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Facebook Paper: A Beautiful App That Rethinks the Social Network

·Tech Columnist
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“Lovely” is a word that practically no one would assign to Facebook’s current layout for smartphones. But Paper, a new iPhone app built by Facebook that rethinks and replaces the current “feed” of a Facebook timeline, certainly is. Facebook’s designers have broken down the familiar system of status updates, family photos and news articles and built it up into something beautiful, no longer trying to cram as much information as possible on limited screen real estate.

Now, a day before celebrating its 10th anniversary, Facebook has officially opened the app up to iPhone users, who will have the option to use either Paper or the current app. So: Where does Paper land, on a scale from “looks neat” to “let’s take the old layout out back and shoot it?”

The answer, as you might expect, depends largely upon your own relationship with the site. If you’re a Facebook junkie, you might want to stick with the classic Facebook app. But if you’re looking for a more relaxed, elegant presentation of your friends’ updates and some news, Paper might be more your speed.

Facebook has been using words like “intuitive” and “natural” to describe Paper, but even so, it includes a tutorial video with initial downloads — and with good reason. No matter how intuitive the app may be, Facebook has already trained us to interact with its vertical news feed in a very specific way. Learning to use Paper requires a bit of unlearning.

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Step one is customizing your Paper. It takes minimal setup, really, and if you find you’ve made some terrible mistake early on, you can always adjust things just how you want them at any point in the process. Setting up entails tossing subjects you like onto a box on the top of the screen with a swipe. There are 19 topics in all, ranging from the straightforward (Headlines, Sports, Tech) to the populist (Cute, LOL) to the more targeted (Equalize, Pride). Toss three to five up there, and you should be good to go.

Your own News Feed is your default home page. The app aggregates your friends’ updates into a series of tiles that is similar to the news reader Flipboard, from which Paper clearly drew a fair amount of inspiration. At top, you get one large image monopolizing the upper half of the screen. Overlaid on the image is the associated text update and three familiar Facebook buttons: Friend Requests, Inbox and Notifications. Paper updates that post every nine seconds or so.

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When you tap an image, it balloons to full screen. For larger images, you get only part of the picture; tilting the iPhone to the left or right lets you pan across it, like a Ken Burns Civil War documentary. Facebook highlighted the feature in its demo video and, indeed, it makes for a cool visual. Ultimately, however, it feels like a bit of form over function.

Below that are even more posts — including those with no images associated. You can scan through that carousel with a simple swipe to the right. Users without 20/20 vision might find themselves squinting at the text down there. If you find something you like, you can swipe up and that post will take up the whole screen.

Facebook has certainly done a good job of not wasting any real estate with the app. From here, you can like, comment or share the post (including that previously highlighted Reshare button that looks awfully Twitter-esque). Once you’re done, swipe down and, boom, you’re back on the main page.

A swipe to the right on the home page’s top module will bring you to one of those subject pages you chose early on. The layout on the topic pages is pretty much exactly what you see on the feed home page, only here all of the information is culled from what Facebook has deemed “trusted” sources; for Headlines, for example, your sources include Time magazine, The New York Times and other heavy hitters. Once again, when you see a post you like, swipe up. Another swipe will bring you to the source material by way of a cool unfolding animation, while a swipe to the right folds it back up again.

 

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This is still Facebook at its core, and as such you can still access most of the site’s main features. A swipe down on the main page will bring up a menu for creating posts, editing sections and fiddling with settings. Writing posts on Paper has been updated to be, well, more paper-like, with a great big empty text field and minimal distractions. Profiles have also been beautified and adjusted to match the design of Paper.

Paper is everything that Facebook advertised: beautiful, dynamic and user friendly. It’s also a breath of fresh air after years of using Facebook’s cluttered mobile app. But is it good enough for you to switch over completely?

Well, it’s not so much a matter of good and bad as a matter of what you use Facebook for. If you’re looking to consume a lot of information at once (including things like your events calendar, which is absent here), then the old way is still the best. But if you just want to get lost, you can’t really beat Paper.

There are now two Facebook apps competing for your precious free time. Which one you choose depends on how much of it you want to spend with Facebook.

Yahoo Tech is a brand new tech site from David Pogue and an all-star team of writers. Follow us on Facebook for all the latest.