HTC has tried its hand at a couple of "Facebook Phone" devices in the past, but this time the company worked hand-in-hand with the social network to create a device that provides an all-encompassing experience for the end user. It's the very first device, and only device right now. that ships with Facebook Home pre-installed out of the box.
You're literally inside Facebook most of the time you use the phone — if you want to be (more on that later) — and you're getting a first class experience for $99 on AT&T.
Is this the Facebook phone you've been waiting for? Or should HTC and Facebook go back to the drawing board? We'll address those questions and so much more in this review.
HTC First Review Video
HTC is on a roll. Its last several handsets, such as the HTC One, One X, One X+ and others have all offered incredible industrial designs. That's why I was a bit surprised to find that the company carried over its first-class build quality to the $99 HTC First. No, this isn't a flagship smartphone, but it certainly feels on a par with one.
The device is covered in a soft-touch black material that feels even softer than the material on the DROID DNA and, for reasons we can't quite put our finger on, it reminds us a lot of the HTC One S. It's thin and light, but feels extremely sturdy.
You know what I love? The phone is really compact and easy to use with a single hand. It has a 4.3-inch screen. That's small by today's standards where plenty of smartphones are launching with 4.7-inch or 5-inch screens, but its 1280 x 720-pixel display is sharp for reading text, viewing photos and watching videos. It easily slides into a pocket and is a refreshing move away from over-sized smartphones (as much as we enjoy them, too).
The First packs a dual-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm processor and 16GB of storage, but there isn't a microSD card slot for adding additional storage, which is a ding in my book. I don't mind if its 2,000mAh battery can't be removed because I usually carry a charging cable—and because its battery life is quite good anyway—but I do enjoy the option to add more storage. Other devices such as the HTC One don't offer microSD card slots either, but they ship with 32GB of storage at the minimum so it's not as big of a deal. Plus, most $99 handsets usually offer microSD card slots.
The device's design is relatively minimal: there's a touch-activated home button on the front flanked by a return button and a menu button. A front-facing 1.6-megapixel camera stares you in the face right above the display, and there's a 5-megapixel camera and a single LED flash on the back. A power button sits across from the 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the phone; the volume rocker is within easy reach on the left-hand side and a SIM card and microUSB charging port are on the right-hand side of the phone.
I've already provided my opinion on the Facebook Home software and I gave it a rating of 5 out of 10 mainly because it's a bit "too in your face." While that may have been Facebook's goal from the get-go, it takes a bit away from the overall user experience.
As a recap, however, Facebook Home puts Facebook front and center on the HTC First. Your lock and home screen always show Facebook or Instagram content, including photos and status updates. Chat heads pop-through in most applications, allowing you to seamlessly chat with friends either over Facebook Messenger or SMS. They're non-intrusive and are one of my favorite parts of Facebook Home overall.
You can multitask as usual with Facebook Home by tapping the home button twice, which was nice for quickly jumping in and out of applications when needed.
The problem with Facebook Home, however, is that it can add a few extra steps to get to the application you're looking for or to place a phone call. I get it: Facebook wants you inside its eco-system at all times, but I would have liked it if there was one less step to hit up my apps or dial a buddy. I like the shortcuts that I can place on my home screen on other Android devices. Thankfully Facebook Home is always zippy and that's a nod to the software engineers inside Facebook.
Here's the best part, though, and one that should put this phone in your top list of Android devices: you can turn Facebook Home off entirely and use a pure Android 4.1 Jelly Bean experience. No, it's not Android 4.2, the newest version that's available for the Nexus 4, but it's the next best thing and is amazing to have at a $99 price point.
The takeaway is that there's a time and place for Facebook Home and a time and place for plain old Android, and the First lets you access both. I enjoyed using Facebook Home while my wife was shopping and I was sitting waiting for her, but I also liked that I could use stock Jelly Bean when I wanted to shove Facebook to the side and get some work done.
The First packs a 5-megapixel camera, but it's not great. That seems a bit weird, since the phone is focused on sharing everything under the sun with Facebook, but we know price point was a key factor here. I don't have anything negative to say about the camera so much as that it's not as great as what I've been using on the HTC One and other devices recently. The front-facing camera was just OK, too.
HTC First Camera Sample Photos
Call quality was great on AT&T's network using the HTC First. I didn't experience any dropped calls and voices were super crisp — although admittedly this is becoming less of an issue with today's smartphones.
I am spoiled by the stereo speakers on the HTC One, though, and found that the speaker on the First was pretty awful. It sounded tinny playing back music and video and it simply was not clear when it served as a speakerphone during a conference call. Remember, though, this is not a flagship smartphone, it's a $99 device and comparing its speakers to that of a phone that costs twice as much may be a bit unfair, but you need to know the facts.
Data was superb on AT&T's 4G LTE network and we found speeds on a par with other 4G LTE smartphones. Its signal was often in-line with that of the HTC One, both when LTE was available and when it was not.
The First offered really stellar battery life. It packs a 2,000mAh battery that can't be removed, as I noted earlier, but you don't really need to worry about carrying a replacement.
I took the phone off my charger at 7 a.m. and then used it throughout the day for about 1.5 hours to 2 hours of phone calls, social networking, checking two email accounts all day long and watching occasional videos. I tested the battery with Facebook Home running too, since that's probably how most people buying this phone will use it, and I was at 40 percent when I hit the sack at night. That means you'll get about a day and a half of battery life out of the First without touching your charger and with moderate usage.
I need to drive this home once again: this is a $99 phone and cannot fairly be compared to the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. If you want a flagship smartphone and you're a hardware junky, this probably isn't the device for you.
However, if you're a Facebook fanatic who can't get enough of your news feeds, photos, and sharing your life experiences with others, the HTC First is your absolute best bet. Facebook Home needs some tweaking so that you can get to other applications faster, and we have yet to see how Zuckerberg plans to add advertisements to the experience, so there's definitely some work to be done. Thankfully Facebook is already promising monthly updates to the platform.
I also love that you can get a stock Android experience for $99, which is cheaper than picking up a Nexus 4 if you're an AT&T subscriber. The build quality is amazing, calls were crisp and, while the camera leaves a bit to be desired, it's a really compelling device from most angles.
Is it the best phone out there? No, but that's not what HTC or Facebook were out to create. They were out to create a phone with great hardware that offers a first class Facebook experience, and while the hardware has been nailed there's just a few things we like to see improved on the Facebook Home side.
We received an HTC First review unit from AT&T. We used the device as our primary phone for four and a half days before beginning this review. We are aware the comments are not displaying correctly on this post and are working to fix them.