Review: HTC First puts Facebook Home up in your face

Consumer Reports News: April 16, 2013 10:08 AM

The aptly named HTC First is the first smart phone optimized for Facebook Home, the social-network giant's new interface for Android phones. I've spent a little time with the app and the phone, and found the phone overpriced ($100 from AT&T with a two-year contract) and the app overbearing.

The phone, while a decent performer, has the specs of last-generation Android phones that you can now get free with a two-year contract. Its features include a satisfactory but comparatively smallish 4.3-inch display, a dual-core Snapdragon processor, and a rather puny 5-megapixel camera.

The Facebook Home interface, which stands between you and the phone's Android operating system, is something few people may need or even want. That's because Android is already Facebook-friendly, thanks to the blue, blinking LEDs, vibration and sound alerts, and a notifications menu that ensures you'll never miss a single update from your Facebook world—or from any other messaging app. What's more, I found that some of the announced Facebook Home features, such as the ability to communicate with others while watching a video, didn't seem to work. Here's the 411.

The phone. The First is not a bad little phone. It measures a pocket-friendly 4.96 x 2.56 x 0.35 inches, weighs only 4.37 ounces, and has a comfortably soft, easy-to grip case. Storage is an adequate 16GB but can't be expanded.

The phone runs the latest version of Android (Jellybean) and comes with the standard three-button navigation and essential apps and features. That includes the customizable strip of apps (phone, contacts, app drawer, and so on) that's always visible regardless of which desktop screen you're looking at. The controls for the First's modest camera, which has autofocus and an LED flash, are easily accessible in the well-laid-out viewfinder.

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An interfering interface. Facebook Home replaces the traditional Android screens of apps and widgets with a wallpaper-like Home screen called Cover Feed, an ever-changing slideshow of photo highlights, and the verbiage connected to them, from your Facebook News Feed. The still photos move slowly across the screen as in a Ken Burns documentary, though you can move up or down the timeline by swiping these images to the left or right.

But Cover Feed is a poor stand-in for the News Feed. If you tap any of the images, you'll be presented with the option of Liking or leaving comments about them, but you won't actually go to the Facebook News Feed. The News Feed give you more options, such as posting on the person's timeline and looking up friends.

Homebound home button. Facebook Home has its own home button that floats near the center bottom of Cover Feed. Press it and you'll have three options: Slide to the left to the Facebook messaging app; slide to the right to return to your last activity; and slide upward to access the phone's Android apps (recent apps in the middle, AT&T apps to the right, or the full app drawer on the left). Whichever app menu you had open last is what you'll see when you open this menu.

But these navigation options needlessly bury the very Android apps that make owning a smart phone worthwhile. If a non-Facebook activity, like a phone call, camera, or e-mail wasn't your last activity in Facebook Home, you'll have to dig through the Apps drawer to find it.

Chat Heads up in your face. Chat Heads are Facebook Home's cute way of keeping you connected. Alerts such as SMS and Facebook messages from your friends appear as little face bubbles that float over your screen, even while you have an app or the browser open. The idea is to let you engage in conversation without pausing or leaving an app.

Chat Heads can be inconsiderate, however. I found it annoying, for example, having someone's Chat Head suddenly block what I'm reading, even though I could postpone the conversation by dragging the head into the trash. Also, Chat Heads don't pop up while you're watching videos, as Facebook promised in its press conference last week. Instead, you'll hear a little beep to let you know someone wants to chat. E-mail alerts appear to be excluded from Chat Heads at the moment, but at least alerts and access to such communiqués can be easily fetched from the phone's Android-driven notifications menu.

Bottom line: The HTC First is a very nice phone I wouldn't hesitate to recommend if it were free with a two-year contract. If that day comes, I would also recommend maximizing your enjoyment of this phone's modest features, including the Facebook app, by not activating its Facebook Home interface.

Mike Gikas

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