Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch (By Sprint)
So here it is. After years of rumors regarding a “Facebook Phone” (facebook fone? phacebook phone? facefone? …. I digress), Friday saw not only a new phone on the market from Taiwanese manufacturer, HTC, but also a new way for users to interact with their Android handset. This new interface sheds many of the familiarities of Android, and replaces them with a photo-centric experience highlighting one of the most popular social networks in the world, Facebook. Facebook wants your interaction with your device to be more about connecting with people, instead of apps. This review will highlight some of the ways that Facebook Home accomplishes that goal.
Introducing Facebook Home. Facebook Home takes over your lockscreen and homescreen replacing your wallpaper with a slideshow of status updates, cover-photos, and any other photos shared by your friends that would typically show up in your news feed. The new Facebook Home news feed is very simple, almost elegant, in its execution. This is especially true if your friends have a keen eye for photography. The new News Feed also allows you to interact with each post and status update. Single tapping on a story will show you options for liking a post or commenting, or you can simply double-tap to like a post. Navigation is very straightforward with a simple swipe left or right to browse.
Facebook Home also acts as a launcher for your Android handset. By tapping on your feed a “Bobble” will appear, displaying a circular cropped image of your profile picture that you can press and hold, then drag around anywhere on the screen. You also have three options to further interact with the Android OS.
First, by swiping your Bobble up you can access the app drawer. This layout is a little confusing at first, as the first screen to appear is not the drawer itself, but a Facebook feature. From the first screen you can check in, take a photo, or post a status update. From this screen, swiping from the left reveals all of your installed apps. Your app drawer is organized alphabetically, and aligned in a vertical scroll orientation. Understanding that Facebook’s goal is to make the user experience more focused on interacting socially, it makes sense that all of your primary interaction deals with Facebook, instead of the phone side of things.
The Second option is accessed by swiping your Bobble to the right, which launches the the most recently accessed application. There is nothing too special about this feature really. The real multitasking is handled by long-pressing the Home button on your device. This launches whatever the default multitasker is for your device. You can close apps, or switch to whatever is currently running in the background as you normally would using any other launcher.
Finally, a swipe to the left opens the new Facebook Messenger App, assuming you have it already installed as an app on your device. If you don’t have Facebook Messenger installed, it takes you to the Message panel of the Facebook app. The new Messenger app has one of the highlights of the Facebook Home experience, in my opinion, which is the new Chat Heads feature. Chat Heads uses Facebook Messenger as an omnipresent message feature, that allows you to integrate Facebook messages, Facebook chat, and SMS messages into one location. As you receive notifications, a chat head (similar to the Bobble, except its the profile picture of whomever is contacting you) pops up on the screen. This notification appears everywhere, on top of almost any app you are using.
Chat Heads does a few things really well, and a few things not so well. For starters, all facebook messages and chats between you and a given contact remain as a continuing conversation. This is a great idea, so you don’t lose track of what was happening in that conversation, and syncs between conversations you have on Facebook.com on your computer and on your phone. Because the notification is present everywhere in the system, it really speeds up the interaction process between you and your friend. There is less lag in a conversation with this feature, and you don’t have to worry about waiting for a notification in pull-down menu up top, as well as not having to worry about entering another app. I really, really enjoyed this feature. As different friends message you, the respective Chat Heads stack on top of each other with the most recent contact first. When you open the message, it displays each contact in a line above the message. You simply tap which contact you want to view, and continue the conversation.
This is where Chat Heads starts to break down, in my opinion. If you choose to use Facebook Messenger as your default app for SMS messages, the app will separate your SMS messages from your Chat/Messages into two separate conversations. Essentially, you have a Chat Head for texts, and a Chat Head for everything else, even if its with the same person. I can understand where a user may want to have that separation, but it feel like it breaks down the streamlined intention. Yes, I know, privacy concerns are plentiful when it comes to allowing Facebook to monitor your texts, but if you are already integrating Facebook into your device this much you’ve probably already gotten over those fears/concerns.
Another source of frustration comes with fullscreen games. Right as you are rounding that corner in Temple Run, about to leap over a gap or slide under a tree, your friend texts you asking if you’ve finished writing up your review of Facebook Home yet (which you are deliberately putting off). This causes you to miss the jump/slide, and lose your progress towards that next power up. Just because I can send a text and watch a video at the same time (without a Galaxy SIII) doesn’t mean that I necessarily want to, or at the very least have to deal with the interruptions while I’m trying to slack off! That being said, it seems as though either Facebook doesn’t have this fully implemented, or some apps don’t allow this to occur. In my testing, some fullscreen apps had the chat heads remain on the app, while others did not.
Now that I’ve finished explaining what Facebook Home is, and how it works, here’s how I feel about it (this is a subjective review after all). Facebook Home’s news feed is a very novel concept… for the first ten minutes. After that, it because an extraordinary obstacle. There are no options for shortcuts or folders, no real quick access to any app. I shouldn’t have to take four steps to launch an app. I shouldn’t have to power on my phone, drag my Bobble to the messaging app, THEN UNLOCK MY PHONE, then respond to a text. In some cases I had to repeat the process of accessing the messaging app (read: drag left to messaging app, unlock phone, drag left AGAIN to messaging app because it apparently forgot what I was trying , reply to message which at this point I had already forgotten what I was trying to say anyways). Not to mention, there is no dialer option. At all. Unless you navigate all the way to the app drawer then find the Phone app, you have no quick way to call someone. This is on a phone, folks. Seriously?
Aside from how in-the-way Facebook Home becomes, my second biggest gripe really comes from Facebook itself, but is manifested much more by the News Feed. There are a large number of people on Facebook who share crap. I get tired of scrolling through pages of George Takei shared photos, or No Faith in the Human Race, etc. I don’t want blown-up versions of those annoying photos on my phone. I know that all it takes to remedy this, is to curate and prune my Friend’s list and Liked Pages. The other solution? Don’t use Facebook Home.
To sum it all up, I really like Chat Heads. It is a great feature for a unified messaging environment (until Google Babel arrives). The best part is that you don’t need Facebook Home to use this feature. If you are one of those people who only got a smartphone so you could compulsively check Facebook every 15 minutes, Facebook Home was designed for you. If you use your smartphone for, really, anything else (you know, like a phone) don’t bother with Home. At face value (no pun intended) it is pretty and a nice change in pace from everything else we’ve seen in the phone market lately, but it wears out its usefulness in a hurry.
If you are interested in using Facebook Home, there are a few ways to acquire it. It is already available on the Google Play Store, however it is only available to a small selection of Android handsets which are: the HTC One and One X, and the Samsung Galaxy S III, S4, and Note II. Additionally, you could buy the HTC First (the Facebook phone I mentioned earlier), which comes standard with Facebook Home (available for $99 with new 2-year contract on AT&T). If you have a rooted device, you can edit the build.prop to have your phone emulate one of the aforementioned phones (which is what I had to do to get it to work on my SGSIIE4GTBS). Otherwise, just wait. It will eventually be available for many phones, but flagships devices are currently getting the special treatment.
You can follow Phil on twitter @adharmamusic or follow Bladecast @Bladecastks.