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Facebook Paper review: A new (and better) way to use Facebook

With Facebook's new Paper app, you get a visual news experience along with the latest from your Facebook friends, but the question is why the app exists in the first place.

Jason_Parker.jpg
Jason Parker
Jason_Parker.jpg

Jason Parker

Senior Editor / Reviews - Software

Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.

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6 min read

Paper, from the people at Facebook, lets you browse statuses and other news categories using a new, more visual interface than what you're used to with the official Facebook app. Mysteriously, the app is currently iPhone-only, but it would be a great fit for iPad too.

Facebook Paper (iOS)
8.6

Facebook Paper

The Good

<b>Facebook Paper</b> is a new way to browse Facebook, with a delightfully touchable interface and curated news feeds you can read alongside the latest status updates.

The Bad

You can't create or edit news categories. There is no iPad version.

The Bottom Line

Facebook's Paper is a new and attractive way to browse the social network and get the latest news, but its unclear why it's better to have two Facebook apps rather than one.

Taking a page from Flipboard, Facebook Paper delivers a tiled interface that shows your standard Facebook news feed, but also gives you curated news content organized by category. That combination makes Facebook Paper a distinct and more robust product that's meant to complement, rather than completely replace, Facebook's existing iOS app. In practice, though, because Paper is such an excellent new way to browse Facebook and read news, it makes me wonder why I need both.

A brand-new way to read Facebook and the news with Paper (pictures)

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Customizing your Paper
When you launch the app for the first time, a tutorial using both audio and video will take you through the steps of adding content to your "Paper" (the app's term for its primary interface). From there, you can use the app to both browse Facebook and read news articles using a swipeable, tile-based interface akin to newsreader apps like Flipboard. To be clear, it's not a complete news solution like Flipboard, but seems to borrow some interface elements and uses panels similarly to Flipboard.

The app shows your Facebook news feed by default, but it also has curated news categories you can follow alongside the social hub. During the tutorial the app will prompt you to add news categories that include Headlines, Scores (general sports news), Tech, and several others. You don't have to worry too much about what you add in the beginning because you can edit the categories later once you're using the app. Just note that you can add only 10 categories at one time (and your Facebook feed must be one of them).

Once you've picked your categories and entered the app, you'll see your categories on the top half of the screen with the related posts just below. To get to your other categories, simply swipe horizontally on the top half of the screen to change; then, use the same motion to browse between posts in each category. If you want to read a specific story in a category, just swipe it upwards.

When the story is just a friend's Facebook status update (with no link or photo), you'll get a closer look at the status, and the ability to "Like," comment, or share the post with others. With a news article, you'll get the headline and brief summary, but you can swipe upward again to go the full story at the source's Web site. When you're done reading, you can swipe down from the top to get back to Facebook Paper.

One sort of interesting feature is how the app handles full-screen photos. When you look at a large photo from a news site or Facebook friend, the app shows only a zoomed in portion, but lets you tilt your phone to see more of the photo. It's kind of a cool gimmick, but not terribly useful. If you don't like the way it handles photos, you can turn your phone sideways to view the whole photo or turn the photo tilt features off in the settings.

It's also important to note that there are currently no ads in Facebook Paper. While it's nice to browse ad-free with this early launch of the app, I expect that ads will be introduced in the future, particularly if this app takes off as a popular way to browse Facebook.

Great for browsing Facebook
It's definitely possible, and maybe even preferred, to make Paper your go-to Facebook app. That's true not only for seeing simple status updates, but also for everything else that your friends may post. For example, a swipe down from the main page gives you the main options of the app. Here is where you can perform a Facebook search, view your Facebook profile, create a post to change your status, edit your news categories in Paper, and fiddle with the app settings. You'll also see the usual icons for friend requests, messages, and notifications in the top right corner.

If you explore your profile here, you'll be able to look at all your photos, browse your friends' pages, and see all the posts to your Facebook wall. I really liked that you can swipe the top half of the screen to browse by year. Each swipe to the left goes another year deeper into your history, and displays the statuses and other info on your Facebook wall from that time period. You also can browse your friends' Facebook history, which makes for an interesting way to browse the social network. Yes, you can do most of these things on the normal Facebook app, but Paper's interface is more intuitive and appealing.

Yet, one important difference between the official app and Facebook Paper is that there is no refresh button in Facebook Paper. Rather, new stories simply show up as they become available. While it's not a big difference, many of us are used to that pull-to-refresh action in the official app, but you won't get that in Paper. Still, the updates appeared to flow in quickly.

Not truly customizable
The one big drawback to Paper is that while you can customize your feeds with the included categories, you can't choose the sources or create your own categories. The app comes with several news categories with curated content included, but if I wanted to add, say, a motorsports category with my favorite racing Web sites, I couldn't. I also can't add to or remove sources from any of the offered categories. So, really, Facebook is making all your content decisions for you.

Why make a new way to browse Facebook?
Facebook Paper is fun to use and adds news categories to your feed, but it's tough to determine how it fits into the Facebook family. What you're getting is a new visual way to browse Facebook, along with news from other sources, but it's confusing what Facebook is trying to do here. Is this a soft launch of what is to come with the Facebook official app? Are we supposed to use the apps side-by-side? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I can say that Facebook Paper offers a nice browsing experience on its own, and might be an attractive option for those who are sick of the official app.

The categories offered are a good start, but I think giving users the option to create and edit their own feeds would be much better.

Conclusions
Facebook Paper is a re-imagining of how you can browse Facebook with the addition of news feeds so that you can see news from your friends alongside the news of the world. The touch interface is gesture-heavy and confusing at first, but with a little time using the app it becomes second nature.

Facebook Paper is not a replacement for the official app, or it would have been launched as an update. This tells me that Facebook is either trying to win back users with a shiny new alternative way to browse, or trying to find out if Paper is a viable direction for the official app.

In other words, Facebook Paper is a useful app if you want a new way to browse the social network along with the latest news, but it's hard to tell why it exists. Even though I enjoy using it and can recommend it to everyone, its launch raises more questions about the direction of the company than it answers.

Facebook Paper (iOS)
8.6

Facebook Paper

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 8Interface 9Performance 9
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