The HTC First is going to be best-known as the pilot "Facebook Phone," shipping with the all-new Facebook Home software running in lieu of a traditional Android phone skin. That would be enough to make it notable, but the First has a couple of other things going for it, things that lots of people have been waiting for in an Android phone. First (and before we go any further, let's just put it on the table that "First" is a ridiculous name), HTC is finally zigging into a smaller screen size while the rest of the Android ecosystem is zagging into ever larger form factors. Second, beneath that Facebook launcher lurks a pure version of Android that's virtually unadulterated by manufacturer and carrier software.
A year ago, a phone debuting at $99.99 on-contract was virtually guaranteed to be a clunker. Over that past year we've also watch screen sizes increase and any Android phone that didn't sport a ginormous screen was also likely to be given sub-par components. The phrase "mid-range Android phone" was basically a death-knell.
So HTC's First could be a first of a different sort, the first normal-sized Android phone that's not underpowered (and I promise this is the last time in this review I'll take advantage of that particular pun). Is it possible to build a "mid-range Android phone" that's actually just as compelling as flagships like the HTC One or Galaxy S4?
A throwback design
Finally, a decent Android phone that fits in one hand
Because of its small size, the First is a pleasure to hold. It nestles comfortably in one hand in a way that few popular Android phones do these days. More so than the iPhone 5, too, thanks in large part to its rounded edges and corners. It's about 0.35 inches thick, which doesn't put it into the world of crazy-thin phones, but neither is it chunky.
Actually, looking at the physical design of the First, it's impossible not to point out straight away that it bears a striking resemblance to an older iPhone, the 3G / 3GS. It has the same rounded edges and even some of the same layout: power on the top right, headphone jack on the top left, volume on the left, and camera in the upper-left when you're looking at the back. There are a few differences, including the lack of a ringer switch and the device's flat back, but overall the resemblance is striking.
Instead of the iPhone 3G's glossy finish, the First is built out of matte plastic, though it's high quality enough that you could use the fancier term "polycarbonate" and get away with it. The finish of my white unit is is very close to what you get on its larger cousin, the HTC One X. Imagine the One X and the iPhone 3GS has a torrid affair one sultry evening and you get a sense of what the First looks and feels like.
Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that the First’s hardware as good as its more expensive Android competitors, it's certainly a step above other $99 phones. The glass front curves ever so slightly into the plastic on the edges, and the earpiece speaker is a virtually invisible slit at the top of the phone. There's also an LED light on the top right hidden underneath the black glass, but for some strange reason HTC decided to disable it by default. The speaker is located on the bottom, like the iPhone, but it sits underneath a grid of micro-drilled holes that evoke the One X (though I should say that you can muffle the speaker with your hand if you're not careful).
At the bottom are the three usual Android buttons: back, home, and menu. Each is a simple custom icon: an arrow, a circle, and a line, and because this is a device with relatively clean software each does exactly what you'd expect: double-tap home for multitasking and long-press for Google Now.
The First is by no means a "premium" smartphone, especially when compared to the aluminum beauty of the iPhone 5 or the HTC One. Still, it feels almost classic in its simplicity without coming off as too cheap. Best of all, again, it comes pretty close to the ideal size for a phone that you'd want to use in one hand.
A clear screen, a muddy camera
Like most of HTC's recent efforts, the First’s 4.3-inch, 720p LCD panel is a really great screen. The dimensions and pixels work out to around 341 ppi, which of course means that pixels are basically invisible to the naked eye. Just as importantly (to me, anyway), the screen simply has the right color balance — something that Samsung and Motorola still can't seem to get right on their AMOLED screens.
Viewing angles are pretty ridiculous, too. Text is perfectly readable at nearly 90 degrees and though the display doesn't quite feel like it's floating on the surface of the glass, it's the sort of thing only the worst nitpicker would complain about.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take a nitpicker to notice that the screen is very difficult to see in bright sunlight — it's not the easiest thing to solve, I'll grant, but Nokia has done a better job making sure its screens work in that kind of environment.
The First has a relatively lowly five megapixel camera on the back. My general feeling is that it takes better shots than I expected, but that's not very high praise for a phone at this price point. I generally expect mid-range phones to have abysmal cameras, but the First at least manages to get passable shots in daylight.
In those bright scenarios, color reproduction was accurate without getting oversaturated. However, there's some processing happening that needs to get fixed up, especially with macro shots — the First introduces some noise that seems like the result of an overzealous desire to overcompensate for the sensor's shortcomings. The result is a lot of unnecessary artifacts and a loss of sharpness.
That's in daylight. In low light, the First's camera just completely falls down. Maybe I have been spoiled by the likes of the Lumia 920, HTC One, and iPhone 5, but the First's camera feels like a throwback to an earlier age when smartphones were nigh-useless in the dark. Video on the First is equally forgettable, amplifying hand-shake and displaying the jelly movement effect so common on low-end cameras.
A couple of other notes about the camera are worth mentioning. Since it's running Android 4.1.2 underneath Facebook Home, you'll be using the stock Android interface. That's kind of a bummer, since the stock 4.1 camera interface is a little clunky compared both to what third parties have created and to the advances made in Android 4.2. The other notable bit is that the camera sits flush with the back of the phone, and its plastic lens cover is an insane magnet for fingerprints. If you don't remember to wipe it down before you shoot, your pictures will take on "Glamour Shots" blurriness.
The screen is great. Camera? Not so much
The rising mid-range
The First is a mid-range phone, through and through. It starts with Qualcomm's new 8930AA Snapdragon 400 processor, a dual-core chip clocked at 1.4GHz. We haven't seen a smartphone use this particular chip before, but it's definitely on the lower end of the power scale as compared to Qualcomm's other offerings. It's paired with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, and the entire package manages to run the phone efficiently, if not incredibly speedily.
I wouldn't go so far as to call the First slow. Most apps open quickly enough and scrolling performance is decent, but overall the First feels like it's a half-step behind the top-tier Android phones, and closer to phones like the Galaxy S III and the Razr M. The best analogy I can come up with is that it feels like using an iPhone 4 just as the iPhone 4S came out. The iPhone 4 felt plenty fast to most people until they tried the 4S, at which point you noticed those small pauses that seemed invisible before. It's certainly not a deal-breaker and not a good reason for most people to give this phone a pass, but if you're expecting HTC One or Galaxy S4 levels of performance, you'll be disappointed. The First is totally acceptable but not a screamer.
I'm more impressed with the battery life, which shouldn't be a surprise since we're looking at a fairly power efficient processor and a smaller-than-usual screen. The First is powered by a fully-enclosed 2,000 mAh battery, which I've found more than sufficient to get through a day of regular usage. Under stress, it can draw down pretty quickly, so you'll need to keep an eye on it. One day I spent about an hour tethering and streaming video with a weak AT&T LTE signal and killed off 25 percent of the battery. That sounds pretty dire, but the phone managed to hang on for another 16 hours after that with regular usage and a stronger signal.
The Facebook Phone
The biggest part of the First is obviously Facebook Home, a custom skin in the vein of HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz, though it's nowhere near as pervasive as either of those. We have a full review of Facebook Home, so I'll just touch on the broad outlines.
Facebook Home collapses your homescreen and your lock screen into a single entity, made up of your Facebook News Feed. Each update consists of a full screen image with a bit of text on it, which you can like or comment on. Jumping past that, you get a bare-bones app management system, but no widgets or even folders. It's a pretty skin, and it feels native and natural on the First.
Beyond Home, Facebook Messenger can pop up "Chat Heads" over any app, giving you a persistent way to continue a conversation either on SMS or Facebook. This is the best part of Facebook Home and even if you're not a heavy Messenger user, the SMS integration makes it well worth the screen space devoted to a tiny circle with your friend's face on your screen.
The First gets one Home feature that isn't available on other phones: complete integration with your notifications. They appear on your homescreen in a stack, and you can swipe them away individually or as a group. Here, though, I noticed a little bugginess with some of these alerts, with Google Now alerts showing the content from another app.
Facebook feels right at home on the First
Back to stock
It's not a Nexus, but it's close
For now, most people should just turn off Facebook Home (but keep Chat Heads). Doing that will reveal something that's actually quite stunning: the HTC First is running stock Android 4.1.2, almost completely unpolluted with apps from AT&T or HTC. I'm not entirely sure whether the credit for this coup goes to Facebook or HTC (my money is on the former), but it takes what would otherwise be a forgettable mid-range Android phone and turns it into something much more intriguing.
Ever since the release of the Nexus 4, we've been hoping for a stock Android phone that is capable of running on an LTE network. With the First, we finally have it, although you'll have to settle for the last version of Android instead of the latest, 4.2. We've asked HTC whether and when the First will get updated and will let you know what we hear.
Just so it's totally clear, I'll list off the custom stuff that's on the First beyond stock Android and Facebook Home. The lists consists of two items: Visual Voicemail and the bits that automatically connect it to AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots. Both features, like Facebook Home, can be completely disabled, and you’re back to a perfectly bare version of Android.
What's it like running a clean and pure installation of Android on an LTE device? Glorious, once you accept the aforementioned camera and small speed issues. The contacts app isn't constantly timing out trying to connect to AT&T's servers, the calendar app works just like you'd expect, and there's no skeezy additional services you need to hide or learn to look past.
It's a shame that I can't unequivocally recommend the First
The HTC First is a weird phone. It's a mid-range Android device that shows just how far the "mid-range" has come over the past few years. It's a Facebook Phone that gives you the very best software that Google has to offer. It will likely appeal to new smartphone adopters and Android die-hards in equal measure. If you're a Facebook devotee, or just want a cheap phone that runs well, by all means check out the First (but test the camera before you leave the store). If you absolutely want a smaller-sized Android phone with LTE, the First is probably the best option out there right now. The First is an intriguing option for a lot of different people — but all of them will find there are compromises to be made.
The level of interest in the ability to run stock Android on the First is an indictment of Google for not putting LTE on the Nexus 4. It's also an indictment of the entire Android ecosystem for being too timid to offer a clean software experience — to say nothing of offering a good phone at this size. It's a shame that I can't unequivocally recommend the First, but there are plenty of good reasons to use it instead of a more powerful and larger Android phone.