You can argue about technicalities all you want, but the HTC First is the first real Facebook phone.
Yes, it’s pretty much just an Android phone with a Facebook layer on top. And yes, the hardware is built by HTC, not Facebook.
But this is our first taste of Facebook’s true vision for mobile, one where it wants to give you the ability to turn any phone into a Facebook phone.
The HTC First just happens to be the first device to ship with that experience right out of the box.
First thing’s first: What is Facebook Home?
Facebook Home is an Android app that acts a bit differently than the regular smartphone apps you’re used to. You can install it on several Android phones like the Galaxy S III and HTC One, but the HTC First is the only phone available that ships with Facebook Home running right out of the box.
It’s best to think of Facebook Home as a wrapper for Android that replaces your home screen with a visual slide show of photos and status updates from your Facebook friends. It’s called Cover Feed, and it hides your other apps and Google services beneath all that Facebook stuff.
The other main component of Facebook Home is a messaging product called Chat Heads that syncs with your Facebook messages and regular text messages. Chat Heads let you receive and respond to messages on top of any app you’re using. (It’s an awesome feature, but more on that in a bit).
The rest of Android sits beneath Facebook Home, so all your apps and other services are hidden in a separate app menu, not on the regular home screen like you see on most phones.
Using Facebook Home
So what happens when you have no control over what appears on your phone’s home screen?
It becomes a mess.
With Cover Feed, you’re a slave to whatever your friends decide to post on Facebook at that moment. On Monday, for example, my HTC First was full of depressing news, commentary, and photos related to the bombings at the Boston marathon.
Later in the week, it was all selfies and photos of my friends’ breakfasts.
By Friday, it was back to Boston and the manhunt for the bombing suspects.
But I do see the value in Cover Feed. It turns your phone into a reflection of what’s happening at the moment, whether it’s good, bad, violent, or completely inane. That’s probably really useful for some people, especially those who are already obsessed with Facebook.
Cover Feed also encourages you to engage a lot more with your Facebook friends. I’m not a heavy Facebook user, but I did find myself getting sucked in a lot more than usual, liking and commenting on status updates and photos from my friends just because all that stuff was sitting in front of me on the home screen.
And Cover Feed really is gorgeous, full of big, beautiful photos with a white text overlay for the captions. The images flow behind the text, and it’s very pleasing to swipe through them. I’d like to see the regular Facebook app adopt that design style.
Cover Feed is central to the Facebook Home experience, but it’s also the most polarising feature. It’s a matter of preference. Do you want to see Facebook and only Facebook when you switch on your phone? If the answer is yes, then you’ll love it. If the answer is “no,” or “well, maybe…” then Cover Feed will probably annoy you.
Now on to the part of the phone that you’ll love no matter how you feel about Facebook: Chat Heads.
With Chat Heads, Facebook solved a problem with smartphone messaging that we didn’t even realise we had: You shouldn’t have to close out of whatever you’re doing in order to communicate with someone.
Here’s how it works: Whenever you get a Facebook message or text, a tiny circle with your Facebook friend’s photo appears over whatever you’re doing. You can choose to respond by tapping the photo, or tap and drag it away if you want to respond later.
Chat Heads remove the friction from messaging on your phone. There’s no more tapping around, switching between apps, or digging for a message later. It floats on top of whatever you’re doing and can disappear with a swipe. Everyone from Apple to Microsoft to BlackBerry should copy the concept on their respective mobile operating systems. It’s that good.
That’s Facebook Home in a nutshell: Cover Feed and Chat Heads. The phone pretty much forces you to spend a majority of time in a Facebook world. If you want the rest of your stuff: Gmail, Chrome, Twitter, games, etc., you have to dig beneath the Facebook layer.
It’s my biggest beef with Facebook Home, and something I suspect will turn off a lot of potential users. As Mark Zuckerberg said when he first introduced the product, Facebook is the most popular individual app on smartphones. But when you look at the total time spent on phones, most of it is gaming, productivity, and other apps. In that sense, Facebook Home is a barrier to the stuff most people want to do on their phones.
To put it simply, unless you’re absolutely obsessed with all things Facebook, unless you mostly use your phone for Facebook and not much else, unless you don’t mind ceding control of your home screen to Facebook’s Cover Feed algorithm (and eventually advertising), you’re better off with a regular Android phone.
At first glance, the HTC First is a simple-looking, unimpressive device. It’s about as basic as you can get: a plain black rectangular slab with rounded edges.
The First is still solid and well-built, with a rubbery backing and a high-resolution 4.3-inch display. It can also connect to AT&T’s LTE network, the fastest type of data network available.
The First won’t turn heads like the HTC One or iPhone 5, but that’s probably not the point. It’s a cheap ($100) proof-of-concept device designed to show off what Facebook has accomplished with Android. Buying a First is buying into Facebook’s people-centric vision of mobile.
There is one hidden benefit that’ll probably delight some hardcore Android fans: If you switch off the Facebook Home app under settings, the First runs the clean, unmodified version of Android. That’s a rare thing these days outside of Google’s Nexus line of phones. And getting one for just $100 is a pretty good deal.
Should you buy it?
Do you like Facebook?
I mean, do you really, really like Facebook?
Do you like Facebook so much that it’s pretty much all you want to see when you turn on your phone?
If yes, you should buy the HTC First. If not, or you’re not quite sure, you’re better off with a normal Android phone.