Facebook for iPad: Worth the wait (mostly)

October 12, 2011, 5:31 PM UTC

FORTUNE — It’s hard to believe that it took Facebook a year-and-a-half to release its own iPad app, given that solid third-party alternatives like Friendly for Facebook have been available since last year. The app had reportedly been delayed several times and a build even leaked. Yet only now are the social network’s 800 million active users able to download it.

So how is it? We gave the app a quick to spin to find out whether it was the one to rule them all, or just a disappointment.

Downloading the app was simple thanks to Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes, though initially getting it to run wasn’t. A bug in the first release caused our News Feed to constantly refresh itself every two or three seconds whether we wanted it to or not, and restarting didn’t help. Others have reported issues like long loading times or crashes. (For them, Facebook recommends that they reinstall the app.) The constant refreshing on our end rendered the News Feed, and really the whole app, unusable until a software update the next day fixed the problem.

Once you’re past the log-in, a screen seemingly optimized for multiple accounts, you’re shuttled over to a home screen that presents all your selectable options in a left-hand column: News Feed, Messages, Groups, Apps, account settings and so on. Select the News Feed, and it appears instantly on on the right-hand side; swipe to your left, and it’ll occupy the entire screen. A slim blue bar resembling Facebook’s desktop web experience and the recently-updated iPhone app remains up top the entire time, with a home button and icons for notifications, messages and friend requests.

The new look isn’t very flashy, but it’s clean and works extremely well. Where the smartphone apps emphasize text for on-the-go consumption, the iPad app leverages the iPad’s larger screen and highlights photos and videos beautifully.

Select the friends tab, and you’ll see for yourself. In the iOS version, that scrollable list of Facebook friends is dominated by friends’ names alongside tiny, sometimes inscrutable, profile images. On the iPad, those images have been blown out to easily nine times the size, so your eyes gravitate to the images first, and the names second. Hence, you’re more likely to linger and glance at profile photos you probably wouldn’t have cared as much about if you were doing the same thing on your phone.

Wading through photo albums is also generally more fun on the iPad. There’s a scrubber bar that lets you quickly skim through tens of images. You can also pinch to zoom in as well as to jump back to all the images in a given album.

And now when Friends update their statuses with their locations, you’ll be able to see their proximity to you with the “Nearby” feature that displays a large map with photos of your friends pinned to their locations. It’s a neat little bonus for some; for others, it may take Facebook stalking to a new level.

Links to articles load fast, sometimes almost instantly. Unfortunately, the app currently links out to Zynga gaming apps you’ve downloaded to your iPad like Words with Friends. That will change soon when the developers roll out versions of its games fully playable from within the app itself.

Otherwise, Facebook for iPad works just as you would expect it to, with many of the same features from the desktop experience carried over. And with this week’s software update to the iOS app, the iPad and iPhone versions look very similar: one just plays up the visuals.

Really, the overall feel of Facebook’s first iPad release is snappy and intuitive once you get past the bugs. The focus on photos here is a nice touch, although there’s nothing revolutionary here that puts third-party Facebook iPad apps to shame, at least not yet. The social network’s users will undoubtedly be happy with it, even if some of them wonder what took so long.