
The point of Cover Feed is to give you a new -- and more casual -- way of browsing your news feed, with status updates, links and images that take up the entire screen (and often scroll in Ken Burns fashion). As Facebook's Director of Product Adam Mosseri pointed out at the launch event, smartphone users turn their devices on an average of a hundred times throughout the day, and many of those instances are prompted by a fit of boredom. So if you have a minute or two to kill, why not use that time to quickly and easily check out what your friends and family are doing?
Images in Cover Feed typically consist of profile pictures, photos posted by your friends and Instagram pics, and they're usually accompanied by additional content, such as links, status updates and other posts your friends have liked. Each picture featured on Home is typically so large that you can't see the full thing on one screen, but you can zoom out and view the whole enchilada when you long-press the image. Additionally, the phone cycles through your feed on a frequent basis, pushing through different status updates and photos every 30 seconds or so. To Like a given update, just double-tap the screen and the big thumbs-up appears. If you want to comment on it, just click the appropriate button on the bottom left.
Another important aspect of Cover Feed is the way it handles notifications, which show up front-and-center when you wake up the device. Several options are available to you at this point: double-tap the individual notification to access it, swipe them away one at a time or long-press to bundle them up and get rid of all of them in one gesture. Status updates are shortened when notifications are present, but you can tap another part of the screen to expand the text and get rid of the notifications. Tap again, and you're back to the way things were before.
At the bottom of Cover Feed you'll also notice a circle containing your profile picture. Treasure this icon, for it is your escape from the world of never-ending food and cat photos. Swiping it to the right takes you to your most recent app, while going to the left leads to messaging and an upward gesture transports you to Facebook's app launcher.
App launcher and menu
The app launcher is a series of panels, each one comprising a 4 x 4 grid of app icons in a minimal Holo-themed box. Facebook tells us there is no limit on the number of panels we can utilize, other than our own app count; we made it up to 12 before ceasing our efforts, and there was still room for more. Unfortunately, there's no option to add widgets or folders. Folks who routinely visit the Facebook for Android app will notice some similar elements: above each panel lies the same set of three features as the native application -- status, photo and check in. It seems as though Home will slowly, but surely eliminate reasons to visit the standard app, though its initial launch doesn't get us quite to that point just yet. (Facebook plans to add new functionality, bug fixes and device compatibility in the form of regular monthly updates, so it's quite likely that the native app will eventually become irrelevant.) As a point of trivia, if you look hard enough at the wallpaper you'll notice that it's your most recently viewed Facebook photo.
From here, make one swipe to the right and you're now in familiar territory: a vertically scrolling app menu featuring your full list of applications with a Google Search bar perched on top. As on most Android devices, a long-press of any icon will push it to the app launcher, giving you the option to either drop it somewhere or -- in the case of apps installed from the Play Store -- drag them to the top of the panel to uninstall them.
Messaging and chat heads
One of Home's greatest strengths is its messaging functionality, which takes the best of SMS and Facebook chat and combines them into one app. Whenever you receive a new message, you'll see a bubble pop up with that person's profile picture inside, with the number of unread messages in red and the first few words of text proudly displayed in a tiny box off to the side. These bubbles, which will appear regardless of which app you're currently in, are called "chat heads." You can move the chat head around to different places on either side of the screen (never in the middle, likely because it would become too much of an interference with your other activities), or drag it down to the bottom to get it out of the way. If you're following multiple conversation threads, you'll notice that the chat head turns into a stack. Additionally, in the case of group conversations, multiple profile pictures will appear inside.
When you click on a chat head, a new pop-up screen will arrive, which shows the main body of the conversation thread and two or more circles on top. With the exception of the leftmost one, all of the circles (you can have up to five stretched out across the width of the display) are active chats; the bubble on the far left is a shortcut that takes you to your messaging app. If you already have four conversations taking place and a new one comes in, it bumps out the oldest thread to make room for it. Don't worry, you aren't losing that information -- you'll just need to go back into the messaging app to access it again.
Going back to the app menu, we became curious about a "More..." icon at the bottom of the screen. Upon pressing it we discovered that it takes us to the standard Jelly Bean app launcher, complete with the widgets, wallpaper and dock tray that we're used to. Yes, the rumors are completely true: the First features pure vanilla Android 4.1.2, rather than a version of Sense. While the First comes pre-loaded with Home, the launcher can be turned off in the settings, leaving you with a completely unadulterated version of Jelly Bean.
Since Home is nothing more than a launcher, this shouldn't come as a huge revelation, but it's a selling point that instantly expands the First's intended demographic beyond the expected Facebook-hungry crowd. It's not very often that a US carrier-branded phone offers a stock Android experience out of the box, and Nexus 4 fans wishing for an LTE option may find this to be an acceptable alternative. One word of warning, however: we've confirmed with HTC that the bootloader does not come unlocked on the First.
Concerns with Home
By far, our greatest concern with Home is the impact that it could potentially have on data usage, since it dynamically updates Facebook's news feed in the background. Fortunately, Facebook includes a three-tier data usage and image quality setting (high, medium and low) that lets you adjust the amount of information streaming into your phone. The toggle becomes handy for smaller data plans or if you're getting close to your limit, but oddly a WiFi-only option isn't available -- we'd like to see this added in an update sooner rather than later. Why? In our testing, we consumed 93MB in four days on the medium setting; at that pace, Home would snatch up 698MB in a month. Think about it this way: if you have a 2GB plan, Facebook Home would take up more than one-quarter of your data allotment, on the medium plan alone. Now imagine how much the high-usage scenario destroys the average consumer's data plans. Use Home responsibly, folks.
Another minor annoyance is the fact that when Facebook friends upload a series of images, each one shows up as a separate update. This means we found ourselves having to scroll repeatedly through several images from the same person before finally getting to an update from someone different. Additionally, we'd like to see widgets and customizable launch shortcuts (such as a camera quick-access button, for instance) to offer faster access to important features.
Will Home be the perfect fit for everyone? Not at all, but Facebook already knows that not everyone who downloads the launcher or purchases the First will take a liking to it. What Home will do, however, is increase the network's mindshare, improve its reputation in mobile performance and draw a lot more views on each and every status update shared on Facebook. It also increases the momentum the company wants to build in the smartphone world. Zuckerberg doesn't have a lot to lose by doing this, even if the First turns out to be a flop.
Will Home be a success? To answer that, let's break it down by group to figure out who might find it useful. Most power users probably won't have much use for it, unless their business is focused primarily on Facebook -- and even then, we haven't found any way to integrate Pages into Home at the time of launch. Widget lovers will quickly become frustrated by their inability to access their favorite ones without jumping into the stock launcher each time. People whose Facebook accounts are non-existent or feature small lists of friends will find it completely unbeneficial, if their eyes don't glaze over as soon as they hear the name of the service. Facebook-savvy individuals -- the heavy users -- will not only enjoy it, but will also be the most vocal about getting updates and new features. Folks who are either frequently bored or just looking for a quick departure from reality will at least be entertained by it, if nothing else. To put it bluntly, Home won't convert non-Facebookers into believers, and it won't encourage people to sign up for the service; it will be a failure in that sense. It may, however, turn casual users into more habitual Likers, commenters and posters, and we have a feeling this is exactly the kind of success Facebook is hoping to reap.
For a 1.0 release, Facebook Home is much more polished than we initially expected. It probably won't become my launcher of choice, but I understand how it could draw a crowd of loyal followers. It's smooth, crisp and visually appealing. It even adheres to several of Android's basic design elements. Despite the fact that some of the gestures aren't blatantly obvious, the learning curve likely won't take too long for the average user to get over. If Facebook lives up to its promise of new monthly updates and broadens its range of devices, Home could be seen by more eyeballs than TouchWiz and Sense combined. There's also the realization that the company can instantly draw from a massive community of over a billion users -- even if a small percentage of them will download Home and give it a good hearty welcome, the metrics will more than justify the time and effort it's put into the project. There's plenty of potential for Facebook to pull this strategy off, but it still has to play its cards right.
The 5MP camera on the First is nothing to write Home about (see what we did there?), and we were hoping to see something a little better on a phone made solely for Facebook. What do we mean by that? It has to be good enough to take solid images, but it's not worth much beyond taking pictures of friends during your latest adventure. While we'd love this memory-capturer to live up to the same standards we enjoyed on the HTC One -- or any ImageChip-laden HTC device, for that matter -- it simply doesn't have what it takes to go the extra mile. On paper, the specs seem decent enough: the First's rear camera boasts f/2, a BSI sensor, 28mm lens and 1080p video recording. The front-facing cam uses a 1.6MP BSI sensor with an ultrawide-angle lens.
In terms of performance, color representation on the rear camera was incredibly accurate, but every other aspect of the module was subpar: low-light shots didn't live up to the expectations set by the specs, many daylight images suffered from soft focus and the level of detail was less than pleasing. Again, we're trying to keep in mind that this particular device isn't meant to be performance-driven, but we were really hoping to upload some spectacular shots from the First and share them via Home. Unfortunately, this activity was kept to a minimum.
Since the First is a vanilla Android device, the camera UI is stock as well. We've never been overly impressed with this particular interface, as it lacks many of the options we've come to expect on other devices. We were able to tap to focus and hold down the shutter key to lock focus and exposure, and we could tweak white balance and exposure settings, but that was the extent of our customization efforts. And because the First lacks the ability to quickly launch the camera app, it takes longer to snap a photo than most other phones.
Unfortunately, it's more of the same with the 1080p video: motion was choppy and it lacked so many important details that we wouldn't have guessed it was HD quality at all. Even worse, the autofocus didn't seem to work properly, as our videos had difficulty retaining focus even when it was staying perfectly still. In summary, you won't be buying this phone for the imaging experience.
Performance and battery life
Samsung Galaxy S III
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Samsung Galaxy S III was benchmarked on Android 4.1.
Lest we forget there's actually is a phone underneath Facebook Home, let's take a look at performance. This is the first time we've reviewed a handset with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset, Adreno 305 GPU and 1GB RAM. As the name suggests, the 400 isn't quite as heavy-duty as the quad-core S4 Pro, Snapdragon 600 or 800, but as a 1.4GHz, dual-core, 28nm piece of silicon, it seems just about right for something like the First. It's not meant for power users, but it still needs to have enough oomph to ensure the phone's performance -- or lack thereof -- doesn't harm Facebook's brand along the way.
The benchmarks, as seen above, indicate that the difference between a Snapdragon 400 and 600 is rather significant, but this is hardly a disappointment. Rather, a quick comparison between the First and the Samsung Galaxy S III's quad-core performance tells a different story: the First is just as good -- if not better -- than Sammy's 2012 flagship in most of the benchmarks we ran. This is a solid indicator of how far Qualcomm's technology has come in the last year or so.
Fortunately, in real-life use, the quirks are kept to a minimum. It's hard to tell whether the 400 is primarily to thank or if the First's stock build offers advantages in performance, but we didn't run into any concerns with regular use. Compared to our usual device review, the important measurement of the phone's capability focuses solely on how well Home holds up throughout the user experience. Keeping in mind that this is the first iteration of Facebook Home, there's bound to be a bug or two, but fortunately we only witnessed one on multiple occasions: a black screen where a profile picture or status update should have been. Each time, we were able to get back and running quite fast, and no crashes or reboots took place during our tests.
With its tendency to stream data in the background, we originally planned to keep some external battery packs around just in case we ran out of juice in the middle of the day. Fortunately, the 2,000mAh Lithium-polymer cell was enough to keep us going for 14 hours of solid use, with Home running on medium usage the entire time. Granted, you'd likely have less success when you bump your Home usage to high -- and better times, conversely, when going to the low setting. For our battery rundown test, which consists of running an HD movie on an endless loop (with a variety of different settings tweaked to make sure we stick to the same standard test), the First got through seven hours and 36 minutes, which is actually better than we'd expected. This compares nicely with the One X+, LG Optimus G Pro and other top-notch devices.
We know you'll be mesmerized just watching status updates fly across the screen, but we'll give ample warning that your trance may be interrupted on occasion by an actual phone call -- you know, the old-school method of social networking. When the situation arises, feel confident knowing that in our tests, all of our cellular connections have been consistently good and the volume was more than sufficient. The loudspeakers are better than average as well, but be careful not to block the lone speaker grille with your finger or other objects, an act that will muffle the sound.
The pale-blue model we reviewed was AT&T-branded, so we were able to take advantage of the carrier's LTE network. It was every bit as impressive as we hoped it would be: while our speeds in Salt Lake City averaged between 25 and 35 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up, we got results as high as 57 Mbps down and 17 up. Naturally your speeds will vary by market, but needless to say, the First is just as capable as any other AT&T LTE device currently stocked on store shelves.
The HTC First is compelling for two reasons. For Facebook fans, it's now easier to maintain social connections with friends and family. For the tech-savvy crowd who has little interest in the service, the phone is a stock Android 4.1 device that comes with AT&T LTE, which is still something of a rarity. Including this opt-out was a smart move on Facebook's part, because it's difficult to recommend that consumers sign two-year contracts on an unproven product that depends so heavily on their engagement with Facebook. Worst case, it's a decent mid-range phone for $99 on contract (or $450 without any commitment).
Facebook Home isn't perfect, nor will it convince many non-Facebookers to start Liking and commenting with reckless abandon. But it's aesthetically pleasing, and surprisingly polished for a 1.0 product. Besides, if you download it onto an existing phone through the Play Store, it's free to use and easily removable, which might give the software broad appeal from the get-go. In its current state, Home isn't the best fit for productivity-minded people, although it does offer a bit of mindless entertainment for anyone just looking to burn a minute or two throughout the day. More importantly, Home is proof that Facebook wants to attack the saturated mobile market. It's hard to say if it will win the battle, but it's bringing a heavy load of artillery to the fight.