Facebook has a new Home on Android. A new home that bubbles Facebook right to the surface of your Android phone, bringing with it the first salvo in the assault on your smartphone.
Facebook Home is a two-pronged attack, the HTC First delivering an integrated experience, launching on AT&T in the US and EE in the UK. However, it’s the standalone download, the Android launcher app, that’s going to assimilate those existing devices and make every phone a Facebook Phone.
Facebook invited us into its London office and furnished us with Facebook Home on the Samsung Galaxy S3 so we could cast our critical eye over its latest offering. Here’s what happened when we took Facebook Home home.
It’s an app
There are plenty of launchers on Android, and that’s what Facebook Home is at its most basic level. A launcher is what governs the look and feel of your phone, covering homescreens, widgets and how the apps tray behaves. That means Facebook Home gives you a new homescreen experience, it changes the way you interact with your Android smartphone at the very top level. That means this is an invasive app.Â
It will change your apps tray, your home screen icons, any manufacturer tweaks, like Blink Feed in HTC Sense 5, it will change the face of your customised device to bring you that Facebook experience.
There is little in the way of customisation. Although Facebook Home pulls in images and updates from your Facebook feed, and it’s constantly changing, you can’t dump in a shortcut to your favourite app, you can’t add a weather widget, you can’t swipe away to another page you’ve set up. In that sense, Facebook Home is restrictive: Facebook is dictating the experience here.
Facebook Home leverages two major assets: the Facebook app and Facebook Messenger. Both of these have a number of features, as we’ll examine below, and both feed into Facebook Home to give it the functions it offers.
From the picture-filled homescreen you can open your apps tray, enter Facebook Messenger, the Facebook app proper, or return to the last app you were using. That’s about the extent of the navigation that Facebook Home offers. It’s simple, but we instantly find ourselves too far removed from calling. This is a phone and getting to the dialler is now more difficult.
That said, we like what we see. Facebook Home is a personal experience, because it’s your Facebook. That means you can grab and glance at your phone and there’s an update that means something to you.
You can flick through the updates, much as you’d scroll through your feed. Photos are presented and pan around with a sort of Ken Burns effect, touching a photo will jump back so you can see the whole thing. When there’s a status update that doesn’t include an image, then Facebook Home picks up a background from the poster’s cover image.
It’s nice and fluid and looks great, and you can instantly Like something with a double tap. You can see that Likes and comments have been added, with comments popping up so you can add your own, it’s all much faster than using the Facebook Android app. However, you'll often find yourself back in the Facebook app, for example when you tap a linked name.
When someone comments on something you’ve posted, you’ll get a notification on the display so you can’t miss it. There’s no need to be heading into the Facebook app to see what’s going on, it’s right on the surface for you to see, but tapping on the comment will send you back into the Facebook app again, whereas reading and posting comments happens through Facebook Home.
Despite this slight inconsistency with flipping back and forth to the Facebook app, Facebook Home does a good job. It’s nice and clean, notifications can be quickly and easily seen and responded to and it’s a simple user interface, which we like.
Full screen folly, notifications
As we’ve said, Facebook Home takes over your entire homescreen. There’s one important setting, however, and that’s the option to reveal the Android "status bar", ie, the bar at the top of homescreen. There’s been a lot of talk about notifications in Facebook Home and switching to this option makes things much more useful.
It means that you can still see what is going on with the rest of your device, which otherwise remains hidden from view. However, you can always access the status bar by dragging down from the top of the display. If you want to drag down your notifications, or to access things like hardware controls or music controls that might fall into this area, then you can then do so, as normal, so it’s not quite as desperate as it might have first seemed.
However, if your device offers things like big homescreen notifications, then you’ll lose those. The confusion surrounding notifications comes from the fact that Facebook Home will feed you Facebook notifications, but will give you other system notifications only on the HTC First handset, not on the download we’re looking at here.
That’s because this is dependent on APIs on the device that are controlled by the manufacturer, rather than being accessible to Facebook’s app. Facebook has told us the aim is to work closely with big manufacturers on major devices to try to bring a unified experience to notifications and wider access to other aspects of your smartphone, at which point the whole thing will feel more integrated.
Moving aside from pictures, comments and Likes, messaging is of much greater significance than you might first consider. It’s here that Facebook’s stealth assault on your phone really takes place. Facebook Messenger, as an app, has been around for a while, but this is the place where the real communication takes place.
Integration into Facebook Home is nicely conceived, if awkwardly named. When a friend sends you a message on Facebook Home, they’ll pop-up as a "Chat Head". It’s a terrible name, but a great concept, as you can keep the shortcut to that chat on the screen all the time, so you don’t have to be flitting back and forth to the Messenger app. That makes Facebook messages uber accessible.
However, Facebook Messenger offers more than just messaging within the Facebook world. It also offers SMS messaging and VoIP calling which means it’s in some ways laying down the foundations for the bigger picture, hinting at how far Facebook can go.
However, while Facebook Messenger is possibly the biggest piece of the Facebook Home puzzle, it’s also the part with the worst fit: the SMS experience is limited, it doesn’t feel as slick or as flexible as the regular Android messenging app, because it’s juggling with two different messaging paths at the same time, but with little panache.
There’s a lack of information up front to the SMS messages. You can’t revert to MMS messaging - presumably because Facebook wants you to use Facebook messages for those including images - so while we’ve been using Facebook Messenger, we’ve regularly been flicking back to the regular messaging app to keep communicating effectively.
The advantage that using Facebook Messenger brings is that you then do get notifications integrated, so if you receive an SMS, you’ll get the same neat notifier that you get from Messenger, so long as it’s acting as your default SMS client.
VoIP calling, however, is slightly impaired. Although it’s a neat enough system, there’s no notifications to tell you that you’ve missed a VoIP call, even if it does appear in a chat. It has the feeling of being a social nicety, rather than something that lends itself to regular dependable use.Â
As we’ve said, Facebook Home takes over your apps tray too. That means you lose any of the tweaks that your manufacturer might have made - for example the provision of folders or shortcuts to Google Play. What you get instead is the ability to post Facebook updates - status, photo or checkin - integrated into the apps tray.
There's no extra provision for how the camera behaves, there's no Instagram pushed to the forefront: the photo posting is exactly as it was through the existing Facebook app.
You can move app shortcuts from the complete list into pages of your more frequently used, however, with the ability to create folders, things soon quickly get spread out. It’s at this point that you’ll realise that using Facebook Home doesn’t make it especially speedy to access all the other things you might want to do with your phone.
Is Facebook Home a game changer?
We’ve got to say that at this stage, no it isn’t. It offers some nice features - Chat Heads for one - and it looks nice, but for those interested in getting the most out of their Android phone, it’s a layer of distraction before you get to everything else.
For those who principally use their smartphone for managing their interaction with Facebook, then it’s nice, but it’s a long way from being essential. But a nip and a tuck here, wider provision for accommodating the other things you do with your phone, and Facebook Home would be much more compelling.