How much do you love Facebook? Do you love it enough to let the social network take over your phone? How about enough to at least allow it a prominent place on your phone while still allowing you to access all that other stuff you need (apps, email, rival networks)? That’s what the HTC First offers, a Facebook experience that is persistent and prevalent without being all-consuming. Even if this doesn’t appeal to you, the First may catch your eye. At only $100 on AT&T, it’s a tempting option, especially if you like HTC phones but don’t care for its usual, bloated ‘Sense’ user interface.
Look and Feel
The HTC First isn’t meant to be an expensive flagship phone, even though it’s the first to feature Facebook Home. Aesthetically, it’s simpler and less flashy than the HTC One series and more compact than most superphones. None of this is bad. We like the unibody design with its rounded edges, soft touch back, all glass front, and lightweight feel. All of this comes together to make the First a very comfortable, holdable phone that is elegant in its simplicity.
Though not as eye-catching as HTC’s flagship One series, the First has typical HTC hallmarks of design, such as well-placed buttons that are easy to find by feel and navigation buttons below the screen. This time around you get Back, Home, and Menu, the last of which is still relevant when dealing with Facebook Home. We like that the display glass is curved a bit at the edges, though it doesn’t flow smoothly into the plastic casing.
The unibody design means no access to the battery, plus there’s no SD card slot for expansion. For a phone with only 16GB inside, this could be a problem for some.
Screen and Sound
Due to the 4.3-inch display size, even people with small hands will be able to use the First with just one of them. The colorful and crisp 1280 x 720 pixel screen offers wide viewing angles that are only occasionally marred by reflections off the glossy surface. In the sun, the display remains visible as long as you have the brightness up high; keeping it on auto gave us good results during testing.
Instead of placing the speaker on the back or even the front as we saw on the HTC One, the First’s speaker is on the bottom edge. Holding the phone in portrait orientation doesn’t block the sound, and in landscape we found our hand helped amplify the sound depending on what we were doing (watching video vs. playing a game). Setting the First on a table won’t muffle audio, making it good for listening to music and speakerphone calls. The speaker pumps loud volume that remains distinct even with some background noise, though the audio quality is average for phones.
Facebook Home and Android
The name HTC First is either a promise or a threat, depending on your opinion of Facebook Home. As the first device to ship with this launcher/overlay/skin/interface/apperating system, it will likely be judged based on whether people want that much Facebook in their digital lives or not. So, before we go into how Facebook Home works on the First, we should note the following: You don’t need to use it. Unlike interface skins like HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz, you can turn Home off without needing to root the device. Just go to Home Settings and tap the very first item. (Don’t worry, you can turn it back on.) If you turn FB Home off the First reverts to stock Android Jelly Bean. No HTC Sense to be found.
You don’t need to turn FB Home off to get to the normal Android part of the phone. It’s always there, sitting behind all the Facebook stuff quietly, waiting for you to notice it.
However, your first experience of the First will be the Facebook one. Right from go the screen is filled with status updates on top of a Ken Burns-style pan of an image punctuated by your profile picture in a circle at the bottom. On first boot, the system guides the user through basic operations, such as swiping to open up Facebook, Messenger, or the Apps tray – and tapping to just swipe through status updates in the glorious full-screen.
Facebook Home is well designed and seems simple at first blush. Once we started to use it, we hit a few snags, such as figuring out that the first App Tray Facebook shows does not list all the apps, just a few important ones (similar to a Home screen). When browsing status updates in the full-screen, prettified view, you can Like and comment but not share easily. The Chat Heads function is probably great for people who use Facebook as their primary messaging system. But having the head of your friend looming over every app you open (except full-screen ones) can get creepy.
We’ll have a full review of Facebook Home soon. Overall, the experience isn’t that bad. We’re still glad you can easily turn it off.
*Bug: On our HTC First and a One X+ running FB Home, we’ve had an issue with the lockscreen. If you have security settings on your lockscreen, like a code or pin, they do not show up when Home is activated. There’s currently no way to fix this. Other news outlets have reported the issue, as well. HTC and Facebook claim they are looking into the problem.
Specs and Performance
The First is a mid-range smartphone with mid-range hardware, but don’t assume that means sub-par performance. The 1.4GHz Qualcomm dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM scored 5,975 on the Quadrant benchmark. That puts it on par with the Galaxy Note 2 (6,000) and outscores the HTC One X+ (5,100) and the Nexus 4 (4,900). This matches our hands-on experience with the phone – we found it smooth and responsive, both when using Facebook Home and the default version of Android. We experienced high framerates when playing games, watching video, and swiping around the interface.
Connectivity options include Micro USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and GPS. There’s no microSD card slot and only 16GB of internal memory, which could be a problem for people who like to download a ton of apps and take lots of pictures and video.
The phone runs on AT&T’s network and is LTE-capable. During our testing we weren’t able to pick up an LTE signal; we found the performance on 4G impressive, anyway.
Call quality is good on both ends. The recipients of our calls heard us clearly even with some background noise. Their voices came through loud and clear as well.
HTC doesn’t provide any customization of the First beyond adding Facebook Home, which means that the camera app is stock, just like everything else. Thus, the 5-megapixel shooter on the back doesn’t get any help on the hardware side (unless you download a third-party app). As a result, images lack crispness and don’t balance light and dark as well as we’d like, even when the overall light is good. Pictures are okay for sharing digitally, especially when viewed on small screens. Look at them on a computer and their flaws jump out.
The upside to this is that pictures of this type benefit most from Instagram filters. That app is pre-loaded and should probably be your default if another app doesn’t already have your heart.
The 1.6-megapixel front camera is wide-angle, but not as wide as other recent HTC phones. The quality here is good enough for self-portraits and video chats.
Just as with the One series phones, the HTC First has a sealed-in 2000 mAh battery that isn’t user replaceable. We haven’t had time to run our full battery tests yet, but so far it looks like the phone can last all day under medium to heavy usage, though some heavy-duty tasks tend to drain the battery faster than we expected. With a few common battery saving tricks, such as keeping the screen brightness on low and connecting to Wi-Fi when possible, even heavy users should find themselves satisfied with the First’s longevity. We will update the review with more results.
The HTC First is a budget phone that doesn’t feel like one. In fact, it reminds us a lot of recent Lumia handsets in look, feel, power, and price. Putting aside Facebook Home, you get excellent performance, comfortable design, a good display, and stock Android when you want it. And if you do like having Facebook all up in your face at all times, the integration is smooth. We could do without the sealed-in battery and lack of microSD slot. For a phone at this price these drawbacks are forgivable, especially considering its other great qualities.
- Comfortable, compact, and attractive design
- Beautiful screen
- Stock Android under Facebook Home
- Speedy, smooth performance
- Lockscreen won’t….lock (bug)
- Sealed-in battery
- No microSD card slot
- Facebook Home feels undercooked