7 / 10

HTC First review

HTC First review

Company

HTC

Price

$450 (£295)

The HTC First is not a “Facebook phone,” but it’s the closest the social juggernaut has come to creating one so far. The handset is out in the US tomorrow, on AT&T priced $99 (£65) with contact, $450 (£295) without.

In terms of the UK launch, there’s no firm release date or price yet, but we do know that EE will have an exclusive on the device on its 4GEE plans when the handset is released at some point this summer. Other networks will hopefully then follow in offering the First – which will be a good thing, as there’s already some concern about how much EE might charge on its 4G tariff.

Anyway, potential UK pricing issues aside, is this phone any good? Well, whether or not you’ll like the HTC First rather depends on you.

Do you like Facebook? Of course you do. A better question might be: Do you really, really like Facebook? Do you scroll through status updates before you get out of bed in the morning to find out what everyone did the night before? Do you use it to publicly keep track of your 3.19 mile morning run before posting a photo of the latte art on your first coffee of the day? Do you spend most of your day chatting on Facebook Messenger, because who needs text messages or emails anyway? And did you see that photo you just got tagged in? The one where you had a piece of kale salad stuck between your two front teeth? What was your friend thinking?

If you spend that much time on Facebook, then yes, you’ll probably like the HTC First. It puts Facebook front and centre in a way that makes it easier to stay connected than ever before. But Facebook Home isn’t perfect, and the HTC First is only an average phone otherwise. It doesn’t have a state-of-the-art processor to compete with the current crop of next-generation smartphones, and it lacks simpler details, too, like a microSD card slot. And the underlying version of Android is stock without modifications, which means you miss out on many of the helpful customisations you’ll get on other Android phones from HTC or Samsung.

Design and battery life

HTC makes beautiful phones, and the First is a lovely new addition to its portfolio. It has a unibody design that’s made of soft-touch plastic which gives the phone a real premium, grippy feel. The phone comes in some fun colours, too. You can get it in pale blue, red, or white. I reviewed the black model, which looks a lot more generic than the other options, but no less sleek. What I’d really like to know, though, is where is the Facebook-blue model? I’m guessing Facebook didn’t want to lend its recognisable hue to the phone, lest it be considered an official piece of Facebook hardware. But there is a faint Facebook logo on the back of the phone, next to the HTC logo, which lends it an official air. This may not be a Facebook phone, but it’s Facebook-approved.

Colour aside, the rest of the phone is attractive too. The corners are rounded, which makes for a very comfortable fit in your palm. The 4.3in display has curved edges that blend seamlessly into the design. It’s a lot smaller than most of the 5in phones we’ve been seeing lately, and the 720p screen resolution is a step down from the 1080p trend. That said, it still looks great. The display offers an ultra-sharp 341 pixels per inch, and text, videos, and images all look very crisp. It’s actually quite comparable to the iPhone 5, which still has one of the best displays in the business.

And measuring 65 x 8.9 x 126mm (WxDxH), with a weight of 124 grams, the First feels much more natural to hold than the huge HTC One or the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4.

The phone’s only physical controls are a power button on top and two volume buttons on the left. There’s a hidden SIM card slot on the right, but other than that, the body is fully sealed.

Unfortunately, that means you don’t get a microSD card slot, and the 2,000mAh battery isn’t removable. It was good for a solid 12 hours and 30 minutes of talk time, but it won’t last as long as that if you spend all day on Facebook. With the screen brightness set to maximum, I was able to stream a video over LTE for 6 hours and 53 minutes before the battery called it quits, which is also quite good.

Network and call quality

The First supports HSPA+ and 4G LTE, and will run, as we’ve already mentioned, on EE’s already-live 1800MHz 4G network. You can also use the handset as a mobile hotspot, and the phone supports 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi over 2.4GHz, but not the faster 5GHz band.

Reception is strong, and voice performance is solid. You can turn up the volume quite loud in the phone’s earpiece. Voices sound clear, rich, and full, but at the highest volume you can hear a bit of fuzz in the background. Calls made with the phone sound clear and natural, but mediocre noise cancellation means your voice can get swallowed up if you’re calling from a particularly noisy place. The speakerphone sounds a little fuzzy, but is definitely loud enough to hear in your car, if not outside. And the First had no trouble connecting to my Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and making calls with the Standard Android voice dialler.

Facebook Home

The HTC First is the first phone to ship with Facebook Home preloaded. Again, that doesn’t make it a Facebook phone. It just makes it a phone that runs a very heavy layer of Facebook software on top of the Android operating system.

The nice thing about using the HTC First is that everything is already there. When you turn on the phone, one of the first things you’re asked to do is enter your Facebook login information so that you can access Facebook Home. Once you’re connected, you can still access your standard Android home screens and menus, but it takes a few taps to get there. You can always turn Facebook Home off, but until you do, you’re in Facebook’s world.

In Facebook Home, there is no Home screen. Instead, you have a Cover Feed (see the above image), which turns your home screen into a scrollable stream of live, ever-refreshing Facebook updates. Each time you swipe your screen you get a new update, which displays the person that posted it on top, with the update underneath, a photo in the background, and the ability to like or comment at the bottom. If the update is a new photo, that’s the photo you’ll see in the background. But if it’s just a random update, Facebook will automatically pull in a recent photo, which works surprisingly well. It’s all very fast and responsive, and the layout is actually quite beautiful.

What I don’t like is the sometimes random order of updates. Your Cover Feed starts at the latest update when you turn the phone on, and for the most part they go in order as you swipe to the left, but not always. I would often see an update from 39 minutes ago, followed by an update from 5 hours ago, and then another update from 54 minutes ago. When updates went out of sync like this, I first assumed I reached the end of my most recent updates and stopped swiping. But when I saw some updates continually repeating themselves, I realised they were being presented out of order, which doesn’t make sense.

From your Cover Feed you get a few options for where to go next, but not nearly as many as you do when using a standard Android home screen. When you tap on the screen your Facebook profile icon appears at the bottom. You then hold it down and drag it up for your Apps screen, or to the left for Facebook Messenger (don’t worry, there are icons to remind you).

Facebook Messenger will look familiar to anyone who has used the app before, but the Apps menu is quite different to what you’ll find on standard Android. At the top of the menu you are given the option to post a status update, upload a photo, or post a check-in to Facebook. Below that you get some space for shortcuts. A few apps come preloaded on the screen, but nowhere near as many as you’ll find in the standard Android menu. To get to that, or to get back to Android in general, you have to swipe all the way to the left for an extended Apps menu. At the very bottom is an icon that mysteriously says “More…”; tap it, and you’ll be taken to the land of Android, but you can always find your way back by tapping the First’s circular Home button.

My favourite part of Facebook Home is the Chat Heads feature, which is basically a bubble that pops up over your screen (whether you’re in Facebook Home or the standard Android interface) to let you know you have a message. You can tap on the bubble to open a list of all your recent messages, or you can dismiss it by dragging it to the bottom of the screen. You can also hook it into your text messages, so that you receive texts in bubbles as well, which then appear next to your Facebook messages. It really helps keep things organised if you’re constantly sending Facebook and text messages. The Notifications system is nice, too, with big, bold messages letting you know everything you missed whenever you wake your phone up.

One thing to consider is data usage. Basically, Facebook Home has the potential to turn your phone into one big data hog, since every time you swipe across your Cover Feed you’re accessing data. I was able to burn through 300KB in a minute or so, according to Onavo Count. That isn’t terrible, but it can start to add up every time you use your phone.

To that end, Facebook allows you to customise data use and image quality, choosing between low, medium, and high options in the Settings menu (I tested data usage on the medium setting). I didn’t notice a major difference in quality or performance between settings, so if you’re trying to conserve data, you might as well keep it set to low.

Another thing to consider is adverts. Facebook Home is ad-free right now, but the company has already said that it plans to include ads at some point in the future. Now, this hasn’t stopped a ton of people from buying, say, ad-supported Kindles from Amazon, but the only ad you see there is when you turn the device on. I’d hate to be flipping through updates on my Cover Feed only to swipe across an advert.

But remember, Facebook Home is only an app. You can turn it off whenever you want by accessing the Settings menu and flipping the switch. So if the ads start to bother you when Facebook activates them, or if you just can’t bring yourself to look at another photo of someone else’s lunch, you can always switch over to plain old Android.

Performance and Android

This is the first phone we’ve seen to be powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset. The First has a super-fast dual-core 1.4GHz processor which keeps things moving along nicely, though the handset sometimes became a little warm to the touch. It turned in some solid benchmark scores in our tests, but can’t compete against quad-core phones like the HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4. That’s okay, since the HTC First isn’t being billed as a speed demon of a phone, and it does what it was designed to do very well.

While running Facebook Home, the First was able to swipe through my Cover Feed quickly and responsively as soon as I woke the phone up. It’s fast enough to navigate both Facebook Home and the standard Android interface effortlessly, and the dual-core chip ensures you’ll be able to use all of the 700,000+ apps available in the Google Play store. The only slowdown I encountered was in the Facebook app itself, when the phone stuttered to load pictures as I scrolled through my friends list, which happened on a couple of occasions.

Now, amidst all the Facebook phone hoopla, it can be easy to forget that the HTC First is primarily an Android phone. It runs a nearly stock version of Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean). That isn’t quite the latest (that’d be Android 4.2.2), but it’s close enough that we won’t complain. And aside from Instagram and Facebook Home itself, Google’s operating system has been virtually unmodified. Some people probably see this as a plus, but I actually find it problematic.

Think about it: Most people are probably interested in this phone because they want a simpler way to connect to Facebook. They want a phone that makes their lives easier by giving them a clear picture of what to do. Stock Android, on the other hand, is all about customisation. So while many people like it for being much more configurable than other mobile operating systems, that also makes it less intuitive to use for newcomers.

Android skins, like HTC’s Sense UI or Samsung’s TouchWiz, make Android feel friendlier and more approachable than it does in this base incarnation. So by not applying its trademark Sense UI, HTC is actually making this phone less intuitive to use whenever you’re doing something that isn’t connected to Facebook Home.

Compare this to the HTC One, for example. On the One, which uses HTC’s Sense 5, you get a ton of social network information automatically imported into your phonebook. You can scroll through someone’s most recent social network updates and even a gallery of recently posted photos, all through their page under your Contacts menu. And it imports Facebook events into your Calendar app as well. But on the First, all you get is a phone number, email address, and link to a Facebook profile page.

Since Facebook Home will be downloadable for select other phones with skinned versions of Android (like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4), you’ll actually get a better Android experience on one of those phones whenever you’re not connected to Facebook Home.

Multimedia and camera

You get 11.79GB of free internal storage. There’s no microSD card slot, so hopefully you spend most of your time on Facebook. I’m not crazy about the move to a fixed amount of storage on many of HTC’s new phones, especially when that leaves you with less than 16GB of total storage space.

Multimedia support is pretty standard. The phone has a 2.55 Volt built-in headset amplifier, and Beats audio software provides a little extra low-end oomph for your tunes. The First was able to handle all of my music test files except for FLAC, and sound quality was good over wired and Bluetooth headphones. For video I was able to play back all of our test file formats, but audio was slightly off on DivX files, and completely out of sync across all files when using Bluetooth headphones. On the plus side, video looked great on the 720p screen.

There’s a 5-megapixel, auto-focus, f/2.0 camera with an LED flash and a 28mm wide-angle lens. It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as you’ll find on higher-end phones, like the HTC One or the iPhone 5. It can shoot photos quickly, in just a tenth of a second, but can’t fire off a volley of shots at once like the One can.

The camera captures a good amount of detail, though colours can look a little washed out, or have an almost greyish cast. The camera also captures 1080p video at 26 frames per second indoors and 28 frames per second outside. But footage isn’t great – overall, it lacks sharpness, sometimes stuttered, and occasionally suffered from a tearing effect in the middle of the screen. There’s also a wide-angle 1.6-megapixel BSI front-facing camera, which lets you fit multiple people into a group photo or video.

Verdict

If the upcoming HTC First was the only way to get Facebook Home, I would have been more inclined to give it a slightly higher rating. But as it stands, this is just an average smartphone that comes preloaded with a shiny new app. It’s priced reasonably enough – at least in the US currently, we shall just have to see where it’s pitched by EE over in the UK – and it’s a decent choice if you can’t be bothered to load the Facebook Home suite onto a different Android phone.

However, odds are you’ll be able to pick up, say, a Samsung Galaxy S3 for the same price, or likely less, than the First – and that will give you a bigger screen, a microSD card slot, a better camera, and Samsung’s TouchWiz UI layer. Or indeed you could just buy a Galaxy S4, which will be out well before the First – although that will obviously be a more expensive option.

The HTC One is also more expensive, but it gives you more memory, a fantastic camera, and the sharpest mobile display available, along with HTC’s innovative new Sense 5 UI. It’ll be a little extra work to download Facebook Home onto this handset, but you’ll be rewarded with a more intuitive experience all-round.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

HTC First

Screen Resolution

1280 x 720

NFC

Yes

Dimensions

65 x 8.9 x 126mm (WxDxH)

Network and Wi-Fi

4G LTE, HSPA+; 802.11 a/b/g/n

Video Camera Resolution

1080p

Battery Life (As Tested)

12 hours 30 minutes

Storage

11.79GB

Processor Speed

1.4GHz

CPU

Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 MSM8930AA Dual-Core

GPS

Yes

Pros

  • Only phone to ship with Home preloaded
  • Sleek and high quality build
  • Sharp display

Cons

  • No microSD card slot
  • Stock Android lacks HTC Sense features
  • Average camera

Company

HTC

Price

$450 (£295)

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