Facebook finds a Home on your Android mobile phone
Too much Facebook? Impossible.
I take a peek at the online social network pretty much every waking hour. That made me easy prey for the rumors about an upcoming smartphone that would be customized especially for Facebook obsessives.
Instead, Facebook has delivered something less grandiose but every bit as appealing. Its new Facebook Home software spreads a tasty layer of social interaction atop Google Inc.'s Android smartphone operating system. I've been sampling the results on the first phone to offer the software, appropriately named the First and made by HTC Corp. of Taiwan. Priced at $99.99 with a two-year service contract, the HTC First is available only through AT&T Inc.
HTC has been desperate to gain traction in an Android market dominated by Samsung Corp. I've never understood this, as HTC makes some very nice phones. The First is no exception. While it's hardly state-of-the-art, it's an attractive little handset with a comfy plastic case, a bright, sharp screen, and a reasonably snappy dual-core processor.
Battery life is better than decent. I did my usual test: hooking the phone to a Wi-Fi network and streaming the four-hour movie epic "Cleopatra." The First made it to the end with the battery still at 47 percent power. Any battery that can withstand Richard Burton's overacting should see you through a typical day.
When you first start the phone, it demands your Facebook username and password. Once that's done, the phone's home screen basically turns into your Facebook news feed, the feature that displays a stream of comments and photos posted by your friends. You can scroll from message to message with a sideways flick of the finger, but there's no need. Left alone, the feed quietly rolls across the screen, gently sliding from item to item. For some reason, updates aren't presented in strictly chronological order, but I seem to be seeing the prettiest ones.
The overall effect is friendly and personal, reminiscent of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Phone software, with its "live tiles," which provide constant updates on friends and family. I found myself staring at the screen or flipping images back and forth for 15 minutes at a time. I have such interesting Facebook friends. And perhaps because their photo uploads fill the entire screen of the phone, they're more immersive than on a desktop or computer.
A round icon at the bottom of the screen features the user's own Facebook image. Dragging this icon lets you access the phone-dialing software as well as the standard array of Android apps. Among them is the full-featured Facebook app, where you can post status updates and upload photos in the usual way.
Facebook Home shoves Google's software into the background. But key Android features, such as Gmail and the marvelous Google Now information service, are as accessible as ever. Incoming e-mail messages and Google Now updates appear as pop-ups on the Facebook Home screen.
This is especially important for fans of Google Now, which automatically alerts you to stuff that Google thinks you need to know, like traffic conditions between home and the office, the score of the Red Sox game, or when that package from Amazon.com is due to arrive. Available on Android versions 4.0 and newer, Google Now is among the smartest of smartphone apps, so Facebook was wise to blend it in.
Facebook Home's most clever feature, called "chat heads," displays the images of friends who send you personal messages. Touch an image and up pops a window where you can reply by typing or using the speech-recognition feature.
You can carry on multiple conversations at once, even when talking on the First's speaker phone. The chat heads appear whenever a message arrives, no matter what app you're using, so you won't miss much.
Still, the First is no "Facebook phone."
It's a good, solid Android handset running an app that puts Facebook front and center. This is exactly the right way to do it, because it means many existing Android phones can run the same app.
Many, but not all. Facebook Home works only on Android version 4.0 or newer — the versions code-named Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. If your phone is older, you're out of luck. Indeed, right now only a handful of Android phones are Home-compatible, such as the Samsung Galaxy S III and Note II.
There is no plan for an iPhone version. That's too bad; Apple's phone, with its traditional static icons, suddenly seems stuck in a time warp. Meanwhile, on a growing roster of Android phones, just switch on and watch your friends' view of the world start scrolling by.