Many of you will already be familiar with the phrase 'It's so bad, it's good.' Consider Facebook Home to be something like that.
Sure, it's a brave effort and not many companies will be willing to take the risk that Facebook has with this. But there's not so much as a fine line, but a highway running between utility and gimmick. And Home veers dangerously into the latter's territory. But I sincerely hope that someone at Menlo Park is reading this, because boys and girls, there's a lot to be fixed.
If you want to put it crudely, Home is just another Android launcher, the difference being that it latches onto your Facebook account and delivers your News Feed in a visually-impressive manner. Now that sounds great, but in practice it's painful, buggy and most of all, doesn't allow you to do much with your smartphone. Let's look at the good and the bad.
Home starts with your Cover Feed, which is a visual carousel of all the niceties on your News Feed. When Cover Feed shows up, your Facebook profile picture also appears inside a bubble. This is your gateway to the apps and Messenger.
Photos, status updates, links and other posts all show up randomly and float by your screen like a slow river. It's a great idea and one that borrows from the Live Tiles of Windows Phone 8 and the movement of pictures within each post makes it look like the Windows Phone 8's Photos Live Tile, except one which takes up your entire screen.
Browsing through the various updates makes your profile bubble disappear allowing you to view everything in its entirety. By default, all pictures that show up on your Cover Feed are heavily-cropped. That includes cover photos that take up the background on status updates or the actual photos that your friends put up. A long-press on any photo gives you the entire picture without the text overlaid on it. It's a nice way to see the picture, but what exactly is the benefit here?
All the apps along with the 'More…' icon; Pinned apps; Going back to Cover Feed
From a design point of view, the transparent background of the app drawer, the bouncy animations, and the trickery of your profile picture fizzing around like a pinball on the Cover Fee – if such an action is called for – makes it a visual delight. But there's only so much eye candy one can take before wanting to get down to brass tacks.
Tap once on any feed item and your profile bubble appears again. Tap twice and you have liked the picture. If only single tap worked as flawlessly as in the ads for Home. There were a number of times I inadvertently liked a random status message trying to get the bubble to show. When you do get the bubble back, a flick up takes you to the app drawer, a flick to the left takes you to Messenger and the right corner is reserved for your last app. Sounds great, right? It's not.
Having a Messenger shortcut on Cover Feed makes sense as it is perhaps the most-used app on any phone. But if you have just finished replying to a text and are back on Cover Feed, then the last app is Messenger as well, essentially giving you two shortcuts for the same app. Most phones don't even need the last app button, as the Recent Apps menu will take you there anyway. But with Facebook Home, even the Recent Apps menu is fraught with danger.
Killing Home; A sparse Settings page; Messenger can also handle SMS
Say, you are using Nova launcher and you hit the recent apps button. Does Nova also pop up as one of the apps used recently? Nope, we tried and it doesn't. But oddly, Facebook Home does. And we can kill it too. Getting back to the Cover Feed now means there will be more than a little delay as the launcher fires back up again. This reminded me of Gingerbread days when another useless app, Advanced Task Killer, ended up doing the same to launchers every time it was asked to kill all apps.
Thank heavens I was using a Nexus 4 which doesn't give you an option to kill all the Recent Apps from that screen. But other modern phones which can run Home, do. We can imagine someone using Home on a Samsung Galaxy S3, killing all apps from the Recent Apps screen because that's their usual thing to do, and then waiting for a minute or two, before Home comes back on. It's especially frustrating, when you are in a low connectivity area.
Like mentioned above, a drag up to the app drawer shows all your apps. At first you will see the pinned apps, but the entire list of apps is hidden away on the left edge and can be called upon from the first screen of pinned apps. Pinned apps can be set by the user, but in my case, Home actually just populated the list with apps that were in folders on my homescreen before Home was installed. Drag the pinned apps list down and you are back to the Cover Feed.
Needless to say, there's no room for widgets. If you want to see widgets, you will have to go to the entire app drawer, tap on the very last entry, which reads 'More…' and that will take you to whatever launcher you were running before Home came along. This way you can access widgets, and look back nostalgically at those days when you actually did something with your smartphone. It was amazing how many times I found myself tapping that icon.
Accessing the app drawer, Messenger and last-used app through the Cover Feed; Double tapping on a story to 'Like' it
The biggest drawback of Facebook Home is that it gets in the way of everything you would want to do on your smartphone. Want to quickly check out what 'brass tacks' means? Too bad, there's no quick way. Instead, you have to call up your app drawer, find the browser and then search. The situation is the same for any app. Sure, for someone who wants to only see their Facebook News Feed, this is great. But not many I know are of such an inclination and actually use their phones for more serious work.
The only option in the name of security is in the setting page for Home. Here, you can turn off the option to start the phone on Cover Feed when you unlock it. So whatever lockscreen you had on before Home came along will be shown. In my case, it was the stock Android lockscreen. We are happy that Facebook hasn't actually given us more options for security as we have a feeling even they would have been botched. If you want to keep the same Home aesthetic from the time you unlock the phone, then too bad, you can't have a secure lockscreen.
Messenger and Chat Heads
Messenger is great. Messenger is horrible. Firstly, it replaces your SMS app and shows you all your texts messages along with Facebook chats. It gives you a wide variety of emoji and it generally looks more pleasing to the eye than the default Messaging app.
One annoying factor was that every time I inadvertently used the default messaging app to check or reply to a text, it wouldn't get synced to Messenger, leaving the unread notification as it is. Another point that got my goat was that all text messages would reload every time I entered the app. Making me wait as long as half a minute before I could check or reply.
Chat Heads looked great on other phones. For some reason, they just refused to show up on my phone no matter how many modified versions of Home and Messenger I installed. Perhaps it's just not compatible with a Nexus 4.
Another thing that's most definitely broken is LED notifications. With Home running, my Light Flow settings went out of the window and became highly erratic. On the few arbitrary occasions that I did see the LED glow, it would indicate a missed call, when it was actually a text message. Other times, and this is the most-likely happenstance, the LED would refuse to glow no matter how many notifications sat unseen.
One good thing is that Home allows you to control the consumption of data to bring you new stories on the Cover Feed. One can choose from High, Medium and Low, but a more granular control over the amount of data to be used should have been present. Just having options labelled High and Low doesn't really tell us much.
Status updates, shared photos and new uploads all show up on Cover Feed
People ask me all the time if a certain software or app is worth trying out. I am always enthusiastically saying yes, because software and apps can be removed painlessly.
To be honest, the Home experience of this past week or so made me re-think my approach towards those queries. Now if someone asks me should I try the version of Home that's currently out there, I can wrestle them to the ground to get that thought out of their head. For the past week or so, I felt like I was using a feature phone in the 1990s and not, as I had believed all along, a modern smartphone. I couldn't wait to get this review done so I could go back to using software that actually makes things less difficult to do.
Sure, for a first punt at an Android launcher, Home isn't all that horrible. There are plenty of things to fix and I believe the collective crescendo of criticism might just force Facebook to take a good hard look at their product and deliver fixes quickly. Right now though, Home is not sweet.
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