Facebook's new home on Android

Many people were expecting a Facebook phone earlier this month when the company issued invitations for an event to release Facebook’s “new home on Android.” While that did not happen, what did see the light of the day was a new software called, Home, which is an attempt to give every Android smartphone a distinctly Facebook touch.

Initially available only in the US, the app has been subsequently released worldwide for select Android devices (the Samsung Galaxy S IV, the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the HTC One X+, the HTC One X and the HTC One) and comes preinstalled on the HTC First (which has not yet come to Indian shores). We have been using both the official version on a Galaxy S III and an unofficial one on a Nexus 7 tablet for a few days, to get an idea of what Facebook’s new Home is like.

Large pics,
talking heads

Facebook’s Home is a theme app — in simple English, it imposes a layer over your device's “normal” interface. And of course, in this case, the theme is heavily Facebook flavoured. Install Home (you will first need to update your Facebook and Messenger apps, and also remove any existing versions of them from your device for it to work), and your device will suddenly seem as if it is all Facebook. Your lockscreen will not show a screensaver or wallpaper, but will instead stream images and updates from your Facebook account, moving slowly across the display, like a slide show. Each update will occupy the full screen, accompanied by a large image and will slowly move to the next or you can speed the process by just flicking your finger across the display — no, doing so will not unlock your device. Double tapping on an update will make you like it, long pressing on an image will show you the complete image, and you also have the option to comment on it from the lockscreen itself.

To get to your regular apps, just tap the screen once, which will display a small circle with your Facebook profile picture on it. Press down on this and you get the option to drag it to access your other applications, Facebook messenger or the app you last used. Your apps will now be arranged across three different screens, one which contains all the apps, and two others which you can customise according to your tastes. Incidentally, these latter two screens give you the option to post status updates, photographs and check ins without having to launch the Facebook app.

Finally, there are the Chat Heads, perhaps the most spectacular feature of Home. If someone comes on chat, their profile images appear in a small circle, tapping on which will allow you to chat with them. Sounds routine?  Well, then consider the fact that these circles (Chat Heads) will appear over any app that you are using and you can move them around the screen. So I could be playing Angry Birds, and still be able to chat on FB without interrupting the game or having to open another app. You can even ‘keep’ certain Chat Heads on your display, so that you can slip them a message whenever you need — even when they are not online! That is actually neat. You also have the option to turn off your regular Android notification bar if all you want is Facebook. Interestingly, all this works very smoothly. A lot more smoothly than some Android themes we have used, although one does need a very good Internet connection to keep those updates coming. 

Home and dry? Not quite
It is elegant, fast and a very different FB-soaked way of accessing our Android devices. But is Home a must-have? Well, based on our experience, only if you are an out and out FB addict. There’s no denying that the Home lock screen looks a whole lot better and less cluttered than some of the themes that plague Android (we actually like the fact that it keeps shortcuts and widgets off the lock screen) and we think that Chat Heads is one of the coolest ways we have seen of chatting on a handset.

That said, not all of us are that addicted to Facebook. People use other social networks too and Home has no room for them on its landing page, unlike say HTC’s BlinkFeed, which lets you access not only Facebook updates, but also those from Twitter and specific news sites from your homescreen. There is no way even to control what comes on your lockscreen (what if we want updates only from certain sources?). There is talk that Facebook is working on apps and widgets to increase Home’s utility, but until that happens, only those utterly addicted to the social network that made Zuckerberg famous will feel totally at Home with it. Pun intended.

ChatHeads Without Home!
Yes, Facebook Home is not available for all handsets yet, but Android users can use its uber cool Chat Heads facility. Just download the latest version of the Facebook Messenger app on to your Android device (it is available for free download from Google Play). Launch the app and long press on the name of the person whose Chat Head you want to be displayed, and choose the ‘pop out chat head’ option. That’s it — your friend will always be present on your device in a little sphere that you just need to tap.

Apps That Zing Up Facebook
BioLogic (ios): This iPad app presents your social networks as bubbling cell bodies, with images inside. Pretty spectacular and if you have the bandwidth, handy as well.
Flipboard (Android, iOS): Want to see your social network like a magazine? Well, this app — best known for its newsreading muscle — can do that too.
CoolIris (iOS): All your Facebook images in one brilliant wall of pictures? CoolIris serves up just that. It is a bandwidth hog, yes — all those images need great connectivity.
Pixable (Android, iOS): Again an app designed for those who think good images are worth a thousand words, the app sorts and ranks images from your Facebook feed and displays them in a colourful interface.
MyPad (iOS):
One of the most popular Facebook alternative apps, MyPad has won a following because of its graphic-rich interface, which puts a spin on image galleries and also incorporates most Facebook functions, and some from Instagram too 

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