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Facebook 6.0 for iPad and iPhone: hands-on with Chat Heads, stickers, and more

Facebook 6.0 for iPad and iPhone: hands-on with Chat Heads, stickers, and more

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Perhaps you hadn't noticed, but we're in the midst of a fairly remarkable blitz of Facebook releases on mobile. The company announced Facebook Home and the HTC First and then (in a pattern that's all-too-rare) released both about a week later. However, the company isn't just focusing on Android. Today, the company is devoting some attention to iOS, with the release of Facebook 6.0. The new version has a few much-needed design tweaks, but the headline features are all about Facebook Messenger.

First, within the Facebook app, you can pop-out Chat Heads for your conversations, but they won't work anywhere else because of the way that iOS keeps apps sandboxed. Just as with Android, Chat Heads pop out on incoming Facebook Messages (but not for SMS), or you can open a new one directly yourself. You can drag them around to reposition them, and when they're open you have immediate access to your conversation on top of whatever you're doing on Facebook. On the iPad's larger screen, Facebook has decided to array them vertically on the left instead of horizontally across the top.

Chat Heads only work within the Facebook app

Messaging (or as Facebook calls it, "private sharing") is a huge focus for the company right now, with competitors as diverse as iMessage and WhatsApp all competing to become the de-facto replacement for SMS. Facebook very much wants to win this game, and so it's rapidly adding features to compete. We've already seen the company experiment with a Snapchat clone called Poke, and now Facebook is adding another feature "borrowed" from other messaging apps: Stickers.

If you're not familiar, Stickers are basically giant, emoji-like pictures that you can send with a single tap. They're available in "packs" of related images that you can download and then send with just a couple of quick taps. They're more fun than a basic semicolon-and-parenthesis winky-face, but probably aren't going to revolutionize the messaging space. Like Path, Facebook has created a small store where you can find and download packs of stickers — the version we tested all had those packs marked as "Free," but it's a safe bet that Facebook will begin charging for some packs soon enough. Right now, you can only send stickers from the iPhone (and soon, Android phones), but you can receive them on any device.

Finally, Facebook has cleaned up the design on both the iPhone and iPad. Back in 2010, when Facebook didn't have an iPad app at all, Mark Zuckerberg quipped that the "iPad's not mobile." Although Facebook did later release an iPad app, it was little more than a blown-up version of the iPhone version. The company has obviously found a new (and better) view on the subject, and now in 2013 we're finally getting an app that's a little bit optimized for the iPad's larger screen size.

The changes aren't radical, but Facebook has put some thought into how an iPad app should actually look. There are fewer dividing lines throughout the app, giving it a cleaner look, but the biggest changes come on the main News Feed on the iPad. Facebook was "just really thinking about the details that make the stories the focus and not all these interface elements," says Michael Reckhow, the Product Manager for News Feed on mobile. Facebook has made the main column thinner, breaking out your friends' avatars on the left. It makes reading a little easier than the old edge-to-edge design and also "helps to separate the stories and identify who each story is from."

Ollie Wagner, the designer for News Feed on mobile whose previous work includes Twittelator Neue and iPad UI design at Apple, pointed out several more subtle changes. The buttons for Like, Comment, and Share have been shifted over so they're easier to reach and more consistent. Images are no longer vertically cropped — something that was never really necessary on an iPad anyway. The best design change, though, is simply that there are fewer inconsistent font sizes. Most of the text has been scaled up to a more readable size for the iPad, which you generally hold further away from your eyes, and overall the effect is simply better-looking. Since the app is fully native, Facebook can directly control what the fonts looks like. "We're really working on the typography, "Wagner says, "We actually do all custom-layout for the type, so we're easily able to control the kerning and the leading."

Facebook also tried to improve how shared links are displayed, offering a bit more text and trying to do a better job of selecting which text gets shown. "There a lot of server back-end magic to get the right photos and get the right text," Reckhow says. Almost every kind of story shared on News Feed has gotten tweaked, but again none of it is a huge change. Beyond thinking through the "general layout and interaction details" Wagner says, "this redesign, and the same version on the iPhone, we've had a lot of elements that stay the same, so it really feels like you're using the same product."

That's Facebook 6.0 for iPad. It continues the company's new focus on Messaging and finally shows that it's not ignorant about the different ways that people use the iPad as compared to the iPhone. It's far from the radical rethinking of Facebook on Mobile that Facebook Home represents — but then again, that kind of rethinking requires deeper access to the entire phone. Within those constraints, Facebook has at least shown that it can move much more quickly than it used to when it comes to mobile development. The updates should be available later today.

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