The elusive Facebook phone has been rumored for years. Facebook has been searching for a better way to monetize its service for mobile, and partnering with a hardware manufacturer seemed like the obvious move.
There were two Android devices made by HTC in mid-2011, the ChaCha (Status here in the States) and Salsa, which featured dedicated Facebook share buttons on the lower right portion of the face. But Facebook never officially endorsed these two devices as Facebook phones. They were simply Android phones with a hardware integration with Facebook. Nothing more.
Even after these two devices, the rumors of a Facebook phone pressed on, Mark Zuckerberg continued to shoot the rumors down. “The phone just doesn’t make any sense,” Zuck told a crowd of press and attendees at TechCrunch Disrupt conference last September. No less, more and more rumors pointed to relatively close ties between Facebook and a popular Android hardware manufacturer, HTC.
Earlier this month, Facebook took the stage at its headquarters at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California to unveil its “new home on Android.” The teaser erupted massive amounts of speculation. And through years of wild rumors, we never saw it coming. Facebook’s big play in mobile is Facebook Home, larger than just a single device. And before the event was over, HTC CEO Peter Chou took the stage and pulled the curtain on the OEM’s newest piece of hardware, the HTC First.
It may not technically be a Facebook phone, but it comes with Facebook Home pre-installed and has a few hidden tricks up its sleeve. Should the First be your next smartphone? Should you get it over any other mid-range device? Or even a high-end phone?
We have spent 10 days with the HTC First and have looked at it from every angle possible. Read on for our full take.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
With so many high-end smartphones on the market with utterly impressive specifications, it’s easy to become a specmonger, to obsess over having the best of the best. But we must remember that not everyone cares about having the latest, biggest, fastest, most powerful phone to hit the market.
And it’s those very people – the ones looking for a decent experience without breaking the bank – that the HTC First was made for.
Easily its best feature is the display. It has a 4.3-inch 720p Super LCD display that touts a high density of 342 pixels per inch. The colors are quite vibrant and it’s extremely bright. Like the DROID DNA or HTC First, both of which feature S-LCD panels as well, the display sits very close to the glass, which creates extra wide viewing angles. The panel is extremely crisp, and it’s among the best looking displays we’ve ever seen.
That said, being a Super LCD panel, it doesn’t offer the extreme contrast offered by Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, nor are the blacks jet black. But it’s a fair trade for a display as gorgeous as this one.
Other specifications on the HTC First include a 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 chipset, 1GB RAM, 16GB fixed storage, a 5-megapixel rear camera, 1.6-megapixel front-facing camera, 2,000mAh battery and AT&T LTE connectivity. Of course, it also features Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and Wi-Fi b/g/n.
Specifications, clearly, are not the highlight of the HTC First. If we were to end the review here, we wouldn’t have many positive things to say about the phone. But this is far from the end of the review, and there are plenty of notable features of the First – including some hidden ones.
Suffice to say, the First, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts.
In a market where some of the most impressive smartphones are made almost entirely of cheap, flimsy plastic and offer an uninspired, insubstantial design, hardware is quickly becoming one of the most important fronts for differentiation. Any phone with a unique and higher-quality build immediately gains some ground on the competition.
In every way, this holds true for the First.
The First was built and designed with utter simplicity in mind. The simplistic button pattern on the face of the device should lend credence to that. Facebook and HTC simplified the glyphs on the capacitive navigational buttons for the First, making the Back button a simple, leftward pointing arrow, the Home button a simple circle and the Menu button a short line.
And this theme is carried throughout the rest of the design. The earpiece speaker is only a tiny slit at the top of the face, hidden between the matte finished soft touch plastic and silky smooth glass. The power button and volume rocker are also matte and barely protrude from the rounded edges. And the flat back has very little to it. There is a small camera sensor in the top left with an LED flash to the right and three emblems towards the bottom: HTC, Facebook and AT&T logos. Along the bottom edge is a perforated speaker grill.
Nothing about the hardware will blow you away, but it’s that way by design, and we’ve taken a keen liking to its minimalism.
The worst aspect of the design is the port placement. Reminiscent of years past, when manufacturers gave much less thought to ergonomics, the HTC First features a microUSB port along the right edge of the device, making it difficult (or awkward, at least) to use the phone and charge it at the same time.
The material the First is made of is worth commenting on. It’s definitely plastic. But it’s the sort of plastic that makes an otherwise cheap, mid-range smartphone feel like a quality device. (Think One X with a matte finish.) It’s hard and feels solid – durable. There is no sort of squeaking or popping when you firmly grip the device.
Due to the 4.3-inch display, the HTC First is markedly smaller – in every dimension – than most other Android smartphone these days. It measures only 126mm tall, 65mm wide and 8.9 mm thick. For comparison’s sake, the Nexus 4 is 133.9mm by 68.7mm by 9.1mm and the iPhone 5 is 123.8mm by 58.6mm by 7.6mm.
It’s small stature makes it easy to hold and use one-handed, a blessing amongst users with smaller hands or those who don’t favor the recent trend of extra large smartphones. And the matte finish around the edges and back make it easy to grip.
For those who favor removable batteries, unibody phones are like a spreading plague. More and more phones are coming with integrated batteries. But unibody designs are a way for manufacturers to achieve above-par build quality in a comparatively cheap phone, such as the First.
As far as hardware, design and build quality go, we found very little to complain about with the HTC First, aside from the fact that after using much larger phones for months on end, comfortably typing on the notably smaller only came with some practice and a heavy reliance on auto-correct.
Users with smaller hands may find the smaller size of the HTC First to be a blessing.
The software on the HTC First is what sets it apart from other devices in the mid-range category and most other Android smartphones. This particular section is two-fold.
The defining feature and the sole reason the First exists is Facebook Home. Essentially, Facebook Home is nothing more than a launcher replacement for Android. What this means is, when you power the device on for the first time, you are prompted to login to your Facebook account. And once the setup process is completed, your Facebook News Feed is displayed on your home screen in the form of Cover Feed.
Any pictures that are shared to Facebook are displayed in your Cover Feed. And if someone shares a link or status without a picture, their cover photo is used instead. This effectively puts the content on your home screen in the hands of your Facebook friends and the pages you have liked. Your home screen is at the mercy of what your friends deem necessary and safe to share. This alone gives many a reason to hate Facebook Home.
During the review period, we have bumped the power button on the First only to see a half-naked man, all sorts of profanity and other NSFW or simply unpleasant content. If it isn’t questionable content, it’s something else. Few of our Facebook friends are trained professionals with cameras and not every picture shared is up to snuff, meaning we’d unlock our phone to a pixelated, garbled mess. At times, it was not unlike a puzzle where we had to figure out what exactly we were looking at (the middle picture above being Exhibit A).
But there’s a brighter side of the picture. When Facebook Home worked as intended, when our friends shared visually appealing photos, Facebook Home was gorgeous. And there’s no more visually stimulating or interaction-inducing way to consume Facebook. It’s setup to be super simple. Double-tap anywhere on a status to like it, and you can leave a comment by tapping on the status activity or the comment button. To zoom out and view the entire picture, simply long press on the home screen.
There are some caveats of Facebook Home, though. Since it takes the place of the home screen and doesn’t allow any widgets, icons or folders, it does kill some of Android’s most loved features. But a user-defined set of quick launch apps can be accessed by pressing the Home button or tapping a blank area on the home screen, which brings up your Facebook profile image, long pressing the profile image and dragging it over the Apps icon. From here, there are shortcuts to various Facebook actions, such as: Status, Photo or Check-In. The full application drawer is one page to the left.
And that is the extent of Facebook Home. It’s fairly minimal, but it can be overwhelming. It adds additional steps to get to the core functions of a smartphone: browser, dialer, camera, etc. And it puts Facebook first, which may not sit well with some.
Facebook Home is also officially available to install via Play Store on six select devices: HTC One, One X, One X+, Samsung Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S 4 (though, the HTC One is still suffering some compatibility issues). What makes the HTC First’s Facebook Home experience slightly different, however, is the Google Search bar at the top of the application drawer and the fact that all notifications are displayed on the Facebook Home notifications. Facebook Home on other devices only displays Facebook notifications.
Fortunately (for the sake of user choice), Facebook Home can be disabled to certain degrees. And beneath Home is not Sense UI like what is found on most other HTC Android smartphones. Instead, it is a virtually untouched version of stock Android 4.1.2.
Using the More icon in the application drawer, you can temporarily jump back to the stock Android launcher, but pressing the Home button will take you back to Facebook Home. You can clear the Facebook Home defaults from within the Apps submenu in Settings and set the stock or third-party launcher as the default. Doing this will preview Facebook Home when you take the phone out of standby and it will work as a lock screen of sorts. Or you can completely disable Facebook Home in the Facebook Home settings.
We can’t help but feel Facebook Home will sell the First alone. Don’t get us wrong, though, Facebook Home will appeal to avid Facebook fans. There are simply better devices for the same price (the Galaxy S III is now $100 with an agreement on AT&T) that will also run Facebook Home. The fact that the HTC First runs stock Android, however, is one of the most interesting features of an otherwise boring phone.
At 5-megapixels, you can’t expect the camera on the HTC First to blow your socks off. And it won’t. Trust us.
Running stock Jelly Bean, the HTC First also has the stock Android Camera application. But it’s the 4.1.2 camera, not the updated 4.2 camera, meaning it has the older interface and lacks many important features, such as photosphere or HDR.
On the software side, performance was par. Auto-focus was slow to lock-on, but rarely did we miss a focus. There were also some instances of shutter delay.
In just the right scenarios, the camera seemed to perform exceptionally well. In fact, I would stretch to say it would give other 8- and 13-megapixel cameras a run for their money in just the right lighting. The colors, in most cases, were quite accurate and often perfectly saturated. The f/2.0 lens also made for a nice bokeh in many shots.
Outside of those perfect lighting situations, though, the camera performance was pretty dismal. Whites were quick to blow-out, and the contrast and saturation were low, making most pictures look milky or as if they have a light film over them. And low-light performance was sub-par.
The front-facing camera is 1.6-megapixels, and as with most other front-facing cameras, it’s nothing spectacular. The colors were super-saturated and lacked detail. But it should suffice for its primary purpose: self-shots and video calls.
The First doesn’t have the most powerful processor around, and its performance in benchmarks testify to just that.
It runs Qualcomm’s mid-range chip, the dual-core Snapdragon 400, clocked at 1.4GHz. And, alongside more powerful devices, it shows … ever so slightly. In our comparison with the Nexus 4, the First certainly held its own in both real world performance and synthetic benchmarks. But next to the 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, the First’s Snapdragon 400 was just a half-step behind the Nexus 4 in every single task.
Apart, the difference is hardly noticeable. The First handles everyday tasks and even many graphic-intensive games with ease, rarely ever stuttering. That said, being used to high-end smartphones with a higher-performance chipsets, we did notice the First to be a little more leisurely in some tasks.
There was some notable lag in day to day use with the First, albeit very little. We can confidently say this lag is almost exclusive to Facebook Home. Scrolling between statuses in Cover Feed would sometimes cause the phone to stutter. And when returning home after several minutes, Facebook Home would have to reload, likely due to only 1GB of RAM.
With Facebook Home disabled, however, we rarely ran into noticeable lag or performance hiccups.
The 2,000mAh battery in the First is sufficient for most days of light to moderate usage. We were able to last a full day several times on a single charge, but the First was begging to be plugged in by the time we woke up, if not as we were laying down to sleep.
On days of heavier usage (sending and receiving dozens of emails, a few hundred IMs and text messages, checking Twitter, Facebook, Google+, watching YouTube videos, playing games and taking dozens of pictures), the First needed a supplementary charge in the mid-afternoon. Screen-on time was between two and three hours, and the average time unplugged was approximately 26 hours.
The more efficient chip and smaller display certainly play to the advantage of the First’s stamina. It excels in standby, but in use, the battery life tends to drop off rather quickly. For road warriors, it’s definitely not going to take from the likes of phones with larger batteries, like the DROID RAZR MAXX HD or Galaxy Note II. But for your daily dose of Facebook, it should last the majority of most days.
Call Quality/Network Performance
Call quality was great. The earpiece speaker, although barely visible, was quite loud, crisp and only slightly tinny. Even in noisy environments, we were able to hear callers without issue. And we received no complaints of problems hearing us in heavy crosswinds or in a busy coffee shop with lots of background noise.
The loud speaker along the bottom edge was relatively loud, as well. And it, surprisingly, was not terribly tinny. Callers were extremely crisp and clear.
Data speeds on AT&T’s LTE network in the Charlotte metro area were among the best we’ve ever experienced. The average downlink was 38.54Mbps with an average uplink of 16.64Mbps. But the fastest downlink clocked was 56.63Mbps and the fastest uplink was 20.74Mbps.
+ Great build quality and simple design
+ Exceptional performance
+ Gorgeous display
+ It comes with stock Android 4.1.2
+ Above par call quality and network performance
– Camera performance is mediocre
– Non-removable battery, no storage options
– Facebook Home is buggy, causes performance issues
– Non-traditional microUSB port placement
– Mild specifications with some performance hiccups
Pricing and Availability
Is the HTC First the most impressive and amazing phone to ever pass through our hands? Not by a long shot. Is it the most memorable? Hardly. But neither of those two things make it a bad device.
It’s much larger (metaphorically) than just another mid-tier Android phone. It signifies the demise of the importance of spec sheets (and hopefully, eventually, unnecessary and futile spec wars). And it comes with software options: the full-on Facebook Home experience or an unadulterated stock Android experience.
Although it has its fair share of compromises (non-removable battery, no microSD card slot, mediocre camera, etc.), its hardware is beautifully minimal and the overall user experience is great. The First is exactly what many have been waiting for – a smaller Android phone with great hardware, decent specifications, stock Android and LTE.
The HTC First will struggle to compete with the likes of its more powerful and impressive counterparts – the One, Galaxy S 4, etc. But there’s a part of us that feel the First will be undermined and struggle to meet its true potential, being damned as the meager Facebook phone.
But we encourage anyone looking for a great cheap Android smartphone to check out the HTC First. We also encourage anyone looking for an easy way to get a stock Android device (without the hassle of hacking and modding) with LTE to give the First a look. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by this little phone that could.