An iPhone Lover’s Take On The Facebook Phone

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Facebook Phone Review: “HTC First” Decorates Home With Extra Alerts But A Shabby Camera

“This is not a Facebook Phone.” Yeah, whatever. The HTC First is the first phone that has Facebook partnering up with an OEM to bake an Android pie with Facebook Home filling, so I’m calling it the Facebook Phone. There will be more. This is just the first. And guess what?

It’s really good.

Sitting through the Facebook Home announcement last week, before I got a chance to play with a device, I thought it was a smart maneuver by Facebook to use Android’s openness to their advantage — to put their own social layer on top of the OS. It’s not forking Android, more like spooning with it.

But given that this was their first stab at the product, and given some of the woes many of the OEMs have had doing Android skins, I honestly wasn’t expecting too much. Maybe down the road, after a few iterations. But not now.

But again, it’s really good.

Regular readers will know my predilection for the iPhone. I think it’s not only the best smartphone ever made, but the best device ever made, period (though the iPad is close). The iPhone started out fantastic and has just gotten better over time with each iteration.

Android, on the other hand, started out as sort of a nightmare. The G1 was like a weird Sidekick/iPhone hybrid with a half-baked OS. In the subsequent years, Google has come a lot farther than Apple has, only because they started so low. The most recent “pure” Android device, the Nexus 4, is excellent. The hardware is solid, the OS is better. It’s still not quite iPhone-good yet, in my mind. But it brings the two sides closer than they’ve ever been.

So where does the Facebook Phone fit in?

It’s a complicated question to answer because it really depends on what type of user you are and what you’re looking for out of a smartphone. So again, I’ll just give my take as an addicted iPhone user. I like the HTC First with Facebook Home (the official name, I think) more than the Nexus 4, but less than the iPhone 5.

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From a pure hardware perspective, there’s no question that both the Nexus 4 and the iPhone 5 run laps around the HTC First. (I assume you can sub the Galaxy SIII, SIV, and HTC One in here as well, though I don’t have much experience with those devices.) As you can tell from the spec page, the First isn’t as fast as any of those devices. Nor is the camera as good. Nor is the storage as plentiful. Etc.

Using the First, you’ll notice some lag within apps and the core OS itself that you don’t experience on the iPhone 5 or the Nexus 4. But I’ve been very impressed with how well Facebook has gotten their own Home animations to work on this hardware (more on that below).

In terms of build quality, I actually quite like the HTC First. In my hand, it reminds me of the Nexus One, which was for a long time my favorite piece of Android hardware (only recently passed by the Nexus 4). Compared to the other, larger-screen Android devices that are popular these days, it feels small, but not too small.

The screen is actually slightly larger (4.3-inches versus 4-inches) than the screen on the iPhone 5. And the pixel density is a bit higher (341 PPI versus 326 PPI). It’s a great screen. And because it’s only slightly wider than the iPhone 5 screen, I’m enjoying using it in one hand more than I do with the wider Nexus 4.

I’ve found the battery of the HTC First to be excellent. Yes, even with the screen constantly displaying and rotating big images and with AT&T LTE constantly on.

But let’s be honest, no one is buying this device because of the hardware. That it’s perfectly nice and adequate is just a cherry on top.

The key to the HTC First, of course, is Facebook Home. While Facebook is purposefully downplaying it — “It’s not an OS.” — to regular users, this will absolutely feel like a new OS from the moment you turn it on.

When you turn the device on, you log in with both your Facebook and Google credentials. Once that’s done, every time you turn on the First, you’ll see a collection of big, beautiful images constantly rotating on the screen. These are all pulled from your Facebook friends. If they’ve posted pictures to Facebook, those will show up here. Or if they’ve simply left a status message, that will show up with their profile cover photo behind it. This all looks really, really good.

And it’s surprisingly addictive. Because you can swipe to scroll through these images/statuses all without unlocking the phone, I’ve found myself doing this each day that I’ve been testing the phone more than I care to admit. The fact that you can double-tap to “like” any of these (an action taken right out of the Instagram playbook) is even more addicting.

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Let me be clear, I’m not what I would consider a heavy Facebook user — or even a moderately heavy one. I browse the service from time-to-time and post things there every once in a while. I think Facebook Home has me using it more than I ever have in my life. Maybe it’s the novelty of it over these first few days. But I think Facebook has really nailed the interaction element on the home screen. I actually wish I could use Instagram and other visual feeds this way as well (of course, Instagram pictures shared to Facebook are a part of this main screen experience).

You can also comment on any photo/status right from this home screen (technically called “Cover Feed”).

The other element you’ll notice here is a big circular picture of your face (or whatever your Facebook profile picture is) at the bottom of this Cover Feed. When you tap it, it brings up three options: move your face up to get to your apps, move it left to get to Facebook Messenger, move it right to return to whatever you were doing last before you re-entered Cover Feed.

If you move your face up, to apps, this is where you’ll finally see something that looks like Android. But it’s not entirely like Android. It’s a page filled with Android apps, but along the top are the standard “Status”, “Photo”, and “Check In” buttons that will be familiar to any Facebook user. This is normally where the Google Search bar goes on Android devices. Instead, that’s somewhat buried in a screen to the left.

On this main screen is where Facebook Home instructs you to put your favorite Android apps. Included are what you’d expect: Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram, alongside the Google standards like Chrome, Maps, and the Google app itself (better known to some as the home of Google Now). Also here you’ll find the Camera, Gallery, Settings, Play Store, Phone, and a couple other stock Android OS apps.

You can create more of the app collection pages to the right of the main page. And to the left (where the Google Search bar is), you’ll find a scrolling list of all your apps.

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So yes, some of this feels like Android. But again, it also feels different. And I really like that.

To me, one problem I’ve always had with Android is that at its fundamental level, it draws directly from the look of iOS. It’s rows of app icons. Yes, widgets and a few other things have since been added, but I’m always still looking at the screen and thinking of Android as a slightly less responsive and polished iOS.

Facebook Home is different thanks to the Cover Feed, which lays on top of the app screen. And on top of that are the beautiful, elegant notifications that Facebook has created. Simply put: I like them more than both Android and iOS notifications. They feature big, clear app icons (or a person’s face if it’s a Facebook notification) and a snippet of the message you’re receiving.

These notifications stack in reverse chronological order, as you’d expect. You can swipe them away. Or you can hold one down to collapse them all on top of one another to swipe them all away.

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If you tap on one, it flips over and asks if you want to open that app. One more tap does that. This is where things start to get a little weird.

If you have a password enabled to protect your phone, you’ll be prompted to enter it before you can enter the app. But what’s odd is that if you simply swipe up to get to your list of apps, you don’t have to enter your password until you click on one in particular. In other words, sometimes you’ll be asked to enter your password from the app list, sometimes before it. I get it: Facebook doesn’t want you to be able to use an app before you enter this password, but it’s weird to prompt for it at different levels.

Even weirder is that you can actually do a few types of Facebook actions — both liking and commenting — without entering any password. In fact, there’s no way to password protect these actions, as far as I can tell. Facebook says that you’ll need to enter your password before leaving a status message or posting a photo yourself, but someone could definitely take your phone and leave comments galore on your friends pictures, no questions asked.

This is a direct result of Facebook Home laying on top of Android. The security here is still on the Android layer beneath the Home surface. I suspect Facebook will add the option to put some security on their Home layer as well.

(Update: As Dieter Bohn pointed out to me on Twitter, there is a way to make the lock screen go in front of Facebook Home. It’s actually in the Home Settings — which is a different app from the regular Android Settings — there you unselect “See Home When Screen Turns On”. Unfortunately, this is basically useless because it disables all notifications until you unlock your phone. So, yeah, you probably don’t want to do that unless you’re very paranoid of someone snatching your phone and commenting up a storm.)

Another awkward thing about this Home-to-Android handoff is that if the phone is unlocked, you can hold down the middle home “button” (it’s not actually a button, it’s a haptic area below the screen, standard on most Android devices) to bring up the Google App (which includes both a big Search bar and Google Now, if you have it enabled). But if the phone is locked, holding this down does nothing. It doesn’t even prompt you to enter your password.

The same is true with double-tapping this button. If the phone is unlocked, this brings up a list of your most recently used apps. If the phone is locked, this does nothing.

A few times I found myself in no-man’s land because of this handoff as well. I would try to run something from a notification and for whatever reason, the unlock screen just wouldn’t come up. So I had to go back to the Cover Feed area. Not a huge deal, but again, awkward.

I also found it awkward that the HTC First haptic buttons don’t function in the same way that they do on other Android devices that I’ve used. For example, the far right button usually brings up a list of running apps. Here, again, you do that by double-tapping the center button. The far right button is instead a settings button on this device.

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Back to the good stuff: Chat Heads. Awful name not withstanding, this is absolutely how messaging should be done on a smartphone. Rather than making you open a separate app to get and respond to messages, Chat Heads put a user’s face (in the shape of a small, circular icon, just like your face on Cover Feed) on top of whatever you’re doing on your phone. Browsing the web on Chrome? Up pops a face with a snippet of the message. Click on the face to open an overlaid chat session. Click on the face again to minimize it to the circular icon (which can remain “alive” clinging to any corner of the screen). Brilliant.

This even works with multiple conversations at once. And, of course, group conversations. I suspect we’ll see a lot of other players in the mobile space copy all or some of this implementation. Again, this is how chat on a smartphone should be done.

What really pushes Facebook Home into the good product category for me though is the little touches. Elements like Cover Feed not only look gorgeous, they’re highly responsive and even a bit playful. For example, when you move your face icon around the screen, the action items (“Apps”, “Messenger”, “Back”) will be drawn towards your face depending on which direction you’re moving. It’s a bit like a black hole getting close enough to a star to swallow it. In other words, it gives you the illusion of gravity.

Likewise, double-tapping to “like” something within Cover Feed brings up a nice big “thumbs up” overlay. And this is accompanied by a water droplet sound. Simple, but again, playful. The same is true of all the system “clicks”.

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These touches, while seemingly trivial, give me the same type of feeling I get when using iOS. You can tell that a lot of time and care has been put into the user experience here and it shows, in spades.

And again, you cannot overstate how smooth everything feels. In my experience, even with the Nexus 4, this has not always been the case with Android. What’s odd is that this isn’t even technically the latest version of Android. This is 4.1, not 4.2. (I’m told that Facebook will move fast to ensure that Home is compatible with the latest Android releases after they come out.)

The Android apps themselves can still feel a bit sluggish or jittery at times — again, this isn’t the fastest hardware out there. But all of the Facebook layer performs wonderfully. (And, to be clear, I had no problem getting every Android app I downloaded to run.)

So, will I replace the iPhone with the Facebook Phone? No. But again, I’m just not a heavy Facebook user. I’m impressed that this phone got me more into the service, but not impressed enough to give up the iOS universe.

I’m also not the target market of this phone. And if you’re reading this, I doubt you are either.

Still, it’s hard to believe this is only Facebook’s first take at Home. This is a very polished and impressive first entry into the space. I’ll be curious to see Facebook Home running on other hardware like the Galaxy SIV, but I think the fact that you won’t be able to get third-party notifications would be a deal-breaker for me.

I think the success of this first Facebook Phone will ultimately come down to how much marketing muscle Facebook, AT&T, and HTC put behind it. The first commercial is already out there in heavy rotation. And I suspect those AT&T stores will be erecting some big Facebook Phone tents any day now. This is a good product, so marketing will help drive sales. They just need to get it in customers hands, trying it out.

Facebook has said they plan to update Home at an aggressive pace. That’s great news. It’s nice to have another innovator in the space, even if they aren’t building their own phones or OSes. That’s a technicality. To most people, this will sure feel like a Facebook Phone. And for now, the Facebook Phone. And given the quality of the work here, I see this all as nothing but a good thing.

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