Is it just reference hardware for Facebook Home, or a true candidate for your next smartphone purchase?
There are few things in the mobile industry that have been constant over the last few years, but one that has is the rumor of a mythical "Facebook Phone." The idea of a phone that could only interact with people and services around Facebook didn't make a whole lot of sense to most people -- and apparently it didn't make much sense to Facebook itself either. Because rather than a proper Facebook Phone, at a press conference on April 4th we were given this, the HTC First.
In many ways the First itself isn't supposed to be the big story. You wouldn't be alone for thinking it is simply a hardware platform to show off what seems to be Facebook's true end-game -- the Facebook Home software. There are far more users in the world that own one of the recent flagships from HTC or Samsung that will install Home from the Play Store than there are who will buy (or even be aware of) the First. This realization certainly calls into question why Facebook even bothered to have its own phone made in the first place.
So does Facebook actually care about the success of the First, or did it ask HTC to throw together a cheap device from the parts bin to show off Home at the press conference? After spending some time with the device, we think it may be a bit more substantial than that. There are a whole lot of intriguing aspects of the First that may just have you considering it as your next device.
You just can't beat the quality of HTC's recent screens, especially at such a high pixel density. The First is a refreshing step down to a form factor you can actually operate in one hand, and the understated industrial design looks great to our eyes. Even with less than bleeding edge specs, the First performs extremely well in daily use. If you don't like Facebook Home, a relatively clean version of Android 4.1 awaits you underneath.
Facebook Home just isn't going to work long-term for a vast majority of users, and it's a relief that it can be turned off. The speaker and vibration motor quality remind you that some corners were cut to save costs on the hardware. We can live with capacitive keys, but there is no reason in 2013 to have a hardware Menu key on your Android device. Camera quality is better than average, but isn't going to blow your socks off.
Inside this review
Under that smooth and uniform exterior, there's some pretty respectable specs to make note of. Powering the First is a Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.4GHz, which is of course lower on the totem pole than the 600 and 800 but shouldn't be written off so easily. It is accompanied by 1GB of RAM, a non-removable 2000 mAh battery and 16GB of internal storage. We're looking at a 720x1280 SuperLCD 3 display at 4.3-inches, and for cameras we have a 5MP shooter out back and 1.6MP looking forward. We'll break down those last two specs a bit later.
The industrial design of the First absolutely screams HTC.
The entire device is a solid piece of standard polycarbonate, very reminiscent of other HTC devices from 2012. We were lucky enough to have our hands on a snappy red model (there are also white, blue and black options), which adds a bit of flair to the otherwise basic design. The entire phone is the same thickness, with an evenly rounded edge around the entire perimeter. As you would expect, the fit-and-finish of the materials is top-notch.
The solid piece of polycarbonate is only broken in a few places -- starting on the left side with a rather clicky volume rocker. The right side houses a microUSB port next to a micro SIM card slot. Up top you'll find a secondary microphone, along with the equally clicky power button and 3.5mm headphone jack. The bottom has another HTC staple of design, the precision-drilled speaker grille. All of the buttons fall in just the right places, although we can't say we're the biggest fans of side-positioned USB ports. Considering the smaller size of the First, a top-mounted power button is completely acceptable as well.
The entire back of the device is a perfectly flat surface, broken only by the 5MP camera and accompanying flash in the top left corner. A few logos for HTC, Facebook and AT&T are stenciled on the bottom in a deeper shade of red, and can easily be missed if you're not looking for them. Much like the overall size of the First, the back plate design is a refreshing exercise in minimalism. There's no weird texture, pattern, camera pod or design features to get in your way here.
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Flipping over to the front of the First reveals a 1.6MP front-facing camera to the top left of the screen, along with a hidden set of sensors and LED notification light on the top right. There's an extremely small speaker grille at the top of the phone where the polycarbonate meets the screen glass. Down at the bottom you'll find capacitive Back, Home and Menu keys. While this isn't the smallest bezel in the world, we think it's an appropriate size because the phone is so small overall. The only two shortcomings we could find in terms of hardware on the First are the speaker and vibration motor. While the speaker was loud, it seemed to be tinny and distort quickly at higher volumes. The vibration motor also didn't give a solid "full phone" feedback that we like, and just sounds cheap when it spins.
We have to say that the First is an oddly appealing device -- both in the hand and on the table. We're not sure if its the build materials or nostalgia for a time when phones could actually be used in one hand, but from a hardware standpoint the First is just downright nice to use. We seem to say it time and time again, but you feel like HTC is just miles ahead of every other manufacturer when it comes to build quality.
What else is there to say? This screen is gorgeous.
HTC has been knocking it out of the park with its displays for the last couple of years now, and the SuperLCD 3 panel on the First is no exception. As we've come to expect with displays from HTC, color reproduction is nearly spot-on. Viewing angles are also great, with very little distortion of colors or clarity even at the most extreme angles. The 720x1280 resolution at 4.3-inches creates an acceptably high 341 ppi, and translates into images and text that are crisp and don't have any noticeable grain or jagged edges. If you're seeing individual pixels on a display this dense, you're probably using a microscope.
You won't be disappointed by any aspect of this screen.
The HTC First has all of the radios and sensors you would expect. Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, accelerometer, NFC and several more are all on-board. The First runs on AT&T's LTE network, with a fall-back to the slower but plenty acceptable HSPA network when you're outside of LTE coverage.
Battery life is extremely subjective depending on your usage, but in our own time with the device we came away more than impressed with how it performed. The 2000mAh non-removable battery held up well to my daily usage, in which I usually spend about 90-percent of my time in a strong Wifi signal, in the middle of the city with a strong cellular signal as well. So while this isn't exactly torture testing, I had no issues going an entire day (and thensome) on the First.
Keeping that SuperLCD 3 screen cranked up in brightness (like at maximum when outdoors) will certainly hurt battery a bit, but we don't think you'll have to be worried about battery life on this device otherwise. As you can see in the picture above, if you let the device idle on your desk with little "screen on" time, it will literally last for days.
Much digital ink has been spilled talking about Facebook Home over the past few weeks since its announcement. Instead of re-hashing everything that's been said, we're happy to point you towards our greatly in-depth coverage that has spilled across Android Central as of late:
- How to install Facebook Home on your current Android smartphone
- Which Android smartphones can get Facebook Home?
- Your guide to Facebook Home
- How to uninstall Facebook Home from your current phone
Launcher and interface
The Facebook Home experience on the First is nearly identical to that of the experience when you install it from the Play Store on any other supported device. If you've spent any considerable amount of time with Home then you may have come to the same conclusion as we have -- this just isn't a long-term viable launcher option for most people. While the interface and overall design are snappy and well done, usability of basic functions on your phone are seriously hindered when Home is your default launcher.
Cover Feed is beautiful and a nice way to make your phone feel more "alive", but what you'll quickly find is that the thing its best at is keeping you from getting to your apps and services. Instead of being able to unlock your phone and jump into apps, you're now at least one or more steps away from getting to your browser, email, music, calendar and maps. The apps that you use most are now harder to access, and something about that just rubs us the wrong way after a while.
Home on the First luckily does a nice job of integrating your notifications on top of Cover Feed, which is a great feature if you choose to keep the status bar turned off (which it is by default). In typical Jelly Bean fashion you can swipe them away, or tap to enter the apps. They aren't expandable or actionable, however. And if you do choose to have the status bar displayed, the notifications appear in both places.
But again, when you get back to a daily routine -- which for most people involves using a handful of apps regularly -- Facebook Home just feels like it is getting in the way. The First unfortunately lacks a multitasking navigation button, which just adds to the frustration. The only way to switch between apps in this current version of Home is to hit the home button, swipe up to go back to your app drawer, then select your next app. It feels slow once you've gotten used to a one-touch (or even long-press) multitasking key on another device.
Update: In a little brain lapse, we somehow didn't try out a double tap on the "home" button to enable multitasking. This is a standard setup for HTC devices (like the One) to do multitasking, with a long press still taking you to Google Now. There are no software configurations to edit these functions, however.
We think that even for the most diehard Facebook users out there, the limitations of Home when it comes to getting anything except browsing Cover Feed done are going to outweigh the simplified user interface. In its initial release, Home feels best suited as a lock screen replacement, not as your default launcher.
Turning off Facebook Home
We're reluctant to let issues with Facebook Home get in the way of our general liking of the First itself, however. Because with just a few taps through the Home settings you can actually turn it completely off, revealing a standard Android 4.1.2 launcher and interface. Now we're not going to call this "stock Android" or a "Nexus", because well... it isn't. There are still things when you step into the settings menu and start messing around that have certainly seen changes from AT&T.
But it's darn close, and we tend to think that the standard Android interface provides a great user experience, no matter what hardware it's on. On top of the interface working better from a usability standpoint, it actually performs well also. Everything is just as fast and fluid as you would expect on a modern device with little manufacturer or carrier customization. The software doesn't bug you to turn Home back on, or re-enable it on a reboot -- you have complete control over it just like any other launcher. If you choose to turn off Facebook Home, this is basically a whole new device.
Using the First with Facebook Home turned off is actually a real joy, and we think it deserves more than just a couple of paragraphs within the review. Keep an eye on the site in the coming days for a more in-depth look at using the First without Facebook Home.
For an AT&T phone, Facebook has kept things extremely clean. It pre-loads the Facebook and Instagram apps, naturally, along with just a couple of AT&T apps for managing your account and viewing visual voicemail. AT&T has also pre-loaded its WIfi hotspot software, which seemed to continually bug us about joining Wifi hotspots, even when we had turned it off through the advanced Wifi settings menu.
Performance and usability
It's certainly not giving enough credit to the internals of the First to call it "mid-range". With a Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM, you're not going to see any slowdown using this phone even in the most demanding of apps and games. While benchmarks may tell a different story (different doesn't mean accurate), don't be worried about the performance on the First just because it has a Snapdragon 400 instead of a 600 or 800 on board. In daily use of switching between apps, keeping up on texts, calls and email while listening to podcasts and browsing the web, the First performed fantastically.
The First has HTC's staple middle-tier camera sensor. We're looking at its usual 5MP shooter with BSI (Backside Illumination), an f/2.0 aperture, auto focus and ability to record 1080p video.
Much has been made about how the First has a less than stellar camera, but we can't say that it's been the case in our time with the device. Considering that you're using a standard 5MP camera with no additional software support (just a stock Android 4.1 camera interface), photos are actually quite good. In the daytime, where most cameras perform just fine, the First does above average in terms of clarity and color reproduction. The dynamic range isn't as high as you'd hope, and while some macro shots looked a bit washed out, we never had issues getting the shot we wanted out of the First.
One thing that will improve your shots dramatically is using tap-to-focus, which will help the camera meter properly and set the exposure for where you've tapped. Because there's no HDR option on the First, you may have to use tap-to-focus and manual exposure options more often than on other devices.
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At night, the First again performed better than most of the rumblings would lead you to believe. Pictures certainly weren't stellar, but take any modern smart phone off the shelf and you'll experience the same issues as we found here when shooting at night. We found the white balance to look a bit warmer than we'd like, but it's not out of the range of what we'd consider "normal" for night shots. For the 99% of pictures from the First that will end up on Instagram or Facebook, the camera performed just fine at night. Keep a steady hand and choose your shots wisely and you won't be disappointed.
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As we noted above, the First records 1080p video, although it is set to 720p by default to save on storage. Because we're dealing with the stock Jelly Bean camera app, you get the usual set of effects and simple tweaks for your video. Video quality seems plenty good at 1080p, but we wouldn't be surprised if people just kept it set to 720p to save on data when uploading to their social networks.
The front-facing camera on the First is a 1.6MP sensor with 720p video capability, and looks pretty good for your quick still shots and video calls. The rear camera is clearly going to do your mug better justice, though. With the camera being so far off to the left side of the phone, it really reminds us that we would prefer if more manufacturers considered center-mounted front-facing cameras. Considering that on the First the front speaker grille is so small and that the camera assembly on the back is pushed off to one side, we have to think there would have been some possibility to center-mount the front-facer. It's little things like this that can win over consumers when they first play with a device.
The HTC First certainly has a lot more going for it than is apparent at first glance. The internal specs pack more of a punch than you would assume given its price category, and the shell wrapped around those components feels great in the hand. The screen size of 4.3-inches is a refreshing sight, and one that is extremely crisp thanks to HTC's great screen technology. Because Facebook Home can be completely disabled, revealing a clean version of Android 4.1, it's hard to recommend against the First on any single point.
Those looking for the absolute latest, greatest, biggest and fastest device (while it may be a fool's errand in today's smart phone market) will have to look elsewhere, but don't do so before picking up the First and using it for a few minutes. If instead you have been longing for a powerful, affordable and one-hand usable device, the First may have just ticked all of the boxes for you.