- Facebook Home turns Android devices into a tool for checking Facebook first
- The new cover feed feature is fun, but it can get awkward when others see your phone
- Chat Heads is the best feature, allowing you to talk without leaving other apps
Facebook is the fast food of the Internet: easy, quick, satisfying and requiring minimal effort. And the new Facebook Home smartphone interface is for people who live and breathe the social network above any other site or service, depending on it as a news source and communication hub.
Facebook Home is a free Android app that makes some mild changes to a phone's lock screen and home screen to deliver more Facebook features. It's available now in the Google Play store for select Android phones and comes pre-installed on the new HTC First phone, which we have been testing out.
The most prominent feature of Facebook Home is the cover feed. The phone's lock screen displays a constant slideshow of friends' photos and updates that will glide by anytime the device is awake. You can like or comment on a status update or image directly from this screen, tap and hold to get a better look at photos, and swipe to flip through the updates going back in time. Even short statuses are given the full-screen treatment here, displayed on top of a grayed out timeline photo. Tap on the small profile picture for a friend to go straight to their timeline, or tap on a link to open whatever video or article your friend has posted.
For people who habitually check Facebook on their phones, the cover feed combines time wasting with time saving. It's like having a TV constantly on in the background -- your friend's wedding photos, weather updates, political rants are turned into soothing white noise you can marginally pay attention to while doing other tasks.
It's difficult not to constantly glance at the updates as they go by, an interesting photo catching your eye in the background anytime you check the time or get a text message or other notification.
Unfortunately, that allure isn't limited to the phone's owner. Friends and family members were easily sucked in by my phone running Facebook Home, automatically picking up the device and flipping through the photos. Anytime your phone is visible and awake, say when you put it on the table at a business meeting or cafe, people can get a peek at your friend feed.
This has the potential to get really awkward.
Unlike your own carefully crafted timeline, the feed of content coming from all Facebook contacts isn't controlled. There are no settings to pick and choose whose updates show up, so alongside the cute baby and vacation photos from close friends are the uncomfortable drunken photos from a weekend birthday party, political rants from your uncle, weird viral photos you wish you could un-see. Another downside is that it is way too easy to accidentally like a status or photo, which can get embarrassing.
There are no ads on the cover feed, but they will be added at some point. For many, any enjoyment that comes from seeing photos and statuses effortlessly play on the phone's screen could be negated as soon as an unwanted advertisement slips in.
To escape the slideshow, use the tiny circle with your profile photo located at the bottom of the lock screen. Tap on your face and swipe it left to open Facebook Messenger and communicate with your friends through the social network, bypassing text messages or phone calls. Swipe right to open the most recently used app or up to go to the phone's main app screen where more Facebooking awaits.
There is no place to swipe to take a photo or post a status update. Camera shortcuts are common on most smartphone lock screens, and it seems like a curious omission seeing as how most people are taking those photos just to put them on Facebook or Instagram.
But its only one step away. The main app screen has three new buttons along the top for posting a status or photo or checking into a location on Facebook. Swipe left or right to see the usual selection of Android apps, which have suffered a bit of a demotion in the Facebook Home world.
The most clever and useful feature is Chat Heads, which will show Facebook messages from your friends (along with a bubble showing their profile photo) no matter what app you are using at the time. What makes the chat feature handy is that it doesn't require you to go to another app to respond. You can reply right there without having to leave Google Maps or whatever app you happen to be using, even move the bubble around so it's not blocking a certain part of the screen.
Being able to chat away while doing other things is a huge time saver and hopefully something that will be adopted by other operating systems.
You don't even need Facebook Home to get this feature. The company has rolled out an update for its Messenger Android app that adds Chat Heads, so you can multitask away on any Android phone. A new update to the iOS Facebook app also adds Chat Heads, but unfortunately it only works inside the app.
These aren't revolutionary changes to the smartphone experience. For many it will be too simplified, too invasive, too annoying. But for a certain segment of Internet users it could be a no-brainer update.
Facebook says is has over a billion active users, and that includes an extremely wide range of ages and levels of tech know-how. Smartphone users check the social network 14 times a day, according to a recent survey by IDC. There are many people who's Internet interactions revolve almost entirely around Facebook, which serves up their news and entertainment and acts as both an e-mail and chat program.
For these Facebook-centric people, a smartphone that caters to how they use the Internet will the the most natural upgrade in the world.