Of Facebook’s 800 million active users, more than 350 million of them currently access Facebook through mobile devices, according to the company. October saw Facebook’s updated Messenger app, labeled 1.5, rolling out to iOS, Android and BlackBerry with updated features, including the ability to see when someone is typing, and verify that they haven’t fallen asleep. We also saw Facebook challenging Apple with an iPad app that allows mobile developers to bypass the Apple Store.
What we haven’t been hearing so much about are the Facebook alternatives — third-party apps that provide faster loading and other functionalities that the official apps don’t. One such Facebook app is ad-free FriendCaster Pro for Android, also updated in October, and now seeing a jump in downloads compared to the Facebook “official” app.
I decided to give FriendCaster a grilling. I was particularly interested in the media capturing and upload functions that have — until recently — been conspicuously poor in official Facebook apps.
Loading the FriendCaster app for the first time, I was presented with a slew of warnings about access to my phone’s innermost workings, including such terrifying permission requests like “access my data at any time” and “access information people share with me.” There were in fact 16 such permissions requests — the most I’d ever been asked for.
I guess that’s the nature of social networks. It felt creepy, but I touched “Allow” and wondered who’d be the first friend to disown me due to enemy-plundered “information people share with me.”
Clicking on “News Feed,” I was presented with a close-up picture of a friend’s Halloween dinner that looked like it was bought at a bait shop. I won’t share it with you, but I’m sure you get the idea. I whizzed through the lively and elegant UI, pressing various buttons that included “News Feed,” “Profile,” “Friends” and so on.
One massive improvement featured on both apps — official and FriendCaster — over the desktop client’s home page is a “Friends” button where you touch the button and are presented with a list of “Friends” to choose from. The desktop client, believe it or not, makes you drill down through convoluted options to read a specific friend’s wall.
Chat and Photos
The Chat button prompted a second download with a shorter list of permissions requests called “FriendCaster Chat” from the Market.
Clicking on the “Photos” button presented a surprising list of all of my friends’ recently updated albums — a simple yet great feature not available in the desktop client. In my case, a friend’s wall photos that were updated 10 hours ago was listed, followed by a friend’s photos updated 17 hours ago. Clicking on the listing takes you to the friend’s entire album. This provided context, and for me at least, is a better solution than just seeing individual pictures spat out chronologically.
Taking Pictures and Video
Taking photos from within FriendCaster worked better than from within the official app. Simply clicking on the camera icon in the FriendCaster app took you straight into the phone’s camera, complete with viewfinder image and shutter button. On the official app a set of upload and other options are presented, and then drilling down takes you into the camera. This causes delay and might cause you to miss the shot.
The official app, however, does allow you to take video from within the app, whereas FriendCaster only provides existing video upload functions. This was a negative score on the video features, although in practicality, judging by video I’ve made, editing before uploading may not be such a bad thing.
Neither app had the new “Close Friends” and “Acquaintance” filter, called “List,” that’s available on the desktop client, where you can separate long-lost associates you haven’t spoken to in 20 years from those whose lives you are taking an active interest in.
I was unable to find desktop available “Poke” functions on either app too.
Overall FriendCaster Pro for Android is a delight to use, particularly if one compares it to some of the older incarnations of mobile Facebook interfaces. The side-swiping user interface is fully intuitive and drill-downs are limited to no more than one step, as opposed to the UI on the official app that can involve multiple steps.
The in-app, one-touch camera launcher alone was worth the $4.99. An ad-supported free version is also available.