Your very own Facebook phone: hands-on with Facebook Home

Launched in America on Friday (Saturday our time) and heading to Australian devices in the coming weeks, Facebook’s new homescreen replacement “Home” is here to change your social networking experience, and we’re looking at it ahead of time, finding out if it makes Facebook easier.

It’s a service that Facebook hopes will rekindle interest in using its social network, in a world where there certainly isn’t a shortage of places to tell everyone else what you’re doing, who you’re meeting with, making friends and taking photographs of your food.

Available for select Android devices, Facebook Home is a combination of applications that replaces your smartphone’s homescreen, making it possible to browse updates to your social world the moment you bring your device out of standby.

The system, which installs over three separate (yet connected for this purpose) pieces of free software, changes the way an Android phone looks and feels.

Let’s start with the homescreen, which sees the most noticeable change.

The moment you pull Facebook Home out of standby, your wallpaper will be changed, panning left and right in a documentary-esque way through the updates of people you subscribe to.

This can include photos, or even just text-based status updates with their Facebook cover feed photo sitting in the background. While you can wait for Facebook Home to automatically scroll right to left through your available updates, you can speed up the process by flicking to and from each, as if you were flicking through the pages in your own virtual Facebook magazine.

Any time someone comments on something with you in it, or responds to a post you’ve been talking on, your feed will light up with a notification, allowing you to quickly jump straight into Facebook and keep talking.

Then there’s the menu system which changes because Facebook Home is a homescreen replacement application, and that is one of the basic functions of a homescreen replacement app.

If you’re interested in doing more with Facebook than just reading through social updates, you can drag your little avatar-filled circle into one of three positions, with the top working for all your apps and shortcuts, the left-most linking you to your messages – both Facebook conversations and SMS, we’ll get to this shortly – and the last on the right getting you back into the last application you used.

In the apps menu in the top spot, two menus are available, with the left most showing everything you have installed in alphabetical order, while the right most is one of those “order it how you like it” systems. To add shortcuts and icons, just hold down on them in the left-most everything menu and drag them into place where you want them.

You also can find an easy way to post a status, photo, or check-in to a location all from the one screen in your app menu.

It’s worth pointing out that Facebook Home as an Android homescreen lacks support for shortcuts on the main screen, and does not support widgets in any way.

In essence, Facebook Home is one giant widget that gets you access to Facebook in a constant streaming way, but anything else you plan on using through widgets – work emails, calendar, Pandora playback – can’t be used here.

Facebook, however, is easier to browse than it ever has been.

Flicking through stories put online by your friends and family on a homescreen can draw you in quickly, and a double tap on any one of them quickly “likes” the story, allowing you to keep up to date with everyone without even thinking.

But then there is the message system, which confuses us a tad.

On the left side of the menu is the shortcut for messaging, which brings you into Facebook’s recent Messaging application, which does its best to unite your SMS app and Facebook’s own message and conversations feature.

In essence, when you send a message to someone on Facebook Home, the messaging app will almost always try to send that person a Facebook message first, not an SMS, even if you wanted to send an SMS.

Your address book would be loaded up from Facebook, too, and even if you wanted to send an SMS – which doesn’t require internet access from phones to read – you will almost always be sending a Facebook conversation message.

You can send proper phone-based SMS from this app, but we found it worked best when you typed in the phone number, which, once again, isn’t the same, and certainly isn’t as convenient as being able to use your address book to send short messages to other mobile phones.

Interestingly, Facebook Home doesn’t take over the messaging application on your Android smartphone. In fact, it doesn’t replace much more than the homescreen and menu system, with your phone dialler, contacts, calendar, and email clients still working the way they originally did when you first received your phone.

In the case of our Samsung Galaxy S3, this meant that we could still use our regular SMS shortcut to send messages to everyone outside of the Facebook app, which would then see that we had sent an SMS and add that to its own listing.

This half-handed SMS-Facebook messaging problem can make Facebook Home seem a little silly, especially since sending a Facebook message and sending an SMS are two entirely different things.

There’s also another problem with Facebook Home, and that comes from speed and stability.

It could be that the app just hasn’t been properly finalised for release in Australia (we were running an unofficial installation made available) and it could be that it hasn’t been properly tweaked yet, but on a device listed by Facebook that Home is apparently compatible with, we had weaker battery life than with a regular homescreen, and some severe slow downs in loading things.

On the first day of using Facebook Home, the speed was fine, but the battery performance was weaker than usual, even with power saving switched on. By the second and third days, however, we started to noticed some slow downs in how Facebook Home was running, with loading screens on the applications menu, and the avatar menu controller functioning only some of the time.

Slowdowns often show up with this loading icon. You can't do much more than wait.

These were issues that simple switches from standby to on and back again would often solve, but it showed us that Facebook Home wasn’t quite ready to be the homescreen replacement it plans to be.

Overall, Facebook Home appears to be made for people who are so addicted to Facebook that everything they do has to be on the social network.

That’s not us, mind you. This writer is more into Twitter, and even then, he wouldn’t switch his entire phone to work from the social network.

A phone is more than about one social network, and when you rely on a device with a camera, calendar, media player, email, phone calls, messaging, and more, it can’t just be about one service.

Still, we could see why some people might go out of their way to install it, and if it interests you, make sure to have either a Samsung Galaxy S3, Note 2, S4, or HTC One  or One X when it becomes available on the Australian Google Play Store in the next few weeks.