Facebook Home review: A promising 'Home' for the Facebook obsessed

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True, those particular communication features don't tie into Facebook's ambitions, but they would offer some clever and useful functionality that could win over people on the fence.

In fact, I'd love to see this concept rolled into Android anyhow -- optionally, of course.

Options and settings
Facebook Home is completely optional, whether it comes preloaded on your phone -- like on the HTC First -- or you download it yourself.

In the settings, you can keep security intact by reviving the lock screen or turning off Facebook Home completely (press Menu button, then Facebook Home settings.)

You can also show or hide the Android status bar, and adjust image quality/refresh frequency. In addition, there are shortcuts that open up Facebook Messenger settings and the general Facebook settings.

Facebook Home
Settings let you tweak your data consumption and the presence or absence of an Android notification bar and lock screen. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

If you turn off Facebook Home, reinstating it is as easy as opening the Home app in the app tray and telling your phone you want to always use Facebook Home to launch stuff (as opposed to using just once.)

Ads to come
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.

We still don't know much about how the ads will look in the Cover Feed, but Facebook's director of product and Facebook Home project lead Adam Mosseri told CNET this: "We will make sure that any ads in there will match the other stories aesthetically and in terms of their quality level, so they should feel pretty inline and pretty good."

However, most people aren't used to viewing advertisements on their start screens; it will be interesting to see how much backlash Facebook receives when the ad-supported version of Home comes a'knocking.

What's missing
To recap, here's what I think Facebook could have added, or could add in the future:

  • -Status updates from Cover Feed screens
  • -Photo tool access from Cover Feed screens
  • -More communication options with Chat Heads

In addition, I'd like to be able to filter the Cover Feed any number of ways -- like by most recent or top hits, as you can do online, or by new photos or status updates only.

Facebook Home
Facebook's stylized notification settings for Home. Josh Miller/CNET

There's no way to see all your news feed items at once -- for that, you have to go to the Facebook app -- and Facebook uses a different algorithm to procure your Home stories, so what you see on the Cover Feed isn't always the most complete list.

As Facebook's Mosseri told CNET, "We don't have design yet for friending stories or video stories or ads, but those things will come over time."

Facebook also didn't demo or discuss its video chatting through Chat Heads, 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. To do that, you have to launch the Messenger app on your own.

I agree with CNET's Jennifer Van Grove that switching from the graphically-rich Cover Feed experience to the blocky, basic, and outdated Facebook Messenger and Facebook mobile apps is a jarring experience that makes me want to use these features less, not more.

Facebook should have heeded CNET's Kent German when he called for it to improve its mobile apps before launching something else.

How to get Facebook Home
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 make sure you have Facebook and Facebook Chat as well. With the preloaded version, you get it all, right out of the box.

Facebook Home
Where Facebook Home is preloaded, like on this HTC First, logging into Facebook is part of the setup process. Josh Miller/CNET

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 available for more smartphones and tablets in the future.

Who it's for and should you use it
With its in-your-face emphasis on Facebook friendships, Facebook Home makes a compelling case for people who frequently use its services. However, I have a hard time seeing anyone other than a supremely engaged Facebook user (read: fanatic) wanting to wallpaper their phone with Facebook's goods.

For someone like me, 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 so you can start using other phone functions, rather than being the main event itself. To be fair, forming the central experience is exactly what Facebook Home is meant to do.

It takes a bit to master the gestures and workflow, and even longer when it comes to rethinking how to use your phone. With Home, Facebook is asking you to engage with your Facebook friends first before launching any other app. If you can get used to that, Home is easy to start using and you won't lose any core privacy or Android functionality.

Facebook Home
Closing a Chat Head is a swipe away. Josh Miller/CNET

As far as Facebook is concerned, the main point is that you'll begin to use its Facebook services more than you use generic Android functions. In some senses, reskinning the home screens to a giant Facebook slideshow really does work. My engagement dramatically jumped while I was using Home, although I also wasn't sure I was seeing the highest-quality "news" in my feed. Since I couldn't view my entire news feed, I couldn't tell if I was viewing the most complete or recent list of updates. Scrolling through Cover Feed may have made me a little more entertained, but it sure didn't make me feel any smarter.

I hardly use Facebook chat as is, so unless I was actively trying to engage people over chat, the Chat Heads rarely popped onto my screen. As I said, I also found it a bit disorienting to switch between Facebook Home functions and the Facebook app; while Home has a modern design, the mobile app looks amateurish by comparison.

Facebook Home isn't for me personally, but it is free to use, and just as easy to disable as it is to install. If you think you might like Home, there's no harm in trying it out, at the very least to explore the great Chat Heads messenger concept, and to have fun interactively "liking" a few updates and navigating around. And who knows, maybe you'll learn something new about your friends along the way.