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Facebook Home invades Android home screens

Facebook Home hopes to reinvent your Android start screens with a totally social experience that puts your friends front and center.

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Facebook Home for Android: It isn't a phone, it isn't an operating system, and it isn't a rebuilt version of Google's Android OS. What it is, technically anyway, is a collection of apps acting as one organism to deliver a full-skin Facebook experience for your Android phone, putting your Facebook contacts' photos, status updates, and chat icons front and center.

Turning your Android phone into an in-your-face Facebook portal is an odd experiment for the social networking titan, but one that's also logical. Facebook doesn't create hardware, and its social sharing and chatting is its heart. For die-hard fans, an all-out Facebook experience like Home really is the best way to keep a finger on the pulse of friends' social activity.

It's an incredibly niche audience, to be sure, and after seeing Facebook Home in action, I have more questions than answers about how the experience would benefit, rather than hinder, the majority of users.

Editors' note: Facebook let me touch the phone screen on the HTC First demo device to practice flicking items away and opening and closing others, but the company wouldn't let anyone who wasn't on the demo team actually hold or independently operate the device. Still, I got a strong sense of Facebook Home's look and feel.

No more home screens
Facebook Home supplants your traditional home screens with a seemingly endless stream of photos from your news feed. Called "Cover Feed," it offers up a full-screen background image and overlays messages, icons, notifications, and other text on top. The photos auto scroll, or you can flick to advance. Since this is still an Android phone, Facebook Home will surface notifications from Facebook, as well as for third-party apps, like e-mail, missed calls, and texts.

Facebook Home
Facebook Home's Cover Feed offers a visual slideshow-like experience for viewing network updates. James Martin/CNET

From these screens, you'll be able to tap icons and images to like them (you're rewarded with a giant "thumbs-up" animation), and read and leave comments. Tapping your own icon at the bottom of the screen opens a mini onscreen navigation array that lets you go back to a previous app, open messaging, or navigate to your apps launcher. Navigation isn't tricky at all, and the software was extremely responsive, but there is a bit of a learning curve as you work out how to gesture to get what you want.

Let's pause for a second to talk about this app launcher. Populated with app shortcuts, it overlays the screen when you call it up (which you can do by flicking from the bottom or by using the onscreen control). To get to the app tray itself, you'll have to swipe to the left to see a vertical list of your installed apps. From there, adding them to the shortcut page is a simple long-press gesture.

The number of shortcut pages is unlimited, so you could technically drag all apps to the pages for easier access. Of course, the setup time is longer that way, and makes me wonder why Facebook didn't just automatically add all apps to the launcher from the get-go.

Chat Heads: A new kind of messaging
Messaging is a major part of Facebook Home, and it's represented by circular icons of your friend's profile picture that float above the Cover Feed image on the screen. Facebook calls them Chat Heads. This would not be my first choice for a feature name; it only makes me think of a kid's game involving foam toys, or maybe some sour candy.

Regardless, you tap the Chat Head icon to engage in conversations, and tap again to close them. Flicking them away, either one at a time or in a whole stack, is an easy enough way to dispatch of them.

Facebook Home
Chat Heads are movable profile pictures that stay onscreen until you trash them. You can have as many active chat windows open as you'd like. A few swipes close them in a stack. James Martin/CNET

If you don't like the icon's button placement, dragging it to another part of the screen snaps it to the side -- it won't float in the middle.

The smartest part of Facebook Home is that Facebook messaging and texting look and behave similarly in the same app, so there's no difference in how you use it or which app you open. That's seamless usability right there, and very familiar to users of Apple's iMessage.

Since Chat Heads float on top of other screens, you can start chatting or texting no matter which app you're in -- no more switching among apps to engage in a verbal volley. I'll admit, that's incredibly convenient, and I wish it applied to calls and composing e-mail messages, too.

What's missing
There are still a lot of questions about Facebook Home's day-to-day operations and usability, including how private the contents of your phone are if Facebook Home also doubles as your lock screen.

Facebook also didn't demo or discuss video chatting through the phone, which seems like an enormous missed opportunity to me, especially given Facebook's desire to become the single most important communications hub on your phone.

If you're Facebook, the obvious answer to what's missing is: the ads. CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that while ads are absent for now, they form a massive part of Facebook's monetizing strategy. Facebook Home is a clear way to deliver those targeted ads to a social-hungry demographic.

Facebook Home
Click and drag the central profile picture to open apps and messaging, or to return to the previous app. James Martin/CNET

Who's it for, and is it any good?
For someone who's used to the more traditional, apps-focused layout, Facebook Home feels a little disorienting and intrusive -- indeed, like it's an app you should exit to see other phone functions, rather than being the main event itself. To be fair, that's exactly what it's meant to be.

There's a bit of a learning curve to use it, and I don't just mean the onscreen controls to navigate around. More essentially, Facebook wants you to relearn how to use your phone, to engage with Facebook friends first before checking your e-mail, and to consider your phone a primarily social device.

And with that, Facebook surely hopes, you'll begin to use its services more than you use generic Android functions.

That said, since the Facebook experience does overtake your device, I have a hard time seeing anyone other than a supremely engaged Facebook user (read: fanatic) wanting to wallpaper the phone with Facebook's goods.

Facebook Home
Facebook Home's app launcher can get you to your entire app drawer (pictured) or just those apps that you've bookmarked. James Martin/CNET

Installation and availability
Unless Facebook Home comes preinstalled on your phone, as with the HTC First and other future devices, you'll download it as an app through Android's Google Play store -- starting April 12. You can launch it once or twice to get a feel for it, or let it take over completely. As an app, you'll also be able to disable it and tweak certain settings and permissions.

However, there is a catch. To get all elements working in concert, you'll also have to download apps like Facebook (of course) and Facebook Chat. With the preloaded version, you get it all out of the box.

There are seven compatible phones right now. In addition to the HTC First, Facebook Home will work on the HTC One, One X, and One X+, and the Samsung Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy Note 2. You can be sure it'll be compatible on more handsets in the future, smartphones and tablets alike.

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