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Facebook Home review: are people more important than apps?

Facebook invades Android with a new lockscreen and a new chat experience

On April 12th, the much-vaunted Facebook Phone will arrive — but it's not a phone at all. Facebook Home, as it's called, is a couple of pieces of software that transform any Android smartphone’s homescreen into a Facebook feed, and put Facebook Messenger chats on top of any app. Instead of making a sucker's bet that it can take on Apple and Samsung directly, Facebook is doing what Facebook does best: making software.

It's a clever strategy, but it will only work if the software is actually compelling enough for people to want to install and use it. Facebook needs to convince a wide swath of users who never gave their homescreens a second thought that it has a better way. Even if it can't, Facebook is hedging its bets with another feature that makes texting much easier. Will either be enough to draw users away from Twitter and into Zuckerberg's world? Read on for our full review.

Getting Home

Getting Home

How to give your phone over to Facebook
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Facebook Home essentially consists of two parts. The first is Facebook Home proper (henceforth "Home"), which replaces your homescreen and your lockscreen with Facebook's News Feed and app launcher. The second is a major update to Facebook Messenger which lets you receive and reply to texts no matter which app you're using.

To start, Facebook is only making Home available on a select few Android devices: the HTC One and One X, and the Samsung Galaxy S III, S4, and Note II. Actually, there's one more phone that it's available on, the HTC First. You can read our full review of the HTC First here, but for now the main thing to know is that the First offers a few more Home features than what's possible on those other devices. Facebook has promised to expand which devices it will support, but the depth of integration necessary for Home to operate means that it likely won't be able to just release it for every single Android device that's out there.

A custom Android launcher for the masses

To install Home, you simply need to download it from Google Play and run the app. When you do, you'll see a dialog box or two asking if you'd like to set Facebook Home as your default launcher when you hit the home button — it's a fairly easy setup process, and if you decide you don't want to use it later, there are settings within Home that let you turn it off. In my testing on the HTC First I found that you can disable Home but still keep using the Messenger "Chat Head" feature on top of your current Android setup — more on that in a bit.

Getting started should be a familiar process for anybody who's installed a custom launcher, but I imagine that some users may be a little confused by the sudden disappearance of their homescreen. Any of the work you've put into customizing your homescreens will be hidden underneath the new Home skin. Facebook is probably targeting the kind of user who never bothers do to much of that in the first place, offering them a much simpler and cleaner Android experience than what anybody else does right now.

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Cover Feed

Cover Feed

The simple interface works on both a functional and conceptual level
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Home takes status updates out of the Facebook app and slaps them right on your homescreen. Instead of little boxes scrolling vertically, however, each update from your News Feed becomes a full-screen photo with small bits of text at the top. You can let them flow by until your screen goes dark or swipe through them one by one.

The moment you power up your phone, you're greeted with the time up top, and your own profile picture at bottom in a little circle that Facebook calls a "bobble." These both quickly fade away to reveal your stream of News Feed updates, including images, text updates, links, and a couple others. Also, "Yup!", eventually Facebook will put ads in Cover Feed, though probably not on the first screen.

The overall design is quite good, with clean white fonts that are bolded for links and names, and each person's name and profile photo up top as well. The design is almost entirely "chromeless" in that there are none of the traditional buttons, sliders, and switches you usually see on a smartphone interface. Facebook also hides the traditional Android status bar, which shows your notifications, signal strength, and time. You can still get to it with a swipe down from the top (a second swipe brings down your notification drawer), and if you really want it back there's a setting for that.

As you play around, you quickly discover that you can tap once to toggle the "bobble" control at bottom on and off, double tap to like something, and swipe to move to the next update. There actually are a few buttons at bottom, but they're simple and clean icons: thumbs up for liking, a chat bubble for commenting, and a like/comment count. You can tap on the chat bubble to bring up the comments for that particular post and comment yourself. For posts without images (simple text updates or links), the image you see in the background is your friend's main cover image. All of the images pan slowly with a "Ken Burns" effect, and there's one more gesture — a long tap — that zooms the photo out so you can see the whole thing.

That's basically the entirety of what you can do in Cover Feed, but the simple interface works on both a functional and conceptual level. I found myself casually swiping through images when I turned on my phone instead of, well, doing whatever it was I intended to do when I turned the darn thing on. Facebook's basic addictive quality — seeing what your friends are doing — translates very well to this more immersive interface.

Of course, not every status update is a beautiful image or amusing bon mot. We all have friends who post garbage we don't really care about on Facebook and having that garbage on your lockscreen can be a jarring experience. For every baby photo and landscape scene, there was a fleeting image of my ex wife or an ill-informed political rant. Unfortunately, getting these images off of your homescreen is a trial, because you can't directly hide something in Cover Feed. Instead, you need to go to the Facebook app itself and hunt down the offending post, then hide it there. Cover Feed definitely got me using Facebook more, but part of my increased usage included unfollowing a bunch of people's updates. Sorry, but there are really only so many pictures of omelets I need to see on a Sunday morning, and most of them I don't really want on my homescreen.

All too simple

All too simple

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Smartphones, especially Android smartphones, can be daunting to a new user. They introduce multiple usage metaphors that aren't immediately obvious: Lock screen, homescreen, app drawer, multitasking, back, and menu all play key parts in getting around your phone. Most of us who have used smartphones for any appreciable amount of time take these UI elements for granted, they quickly become second nature.

Facebook deserves some credit for trying to rethink these basic concepts in its quest to remove as much complexity as possible. To wit: Facebook Home does a funny little thing to your homescreen and your lock screen, it combines them into a single entity. Instead of "unlocking" your phone, you can interact with Cover Feed straight-away. Instead of having a separate widget-based homescreen and app drawer, it collapses them both into the same interface.

Here's where the little "bobble" comes in. Inside Cover Feed, a single tap brings up your own profile picture in a little circle at the bottom, the so-called "bobble." When you press your thumb on it, three shortcut icons appear. To the left is Messenger, up top is Apps, and to the right is a shortcut to whatever you most-recently-used app was. You drag the bobble to the shortcut you want and release to activate it.

It's incredibly strange that these are the only three options — you'd expect that Facebook would have a top-level shortcut to launching the camera, but you'd be wrong. If you were wondering whether Facebook was serious about Messenger, wonder no more: right now it's apparently more important to the company than any other app it makes.

If you choose Apps, you're taken to Home's radically simplified app launcher. It consists of two parts. On the far left is an alphabetical listing of all your apps. To the right is a four-by-four grid of icons that Facebook calls "Bookmarks." The grid sits beneath a set of icons for posting a status update, uploading photos, or checking into a location.

You can drag apps over to the bookmarks section, arranging them as you please, and you can have multiple screens of these grids. Actually, you can have as many screens as you like (I stopped counting when I hit 15), but what you can't have are folders or widgets.

Although I'm all for making smartphones more accessible, I hesitate to think that folders would set anybody adrift in a sea of confusion. When we asked about this lack, Facebook says only that this is just the first version of Home and that updates will come on a monthly basis. The loss of widgets is less vexing to me. Although I use them myself on Android, I have to admit that I don't use them heavily and I am sure that a large swath of Android owners don't use them at all. Facebook has included a button labeled "More" which will drop you temporarily into your default launcher, so you could theoretically keep your widgets there for when you need them and use Home for when you don't.

You can have as many screens as you like, but you can't have folders or widgets
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Things get even weirder if you have a PIN enabled on your phone. By default, Facebook puts Home "above" the PIN entry screen, which means that even if your phone is locked you can still see your Cover Feed, like and comment posts, and even see all of your installed apps. That's a pretty crazy level of access, but luckily you can put the PIN entry back up top if you like. Otherwise, the default behavior leads to aggravating moments like not being able to pull down your notification drawer and not knowing why.

One thing I really do like with Home is how it handles notifications. Instead of scurrying them away in the Notification drawer, they're presented front and center in a set of stacked cards in the center of your homescreen a la iOS.

Each card presents a small preview of the notification and you can tap on it to open the relevant app or swipe it away to the left or right. You can also long-press to stack all of them up and then dismiss them as a group. Finally, you can swipe them down to temporarily hide them if you want to get a better look at your Cover Feed.

Unfortunately, the downloadable version of Home only has access to SMS, Facebook Messenger, and Facebook notifications — the rest show up in the traditional way. On the HTC First, you get all of your notifications on Home, and Facebook says it's working with manufacturers to extend that feature to more phones in the future.

I should point out that I noticed a bug here and there in Home. Specifically, the text from a different app would show up in the Google Now notification and when you install a new app it doesn't go straight to where it belongs in the alphabetical app drawer — instead it gets put down at the bottom for a brief period.

Facebook says (much to Microsoft's chagrin) that its primary innovation on Home is putting the focus on "people, not apps." That is obvious on Cover Feed, but it also applies to notifications. Especially with Facebook alerts, the thing you see in a notification is the person from whom it came, not the app. It's a nice touch that I'd like to see more of on smartphones, but for now it's just a small step in that direction.

With Home, Facebook has moved well beyond simplicity and into primitiveness. Until and unless one of those monthly updates contains some better tools for managing your apps, only the most diehard Facebook junkies should install Home.

Chat Heads

Chat Heads

As a home screen, Facebook Home is definitely a mixed bag. However, the second part of Home is a big update to Facebook Messenger that changed the way I talk to people on my smartphone. It's called "Chat Heads," which is a stupid name for a great idea. Instead of having to constantly switch into your texting app, your ongoing conversations are immediately available no matter what you're doing on your phone. Messenger works with both Facebook messaging and your SMS messages, so even if you're not a fan of Facebook you can still take advantage of this useful feature.

A Chat Head is a tiny little circle that sits on edges of your screen on top of whatever app you happen to be using. The Chat Head has your friend's Facebook profile picture on it, and when you tap on it it pops up an overlay with your text conversation.

The difference in immediacy and convenience is huge. What Facebook has figured out is that people usually have messaging conversations with somebody for a little while, but are doing other things on their phone while they do it. Being able to reply without losing your sense of place is incredibly convenient.

As far as implementation goes, Facebook has applied the same deep level of coding to Chat Heads that it did on Facebook Home. That means that these little bubbles can streak around your phone fairly quickly and the Chat Head conversation view pops up and disappears relatively snappily — though I did detect a hint of lag from time to time. If the bubble is in the way of something you need on the screen, you can move it to another spot. Actually, you can just flick it wildly across the screen and it'll shoot over to where you've flung it as though on a bungee cord — it bounds over with invisible Cut-the-Rope physics and speed.

You can have up to four Chat heads active at any time, including group Facebook conversations, but only the most recent one appears on the edge of your screen. When you tap it, the rest of your conversations are arrayed at the top. When you drag it, you can see the other Chat Heads trailing behind it and, if you like, you can simply fling the whole set down to the "X" button at the bottom of your screen to dismiss them.

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That's not to say that Chat Heads are perfect. They have a tendency to disappear sometimes, either because Android is managing memory or because you've opened Facebook's Messenger app. You can bring them up manually with a long press in the Messenger app, but most often you can just wait for a message to roll in and they'll pop up.

I also wish that Facebook Messenger did a slightly better job of integrating SMS. Your SMS conversations aren't threaded into your Facebook Conversations, but instead kept separate. Windows Phone, iOS, and even webOS have all already figured out that keeping your entire text conversation in a single thread — no matter which service you're using — is the best way to do it. I wish Facebook would do the same. Actually, I wish that I had something like Chat Heads that was completely service-agnostic and worked with GChat, WhatsApp, and so on — but given the current state of messaging right now that's unlikely.

Technically, Facebook isn't the first company to overlay its own software on other apps, but it's probably the biggest. Moreso than with Home proper, Chat Heads has real potential to extend Facebook's reach into mobile even further. I don't know if I'm really ready to move all my texting activity into Facebook Messenger just so that I can use Chat Heads, but I'm close. I'm sure that many people with fewer compunctions about Facebook won't be so hesitant, and that means that Chat Heads give Facebook a real chance at finally gaining some serious traction in the messaging space.

People who are really into Facebook will probably love Cover Feed on Facebook Home. It looks nice, and setting aside the issue of seeing unwanted photos on your home screen, works quite well. I don't think it's for me, though, if only because I tend to live my social life on Twitter more.

I don't know if Facebook will reach its target audience with Facebook Home. Although Chat Heads are great, the Home experience itself simplifies app management to a fault. I fully recognize that most people don't give their homescreens much thought and don't invest much time in customization, so it's entirely possible that I'm off the mark and there's enough functionality here for casual smartphone users — but I don't think I am.

That said, I find it very telling that even this infrequent Facebook user found himself interacting with status updates instead of doing other stuff on my phone — Home radically increased my Facebook usage. If Facebook makes good on its promise to release monthly updates and these updates can significantly increase the basic utility of the homescreen, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a lot of people start using it.

Read our full review of the HTC First

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