Hands On: Facebook Home

Facebook Home is the fulfilment of the media’s dream of Facebook creating a smartphone - kindof. Facebook Home is less of a specific phone from the worlds largest social network and more of a “skin” on Google’s Android OS. This allows Facebook the ability to offer a customized Facebook-centric experience on any compatible Android smartphone while still relying on the extensive app catalog available through Google’s Play Store. However, although Facebook Home delivers an interesting and somewhat intuitive interface, it offers very little to those that are not deeply ingrained in the Facebook ecosystem.

The Facebook Home lockscreen (Credit: TLCP/Jimmy Principe)

In many ways Facebook Home is the newest permutation of an old idea. How can a smartphone bring your online social networks to you in an easy, intuitive way? Both WebOS (and the ill-fated Palm Pre and Palm Pixi that ran it) and the worst product of 2010 the Microsoft Kin attempted to combine multiple social media networks into one interface, and both were somewhat successful with their goal. The social integration and ideas behind the Kin is the basis for much Windows Phone 7 and 8 despite the Kin itself failing to sell at all and getting pulled from the market after only 2 months. WebOS has failed even more despite HP’s acquisition of Palm, with no current phones in development and then the release of WebOS as an open source platform.

Facebook’s implementation of Home as a software “skin” prevents the risk of any major hardware flops by the social giant. Facebook Home is available for existing Android smartphones including both the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X. For me as a consumer, the main advantage is that I can install Facebook Home like I would any other app and uninstall it just as easily. Even on the actual hardware that Facebook has collaborated with HTC that is designed specifically for Facebook Home, the HTC First, the software suite can be completely uninstalled leaving a vanilla Android experience.

The Interface

The center of Facebook’s Home interface is the Cover Feed. The Cover Feed replaces a traditional static lock screen and with a rotating selection of constant updates from your News Feed including new uploaded pictures and status updates. Whereas images are presented in their original state (expect with a slow pan across the image to give the impression of constant movement), status updates and posts are presented over the person’s Facebook cover image. In many ways, the Cover Feed looks like the “Now Playing” animation that Microsoft used on it’s Zune mp3 players and desktop management software and is quite well done. All posts can be liked or commented on easily from the Cover Feed by tapping the appropriate icons located on the bottom of the screen.

Facebook Home's App launcher. Notice the Facebook Check-in, Photo, and Status tabs at the top (Credit: TLCP/Jimmy Principe)

The largest concern with any service like the Cover Feed that constantly updates is the data usage. Facebook has attempted to solve this problem by offering 3 different data usage levels – low, medium, and high. As to what those levels actually mean, Facebook has not said. I selected the medium data usage level for my testing and monitored the data usage with the built in service within Android.  In the last month, Facebook on my phone has used about 105 MB of mobile data as compared to the 21 MB I used in the month before without Facebook Home installed. I also noticed that at my office my phone’s battery drained faster with Facebook Home running although I have no data to back up that observation.

The other main feature of the Facebook Home interface is Chat Heads. Chat Heads allow easier multitasking on a smartphone while using Facebook Messenger to chat with any number of Facebook friends. Chat Heads are available using just the Messenger app and do not require Home to be running. Chat Heads allow Messenger to take the place of a normal texting or messaging client and provide a unified way for Facebook to manage your communications.

Living with Facebook Home

I have been using Facebook Home on my Galaxy S3 for about a month and I have to say that my opinions have been mixed. Let us start with the positives.  Facebook Home accomplishes exactly what Facebook wants it to - it makes me use Facebook more. I have found that I never miss a post, enjoy easily browsing through people’s pictures, and even use Facebook Messenger, a service that I fundamentally dislike. I also interact more with the service, posting more pictures, comments and statuses and in general just interacting with the social network more than ever. The integration of all of Facebook’s services right on the home screen is very well implemented and easy to use.

However, it’s not all flowers and butterflies with Facebook Home. Although I find the ability to like any post by simply double tapping the screen very intuitive, it is incredibly frustrating when I accidentally “like” a post while casually scrolling through the Cover Feed. Also, Chat Heads, the most interesting piece of the service, does not work on my Galaxy S3 for some strange reason. It worked fine once I turned off Facebook Home but would not work at all when Home was running which proved quite annoying. Hopefully this is a glitch that Facebook is attempting to fix before it continues the rollout of Facebook Home. And those are only issues within the app experience itself.  Home, like the Amazon Kindle Fire experience, disconnects me from the Android OS that I know and love. Many of the features of Android I really enjoy are now either buried in a submenu or completely unavailable. My biggest issue is the lack of widgets, which I use for email, texts, and weather. Facebook commandeering the entire home screen with its status updates and pictures makes all of the other services I use more difficult to get to. The other problem is that Facebook Home requires me to think much harder about where my most used apps and services have fallen. After a month with the service I am sometimes frustrated when I hit my home button and Facebook Home comes up, forcing me to navigate deep into its menu structure to find the app or service I want to use.

Facebook Home is not for me. In a professional environment it is not appropriate for pictures of my friends partying to appear on my home screen. The high school and college crowd however would love it. Those with hundreds (if not thousands) of Facebook friends that are constantly connected to not just Facebook but Snap Chat, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus (its not a ghost town, I swear) will use Home in more ways that I can imagine.

Is Facebook Home for everybody? Of course not. It is however an excellent way for Facebook to pull its users, especially its power users farther into the fold. And it is not going away anytime soon. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated plans to include Facebook Home by default within the Android Facebook app, allowing users to switch Facebook Home on without the need to download a dedicated app. This is one step towards a future where Home defines the Facebook mobile experience. They are far from that future currently. The suite of apps is only available on 6 Android phones including the Galaxy S3 and Facebook has halted further rollout of the service until it can iron out the kinks.

All of that being said, I did not absolutely detest my time with Facebook Home. It is a fluid interface that allows me to quickly and easily keep up with my “friends” on Facebook. I most likely deactivate the service on my Galaxy S3 but I will not uninstall it. I am excited to see what Facebook has planned for the future of Home.