HTC First review: Humdrum phone puts Facebook first, not much else

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The Good As Facebook Home's debut handset, the HTC First delivers the social network's complete Android skin experience, along with Android 4.1 functionality at an affordable price. Android purists seeking a stock OS can get it by disabling Facebook Home.

The Bad Without Facebook Home, the First is a forgettable handset, from midrange camera hardware to its utilitarian design. It lacks a removable battery and microSD slot.

The Bottom Line Facebook fanatics -- and, weirdly, Android purists -- looking for a functional Android phone will enjoy the HTC First. Everyone else can move along.

6.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

Let's just get this out of the way: The most notable thing about the HTC First is that it's the debut handset to come with Facebook Home already installed, a start screen replacement that draws you directly into the center of your Facebook world.

Look beyond Facebook Home, though, and you'll find an exceedingly basic stock Android handset with none of HTC's characteristic attention to detail or well-crafted flair. Facebook and HTC -- and AT&T, for that matter -- have travel this road before, also with questionable results. While the First is by no means as quirky or as limited as the HTC Status -- in fact, it offers quite competent midtier features like an HD screen, dual-core processor, and passable 5-megapixel camera. Yet, the physical design also stops short of delivering a compelling experience as unique as Facebook's mobile aspirations.

In other words, the phone -- while affordable and completely serviceable -- is really boring to behold. And HTC can do much better, namely, the HTC One, One X, and One X+, the latter of which are on sale for the same or less under contract. (Facebook Home will also run on Samsung's Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, and Galaxy Note 2.)

That said, if you're looking for an affordable stock Android experience, disabling Facebook Home gives you what you're after. (And, unlike the similarly priced LG Nexus 4, the HTC First delivers 4G LTE data speeds.)

The HTC First retails for $99 with a new, two-year service agreement from AT&T.

Facebook Home OS
Facebook Home is the HTC First's heart and soul; in fact, it's the phone's sole reason for being. For details on what it is, and how it works, see my full review of Facebook Home.

The gist of it, though, is that Facebook Home replaces your home screens with a rotating carousel of your friends' photos and Facebook status updates. The idea is that you can quickly and effortlessly see what your buddies are up to at a glance, and with a tap of your finger, you're liking or commenting directly from each slide. As a social bonus, Facebook (and SMS) chatting is front and center; small chat icons persist as you navigate around, so you can keep conversations going from any screen.

HTC First
Meet the HTC First, which is indeed the first smartphone to come preloaded with Facebook Home for Android. Josh Miller/CNET

Meanwhile, all your Android system features are still intact, including Google Now, notifications, and the app tray, so you can use the smartphone beyond the modified Facebook experience.

Design and build
As I said before, take away Facebook Home and the First is exceedingly unremarkable. The black version I reviewed has well-rounded corners and the same tall, shingle-like body design we've seen on hundreds of other handsets. The phone is uniformly covered in a soft-touch material that reminds me of fondant icing. With the exception of the headset jack and Micro-USB charging port, it is also completely sealed.

HTC First
Black isn't the First's only getup. It also comes in white, red, and light blue. James Martin/CNET

The white, pale blue, and red color options might jazz up the phone design a little bit, but the First languishes from missed opportunity. HTC overwhelmingly has an eye for design. Facebook, in my opinion, does not. This would be the time to mold the phone's physical form around the Facebook's iconic blue color and interface themes, making the new Home app pop. Instead, we get...this: a cookie-cutter handset that blends into the proverbial woodwork.

At least the First is pretty comfortable to hold, and, at 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.35 inch deep, it isn't so wide you need to have giant mitts to operate it. The soft-touch material also offers some grip, so it won't threaten to slip from your hands while you update your status or flip through your News Feed.

The First comes equipped with a 4.3-inch HD screen (a 1,280x720-pixel resolution) that supports 16 million bright, rich colors. Above the display is the 1.6-megapixel front-facing camera lens, and below it, the three capacitive navigation buttons to go back, home, and pull up the menu. I do like that HTC has stylized the home button as a circle, a design element that does actually echo the circles in Home's profile pictures.

HTC First
The First is completely sealed, with no microSD card slot or removable battery. It's coated with a comfy soft-touch finish. Josh Miller/CNET

For the other external features, you'll find the volume rocker on the left spine, the power button and headset jack up top, and the charging port and SIM card slot on the right (you'll need a tool or paper clip to pop out the latter). On the back, you'll see the 5-megapixel camera with LED flash.

Note that, like a fair number of HTC phones, the battery is completely embedded and you won't be able to expand the phone's 16GB of internal storage.

Android OS and apps
Strip away Facebook Home and you still get full use of the competent Android 4.1 Jelly Bean platform underneath. In fact, should you disable Facebook Home in the menu settings, you'll see the usual Jelly Bean lock screen, without HTC's Sense overlay.

You'll still get Google Now, too; just press and hold the center capacitive button to bring it up. To see a list of your recent apps, give that central navigation circle a double tap.

HTC First
Since Facebook Home rides above Android, you can still access all your apps, notifications, and other Android tools. Josh Miller/CNET

Settings are accessible from Google's notifications pull-down as well as from the app drawer, and you get all the goodies like NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, and Android Beam. You can also turn the First into a mobile hot spot for up to eight devices.

As usual, Google Play supplies all your app needs, and your Google account keeps the entire operation afloat, with or without any Facebook involvement.

As it turns out, there are two ways to take photos on this phone, and that can be a little confusing. There's the regular camera app, which you access from the app shortcut tray, and the Facebook photo uploader tool, which I only recommend using in specific situations.

HTC First camera test
The HTC First was able to quickly capture this squirmy moment. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

First, the regular camera. Since the First uses the unembellished, stock version of Android, its camera apps follow suit. You've got panorama mode built right in, as well as basic settings to control flash, white-balance settings, exposure, and several scene filters. The latter category includes scene modes for action, night, sunset, and "party." There's also 4x optical zoom. You'll take 5-megapixel images by default, but you can also step down the image size to as low as a QVGA resolution.