Facebook rebuilds iPhone app for speed: what’s new, better and still needs work

Facebook today released a much-anticipated update for iPhone that makes loading News Feed, photos, messages and notifications significantly faster.

Previously, Facebook built its mobile apps with HTML5, which allowed it to release daily updates without requiring users to download a new version. This helped the company test new things and scale the app to hundreds of millions of users. But the user experience suffered because the app was so slow. Now with version 5.0, consuming content in the feed, adding comments, checking messages and notifications, and other actions happen almost instantaneously. Navigating to different sections of the app, for example from News Feed to Timeline, browsing pages or opening links, still lags a bit. Overall, most users will find the update to be a vast improvement, though it lacks some features users have been asking for, such as a share button.

When new stories are added to the feed or comments added to a post, users will see prompts to view the latest activity. Posts and comments load incredibly quickly.

Opening and closing photos now works similar to how they do in the standalone Camera app. Tapping on a photo from the feed opens it instantly, with a nice overlay for the caption, Likes and comments. Swiping up or down returns users to the feed — faster in the Facebook 5.0 app than Camera, actually. However, there is no option to edit or add filters to photos when uploading them from Facebook for iPhone, so users will have to continue to use Camera for that.

Messages load much faster and include a few features similar to the standalone Messenger app. Users can now share their current location, quickly start group conversations and turn off alerts. This seems to reduce the need for the separate Messenger app.

Facebook redesigned the icons for posting a status, photo or check-in, from the homescreen. The icons are cleaner, using a single color and fewer lines. However, the old icons are still used on the mobile version of Timeline.

Posting a status and photo hasn’t changed, but check-ins have. Rather than showing users a plain list of place names, users can now see a small map of their current location and profile photos for places nearby. Interestingly, Facebook now uses Google Maps for check-ins, though it still uses Bing Maps for events. The new app eliminates the little-used map of friends nearby feature.

Although the update was focused on making the app faster and less about redesigning and adding new features, some users will be disappointed that Facebook has still not brought certain web functionality to the iPhone. The most commonly asked for feature is likely to be a share button. There’s a way to reshare links, but it takes a few steps and users still can’t share photos or statuses. Facebook for iOS also lacks a way to create an event, though the Android version got that option today.

The app doesn’t support mention tagging, which is the way users tag their friends on the web without implying that they are “with” a person. Facebook offers this on its mobile touch site and in third-party apps, but hasn’t brought it to its own native app.

The iPhone app does support multi-photo upload, but it’s a lesser known feature and a more complicated one, at that. The standalone Camera app and the new Facebook for Android are both ahead of Facebook for iPhone in that area.

Some page owners might also be wondering when their pages will appear with the Timeline design on mobile. Facebook began rolling this out to some users last month, but it still isn’t available to everyone.

Facebook for iOS 5.0 is available for download here.

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