Earlier this year, Facebook announced the first "real" Facebook phone. There are apparently different levels of what this could possibly mean, though, considering this really isn't the first real Facebook phone. There have been previous models touting some kind of Facebook integration, but this time around Facebook's making sure that their experience is right up in your face. It's called Facebook Home, and it launched, specifically, on the HTC-branded First. And, moving forward, we're going to take a look at how the First stands up against the other smartphones out there, running Android and that have access to Facebook Home.
Specifically, we're going to look at the First as it stands right now, with a ninety-nine cent price tag, instead of the $100 it originally launched with. At this particular price point, does the First stand a chance at competing? Or is the First a waste of time, even for dirt cheap?
Let's find out.
Design and Features
The HTC First is a black slate. It's got rounded edges, and it's very minimalistic in its design. Just looking at the device, the only thing you'll see is the 4.3-inch capacitive touchscreen display, which packs a resolution of 720x1280, with a 342 pixel per inch count. Below the display, there are three capacitive buttons, which are white atop a black background: Back, Home and Menu. (Remember, this is an Android phone after all.) At the top left, above the display, there's a 1.6 MP front-facing camera. On the top right there's a notification light. Even the speaker grille is just a small slit, and pressed into the space between the back casing and the front of the device.
Before I get into the other details, I want to just say that the First is a boring piece of hardware. There is absolutely no part of this device that screams out, "Look at me!" At no time will you look at the HTC First and think, Now that's a high-end smartphone! However, as I said above, reviewing this phone as a ninety-nine cent device? Yeah, it makes sense. This feels like it could be a next-to-free phone on contract, and yet slightly better than an all-out free handset.
On the right side of the phone, you'll find the SIM card tray, as well as the micro USB port. At the top, the Power button on the right, and the 3.5mm headphone jack on the left. On the left side, there's the volume rocker, separated into two individual buttons by a very faint divider.
As a right-hander, the Power button at the top right of the device is a bit of a pain to reach, but the button itself is raised just enough to be easily activated when located. The volume rocker has nice travel, but they did feel a bit stiff in my usage. Not a deal breaker by any means, but just something that stood out each time I tried to adjust the volume of my music, or during a call.
On the back of the handset you'll find the 5 megapixel camera nestled into the top left corner, with the LED flash sitting along side. On the bottom, you'll find the logos for all the companies involved: HTC, Facebook, and AT&T. The back is remarkably blank other than those things. It's simply lackluster.
Now, the bottom of the phone. Normally I wouldn't have much to say about the speaker grille, but the First's stands out. Why? Not for the reasons you might expect, like it's exceptionally loud, or crisp, or even remarkably quiet and pointless. No, it's because it's actually tilted and off-center. It's really strange. I doubt this is anything that a casual customer would notice, but for some reason it really stuck out with me. Maybe I take it as a sign of the overall construction of the phone. Or, a glowing indicator at just how mediocre the whole package is.
The First feels good in the hand. The device is thin and weighs in at only 4.34 oz. That means the First weighs more than Apple's iPhone 5, but it weighs less than Samsung's Galaxy S 4. The 4.3-inch display is just the right size, in my opinion. In the end, if you ultimately don't care all that much what your phone looks like from the hardware side of things, then you probably won't be all that disappointed with the First. It's sturdy, and doesn't feel like a toy in the hand. It just really is bland.
I should note that I reviewed a black version of the HTC First, but that the device launched also in Pale Blue and First Red. However, while offering different colors, the overall "blandness" of the device doesn't get thrown out the window or anything.
Usability and Performance
As I mentioned earlier, and as you are fully aware, the HTC First launched with Facebook Home. This is why many consider it the first real Facebook phone. This is a software Home replacement that Facebook built in-house, and it's entirely meant to give you the ultimate Facebook experience. You'll see your favorite social networking platform from the moment you activate the First's display, and you'll see it for as long as you're not playing around with another application.
Ah, but even then, Facebook will find a way into your daily usage. Thanks to Facebook Messenger's new feature, Chat Heads, you'll be constantly within the Facebook realm, even in another application. These Chat Heads are able to float above any application you may be using, which allows you to tap on them, and partake in a conversation -- whether it's a standard text message, or a conversation your'e having via Messenger.
We'll shy away from Facebook Home for just a moment here and run through the basic features, as well as one of the brightest lights when it comes to the First.
Inside the First, there's a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, clocked at 1.4GHz, and it boasts 1GB of RAM. It's running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean right out of the box (which we'll get to in a moment). There is 16GB of built-in storage, but there's no expandable memory via a microSD card slot.
A lot of people discounted the First due to its dual-core processor, and that's understandable. We've jumped into the realm of quad-cores and Octa-cores, so launching a phone in 2013 with only a dual-core that isn't a Windows Phone or BlackBerry-branded device will get some stares and second guesses. However, I'm here to tell you that I didn't notice any lag or stuttering in my time with the First. Switching between apps, back to the Facebook Home launcher, and accessing different Chat Heads went smooth enough. I was never waiting impatiently for something to load, save for a game on its initial boot up.
I ran my normal tests when it comes to games, too: Jetpack Joyride and Bejeweled Blitz. Both games ran fairly well. Jetpack Joyride had some minor stuttering the first few times I played it, but after awhile it warmed up to the task. As for Bejeweled Blitz, I noticed that sound and images didn't match up, no matter how often I played it. The game didn't lag, necessarily, but I never felt like what I was hearing was actually matching what I was seeing.
The camera is lackluster, to say the least. It will take moderately okay photos in absolutely perfect light, but if you get too bright or too dark, fuhgettaboutit. Again, this is just another feature that fits the ninety-nine cent bill, and fits it well. It's not terrible, and it's not great. A recurring theme: it's mediocre.
Now, about that shining light. Out of the box, the First is running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. While it may not be the newest version of Android available, it's also not the oldest, and luckily for the First it's not skinned. Meaning, if you deactivate Facebook Home, which you can pretty easily, you'll be greeted with the stock version of Android. No Sense UI, and you can even turn off the Chat Heads feature if you want, too.
So why is this a shining light? Simply because even if you are a fan of Facebook, and you use the social networking tool every single day, I still think Home might be too "in-your-face." At least, it was for me. I don't have a problem using Facebook (I know, I know), so I tried to use Facebook Home for as long as I could. It wasn't even that I was "drawn" to stock Android. I just didn't want to use Facebook Home anymore.
I think this was a deliberate decision on the part of Facebook and HTC, and the truth is, I think it's the best decision they made in regards to the phone in general. Not so much because stock Android is just the best thing ever, but because they made it possible to turn Facebook Home off. They want you to use it, sure, and HTC would love it if you bought a First, but giving the user the option to turn off the Home replacement is just the right way to go.
My overall experience with the phone during phone calls wasn't exceptional, but it wasn't terrible, either. Call quality was okay. There were times when the person on the other end sound slightly distorted, but it never lasted long. The First was able to keep a somewhat strong LTE connection as well, but I couldn't help but notice that it wasn't as good as the Galaxy S 4, or the iPhone 5. And, as far as battery life is concerned (the First packs an 1800mAh battery), I wasn't that impressed. I had to charge the device twice every single day I was using it, and even a third time on the day that I used it as my main music player.
I didn't pick up the HTC First expecting much, and I feel like that exact expectation was met. The First is in no way shape or form a high-end smartphone, but I don't think it was ever billed to be. Or, if it was, that was a mistake. Moreover, I think HTC, Facebook and AT&T pricing it at $100 right off the bat was a mistake. That goes without saying. What should also go without saying is that the First is a great phone at ninety-nine cents. Even if it's not much to look at.
Unlike Samsung's Galaxy S 4, which relies on software features; or HTC's One, which banks so much onto its hardware; or even Apple's iPhone 5, which hopes you'll like a combination of the two, the HTC First is just about as mediocre a phone as you can find on the market today. It's not built to go up against any of those devices I just mentioned, which is why it never should have been priced anywhere near them.
But it's not anymore, and for anyone who's looking for a cheap phone (even with that two-year contract), or for someone who's looking to get a cheap phone for someone else, the First isn't a terrible option. In fact, there are other devices that are worse. It's a big bonus that you can deactivate Facebook Home -- not because it's terrible software, but because the choice is nice.
In the end, I'd recommend the First to a select group of interested parties, but I think the First misses its mark as a widespread, national hit. There are just better options, all of which can use Facebook Home as well. The First doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but the price tag doesn't warrant that need, either. At least, not anymore.
What's Good: Thin and light frame; 4.3-inch display size is perfect; stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
What's Bad: Lackluster camera; bland hardware design; mediocre battery life.