Facebook phone. Those two words in that order have been repeated over and over again for the last couple of years, simply as rumors for the longest time. Then the HTC Status hit the scene with an integrated Facebook button – still, Zuckerberg himself claimed that it wasn't Facebook's phone.
Many months later, the rumor mill started whirring once again about an alleged phone designed just for Facebook. This time, for some reason, the rumors held more water. And the more frequent the leaks got, the more we realized that this was probably the real deal – a Facebook phone was happening. It was allegedly made by HTC, dubbed the Myst, and would run a "custom fork" of Android. While those suggestions were pretty close, they weren't exactly right.
The Myst turned out to be the HTC First – the Facebook phone. It doesn't run a custom version of Android, however, but rather a custom launcher called Facebook Home, which provides an experience that is said to "put your friends at the heart of your phone." After Home was released to the Play Store for a handful of devices, I went hands-on with it on my HTC One X+ and shared my thoughts.
I've now had the First for nearly two weeks. While this phone is essentially what I expected after using Home (read: it's hardly different than the experience on other supported devices), it has also surprised me in a number of ways.
In fact, I think this device may be exactly what users have been asking for.
HTC First: Specifications
- Display: 4.3-inch 720x1280 S-LCD 3 (341 PPI)
- Processor: 1.4GHz Qualcomm 8930AA Snapdragon Krait
- GPU: Adreno 305
- RAM: 1GB
- Cameras: 5MP rear shooter with LED Flash, 1.6MP front camera
- Storage: 16GB
- Battery: 2000mAh
- Dimensions and Weight: 4.96" x 2.56" x 0.36" 4.37oz. (124 grams)
- NFC: Yes
- Ports: microUSB
- OS: Stock Android 4.1.2 with Facebook Home
- Carrier: AT&T
- Price" $99 with a two-year agreement
- Stock Android. This is the most sought after feature this side of the Nexus line, and something that is oft-requested amongst Android enthusiasts. Once you disable Facebook Home, you're left with a completely untouched version of Android 4.1.2, stock launcher and all.
- The display. Super LCD panels have long been one of my personal favorite types of display, and the SLCD 3 on the First is absolutely beautiful. Color reproduction is spot-on, viewing angles are good, and everything is super sharp. This is the same display tech used in the One, albeit at a slightly lower PPI, and it doesn't disappoint in either case.
- Form factor/build quality. If there's one thing to be said about HTC, it's that the company knows how to put together a good looking, well-made handset. The First lives up to that, as everything on this understated handset is rock solid.
The Not So Good
- Poor camera. You would think that both HTC and Facebook would want a good camera in a device designed with social sharing in mind, but the First falls flat on its face in that department. The camera simply isn't good.
- Counter-intuitive button functions. I used the First for a full week before realizing that double-tapping the home key would bring up the multitasking menu. On previous HTC handsets (like the One X/X+, for example), there was a built-in multitasking key that could double as a menu button (and vice versa); I expected the same sort of functionality here. By that, I mean long-pressing home should bring up Google Now, while long-pressing the menu key brings up the multitasking menu. Not the case – the home key is a jack of all trades on the First, and it drives me crazy.
- Android 4.1.2. I've said it several times before – this isn't a con because 4.1.2 is bad (because it's not), it's because a brand-spanking new device like this should be running 4.2.2 out of the box. This is even more true in the case of the First, considering it's running a completely stock Android experience beneath Facebook Home.
Build Quality and Design
This phone is beautiful. Right out of the box, it feels really well-made – you know, what you would expect from an HTC phone. It's just solid.
The back is covered in a nice matte, soft-touch finish that feels really fantastic and sleek. That same material wraps around the sides of the device, meeting at the bezel on the front – the lines are clean and pristine, with not so much as a gap (aside from the very minimal speaker grill) where bezel meets body. The First really is a work of art, and that isn't something that should go unnoticed. The overall look is very minimal and understated, and I absolutely love everything about it. HTC definitely knows how to make a beautiful smartphone on the hardware level.
For those looking for a guided tour of the button layout and the like, here you go: the top of the device holds the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack, the microSIM slot and somewhat awkwardly-placed microUSB port are on the right side, the device's solitary speaker can be found on the bottom, and the volume rocker graces the left side. The top-left corner is where you'll find the front-facing camera, and three capacitive keys – back, home, and menu – are along the bottom, directly under the display. HTC/Facebook decided to omit the "normal" Android navigation keys in lieu of a different look – the back button is simply a straight arrow, the home key is a circle, and the menu button is nothing more than a line. Again, very minimal and understated. The look of these keys very much fits the overall style of the phone.
Accessing non-primary features of the capacitive keys is slightly counter-intuitive – long-pressing the home key will launch Google Now, while giving it a quick double tap brings up the multitasking menu. I actually spent more than a week with the device before discovering the latter, as there's no clear documentation or other way of knowing that the feature exists. I actually thought the multitasking feature was simply gone on this device. Definitely glad that's not the case.
Since it's only sporting a 4.3" display, it feels great in one hand, and all the buttons are easy to access – even for those with smaller hands. I actually forgot how good smaller phones feel, and I really enjoy how premium the First feels in such a small package. This is where we are now – in a place where devices with 4.3-inch displays are "small."
Speaking of that "small" display, it's easily one of the best things about the First. HTC has really embraced S-LCDs, which I think is a great thing – the One X/X+ had one of the best displays of its generation, and the First is no different this go around. Despite the fact that it's not a full 1080p resolution, everything is extremely sharp, crisp, and detailed. Color reproduction is absolutely fantastic – it has just the right amount of warmth and saturation without being overbearing. Naturally, blacks aren't as dark as AMOLED displays, but the accuracy in basically all other aspects make it worth the tradeoff.
Viewing angles are also superb. There is very little skew in color as the device is rotated, so you should get nearly the same visual regardless of how you hold the phone.
Honestly, this is one of the best displays I've ever seen, especially considering this is a mid-range device.
Audio, Speaker, and Call Quality
While Boomsound may be one of the defining characteristics of the One, the First doesn't share the same speakers-all-up-on-the-front design. Hell, it doesn't even have HTC's touted Beats by Dre setting. There is literally nothing special about the speaker on this device in terms of novelty.
However, it's plenty loud without all the bells-and-whistles of other modern HTC devices. I actually like the fact that it's located on the bottom of the device for a few reasons: firstly, it doesn't get muffled or distorted when the phone is lying flat on its back (unlike the Nexus 4), and it remains very audible while the phone is inside a pocket (assuming you actually put your phone upside down in your pocket – that's a thing everyone does, right?).
For watching videos and the like, it actually gets quite loud, but the old cup-your-hand-around-the-back-of-the-device trick can easily provide a bit of volume if you need it.
While making phone calls may take a backseat to basically everything else these days, it's still a requisite. And when talking on the phone is a must, good call quality is absolutely essential. I'm happy to report that the First performs excellently in that department – calls are loud and crisp (I even had to turn the volume down to about halfway to keep from rupturing an eardrum), and the microphone also appears to do its job well according to everyone I talked to. Basically, calling is fine on the First.
Unfortunately, for a device designed with social sharing, Facebook and, by extension, Instagram in mind, the First kind of sucks in the camera department – for more reasons than one.
For starters, its meager 5MP rear shooter is washed out and craptastic at best. None of the super deluxe "UltraPixels" that landed HTC a fantastic camera with the One; in fact, it doesn't feature of camera modifications at all. While I'll be the first to admit a dislike for Sense, I will say that the functionality it adds to the camera software is definitely a step up from the stock experience. And since the First runs stock Android beneath its Facebook-clad façade, you're stuck with the stock camera software, too.
Storage, Wireless, and Mobile Data
Like so many other modern phones, the First falls into the "limited storage, no expansion" category. With only a paltry 16GB of internal space onboard and no microSD card slot, this is definitely not the phone for those who prefer to take locally-stored music, movies, and other media on the go. On the upside, since it's running a mostly-bloat-free version of stock Android, it has nearly 12GB of usable space out of the box. Still, that may not be enough for some users.
When it comes to wireless and mobile data, I've found some strange anomalies with the First. So far as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are concerned, it performs just fine. I haven't noticed any downsides compared to my other Android devices, so in that respect, it's great. Mobile data is a different story, however. When in areas with less-than-perfect signal strength, the Nexus 4 will have no problems streaming audio or playing videos; the First, on the other hand, will stutter and pause constantly, which is very irritating. AT&T doesn't yet offer LTE service where I live, so both devices should be running on AT&T's HSPA network. As someone who stores most things in the cloud, the inability to stream and/or download things reliably is incredibly frustrating.
It's worth noting that these issues could be a problem with my review unit. While I find that unlikely, I'd be remiss not to at least mention that your mileage may vary.
Battery life on the First is stuck somewhere between the Galaxy Nexus (awful) and Nexus 4 (pretty good). In that, I mean that you should be able to get a full day out of it, so long as you're not using it constantly. The idle battery life is pretty solid considering that Facebook is notorious for being a battery muncher; in fact, the FB app never even made it onto the battery history. Ironically, the top process was generally Mediaserver, though I'm not entirely sure why.
On average, I used the First exactly like I use my daily driver: it stayed on my desk connected to Wi-Fi most of the day, I made a few calls here and there, and texted fairly consistently all day long. During the evenings, I used it to check Facebook pretty often (you'll find that you do this more often on a device with Facebook Home, even if it's not your intention when you pick the device up), looked at Instagram, and read email. Any time I left the house, it was streaming Spotify the entire time in the car. We're basically talking about 2+ hours of screen-on time, which is a fair amount in my opinion.
Still, It easily made it through an entire day (and then some) each and every day.
I've already spent a reasonable amount of time on Facebook Home and shared my thoughts here, so I'm just going to give a basic recap of that, and detail how the experience differs on the First (read: not much).
In short, Facebook Home is nothing like any other launcher you've ever experienced. Everything about it is very, very minimal, and it puts Facebook at the heart of everything you're doing (naturally). It's the lockscreen, homescreen, and everything in between. It is the entire phone. That's actually not as bad as it sounds, and there are some aspects of Facebook Home that are quite enjoyable. I find myself using Facebook differently than I normally would, but in a way it's actually the opposite of what Facebook intends – I actually engage with people less often while using Home. Sure, I may "like" a picture or status here and there, but I don't actually comment, and I update my status even less. With that said, I still find the experience of browsing my feed very enjoyable with Home – it provides nice little snippets of info that I can casually scroll through at my own leisure, almost like Flipboard (or something similar) for Facebook. I like that.
As I mentioned in the Home hands-on, I really enjoy using the launcher as my lockscreen. I don't use a pin or pattern lock, so turning my phone on to a random photo and nothing more is actually really cool. A tap of the screen then reveals statuses and the like, or I can head directly into my favorite launcher if I choose.
One way in which Facebook Home on the First differs from its Play Store counterpart is how it handles notifications: they're embedded. That may not make a lot of sense at first, so allow me to explain. With Home from the Play Store, notifications show up in the bar like normal, and nowhere else. If you have the bar hidden (an option within Home's settings), then you have no clear way of seeing notifications. That's unacceptable, so the First displays notifications as popups in the center of the screen – one popup per notification. These can be swiped away individually, but a long-press on any single popup will bunch them together so they can be dismissed all at once. Tapping the display will send the notifications temporarily zooming away, but a second tap puts them right back in your face. Honestly, this is one of the most impractical methods of handling notifications that I've ever seen, especially as someone who is constantly getting new emails. To make matters worse, there's no way to disable this functionality – even if you select the "show status bar" option. Fortunately, that's nothing that can't be fixed in a future update. Hopefully.
Of course, Home has some major drawbacks (aside from being constantly connected to Facebook). For one, it basically ignores most of the things that make Android's launcher great: widgets, homescreen apps... basically all forms of customization are null with Home. As an aside, it also kills lockscreen media player controls if Home is set to display when the phone is turned on, which pretty much sucks.
But there is a bright side.
Beneath Facebook Home lies something very near and dear to the hearts of Android users: stock Android. Those two words almost always perk the ears of Android lovers across the globe, because a stock experience is often sought after and held in high regard. The HTC First, for all intents and purposes, is a bone-stock Android device... once you disable Home, that is.
Fortunately, removing Home as the stock launcher is only about three taps away: menu > Home Settings > Turn Off Facebook Home. You'll be prompted to confirm this choice and the app will immediately tell you how to get it back, but that's about the extent of it. The next press of the home key will give you Android's default "complete actions using" dialog, which is where you can elect to make the stock Launcher your default. Congratulations, you now have a completely stock handset with an amazing screen and excellent build quality. Hot damn, son.
Of course, stock Android doesn't mean much if it performs like crap. Fortunately, that's not at all the case with the First – performance is actually quite a bit better than I expected. Don't get me wrong here, it's not on par with my Nexus 4, but no one on earth should expect it to be – it has, quite literally, half the power. But its dual-core Snapdragon chugs along nicely; I actually liken it to the performance of my Galaxy Nexus, though AnTuTu shows the First actually outperforms the GN in basically everything:
Left: Galaxy Nexus; Middle: HTC First; Right: Nexus 4 (for comparison)
Of course, we all know benchmarks don't tell the entire story – in this case, however, they paint a pretty clear picture. In terms of raw data and power, the First does out-perform the Galaxy Nexus. But the tangible difference? Almost none.
Benchmarks aside, I experienced no issues at all while using the First. The performance is snappy enough to keep me happy – something that I feel is in no small part due to the fact that it runs Stock Android beneath its Facebook-laden UI.
In other words, you can call it a "midrange" device based purely on hardware specs, but in reality it feels faster than you would think. The one thing I would take into consideration with this device is software upgrades and how well it will perform 12, 18, or 24 months from now.
When the First was announced, we all made jokes and laughed at it. The "Facebook phone" has been somewhat of a joke in the Android community since rumors first hit the 'net many months ago, and the Status/ChaCha didn't help at all. I'm not sure if Facebook and HTC took that into consideration, but I honestly think the First is a winner, especially at this price point ($99 with a two-year agreement) – and that applies to people who don't even use Facebook in the first place.
Sure, Home is great for the Facebook junkies among you (if such a thing exists within our readership), but once you take away the fluff, you have a pretty great, minimal, snappy handset with a fantastic display running stock Android. The form factor is fantastic, too; I forgot what it feels like to hold a phone with a 4.3-inch display, and now I remember why people are looking for quality hardware in a smaller size – it just feels great in one hand, while still being completely functional.
The question I aimed to answer with this review is "could I use this as my daily driver?" Despite its few flaws – poor camera, strange button configuration – I don't think I'd have an issue using the First on a full-time basis. I'd disable Home as the launcher and run with stock Android (naturally) – the one downside to this is that it's hard to say when/if AT&T will update the handset to 4.2 and above (when the time comes), which in theory shouldn't be that difficult since it's stock software.
Ultimately, this isn't just a phone for Facebook fans. It's a phone for Android fans. It's a phone for HTC fans. It's the phone that Android lovers have been asking for, though they may not realize it at first. From the understated looks and superb build quality, to stock Android and respectable performance, the First is actually just what its name suggests: it's a first for current-generation phones outside of the Nexus program. The first to finally ditch a custom skin in lieu of stock; the first to bring great build quality and an excellent experience on a budget.
So, would I recommend this handset to anyone looking to lock-in on AT&T without breaking the bank? You're damn right I would.