- Unique UI
- Lacklustre camera
Social butterflies in the UK still have a little wait before they can pluck this handset from the store shelves, but thankfully we’ve been able to nab a US version of the HTC First aka ‘the Facebook phone’ to examine just how well the biggest move into mobile Mark Zuckerberg’s company has ever made, actually fares.
The HTC First is an unusual device with a promising spec sheet paired to Android underpinnings and the new Facebook Home user experience on top.
HTC First review: Design
The first time we held the HTC First we fell in love with the design. First (OK, we’ll stop now) and foremost, for what could technically be considered a flagship device, we love its size. With a push towards larger and larger display sizes, users looking for a high-end look and feel from a smaller device footprint are left with few choices; the iPhone 5 being an obvious example.
The front of the first is dominated by a single piece of glass with heavily curved corners. Underneath the display sit three capacitive keys: a back, home and menu key whilst a front-facing camera is located in the top left. The left side of the phone has a rubberised plastic volume rocker, whilst the right side features a centrally positions pop-out microSIM tray and above that, an exposed microUSB port.
On the top right sits the power/lock key, positioned next to a standard headphone jack and a secondary microphone, with the bottom of the First playing host to a set of micro-drilled holes a la HTC One X, used to conceal the loudspeaker. Last but not least is a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera in the top left of the phone’s back with a single LED flash.
Now all this sounds very pedestrian and although the layout technically is, the overall look and feel is something very special. The entire body of the phone is swathed in a soft-touch coating, a technique popularised by the HTC 8X Windows Phone. This coating twinned with the horizontal and vertical symmetry as well as the heavy rounding of the plastic body’s corners and edges make the first feel reminiscent of a smooth pebble. It’s an incredibly satisfying and comfortable device to handle, with minimalist looks that remain both inoffensive but distinctive.
If we were to pick holes in its otherwise seamless aesthetic, we’d perhaps have liked the option of a removable battery and removable memory card slot, although this would have detracted from the First’s natural beauty.
HTC First review: Screen
Just as with the overall footprint of the phone, we like the notion of a flagship with a more modest 4.3-inch screen such as the one used by the HTC First.
The 4.3-inch 720p HD Super LCD panel on the First’s front is more than capable of delivering a beautiful colour gamut with punchy but balanced tone, accurate whites and a bright backlight. Viewing angles are also excellent and it’s a great piece of hardware to showcase Facebook Home’s full screen ‘wallpapers’.
Despite the fact other HTC’s such as the 8X make use of Super LCD3 technology, the First’s standard S-LCD tech does a better job overall.
As always, blacks aren’t as deep as with AMOLED displays, but nonetheless, images, text and video maintain clarity and definition. A small gripe would be that the glass used on the phone’s frontage is a little too reflective, which hinders outdoor viewing a little, but it’s not a deal breaker by any means.
HTC First review: Operating system
The focus of the HTC First is of course Facebook Home – a new user experience designed by Facebook to run on top of Android.
Back during the announcement of Facebook Home, Mark Zuckerberg said that its focus was to put people, rather than apps, first. To achieve this it does away with lock screens and instead takes you straight to the latest developments from your news feed.
Whilst the phone is sleeping, it downloads fresh posts from your news feed so that every time you wake the HTC First up, there’s something new to look at. You can like or comment on posts, swipe across to see more from your feed or let it cycle through automatically and expand the background images by simply pressing and holding.
Interacting with the top level of the Home interface is simple and easy to learn, but as we discovered, it’s almost too easy to ‘Like’ things by accident, especially as Home’s main features sit above any lock pattern or passcode you may have in place, which is only ever required if you try to access apps explicitly.
The biggest change when using Home is that it does away with widgets and highlight how little they’re actually needed. Perhaps shortcuts for settings like WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS would have been nice, but besides that, the apps were more than enough.
Overall it’s a very clean and stripped down Android experience that we find really enjoyable. The concept needs to develop but it’s an interesting step to have taken by Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the Facebook team.
HTC First review: Camera and multimedia
The 5-megapixel camera on the back of the HTC First does a respectable job of capturing shots in a variety of environments. Its single LED flash, produces usable photos in low light, which would otherwise succumb to the high contrast elements as a result of weak dynamic range. Having said that, movement and colour accuracy lose credibility under these same constraints with a warm tinge to the flash.
In more natural environments, colour reproduction appears accurate (if not a little under saturated) with a good overall composition, however softening does occur in when getting up close to the finer details. Macro shots were more impressive with a nice depth of field and good colour accuracy yet again.
Lastly the HTC First’s Full HD video chops; overall offers smooth, well balanced video performance, but the hardware sometimes trips up, resulting in dropped frames as well as poor image stabilisation, which proved to be temperamental from time to time.
Aside from the camera, the First has all the connectivity options you’d need: WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, 3G and 4G as well as of internal storage of 16GB. The Facebook Home experience may be designed with social interaction in mind, but as there’s no removable storage, you’ll have to make do with what we consider to be a rather frugal amount of inbuilt memory to keep a hold of photos and videos from nights out with friends.
HTC First review: Performance and battery
On paper, the HTC First is kitted out more like an upper tier mid-range phone than a flagship. Under that plastic body there’s a 1.4GHz dual-core processor, alongside 1GB of RAM and an Adreno 305 GPU. Specs wise it’s similar to last year’s HTC One S, however intensive apps including 3D games such NOVA 3 run more smoothly.
Despite Facebook Home being available on other devices, it’s clearly been optimised for the HTC First extremely well. Everything feels fluid and connected and it honestly does look to be the best way to enjoy this unique user experience.
Although we haven’t been able to test out 4G in the UK as our First is built for AT&T’s network in the US, the browsing experience is nonetheless snappy over a 3G connection. Drain on that 2000mAh battery means that with general use, you’ll manage a day, but certainly no more, particularly once 4G is available in the UK on the EE version.
HTC First review: Conclusion
As the most wholly realised example of Facebook integration on a mobile device, we’re fans of the HTC First. The user experience really is an original take on Android and should appeal to anyone who checks their favourite social network more than once or twice a day. On the other hand, some might find it’s lack of flexibility stifling, detracting from what makes Android such a great OS in the first place.
The overall hardware is competent, but this does feel like a first generation device in many respects. If you’re looking for a great all-rounder with 4G and top-notch industrial design, without being more ‘phablet’ than phone, the HTC First may be for you. If not, there are bigger, better flagships out there worth checking out.