Hey haters, 'Home' is the right amount of Facebook on your phone

commentary Say what you will, but the social network has tactfully pushed its way further inside the smartphone with an approach that's neither too obtrusive nor too bland.

James Martin/CNET

Toss aside the remarks about making people more prominent than apps. Throw out the blurb about changing our relationship with technology. You don't need the warm-and-fuzzy spiel to get Facebook Home, you just need to see it.

Thursday, the social-networking company unveiled Facebook Home , a family of apps that takes up residence at the center of your Android smartphone.

Facebook will be unavoidable to those who opt to download Home. And yet the company has tactfully pushed its way further inside the smartphone with a technique that's neither too obtrusive nor too bland. In fact, Facebook Home is just the right amount of Facebook -- at least that's my opinion after a 20-minute demo guided by a company representative.

Facebook Home, launching April 12 , consists of Cover Feed, Chat Heads, notifications, and an app launcher.

News Feed comes to your home screen with Cover Feed. It's a swipe-able version of the stream with stories that appear as full-screen photos. Stories are served up using the same algorithm behind News Feed, though they're limited to photos, check-ins, shares, and Instagram pics (which means no videos). The status messages cycle through on the home screen, with images panning in and out, even when you're not actively using your phone.

Facebook Home
James Martin/CNET
Chat Heads is messaging -- Facebook and SMS -- with panache. When a message arrives, you see your friend's face pop up. That person's "chat head" follows you around as you navigate elsewhere and do other things like read articles or check e-mail. Tap the head and the chat thread appears over your window.

The idea behind Chat Heads is to give people a way to pop in and out of multiple conversations with ease -- it's a fresh twist on multitasking that eliminates app switching and the headaches that come with it. Plus it's fun. The floating heads can be dragged around the screen and stashed anywhere you'd like. Done with someone? Just flick their head away. It's the kind of playful feature that teens and tweens may actually appreciate.

Notifications are, well, notifications, just with Facebook profile pictures, which does make them a bit more enjoyable, assuming you like the look of your friends. Notifications direct you back to Facebook, of course. If you buy the HTC First, and I don't really see why you would to be honest, you'll get Facebook's version of notifications for system services such as e-mail and calendar events.

The app launcher is the one room inside Home that seems to be lacking some important furniture. You can swipe up to get your favorite apps, but that's about it. No folders even. Nothing fancy here.

On the whole, Facebook Home is a polished experience that won't make your stomach churn. I promise. Unless you don't like Facebook, which is fine, but Home would never appeal to you anyway. Moving on.

Brian Blau, research director of consumer technologies at Gartner, agrees with me. "It's slick," he said of Home. "It's a nice social experience. I don't know how much closer Facebook could get to its users."

Close isn't a bad thing. Yes, Facebook Home, at first glance, looks like the social network threw up all over your home screen, but that's not the case.

Notifications, which would appear to be the most egregious offender in the intrusive arena, aren't any more obnoxious than the Facebook notifications you get on your current smartphone, because they're based on your settings. They are nice to look at, and to those who say this is too much Facebook , I say, adjust your settings.

Cover Feed gets you close, but not too close, to your friends. It's the perfect feature for people who feel like they're missing out on friends' updates. Those people do exist, Blau assured me. But in eyeing Cover Feed, I was most struck by how the full-screen photo experience makes nearly every pic look better than it actually is. Really, it does. And because every Cover Feed update, be it text or otherwise, is a photo, your home screen is always a bright and inviting place to live.

The only problem I foresee here is food porn. There's a subset of people who just hate pictures of food. Those people probably won't want anything to do with Cover Feed, since friends can't be trusted not to post what they had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Back to my point about Home being just the right amount of Facebook. The social network could have easily gone too far. It could have dived too deep into your phone. It didn't. Instead, Facebook Home enhances the normal ways you already use your phone with the richness of your relationships.

Maybe, just maybe, there is something to all those heartfelt company statements about putting people before apps. Or as Blau put it: "Touch the button on the phone and it turns into you."

Flattery aside, I don't trust Facebook to keep its home in pristine condition. When ads appear, and they will at some later, unannounced date, Home may find itself an abandoned zone. It's hard to imagine anyone, even those who really love Facebook, intentionally downloading an experience that distorts the highest trafficked and most personal areas of their smartphones. Tell me, Zuck, how exactly does that put people first? Because an unencumbered Home would be a place where I'd settle down.

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