April 22, 2013, 3:06 PM — The HTC First is one of the more intriguing Android phones I've had the chance to review. The result of a collaboration between HTC and Facebook, the First is the first phone to ship with Facebook Home preinstalled--doing away with the traditional Android home screen in favor of a continuous Facebook news feed. Apps such as Gmail and Maps are hidden away, while the official Facebook and Messaging apps take center stage. The phone is aimed at fans of the social network, but the First's unassuming design and modest $100 price tag (with an accompanying 2-year contract on AT&T) should prove enticing to anyone looking for a smartphone on a budget.
Keep it simple
The first thing you'll notice when handling the phone is its size: Measuring 4.96 by 2.56 by 0.35-inches, the First has roughly the same dimensions as the Apple iPhone 5. The phone is composed primarily of a soft-touch plastic that makes it pleasant to hold, and the device's smaller stature makes it easy to use one-handed. Like the HTC One, the First boasts a simple design that helps keep the phone from feeling overly complicated. The buttons on the First all feel sturdy and responsive, though I had trouble keeping the phone's MicroUSB cable securely in the charging port.
The phone lacks a user replaceable battery, and there's no MicroSD card slot, which means you're stuck with the 16GB of on-board memory for storing your apps, photos, music, and movies. Most won't care about these missing features, but it's something worth considering if you're someone that likes to have Michael Jackson's entire discography with you at all times. The First's 4.3-inch display packs an impressive 341 pixels per inch (ppi), making it sharper than the Retina display on the iPhone 5, though the screen looks unusually dark even on the brightest settings.
The First lacks the Beats audio software found on pretty much every other current HTC phone, and as a result, audio played through the phone's speaker sounds hollow. The speaker's location is also inconvenient--when holding the phone in landscape mode, your hand often covers it up, which leaves you with muffled sound while watching videos or playing games.
Although the First has a 5-megapixel camera, photos taken with the phone came out very grainy with a lot of digital noise. The phone can shoot 1080p video, which looked okay, but suffered from minor stutters and tears. The camera is painfully mediocre, but if all you are doing is uploading your photos to Facebook then it should suit your needs just fine.
Home sweet home?
Aside from its low price tag, the First's other big selling point is its deep integration with Facebook Home. Facebook Home is available for download on a handful of other Android handsets, but HTC worked closely with Facebook to optimize the launcher for the First. Notifications from third-party apps show up on the home screen alongside Facebook notifications, and the app ran surprisingly well on the First's dual-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor.
Though I consider myself a very casual Facebook user (I usually only check the damn thing two to three times per week), I found my activity on the social network increased dramatically while using Facebook Home. The app made it effortless to like and comment on my friends' posts--photos and status updates I wouldn't have seen had Facebook Home not shoved them in my face.
After some time, however, Facebook Home's downsides became much more apparent: Doing anything that wasn't related to Facebook, such as playing music or browsing for apps, took more effort than it did on other smartphones, as you'd have to dig through the app drawer to find the appropriate apps. You can't put app shortcuts or widgets on your home screen, and the status bar is hidden away until you swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal it. (You can check out Caitlin McGarry's review of Facebook Home for more details on the app, but if you don't live your entire life on Facebook you probably won't benefit from it in any meaningful way.)
The big secret
So why should you even consider picking up this seemingly mediocre smartphone? For all of its flaws, the HTC First has one thing going for it: You can easily turn off Facebook Home to access a stock version of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, giving you all the benefits of Android without any of the added bloat-ware that usually plagues the OS.
This is a big deal. The only other phone currently shipping with raw Android is the Google Nexus 4--a phone that doesn't work with LTE networks here in the states. Granted, the Nexus 4 runs a newer version of Android Jelly Bean, but HTC's offering is compatible with AT&T's potent LTE network and can still access most of the major Jelly Bean features, such as Google Now and the performance improvements brought by Project Butter.
Another of the First's hidden strengths is its battery life. The embedded 2000mAh battery in the phone may not sound all that impressive next to the 3300mAh battery found in the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD, but I managed to squeeze a full 8 hours of use out of the First before I had to seek out a charger. With Facebook Home disabled, however, that number increased by another hour or so. Obviously these times will vary depending on how you're using your phone and the types of apps you install, but I found them impressive nonetheless.
The HTC First excels at being a tool to quickly access and interact with your friends on Facebook, but it also falls short in a few other key areas. Millions of people use their smartphones to upload photos to Facebook, so it's a shame that HTC skimped out when it came to the First's camera and camera functionalities. Facebook Home's strong emphasis on Facebook's apps is great if your whole existence is on the social network, but it interferes with actually using the phone as...well...a phone. Still, if you're someone that can't get enough Facebook in their lives--or crave using stock Android on LTE--then the HTC First is worth checking out.