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

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.

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 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.