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

Social fanatics -- and, weirdly, Android purists -- should look carefully at the HTC First. For everyone else, consider this phone a sleepy sideshow.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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9 min read

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.

HTC First
6.7

HTC First

The Good

As Facebook Home's debut handset, the <b>HTC First</b> 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.

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.

A look at the HTC First, aka the 'Facebook phone' (pictures)

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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.

Cameras
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.

Video settings are largely the same, with the notable addition of silly face effects -- like big eyes and small mouth -- and a trio of background images. The First records 1080p HD video and plays it back in 720p HD.

HTC First camera test
Bright colors translated well through the imaging software. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Image quality isn't bad at all for a 5-megapixel camera. Colors were sometimes a little on the cool side, with the exception of greens, which were oversaturated in the shots I took of plant life. The camera didn't capture as much detail as top-tier smartphones like the 8-megapixel iPhone 5 or the 13-megapixel HTC One, particularly when it came to still-life shots and people. Photos taken outdoors in natural light were much less noisy than photos taken indoors in artificial lighting. In general, close-ups looked good on the First, with fairly sharp edges. I appreciate the phone's continuous autofocus.

HTC First camera test
Here's a look at the First's full-resolution quality on a cropped photo of a flower. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Although you can share photos via Facebook, e-mail, or any other social network, there's a shortcut to fast-track uploading photos right to the social network. You launch the Facebook photo uploader tool by pressing the "photo" button at the top of the app shortcut page. It'll show you a gallery of your photos from the camera roll, and also a camera icon button. This time, you won't get autofocus, though photos you snap here will upload to Facebook and nowhere else.

HTC First camera test
Although the First took its best photos outdoors, it didn't always do its best job taking in faces. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Pictures (and video) you save this way populate their own Facebook subfolder in your photo album.

HTC First camera test
This bright-green topiary looks too electric through the HTC First's lens. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The First's 1.6-megapixel front-facing camera is totally fine, but image quality is predictably a little noisy and color quality and temperature depend greatly on the ambient light, since there's no front-facing flash.

Video quality is really great on the HTC First, especially for a handset of this caliber. Clips default to 720p in the settings, but you can change them to 1080p HD, which is what I did for my tests. Colors were spot-on in well-lit situations, and edges were sharp. Subjects looked and sounded clear, although as always, audio levels depend on how far the mic is from the subject. Video recording and playback were both smooth, without any jerkiness. I was pleased with the results.

HTC First
The HTC First gives off a brown cast in this studio shot. Some objects are in focus, but not all. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET

You can store up to 16GB of data on the phone, but there's not external storage drive. The First has 1GB RAM.

Call quality
I tested the HTC First (GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100) in San Francisco using AT&T's network. Audio quality was fair overall. Although volume was a tad low and voices were noticeably fuzzy around the edges, the distortion wasn't distracting. There wasn't any odd background noise or interruptions, either, and voices sounded natural -- though I also heard a tiny bit of crackling when callers spoke.

My principal testing partner said I sounded slightly muffled, but fairly clear and easy to hear. I sounded pleasant, he said, and added that he'd buy the phone for audio quality at the right price.

HTC First call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone, however, was another story. My caller called the First was "very echoey" and distorted, even "mushy." In a successful scenario, syllables and sounds are sharply defined; here, my test partner said that one consonant was hard to define from the other, which made it tricky to understand me. He even asked to return to the earpiece because he couldn't make out what I was saying.

I had a much more positive experience with speakerphone on my end. Volume was pretty good, and definitely louder than through the earpiece. Voice quality also sounded natural, though I did hear a high-frequency crackle. This probably isn't the best way to describe it, but the speakerphone made voices sound sloppy, the vocal equivalent of coloring outside the lines.

Performance
AT&T's 4G LTE makes the HTC First a data demon. LTE speeds were very fast and consistently in the double digits on the Ookla Speedtest.net diagnostic app.

Facebook Home
Results form the Quadrant diagnostic app. Click to enlarge. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Real-world tests also yielded speedy results, with Web pages loading expediently, and apps downloading from Google Play in a few seconds. I was also able to stream music and video seamlessly over 4G.

On the processing side, the phone's 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8930AA chipset seemed to handle itself well, certainly well enough for the category of phone. Apps loaded quickly and gameplay, while not the most crystal clear or finely detailed I've even seen, was immersive and smooth.

HTC First (AT&T)
Download CNET mobile app (3.8MB) 11.2 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 5.9 seconds
CNET mobile site load 3 seconds
CNET desktop site load 8 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 46 seconds
Camera boot time 1.7 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds, with autofocus

Not everyone loves an embedded battery, but the configuration does let HTC cram in a proportionally larger ticker than it might if the battery were made removable. The First promises up to 14.3 hours of rated talk time and up to 18.2 days of standby time on its 2,000mAh battery. During our battery drain test, it lasted 9.58 hours for video playback.

FCC tests measured the HTC First's digital SAR at 0.65 watt per kilogram.

Should you buy it?
Let's take Facebook Home out of the equation for a minute. Yes, it's preloaded onto the phone and is one of its main selling points, but the First isn't the only mobile device to have Facebook Home's Android experience and the software isn't essential to how the phone works. Besides, there's still merit to the phone even if you don't want Facebook Home, and that's to turn off the software completely and use the device as a $100 on-contract stock Android phone.

As a standalone smartphone, the HTC First is a basic little number. It acts as a totally adequate vessel for Android Jelly Bean, and has some nice hardware considerations, including a 720p HD screen and 1080p HD video capture. However, the phone's industrial design is a real snoozer and the handset's nonremovable battery and absent microSD card slot will turn some people away.

Thanks to the HTC One's debut, the more premium HTC One X and One X+ are on sale for the same price or less. I'd consider either of those ahead of this HTC First, especially since both smartphones are also compatible with Facebook Home. In fact, Facebook, HTC , and AT&T would have been better giving this phone away for free.

HTC First
6.7

HTC First

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 7
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