Facebook declares all your home screens are belong to Zuck.
People were expecting a fancy new Facebook phone last week, but instead we got Facebook Home -- a group of apps designed to replace the lock and home screens on an Android smartphone. The idea of Facebook hijacking your Android device might sound repugnant but it can grow on you if you're in the habit of quickly dipping into Facebook when you've got a minute to kill.
Facebook Home will be available from the US Google Play store on Friday and should come to Australia "within the coming weeks". It will be compatible with high-end Android devices such as the HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II. It won't come to Apple or Windows smartphones in this form, because developers can't modify them to the same degree as they can Android.
I've been testing Facebook Home on a Galaxy S III for a few days (an Australian exclusive, I believe) and it's growing on me. I'm a Facebook user, but not a compulsive one, so I find it intriguing but not too intrusive. If you were a compulsive Facebook checker than Facebook Home could certainly drive you over the edge. Personally I'd find a Twitter-based equivalent more useful, but it's probably more Twitter than my recommended daily dose.
It might seem like an obvious comment, but your opinion of Facebook Home will almost certainly depend on your opinion of Facebook in general. If you're a keen Facebook user and find that it actually contributes something to your lifestyle then you'll probably enjoy the convenience of having your Facebook news feed at your fingertips as soon as you pull your phone out of your pocket.
Meanwhile if you think Facebook pretty much sums up everything that's wrong with the world, Facebook Home will have you shouting abuse at passing strangers in the street (which they tend not to appreciate). Thankfully Facebook Home isn't mandatory and even once you've installed it you can disable it.
If you're prepared to give Facebook Home a chance, it's a little disorientating at first because it's hard to tell where Facebook ends and the phone starts. Obviously that's the whole point, but it's frustrating when you're trying to push past Facebook to find other phone features.
Press the Power or Home button to wake your phone and you're presented with Cover Feed -- which is basically an interactive slideshow of your Facebook news feed. Images pan across the screen Ken Burns-style, with text over the top and your friend's name and profile picture above. Cover Feed flicks to a new item every six seconds, or you can manually flick left and right between posts, but you might grow bored during the day if you don't have a lot of active Facebook friends (remember, people don't tend to post as often as they do Twitter). You're presented with something closer to a Top Stories feed rather than a Recent feed and there's no way to customise your feed, which is frustrating if you've deliberately switched all your other Facebook news feeds to Recent.
Rather than just tease you with a glimpse of posts, Cover Feed lets you directly interact with Facebook content. You can hold your finger on the screen to zoom out and see the entire image. Downloading all these images in the background is obviously data-intensive, but you'll find three options in terms of picture quality to reduce your bandwidth usage (it's set at medium by default). Even so, it's likely to sting people on low monthly data limits.
You can double-tap on an item to Like it, or tap the comments icon to write something. You can also double-tap someone's profile picture to see their homepage in the Facebook app, or tap on a link in a post to open it in the browser.
When you wake up your phone you'll also see your own profile picture near the bottom of the screen. Press and hold and you'll see three options pop out; Messenger, Apps and the last app you used. Drag your profile pic over an option to select it.
The first option takes you to the Messenger home page in the Facebook app. From here you can also send text messages, but it's a bit of a mess. Facebook expects you to not care whether you're sending a message via SMS or Facebook Messaging, but realistically you know some friends are more likely to see one before the other. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to tell it which method you prefer and it defaults to Facebook. If you're chatting to someone via Facebook and SMS they show up as two different threads, which feels awkward considering Facebook wants to treat them all as one.
Meanwhile the Apps icon brings up the Facebook Home app launcher, where you can drag around icons like on a standard Android Home screen. You can also flick left to see a list of all installed apps. What's really interesting is that you'll find dedicated Facebook Status, Photo and Check-In options at the top of the app launcher -- making it easy to feed the hungry Facebook beast. Unfortunately you don't see the vendor's Home screen widgets here, or have the ability to create folders for app icons, but we'll get back to that in a minute.
At first glance it seems that this is all that Facebook Home does, and you might be happy with that. But Facebook Home goes to another level when someone sends you an SMS or Facebook message. Their profile photo actually pops up in a small circle on top of whatever app you're using -- Facebook calls this a "chat head". The chat head floats on top as you change apps, you can tap on it to reply to the message, move it around the screen or drag it down to an X to get rid of it.
At first they seem rather annoying, but if it you're in an extended conversation with someone then chat heads actually start to feel like a practical solution. If you've got several chats going at once, the chat heads sit on top of each other -- tap the pile and you can choose between them. Chat heads appear to float on all pre-installed apps but not all apps from Google Play, for example you see them using the Twitter app but not Angry Birds. This seems sensible, although I'm not sure how the decision is made by the handset.
Some other notifications pop up banner-style over Cover Feed, with the ability to tap them to interact with them or flick them off the screen to dismiss them. These include notifications of Facebook comments and messages as well as some third-party apps. Apparently if you get Facebook Home pre-installed on a phone like AT&T's HTC First this also includes emails, but not if you've installed it from the Google Play app store on your own phone. This is frustrating and hopefully tighter integration will come.
An incoming message when the phone is asleep doesn't wake the screen so you can view it at a glance, a shortcoming of Android compared to iOS that I've never understood.
It is still possible to lock your Android phone with a security code while using Facebook Home, but things become awkward. You can still interact with the Facebook content, write comments and Like posts. But if you tap on a chat head to reply to a message you're prompted to enter your code. You can also call up the App launcher, but launching an app requires your code. The Facebook Status, Photo and Check-In buttons also demand the code.
Despite these controls, someone who gets their hands on your locked phone can leave nasty Facebook comments to cause trouble. I use a PIN to protect my own smartphone and punching it in doesn't bother me, but it quickly becomes frustrating with Facebook Home because it feels so intrusive. You might consider switching to a gesture or other unlock option, rather than a PIN, although some consider this less secure.
It's still possible to pull down the Android notification tab over the top of Cover Feed, but getting to the rest of the phone is a bit more complicated. It is possible to disable Cover Feed and go back to the standard Home screen -- plus you can choose whether the Home button takes you to Cover Feed or the standard Home screen. Even when you've disabled Facebook Home the chat heads remain.
Personally I hate Samsung's TouchWiz interface, but once back at the Samsung Home screen you might discover a few useful widgets -- such as clocks, weather forecasts, calendar entries and feeds from other messaging and social media platforms. To me losing these is throwing away the best aspects of Android which help it stand out from iOS and Windows Phone 8. To strip away the entire widgets ecosystem just to have slightly easier access to Facebook seems too high a price to pay.
I'd say the best compromise is to leave Facebook Home enabled, but override the default setting for the Home button so it takes you to the Samsung Home screen instead of Cover Feed or the Facebook Home app launcher. To get from the Samsung Home screen back to Cover Feed, simply double-press the power button (ensure you've enabled "See Home When Screen Turns On). You can put a link to Facebook Home on the Samsung Home screen, but using it means you're constantly asked to select the Home button's default action.
Alternatively, if you go into the Facebook Home app launcher, flick left to the All Apps list and scroll to the very bottom you'll find an intriguing icon called "More...". Tap it and you're back at the Samsung home screen. Adding this shortcut to the default Facebook Home app launcher makes life much easier, but I'd still prefer to change the default action for the Home button.
So what's the verdict? Facebook Home is surprisingly slick and polished without being too intrusive. I actually don't mind it, as long as it doesn't come at the expense of my Home screen Android widgets. Personally I think Facebook's strategy is to capture your attention as soon as you pick up the phone and keep you as far away as possible from competing social media platforms. Whether this frustrates you depends on your social media allegiances.
If you tend to turn to Facebook first as a distraction while waiting for your morning coffee then Facebook Home might be a good fit for you. Of course you never know what you'll see when you start up your phone, so it depends on the character of your Facebook friends. I'd also be concerned if Facebook started slipping targeted advertising into Cover Feed -- especially inappropriate ads. At that point Facebook Home would probably be dead in the water, but for now I'd say it's worth dabbling in if you enjoy a regular Facebook fix.