HTC First review

We’ve got smartphone fatigue. It’s always a new iPhone, new Windows Phone, new Android phone with Samsung’s latest TouchWiz UX, or a lifesaver the folks at BlackBerry are trying to cook up, dominating the news cycle on a daily basis.

This is why we were intrigued with the announcement of the HTC First at the beginning of April, the "Facebook Phone" that had been rumoured since November 2011 when it was supposedly codenamed "Buffy". The HTC First is the first handset to offer Facebook Home pre-loaded, the social network’s custom Android launcher to "focus on people and not apps".

The HTC First is modest compared to the Taiwan-based manufacturer's new HTC One, the towering flagship that we’ve given great marks. But it’s obvious the HTC First isn’t joining in the spec race here, rather it wants to be the phone that the Facebook-addict will buy because it’s $99 (£65) and has access to the latest pictures their friends and family are posting.

READ: HTC One review

Right now, the HTC First is available on AT&T for $99 on two-year contract, shipping in white, black, blue and red. HTC has confirmed to Pocket-lint that the device will be available exclusively on EE in the UK this summer.

The question is, can the HTC First’s hardware and build pull off its mission to be the ultimate social experience?

Design

HTC has taken a step back to the design language it invoked in 2012. There’s the soft polycarbonate body that you’d expect, not the unibody aluminium that was introduced on the recent HTC One. That’s not to say the polycarbonate body is a bad thing, there’s a solid build quality here, something that HTC has seemingly mastered over the years.

In the hand, the HTC First reminds us a lot of Apple’s iPhone. The handset is 126 x 65 x 8.9mm, where the iPhone 5 is 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm - fairly similar. As for weight, it’s not like the HTC First is heavy at 123.9g , but the iPhone 5 is a more lightweight 112g.

On the front of the HTC First you’ll find a 1.6-megapixel shooter for video chat and plenty of "selfies" to put on Facebook. Below the screen there are three capacative-touch buttons: back, home, and menu. We like what HTC has done with the buttons. Three seems better than four, and we can’t think of any other button we’d need to get in and out of the Facebook Home UI. At the very top of the First there’s a simply power button, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The back of the device is actually very boring - seriously. At the top you’ll find a 5-megapixel shooter with LED flash. That’s it, besides the HTC, Facebook, and carrier logos at the bottom of the device. To the right you’ll find a micro SIM slot for easy phone number switching and Micro-USB for charging and syncing with a computer through HTC’s desktop software, if you’re so inclined. To the left there’s a simple volume rocker that works well - no complaints when turning up the latest Justin Bieber tunage. Speaking of tunage, there’s a speaker at the bottom, but don’t expect HTC’s BoomSound.

Inside the HTC First you’ll find a 2000mAh battery capable of a theoretical 432 hours of stand-by time and 14 hours of talk time. The battery is seriously solid on this device, getting us through the day fairly easy. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.4GHz dual core will zip you through the OS, mixed with 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, GPS, and speedy fast LTE.

Unlike the HTC ChaCha - the first "Facebook Phone" that flopped - there is no dedicated Facebook button. However, this make sense given the nature of Facebook Home.

Display

The display on the HTC First is surprising. Not because of it’s quality and metrics, but the fact that HTC was willing to jump out of the "who’s bigger" race and go for something a little more modest at 4.3-inches, which seems like the perfect size in-hand.

On a $99 device, one might expect the screen on this bad boy to be lower quality, but that’s not the case. HTC has included a 342ppi display, 1280 x 720 pixels, capable of some very crisp colours and viewing angles that won’t leave you wishing for much more. Auto-brightness works well here, and with the screen cranked all the way up to full brightness, things were even better, as long as you don’t mind the extra battery drain. Our only complaint came when out in the sun, which you can see in some of our shots of the device.

We are happy with the screen on the HTC First. It’s clear that HTC has quickly become the screen-master for smartphones. That’s not say it’s on a par with the HTC One’s amazing 468ppi display, but again, we’re not considering the two in the same realm. If you want a spec-heavy phone, there’s obviously something else out there.

Hardware and Performance

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor on the HTC First isn’t the latest and greatest, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t zip the device right around. The HTC First is extremely snappy, even with only 1GB of RAM, and it happily takes just about any task thrown at it.

We’ve come to realise that any Android device with a custom skin thrown on top usually lags behind with some extremely great hardware. That’s not the case here. Facebook’s built Home to be relatively light, and that’s exactly why the hardware on the HTC First is plenty to handle it with snappy speeds. We weren’t expecting that, but we are happy to have been proved wrong. 

That’s the overall theme of the hardware on this phone. It does just fine. It’s not the monster that has the latest and greatest processor, rather, the HTC First is built modestly to get the job done.

As much as we like, and respect, the hardware, there is one significant complaint...

Camera

The rear-camera on the HTC First is lacking, especially for a phone with Instragram pre-loaded - the place where everyone is going to post their cat pictures these days. The HTC First simply can’t compete camera wise to the likes of the iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, or HTC One. We know, the HTC First is a cheaper phone, but we feel like the camera should have been one key focus area, given the market for this device, as something used to share things with social networks. 

The decision to include a 5-megapixel rather than an 8-megapixel camera, is obviously a choice on HTC’s part to keep the price down. Additionally, there’s no UltraPixel tech as found on the HTC One, just the plain-old 5-megapixel camera you’ve come to know over the last past two or three years. The same goes for the front-facing camera, although we're more prepared to live with that.

Can it handle Facebook Home?

"Facebook has a new Home on Android", is the tagline Facebook is sporting when pitching Facebook Home to the masses. That makes sense, because Facebook Home is really just a custom launcher on top of Android 4.1.2. Many elements like the camera, notifications, keyboard, and more remain the same - which is actually a good thing, because truthfully, we love stock Android.

But let’s get into the specifics of Facebook Home, because that’s the first thing you’ll see when powering on the device. We’ve already given Facebook Home a rather thorough review running on a Galaxy S III. It’s worth mentioning that besides the First, Facebook Home is supported on five other devices so you can definitely try before you buy.

The first element of Facebook Home is the Cover Feed that pulls in images and updates from your news feed. It’s constantly changing and is accessed by hitting the power button - there’s no lockscreen here by default. The Cover Feed is navigated with the swipe of a finger, letting you jump between the latest from your friends. You can also like and comment, right from the Cover Feed.

It’s worth noting that notifications for third-party apps on top of Facebook Home are exclusive to the HTC First (we’ve got a full explanation here). You’ll have access to Gmail, Twitter and other applications, which are thrown on top of Facebook Home and can be swiped away or be opened. The way HTC and Facebook have implemented this is actually quite nice.

To get past the Cover Feed and into other apps running on the First, there is a circle displaying your Facebook picture that allows you to navigate. You can swipe it to the left to access Facebook Messenger which takes over all messaging in the device, including SMS, up to navigate through an app drawer, and to the right to access the latest app you were in. The app drawer has access to your most used apps that you’ve pinned and you can get access to the full list by swiping to the right. At the top you’ll find shortcuts to post a Facebook status, photo and location check-in.

The last main feature of Facebook Home is Chat Heads that allows you to access Facebook Messenger from within any application. Chat Heads is a feature we love, giving persistent multi-tasking capabilities to keep up with the latest texts from your friends.

For our full opinion of Facebook Home, read our full review, but in-short: it's a bit limited. However, the HTC First has no problem handling Facebook Home if you're comfortable looking past software limitations, as the HTC First makes it feel like relatively light software.

The HTC Stock Android

As we mentioned before, Facebook Home is simply built on top of Android 4.1.2. That means it can be turned off with the press of a button, giving you access to stock Android in its fullest, without any custom software added. Interestingly, the HTC First is the first smartphone out of the Taiwanese-based company since the 2010 T-Mobile G2 handset not to run HTC's custom Sense overlay. Given HTC's commitment to Sense, whether customers dig it or not, this is a surprising move.

It's worth noting that stock Android doesn't mean the HTC First gets the executive treatment like the Nexus devices out of Google in terms of having the latest version of Android. Quite simply, stock Android means there's no extra OEM dazzle. On our AT&T version of the First, the only hint of outside features was AT&T’s Visual Voicemail and AT&T’s Wi-Fi app - both of which can be disabled.

Given the Nexus 4 didn’t come with LTE, this makes the first stock Android handset running the blazing fast speeds. We have to say it feels great to finally have this happen and may be one of the reasons people buy this device. Quite honestly, after hours of using the default Facebook Home on the HTC First, we turned it off in lieu of stock Android, which feels oh-so-fine.

Verdict

The HTC First is a mid-range phone at best, and we’ve made that clear throughout the review. But that’s not to say the specs here aren’t plenty enough to handle what Facebook Home or stock Android has to throw at it. The HTC First is incredibly snappy, handling most tasks with ease. The cameras need improvement given the social nature of this phone, but they do get by.

This smartphone will especially appeal to the entry-level smartphone buyer who’s going to simply love it because of the fact that it has Facebook thrown on top. Facebook has an aggressive marketing campaign going, even on the front of Facebook.com, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the HTC First, or at least Facebook Home, takes off.

At $99 you’re getting a solid mid-range smartphone. We’re happy HTC jumped out of the smartphone spec race and opted for a modest 4.3-inch screen that will actually appeal to a lot of people. Given there’s stock Android on the HTC First as well, the handset will jump out to those looking for none of HTC or Samsung’s custom Android additions thrown on top, providing Android in its purest form, with a mix of LTE.

The HTC First is not the best phone HTC has made. Rather, it’s the best phone for a Facebook experience that shields the rest of what Android has to offer by default.