You cannot help but feel a tad sorry for Facebook Home. It has been almost a couple of weeks since Mark Zuckerberg took the wraps off it, and by and large the app has been put through the wringer (including by Yours Truly in a preview piece on this site). It has been hammered for being too Facebook-oriented, invasive, commercial, part of a plot by Facebook to dominate Android, and for a host of other reasons. Well, it has now been released to the global Android audience, albeit on limited devices (officially, that is), and we have spent a couple of days with it, on devices supported (the HTC One X) and unsupported (the Nexus 7 and Xperia ZL), and our feelings about it are honestly a bit mixed.
The first thing that needs to be highlighted, in block capitals at that, is that Facebook Home is an app meant mainly for Facebook addicts. It is a theme app and pretty much takes over the UI of your Android device, although you can turn it off from its settings (the very first option lets you do so). So if you are not the type who checks The Social Network every five minutes, then Home is definitely not for you. If you are, however, then there are some goodies here for you.
With Facebook Home, your device’s lockscreen becomes a never-ending slideshow of status updates from your friends. Switch on the display and you will see posts made by your friends drift across the display, one at a time. If they are pictures they will occupy the entire display, shifting gently all the while, and if they are wordy ones, then will be accompanied by your cover page picture, still shifting gently. You can take an eyeful of the update at one go by long-pressing on it and can switch between different updates by swiping across the screen – and you do not need to unlock the screen to do so. You can also comment and like updates – double tapping on an update automatically ‘likes’ it, which is kind of cool, although commenting follows the more ‘normal’ select-option-and-then-type route. Yes, it pretty much locks you into Facebook and you cannot control what you see on it, but we can see people getting used to Cover Feed – as it is called – simply because it works smoothly, although we suspect it will gobble bandwidth.
You can make life a trifle less Facebook-y by unlocking the screen. Home has thrown a small spin on the ICS display unlock system by placing your profile picture on a small button at the bottom of the display, which can be moved in three directions – to the previous app you used, to the Facebook Messenger app, or to the app list. Yes, we had actually expected an option that would lead us to Instagram, but that is another story, perhaps for another update. Head to the apps on your device and you will see they have been rearranged across different screens. The primary one has all the apps on your device, and you can move the ones you use more often to the others by a simple drag and drop operation. Again, kind of neat. And just to remind you that below this hums the heart of Facebook, right on top of the app pages are options to post to Facebook – but that apart, this is a fairly normal Android interface.
Which, incidentally, can be jazzed up using the Chat Heads feature. Chat Heads are actually small bubble-like icons containing the profile picture of the sender that pop up on your display whenever someone sends you a message using Facebook Messenger. Tap on the picture and you will be able to see the message and respond to it. More usefully, you can actually long press on the people in your Facebook Messenger contacts list and keep Chat Heads of people you frequently message always on your display – they can be placed on one of the four corners of the display. So you could actually be reading Flipboard, and on seeing something you like, just tap on the Chat Head of a friend and send them a message about it – the Chat Heads will be visible irrespective of which app you are running, which is a bit of a mixed blessing, as sometimes we actually ended up tapping them when what we wanted to do was tap an option on the corner of the screen!
Yes, it is solely Facebook-centric at the moment but on the flip side, it does work rather smoothly and does not seem to hit battery life as hard as we had thought – our devices still lasted a day on a single charge and normal usage. We also can see Facebook addicts loving the Chat Heads feature, and honestly, we have developed a soft corner for the Cover Feed, which works more smoothly and is more dynamic in nature than some of the lock screen apps we have seen, although we would have loved to be able to control whose updates we would like seeing (we do have friends whose updates consist of endlessly shared status messages and pictures!). In fact, leave out the Cover Feed and Home comes across as pretty unobtrusive – Chat Heads can be accessed by anyone using the new FB Messenger and is not a Facebook Home exclusive. And we have seen no sign of those ads that had been talked about when Home was launched – we are not missing them one bit either.
All of which makes us think that Facebook Home is definitely worth trying out. We suspect that the app will get at least two more hefty updates before the year is out, and that those will daub your phone in richer FB colours than the current version does, but until then, Facebook Home is a must-have for FB addicts, and a handy app even for non-FB ones. No, we would not recommend taking up permanent residence there – at least not until we have more furniture and fixtures (read ‘related apps’) in there, but good enough for a short stay or dropping in from time to time!
Available from: Google Play