April 9, 2013 -- People. Not apps.
That's really the crux of Facebook Home, a new Facebook-first software experience that turns Android phones into, well, Facebook phones.
Mark Zuckerberg made that extremely clear at Facebook's event last week: "Our phones are designed around apps, not people. And we want to flip that around." And flip it around he did. With Home, your Facebook friends take center stage on your phone's homescreen, and your apps fade into the background.
Starting on Friday, the HTC First – the first phone to come out of the box with the software – will go on sale at AT&T for $99.99, and Facebook Home will be available as a free download for select Android phones, including the Galaxy S3 and the HTC One, through the Google Play Store. But do you want Facebook and your friends to make an even bigger home on your most personal device? Or would you prefer it just stay in its room as an app?
Welcome Home, Where Friends Overtake
From the moment you hit the power button on the HTC First, you are in Facebookland, which is not at all like Disneyland. That home metaphor is no joke; Facebook takes over your entire homescreen with Cover Feed, photos and updates from your Newsfeed.
But Facebook didn't just go to Ikea to decorate, it hired a top of the line interior designer: the usual Android lock or homescreen is replaced with a very visual and polished interface. The screen cycles through a series of your friends' statuses, each of which is displayed on top of an image (either a Cover Photo or a shared photo) with a Ken Burns-like panning effect. You can manually cycle through the updates by swiping, double tapping to "Like" a status or photo or hold down on it to see the full image.
Yes, Facebook has made the raw design of Cover Feed very clean and beautiful, but that design can quickly turn ugly. Sure, over the past week I've had numerous photos of cute dogs, delicious baked goods and perfectly refined selfies grace the front of the HTC First. But I've also had lewd photos of a body builder, children I really don't know and bottles of beer stream across it. Unlike Facebook's marketing page, my Facebook Newsfeed isn't a constant stream of beautiful landscape shots, and many of my Facebook friends aren't, dare I say it, real friends.
Although Facebook does allow you to disable Cover Feed from popping up when you turn on the phone, Facebook does not allow you to control what appears in your Cover Feed -- it's controlled by the number of likes and other algorithms -- and subsequently what you see when you unlock your phone. And, yes, that can mean turning on your phone and seeing a wrestler's enlarged genitalia.
At launch, Cover Feed will not include ads or sponsored stories, but Facebook does plan to add them. While it's at it, I wish it would add those personalization options or at least just the ability to just see updates from your favorite friends.
But don't worry, Home still has your other Android favorites. Swipe up on your shrunken, circular profile photo on the lockscreen and you can access your apps. Swipe to the left to open the Messenger app, and to the right to get to your most recent app. In the app tray you can get to all the preloaded Android apps (as well as Instagram) and download your other favorites from the Google Play Store. Even though you can place your favorite apps on the first app screen, apps really do feel like second-class citizens.
The extra step to get to key phone or text messaging apps takes some getting used to, and I consistently got distracted by Cover Feed or the transparent Facebook photos that load behind the apps. I just want to get to my Gmail and Chrome Browser, why am I looking at another selfie?
Chat Heads: Ahead of Mobile Messaging
Facebook's integration doesn't end with Cover Feed. Facebook's standard Android Messenger app now has a twist. No matter what app you are in, when you receive a Facebook message the profile photo of that friend will appear in a little circular bubble. It's called a Chat Head, and when it pops up it will flash the first few words of the message. Tap it, and you can chat away.
But the beauty of Chat Heads is that they come with you when you are in other apps. You can move the little heads around the screen to get them out of the way or swipe them down to the bottom to close out of the conversation. Also, Messenger is smart enough to know if you are texting with a Facebook Friend – if you have a text from a Facebook friend it will pop up in a Chat Head. The well-implemented feature not only pulled me into using Facebook Messenger, but it made me a more efficient chatter and texter.
HTC First: Facebook Put First
I began the HTC One review by talking about the phone's beautiful, aluminum-clad hardware, but with the First, the discussion of its hardware comes last. What do you expect from a phone that's named after its software? (You got that right? The First is the first phone to come preloaded with Home.)
For the most part, the phone provides a good home for that new software. The minimalistic design of the phone allows the hardware to fade into the background, though you can easily appreciate the phone's soft polycarbonate build and rounded edges. To me, though, the size of the phone is one of its best attributes. While the One has a large 4.7-inch display, which requires some finger stretching, the First has a more manageable 4.3-inch screen. The 720p screen doesn't have as high resolution as the One, but it is plenty bright and the curved glass edges give it a smooth look.
While the One, Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 are high-end smartphones, the First is considered mid tier. And it shows in the rest of its specifications. The 5-megapixel camera takes disappointing shots, though they can certainly be Instagram saved, and it is powered by dual-core Snapdragon processor and 1GB of RAM. That's now considered slow in comparison to the quad-core, 2GB-powered smartphones.
For the most part the phone could keep up, especially with the constant flow of Cover Feed photos, but it periodically got sluggish when trying to manage messages or Chat Heads. During those times, the keyboard was slow to respond to my taps, and opening the Chat Heads was jittery. It simply didn't run as smoothly as the Facebook app on my iPhone. Additionally, while the AT&T LTE on the phone was fast for web browsing and app activity, I noticed a few times during the week that my iPhone would receive Facebook messages a couple of seconds faster than the First.
The First might also have some appeal to the non-Facebook crowd. Yes, the answer you have all been waiting for: The Facebook Home layer can be disabled for a rather clean and untarnished version of Android 4.1, something that is hard to come by.
That's the beauty of trying out Facebook Home or buying the HTC First. Facebook's Android layer can be disabled at any time. And my guess is that will be the case for many people -- not because the software isn't nicely designed and Chat Heads aren't the future of mobile messaging, but because you can't control the updates that appear on the front of your screen and ultimately having people all over the face of your phone is distracting.
If you have one of the supported Android phones and you're a Facebook addict, Home is absolutely worth a try. You have nothing to lose. And for $99, the First is a solid Android phone, even if you decide to disable to Home software. But many will likely give it a try, wish that Chat Heads was available as an app, and return to the Facebook app, at least until Facebook adds some features.
Home is worth a visit, but it isn't yet a place I want to live.