The HTC First is, of course, the "first" phone to launch with Facebook Home built in as its core skin. It is, without a doubt, a mid-range Android device — but it seems sturdy and probably able to bounce around in your bag without taking much damage. It's running on AT&T's 4G LTE network and launching on April 12th for $99.99, but is available for pre-order today. The device has a 4.3-inch 720p display, a 1.4 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, 16GB of storage and 1GB of memory. Underneath the skin of Facebook Home is the beating heart of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
The First has a soft-touch rubber design and smooth clean edges, and at 4.3 inches feels almost twee when compared to the current HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. It's about the size of an iPhone 5, but with curved glass on the sides and a front-facing camera in its top left corner. The model we looked at was jet black — it will be available in four colors when it goes on sale — and the dark color scheme really makes the screen pop. Facebook had the brightness on the 720p display cranked up so it was hard to get a strong gauge of how the screen will perform in different situations, but from what we saw it was a nice display for a device in this price range. The First is also incredibly light, but not in a negative sense; the textured covering provides a real sense of security while it's in your hand. That said, the physical materials here don't quite measure up to the polycarbonate bodies that you might see on a Nokia device. Overall, it looks and feels every inch a $99.99 phone.
The real star is Facebook Home
Setting aside hardware, the real star of the HTC First is its software: Facebook Home, which feels like a social layer on top of Android. It displays photos and stories from your News Feed full-screen on your device, complete with a mild panning effect — think Ken Burns and Facebook riffing on Android's live wallpapers. Different updates cycle through, and you can double-tap to "like" an item or tap once to leave a comment. Mashing your thumb on your own encircled face at the bottom of the screen reveals three options: Apps, Messenger, and your most-recently used app. In Apps, you have some very limited ways to organize your stuff. There's a single screen where you can put your favorite apps in a grid (with Facebook status, check-in, and photo upload buttons up top, naturally), but you will not be able to use traditional Android homescreen widgets. Swiping over gives you a full, alphabetical listing of your apps.
Swiping down reveals the default Android notification menu
The phone is very responsive overall, and there's no lag to be found when swiping between messages, photos, and home screens. Facebook apparently went through months of testing to ensure its physics engine and gestures were fast and didn't bog down the device. Beyond the basic (you might even call it very basic) core UI, Facebook has built in a few options related to messaging and notifications. Some notifications (or all of them on the HTC First) get displayed in little cards you can sort, stack, and swipe away. Swiping down from the top of the screen shows a default Android notification menu, but this functionality is clearly de-emphasized. Messaging involves "Chat heads," which are little circles that pop up over whatever you are doing when you get a message. You can arrange those heads too, and tap into them to get into the messaging proper, which includes both Facebook Messenger and SMS. Messages pop up over what you're doing — be it reading a web page or playing a game. It's a great concept, and Facebook's execution here struck us as pretty clever. You can even long-press a contact inside Messages if you'd like to pop up a custom Chat head. If you're a heavy user of SMS of Facebook messaging, the icons won't overtake your screen either; the Chat head icons turn into a swipeable carousel should you hit enough to stretch across the screen.
Everything taken together, the First appears to be another solid piece of hardware from HTC — particularly for its price range. Of course, users won't need to pick up the First if they'd like to try out Facebook Home as that will be available for download on a select number of HTC and Samsung phones on April 12th.