A new version of Facebook for Android, version 1.3, is in the wild, and available for free. How does it stack up against the previous version and the iPhone equivalent? Armed with the updated version, a non-updated phone from a local Luddite and an Apple handset, we got comparing.
The comfortable symmetry in the home screen of the previous version has been usurped by a smaller menu. Events and friend-request buttons are new additions to the Android app (though long-time features in the iPhone app) and have pride of place. Notifications has been relocated, meanwhile (see below).
The application's slightly misshapen menu in this new version, showing space for at least two more menu buttons, could suggest that smaller, more frequent updates may gradually add new features. Unlike Facebook for iPhone, however, this new version still doesn't allow you to add your own shortcuts to, for example, your friends' profiles to the home screen.
Easy-access buttons for your messages and Facebook's uber-powerful search feature have been placed in the application's top bar, which is present throughout the app. You can freely toggle between searching among just your friends and searching Facebook's 500m teeming users.
One of Facebook's main draws is photo sharing, and the new Android app doesn't disappoint in this capacity. The welcome screen houses a noticeable, although not distracting, photo slide show of your friends' recently posted snapshots, as well as thumbnails for links. The bar is easy enough to slide through with a sharp finger-swipe, although putting a little too much oomph into a swipe caused the bar to rush to the end sometimes.
Click on a photo once and you're taken to the post, click again and you get a full-screen version of the image. From both of these views you can comment on or 'like' what you see.
Albums are laid out in thumbnail form and you can zip through full-screen photos in an album by hitting the left and right buttons on either side of the image. From here you can, again, comment or like, as well as share pictures easily with your friends.
Rather than rudely taking up an entire menu button, the notifications icon has been transformed into a bar just under the photo slide show. When pressed, this menu springs into action to tell you what's the haps in your social circles.
What's more, the notifications page in the Android version gives you a brief preview of its content, so you can ignore a notification from anyone making a "that's what she said" joke. This bar has been on the iPhone's equivalent app for a while now, but it doesn't include the short preview of the notification, so Apple's been beaten to the punch by this simple but suprisingly useful feature.
The events feature in Facebook for Android closely resembles its browser counterpart, laying out all upcoming events in chronological order. Clicking an event gives you more detail than you can shake a piñata stick at, and selecting a time period (say, a certain week) lists only events in that time.
Alas, Facebook can't help you get in the party mood, or help you pull that hottie by the bar -- for that, try music, moderate drinking and complements, in that order.
What's iPhone got that Android doesn't?
Facebook for iPhone emulates the social network more closely, including features such as notes and Facebook's chat feature, as well as the notification bar and a more customisable home screen.
What's the verdict?
Facebook for Android 1.3 is a definite improvement over its predecessor, offering more features, easier access to frequently used tools and a layout that has clearly had plenty of thought put into it. It also adds some great features that we haven't seen before, like the dynamic photo slide show and notification previews.
Is it better than Facebook for iPhone? By no means. It's a step in the right direction, undoubtedly, but this Android app will need to support a few more features before it can realistically square up.