The last thing the world needs is a Facebook phone, or so many a Facebook addict, which is almost everyone, would have you believe. And we were firmly of that mindset until we spent some time with Facebook Home, the social networking company's new interface overlay for Android phones. The new feature puts the world's most popular social network front and center on your smartphone.
And we mean front and center, as the latest updates from your news feed are the first things you see on your lock- and home-screens (the updates literally are your home screen). But instead of giving you the endlessly scrollable blue and white Facebook news feed we know and love, Home presents each update as one big image filing up the entire screen, with the text updates and any relevant links in big, easy-to-read lettering. Liking a post is as simple as clicking twice with your thumb anywhere on the screen, and a click of the dialogue icon pulls up a window in which you can make comments.
To get out of the home screen, just press the circular icon containing your profile photo at the bottom of the screen. This action pulls up a menu that lets you go to Facebook Messenger, Gmail, or the standard Android app home screen. You can also swipe the icon to get to a greatest hits screen with our most-used apps, and then swipe once more to the right to get to the standard Android home screen with all your apps. Messenger or SMS conversations are accompanied by circular onscreen "chat heads" that contain your friends' Facebook profile photos (just click on the head and start chatting). Also refreshing for Android users are the notifications: Gmail, completed downloads, text messages, and more come in the form of bars that slide onto the home screen, stacking up as they arrive. To clear a notification, you sweep left and it disappears (you can also access notifications the traditional Android way by swiping down from the top of the screen). And if you don't feel like actively browsing because you're, say, working out on a treadmill, then just set your phone down and watch as it displays the latest full-screen updates in real time. It's entertaining and engaging.
All these Facebook convenience features still may seem undesirable to anyone trying to cut back on their social media time suck, but unlike many a swiping interface experience, Facebook Home is smooth-running and user-friendly, and we like that. In our hands-on with the HTC First, which has Home built in, we were rarely left hanging by an unresponsive screen or a confusing dead end. And it breathes new life into our inevitable Facebook visits, thanks to those oversized images, in-your-face text, and convenient controls. As a way to improve contact with the many family and friends, Facebook Home has made an immediate difference in terms of our ability to respond, react, and reach out. Would we want this as our all-the-time home screen? No, but the software can easily be switched on and off in the Settings menu, a feature we may take advantage of as soon as our revitalized Facebook activity gets out of hand.
More information: Starting Friday, April 12, Facebook Home will be available as a free download from Google Play for select Android phones (the existing and upcoming HTC One handsets and the Samsung Galaxy Note II and upcoming Galaxy S4). It comes standard on the new HTC First ($99 with a two-year contract, att.com), also out Friday, April 12.