Facebook Home for Android is an interesting, and odd, experiment from the big dog in social networking. On the one hand, the home-screen replacement software introduces some daring, even likable, ideas about how to interact with your friends on your phone -- and soon, on your tablet. On the other hand, Home is very much first-generation software that could use more time in the oven to become truly useful for Facebook fanatics.
The software, which supplants your home screen interface with images and status updates from your friends' Facebook news feed, is niche at best. At worst, it's a hostile single-network takeover that commands you to place Facebook first and all other phone apps and tasks second. Thankfully, Facebook Home is completely optional and somewhat customizable, so you can keep your lock screen intact and access Android every other way.
Home may have limited appeal, but in pushing Facebook's mobile aspirations forward, the social network offers terrific chatting implementation, fun animation, and some rather elegant ways to navigate around.
Interface and navigation
It isn't a phone, it isn't an operating system, and it isn't a rebuilt version of Google's Android OS. What Facebook Home is, technically, anyway, is a collection of apps -- including Facebook and Facebook Chat -- that act as a single organism.
When you wake your phone, you see Cover Feed, a seemingly endless stream of friends' photos and updates from your news feed. Chat messages, icons, notifications, and other text overlays this full-screen photo backdrop. The photos auto-scroll, or you can flick to advance. To get a closer look at a friend's photo, press and hold the image.
Facebook distinguishes two kinds of images that get pulled into Cover Feed. There are friends' recently added pictures, which appear in full, living color, and there are the darkened cover photos, over which status updates float. I'm not a fan of the latter treatment; it makes images harder to see and can result in some pretty boring backdrops.
How often the images cycle and how clear they are depend on you and your data preferences. There are three refresh rate options in the settings menu. You'd hardly know that data capacity is tied to the image refresh rate, since the settings are cryptically labeled by high-, medium-, or low-resolution image quality.
Although I had my feed set to the highest refresh rate, I found that Facebook Home presented some items more than once, while there were stories on my news feed that I never saw.
No matter how often they refresh, Facebook built the Cover Feed screens to be highly interactive. From here, 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 the previously opened app, launch messaging, or open your apps launcher. Navigation isn't tricky at all, and the software is extremely responsive. Still, there is a bit of a learning process as you work out how to gesture to get what you want.
When you wake your phone or tap to raise your profile picture at the bottom of the screen, Facebook Home will surface any notifications you have, right on top of Cover Feed. Double-tap on each one to open the message, or swipe it away to clear it. You can set Home not to mess with Android's typical pull-down notifications bar, so you'll still be able to see your notification badges up top and interact with alerts from there.
By default, Facebook Home disables the lock screen, so your social graph is the first thing you see when you turn on your phone. However, the Home settings (which you easily access from the Menu button) let you keep the lock screen engaged so that Cover Feed appears only after you've unlocked your phone.
Apps live in a launcher
Seeing images instead of your typical grid of apps and widgets is the toughest part of getting used to Facebook Home, but apps are still close by. You swipe up from the bottom of the screen to conjure the launcher, which is populated with app shortcuts and overlays the screen.
You can then add and delete shortcuts to your heart's delight, editing the full page of them already started for you, including essentials like the phone dialer, settings, maps, the browser, and the Google Play store.
Since the app launcher is a list of shortcuts only, you'll have to swipe over to the left to see a vertical list of all your installed apps. From there, adding apps to the shortcut launcher page is a simple long-press gesture.
Strangely, if you press the "more" button in the app tray, you're confusingly whisked to an unlocked Android interface. It isn't clear why you got there, and even though Facebook says this was intentional behavior, it doesn't make any visual or logical sense.
Back in the launcher, you have a limitless number of allotted shortcut pages, so you could technically drag all the apps over for easier access. Of course, the setup time is longer that way, and it makes me wonder why Facebook didn't just automatically add all apps to the launcher from the get-go, although their way is logical, too.
Sitting at the top of the launcher, a static menu bar is your window into leaving a status update, taking a photo you'd like to quickly upload to Facebook, and checking into a location. The update and check-in are pretty straightforward, but the photo upload tool is specialized.
When you open it, you see the contents of your camera roll, which you can select for a Facebook upload. If you tap the camera button, you can also take a shot that's stored in this Facebook folder, but note that you don't get the camera's autofocus or settings; this is just meant for quick shots.
I get why Facebook reskinned the camera app for a quick uploading tool, but then why put this feature one level down from the surface? See, if I were designing Facebook Home and wanted to drive more Facebook engagement, I'd have certainly put the status update and photo shortcut buttons right on the Cover Feed, along with the comment and Like buttons.
Why not? There's plenty of room for these tools there, and if the purpose is to truly be social, it only makes sense to give users a chance to create Facebook "news" as easily as they can comment.
Chat Heads, a new kind of messaging
Facebook Home's most useful, novel, and elegant interface reenvisioning by far also bears the silliest name.
Chat Heads (I'll give you a moment to digest that) are circular icons of your friends' profile pictures that pop onto the screen when someone texts or sends a Facebook message. They float on the top layer, above the Cover Feed image, your browser, e-mail app, or game.
I love that, like Apple's iMessage, Chat Heads works for both SMS and Facebook messaging. Tap it to expand the messaging client, and tap again to shrink it back.
If you don't like the Chat Head placement, simply drag it to another part of the screen; the icon will snap to the sides, not the screen's center. A small badge appears when new messages come in.
You can keep multiple Chat Heads going at once, either all laid out, or stacked together. To close conversations, you flick the icons, singly or in a stack, down to the bottom of the screen. I like that you can force a Chat Head to appear at whim by going into the Messenger app and long-pressing on the contact name, but it isn't immediately obvious you can do this.
I really love the Chat Heads concept and interface, but I think Facebook could've taken it even further. For instance, why stop at chatting and text, why not use the Chat Head to also launch into a phone call or e-mail?