Hands on: Facebook Home and the HTC First smartphone

Facebook Home and HTC First look like good bets for social butterflies, but power users, those who don't like 24/7 connectivity may opt out

After spending some time with Facebook Home and the HTC First smartphone, I now have a better understanding at what Facebook is trying to build with its new app designed to replace your phone's home screen.

In a nutshell, Facebook Home and the HTC First, both announced Thursday at an event by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chairman and chief executive, are aimed at people who live their entire lives online--the "social butterflies"--if you will.

So, Home puts Facebook front and center, doing away with the traditional Android interface in favor of a simplified home screen that displays your friends' photos and status updates.

It's all very slick. Home makes Android look and feel much less intimidating by hiding things like the app drawer and notification shade. You can still access these features using simple gestures, but the app drawer is modified to let you quickly update your Facebook status, post a photo, or check in to a location.

Chat Heads

Chat Heads, a big feature of Facebook Home, requires you to have the Facebook Messaging app installed on your device. (Facebook Home, Facebook Messages, and the Facebook app all come pre-installed on the HTC First.)

When you get a new message, a Chat Heads icon shows up (it's a little circle with your friend's Facebook photo in it).

Tapping the circular photo jumps you straight into the chat. It's really seamless, and I was able to browse the Internet while carrying on a conversation with someone's Facebook friend. It wasn't a full test as I couldn't use my own account on the phone provided.

You can have an unlimited number of chats running at once, though Facebook warned that having too many Chat Heads windows open could adversely affect your phone's performance.

The one big downside of Chat Heads? You can't start a new conversation with someone using the feature--you have to go into the Facebook Messages app and press and hold a bit on a conversation in progress in order to get it to show up as a Chat Heads conversation.

Facebook says that it's going to update Facebook Home at least once a month like it does with other mobile apps, and it'll be interesting to see how Home evolves as it gets updated.

HTC First hardware

The HTC First will be the first phone to ship with Facebook Home pre-loaded on it. It will be available exclusively on AT&T starting April 12, although you may preorder it now.

This smartphone is made of a soft-touch material that makes it comfortable to hold, and its slim and lightweight design should make it easy to fit into virtually any pocket.

The First has a 4.3-inch, 720-pixel display and runs on Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean). Even though the phone puts Facebook right up in your face, you can still access Google apps and features like Gmail, Maps, and Google Now.

Jumping among apps--the official Facebook app, Facebook Messages, the camera app, and the Chrome browser--happened without much issue. I was surprised by how smoothly some of these Facebook apps ran on the phone and by the overall performance of Facebook Home.

The First has a 5-megapixel main camera and a front-facing camera for when you need to take a new Facebook photo.

It was hard to judge the camera's picture quality based on photos taken in Facebook's overtly blue demo room, but it's probably safe to say that it won't be outclassing the cameras in the iPhone 5 or the Nokia Lumia 920 anytime soon.

I reached out to HTC for more information about the phone, and I'll update this post as soon as I find out more.

Gut impressions

With my limited time with each, I'd say that Facebook Home shows some promise but, right now, it's nothing more than a pretty face. You still need the Facebook app to make most things work, and the limited nature of the launcher means it won't appeal to power users or people who don't want to be connected 24/7.

And, the HTC First doesn't seem to have much going for it outside of its close Facebook integration. Priced at $99.99, it will be competing with more fleshed-out offerings like Apple's iPhone 4S.

Both HTC and AT&T will need to play up the Facebook aspect in order to make the First stand out from other budget handsets.

My evaluations are based on a quick test at the Facebook event with a provided phone. I'll give you my full thoughts on the phone (and on Facebook Home) when I get an HTC First in the TechHive offices for review.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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