HTC First

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

Conclusion

Considering that Facebook Home can be completely disabled, the HTC First may be the decently -spec'd 4.3-inch device that many users have been clamoring for. But if the improved ergonomics of a smaller device aren't a driving factor in your smart phone buying decision, there are likely better ways to spend your $100 on-contract at AT&T. If you're indifferent on screen size and simply want a well-designed and solid performing phone, the First may be just what you're looking for.

Inside this review

More info

HTC First hardware

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.

Build Quality

HTC First

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.

HTC First HTC First

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.

HTC First HTC First

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. 

HTC First HTC First

Click images to view larger versions

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. 

Display

HTC First

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.

Radios

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

HTC First

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.

HTC First software

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:

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.

HTC First Home Screen and Settings

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.

HTC First App Drawer

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.

Bundled apps

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.

HTC First cameras

HTC First

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.

Daytime pictures

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.

HTC First Camera Sample 1 HTC First Camera Sample 2

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HTC First Camera Sample 3 HTC First Camera Sample 4

HTC First Camera Sample 5 HTC First Camera Sample 6

HTC First Camera Sample 7 HTC First Camera Sample 8

HTC First Camera Sample 9 HTC First Camera Sample 10

Low-light pictures

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.

HTC First Low Light Sample 1 HTC First Low Light Sample 2

Click images to open full res in new window

HTC First Low Light Sample 3 HTC First Low Light Sample 4

Video

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.

Front camera

HTC First Front Facing CameraThe 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 bottom line

HTC First

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.

 
There are 34 comments

just not my cup of coffee...
but don't really have anything bad to say about it...

Fadakar says:

Same, I actually love the design, I honestly like it more than my One. It's clean and simple and it has every color variation I could ever want. If this was a top-tier flagship packaged in the same shell, I'd be all over it. Definitely on the right track, in my opinion.

Hopefully some decent number of people buy it to show HTC that the demand is there for a smaller device.

mwara244 says:

Great phone for people who want a newer phone with stock android on it who use ATT, and just disable EFFBook

litlprince says:

i just think this could have been greatly improved by keeping the core apps (phone,messenger,browser) on the homescreen. Or even by having a side app menu that slides up when gestured.

I agree. some way to "pin" or have access to a few common apps of your choosing would be HUGE for usability on Home.

ChromeJob says:

Maybe replace the launcher with Nova Launcher? You can make Nova mimic the stock Android launcher, with a few improvements. For instance, gesture, which I use as

Single finger down => Status/notifications
Double finger down => Quick Settings
Single finger up => App drawer (also Nova)
Double finger up => Recent apps

Sounds like this is the easiest carrier phone to customize around. Just disable the Effbook apps, install a couple of third party enhancements, and voila - 4.1.2 with near-stock goodness.

Easy-G says:

Specs would have been top of the line 2 years ago, but the software is closer to new. $99 on contract seems like a bit of a stretch, but maybe worth it for the young and avid Facebook'er.

A Snapdragon 400-level CPU, 1GB of RAM and a 720P SLCD 3 display 2 years ago would be well beyond "top of the line". Change the statement to "last year" and I might start to get on board with that assumption.

mjenabi2 says:

it looks so similar to Lumia 820, same screen size, look and feel

jrb363 says:

It's a decent phone, but considering the HTC One is only $100 more with double the space and that you can easily add the Facebook Home launcher if you want to I don't see the point in this outside of the teen crowd who live online. It feels okay in hand but the best selling point is by far a stock 4.1 Android experience for $100 on contract if you must be tied to a carrier.

jabbajawz says:

For real... If you need a high quality handset with stock Android, this would be the way to go if you were on low budget. All you had to do is root it and remove that facebook home launcher. Either that or download another launcher from the market, if that works. I root all my phones anyway, so that facebook home would be gone in a matter of a flash.

Yup that's the general conclusion here. $100 more gets you the One, but there's a pretty decent chance that the specs dont matter when the phone is too big to use one handed. And as you point out theres a big difference in software between standard 4.1 and Sense 5. I don't think it's a "no brainer" decision that everyone should buy the One in that situation.

Madness87 says:

Why wouldn't they just get a Galaxy S3 then? or the HTC One X+?

Granted those are "old" phones, but they'd easily outclass this phone no? With the GS3, people could install Facebook Home and get the same functionality?

I think the only benefit to this phone is it's small form factor, for those who don't like the 4.7" and 5" phones that are mainstream etc.

I think performance-wise the First is comparable to both of those, and the screen is certainly on par or better. The deciding factor, assuming a price of $100 for a GS3/OX+ or a First, is likely just the size/build as you said.

cthr says:

"As you would expect, the fit-and-finish of the materials is topnotch." I did not think this when I was holding it and would still disagree... Almost feel like your love for HTC products is bleeding into your review..

Its of course subjective, but why do you feel that way? There's not a creak, bend, flex or a single piece out of place. Everything is very very very well put together.

Excellent review Andrew. It's funny because for a while I thought the Nexus 4 was the go-to unlocked cheap device to get. When you consider the HTC First is $450 unlocked, I think it's the better choice. Yes that's $150 more than the 8 GB Nexus 4 but you get LTE and 8 GB more internal storage. I certainly prefer the ergonomics of the First versus the glass flat backing of the Nexus 4.

Well thank you very much!

As far as complete "bang for your buck" is concerned I think the 8GB Nexus 4 is still the winner. But it certainly is nice to have another option in the lower price category, and one that's easy to hold and still has a solid spec sheet.

TimmyB says:

Nice write-up, Andrew. This indeed looks like a nice upper-mid-table phone, at this point in time. My wife and I are both looking at new phones in May, and the one thing I don't understand is how this phone is going to compete at the $99 point. The ONLY thing I see is the smaller size, which some (especially smaller hands) will like. But, even my wife (who is NOT a techie) would say, for $100 more, I can have the ONE or the S4? That's $4/month extra to get SO much more.

'tis one of the issues with carrier subsidized pricing. The price delta between the highest end and the mid range is just $100. Not so much over the life of a 2-year contract. They would probably have to dip this to $49 on-contract to move a whole bunch of them. I guess we'll see how big of a draw the size+software are at $99.

TimmyB says:

Agreed. My gut feeling is, we will see the price drop to nearly free, as there is just so much buzz about the ONE and the S4 (and, potential others) that this phone will be completely overlooked. I've been in my ATT store twice and Best Buy twice in the past weeks, and have not seen a single person even touch the one (other than myself, so I could get a feel for the size of it).

Grahaman27 says:

menu keys are great! why does 2013 mean OEMs cant add a menu key to THEIR phone?

jabbajawz says:

I TOTALLY AGREE!!! Everyone is trying to be like apple and make it simpler. Apparent it's to complex to have more buttons on the phone. It's simpler to have to remember how to get to the menu from the touch screen. Seems kind of backwards to me, but thats how manufacturers seem to think. Less steps equals more complicated and more steps equals simpler. Makes a lot of sense (sarcasm)

Because there's no need for a Menu key anymore. Google has designed Android to no longer need a physical Menu key, and all it does is hide UI elements from the user, making the whole OS harder to use.

Not to mention that the inclusion of a hardware menu key means there's no way to multitask properly on the FIrst, which is a huge downside to usability as well.

aaronius says:

I respectfully disagree. My LG OG has a dedicated menu button, and I use it all the time. And it doesn't mean that there is no way to multitask, as a simple press and hold of the home button gets me to the recent apps list. It's all very intuitive and just works. To say that Google designed Android to no longer need a physical menu key is a bit misleading. They may have designed a way around having one, but at the same time, there are always going to be people who prefer the hard button as opposed to the in-app menu button taking up space on the screen. Yes, it can be done in a way that it's not very noticeable, but that isn't always the case.

chronophilos says:

A menu button is not a system-wide navigational button. To have it sitting next to consistent keys such as home, back, and/or multitasking is flawed from the point of view of os design.

Jon_Doh says:

You can disable Facebook and then you're left with a very capable phone. The screen is very sharp and the dual processor makes everything very snappy. It's well built and ideal for those folks who don't care for the bigger phones.

Incubus123 says:

You must have somehow managed to miss that double-tap home is for multitasking and long-press for Google Now... which is pretty strange since you are reviewing this phone on an android site, im not sure how you would manage to miss that.

Enough phones come across our desks that we're bound to miss some things. We discovered Google Now (some phones don't even let you get to that), but apparently of all the different button combos we tried we didn't give a double tap on home a chance for multitasking. There are no settings on the phone to configure this, so it certainly isn't the most discoverable thing ever. We appreciate you pointing it out.

DWR_31 says:

Google designed Android for being used on devices with no hardware navigational buttons. Just look at Nexus devices and Sony phones.

Recent Motorola phones as well. Its good to see some OEMs giving the on-screen navigation buttons a try.

I like the 'simple' design, menu keys, and screen size. Overall reminds me of my old HTC Inspire but better. Hope this phone does well not because of its facebookification, but more so to prove a small well built phone can sell.

larrytxeast says:

Non-replaceable battery, no microSD card slot. Immediate fail based on that alone. Why is HTC so intent on this design? Surely you're capable of designing a phone with a great display AND a replaceable battery and a microSD card slot, is it really that hard?

Even if you "don't care," there's just no good or sane reason to do that. Why are people okay with their phone being tethered to an external battery all day, or plugged in near the wall all day? It's not a toaster, it's supposed to work--all day, mind you--AWAY from an outlet (and WITHOUT having to switch off everything and assign a 15-second screen timeout setting). Even if you don't carry spares, a replaceable battery design allows for 3rd party extended-capacity batteries for those who don't mind a bit of a lump in exchange for REAL battery life.

I give them credit for the notification light, though. EVERY phone should have one of those.