It's not often that a new gadget is announced and I do not want to get it straight into my hands. I am an extreme beginner, both professional and curious. When Facebook's new portal and Portal Plus were announced a month ago, my answer was a firm "No thanks". And I'm not alone: after a year of data privacy scandals, many people's first responses to the portal were a smart display. A device that has a constantly-listening microphone and a growing camera landed somewhere between hesitation and disgust.
The $ 199 portal and the larger $ 349 Portal Plus are not the first smart displays of its kind. Both Amazon and Google already have similar products on the market. While the Amazon Echo Show and Google Assistant-driven smart displays can perform a whole range of tasks, from controlling smart home gadgets to playing videos, the portal has an almost singular focus: video calling with Facebook Messenger to others to set up Facebook Messenger users.
For this purpose, the portal works very well. I used both models in the past week to make calls throughout the office – and across the country. The portal offered a better experience than any other smart display I've ever used. It also worked better than a smartphone or tablet for video calls, which I can not say for the Echo Show or the Lenovo Smart Display. However, as a general smart display, the portal lags far behind the competition.
While the portal is in its intended role as a videophone for the modern age, the idea of a camera connected to Facebook in my home remains deeply unpleasant to me.
Both the 10.1-inch portal and the massive 15.6-inch Portal Plus feature modern designs that are not inappropriate in a trendy home. The smaller model looks a lot like Amazon's Echo Show, while the plus reminds me of an in-store kiosk that you would use to order a Big Mac. Both are pretty well put together, with high quality plastic materials, bright, responsive touch screens and loud speakers that can easily fill a medium to large room with music.
The Portal Plus not only has a larger display and louder speakers, it also has a trick that the smaller model can not do: the screen can be rotated 90 degrees to switch between landscape and portrait. The hinge is smooth yet stable, and it takes only a single finger to change the orientation. It's probably my favorite hardware details for this product. These are surprisingly beautiful hardware components for a first generation product. The biggest blow to both models is that they take up a lot of space, especially the Portal Plus.
Besides the screen, of course, the portal's camera and microphones are the most important things you spend the time you interact with. Both models use the same camera and microphone systems: a four-microphone with 360-degree beamforming input and a 12-megapixel camera with 140-degree field of view and up to 8x digital zoom. This setup allows the portal to see and hear you no matter where you are in the room.
This really is the big differentiator for the portal over other smart displays. Although the devices from Amazon and Google have similar far-field microphone arrays, their cameras are nowhere near as good as those of the portal. While the camera of the portal is technically fixed, Facebook has developed a clever software that can recognize human forms (the company tells me that this is the case) Not Use face tracking) and automatically rename the video view. When I move around the room, the camera "follows" me as if it had the ability to move and zoom the lens. The Amazon Echo Show has a single fixed position for its camera and is often not ideal.
This automatic framing, referred to as "smart camera" by Facebook, makes it easy to join any video call. I do not have to worry about being in the right place for the other to see me – I can just move about freely and know that they can see and hear me without any problem. It's also easier to use than a smartphone or tablet, where I have to stick to it all the time and essentially have to be the cameraman for my own video call. The portal eliminates all these problems.
The sound and video quality of portal calls is also much better than I get from Facebook messenger calls on mobile devices, or even from other services like Apple's FaceTime or the Zoom video conferencing we use every day The edge, The picture is sharp, bright, and has high frame rates, and the sound is clear and easy to hear, without anyone having to raise his voice. Facebook says the portal creates "virtual microphones" for each person on the phone, and then uses beamforming technology in their physical microphones to tune their voices.
Facebook argues that all these features make the conversation on the portal more natural than traditional video calls, but I do not think it's going that far. A video call is still a video call, and although the video call portal is certainly more comfortable than a telephone or other smart screens, it does not feel that the other people on the line are actually in the room and hanging out with me.
The portal has additional features designed to bring both parties closer together. It can stream music from Spotify (assuming you have a premium account), and you can play a song during a video call that both participants can hear with individual volume controls. Unfortunately, this only works for portal-to-portal calls, not when you use the portal to call someone with a phone.
The portal supports Messenger's augmented reality masks, which are limited in number but fun to use. Finally, there is an AR storytime mode that includes some children's stories and allows for the reading of animations, sound effects, and music. I could see parents who travel a lot to call home and read a bedtime story to their kids, but it only works if you call from a portal, not a mobile device, which makes this use case unlikely.
Outside of video calls, the functionality of the portal is rather limited. It can display pictures from your Facebook account if it is not actively used. It can stream music from Spotify, Pandora or iHeartRadio. It can stream videos from an extremely limited number of sources, including Facebook's creeping watch service, Newsy's short news clips and the Food Network, which features a series of Tasty Knockoff videos in a square format that does not fill the screen. There is also a very rudimentary YouTube experience that consists of a clumsy browser view of the YouTube Smart TV app, which is difficult to navigate by touch and does not work with voice controls.
The portal does not have Netflix, HBO, Hulu, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video or any other imaginable video service. You can not convert content from your phone to it, nor does it have a web browser to look up recipes or other information. Funnily, you can not even search your Facebook news feed in it. Facebook says it intends to bring more video content into the portal in the future, but at launch it is extremely unpopulated.
Facebook has incorporated some rudimentary voice controls so you can say "Hey Portal" to initiate a call or adjust the volume. However, you also have the option to use Alexa, so the portal is basically the largest echo speaker ever made. A handful of Alexa abilities, such as For example, the weather uses the display, but the Alexa version of the portal is not as rich as the echo show.
All these restrictions make it really hard for the portal to justify its place in your home. It's a great device that does two things in essence: make Facebook calls and play Spotify. That's not a lot of functionality for something that takes up a lot of shelf or counter space and is always a valuable outlet.
The biggest problem that most people will have with the portal, however, is that it is a device that is constantly monitored and always listening connected to Facebook, The device was reportedly delayed by several months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook has been pilloried for lack of tight control over data shared with third-party developers. And just as Facebook was preparing to release the device, the company announced that a new privacy breach threatened the accounts of more than 50 million people.
Rafa Camargo, vice president of Facebook, who oversees the development of the portal, says the company is aware of the privacy concerns right from the start when developing the product. He says the company can not listen to Facebook Messenger calls because they're encrypted and the portal only broadcasts audio and video feeds over the Internet when you're in the middle of a conversation.
A mute button on the top of the device disables the camera and microphone functions. Facebook also contains a small plastic cover for the camera that blocks the camera when you are not using it. The device will not record or save your conversations – all video chats will be streamed live – and the Smart Camera feature that identifies people in a call will run locally on the portal and will not use Facebook's face recognition features.
Facebook says the right things about privacy, but I'm not sure if that's enough to convince the skeptics. There has already been mixed news from Facebook about whether it can use data from the portal for promotional purposes, so people are rightly skeptical.
In addition, the portal is currently not doing enough to justify its existence, unless you are a strong user of Facebook's Messenger.
Vox Media is a partner company. These do not affect the editorial content, although Vox Media may receive commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy,