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.