Facebook started advertising their new video chat device in late 2018, and, putting privacy concerns aside for a minute, we decided to give it a try. We ordered the Portal on Amazon during the holidays, and apparently we weren’t the only ones. Amazon had a limit on the number of devices you could buy at a time. It turns out that a lot of people received Portals as gifts from family members.
WHAT IS THE PORTAL?
It is Facebook’s solution for the popular gadget genre known as the “smart screen.” It could be described as a digital picture frame, a smart speaker and a video calling device. There are currently two versions available: the Portal, a smallish 10.1-inch display that looks sort of like Amazon’s Echo Show, and the Portal+, a rotatable 15.6-inch display mounted on a base that contains built-in speakers. As always, we opted for the larger, more expensive Portal+.
To get the full value out of the Portal, you need to have another Portal to connect to, or be friends with someone who has one. The essential purpose of the device is to facilitate video chats between Facebook Messenger users. Now, there is the first rub for us. To try out this new device, we had to be Facebook Messenger users. If anyone is paying attention, you may have noticed that Facebook has been causing more than a little heartburn with some of their privacy policies. We duly noted the potential risk, but also vowed to not share any state secrets during our Portal test drive.
HOW IT WORKS
The Portal is indeed a handsome device, if you can describe tech gadgets that way. The screen is mounted on a sturdy backbone that has a built-in speaker, and it will rotate for either portrait or landscape modes. Setup was a breeze and within minutes we were connected to our Wi-Fi signal and seeing a list of all our Facebook friends that we might want to call for a video chat. Calling a friend is as easy as touching their profile picture on the screen or just saying “Hey Portal, call Bill.” The person gets a ringing notification on their Portal (or the Facebook Messenger app on their phone if they are mobile), and they can accept or reject the call.
In our testing, we set our Portal in a public place in the home, like a kitchen or den, but we could imagine the Portal being a great device for the office.
Once the person you are calling answers, get ready for showtime because your screen fills with the feed from their built-in video cam; likewise, they are seeing you up close on their screen. We were impressed with the crispness of the video and the clarity of the audio. You get the sense that the person is just in the next room. Rotating the screen to landscape mode allows you to see a larger field of view to show many people. We tested with family members, the whole family was able to participate in the call with everyone being in view of the cam.
HOW IS IT UNIQUE?
The Portal’s camera has the ability to track a person’s movement. As you are talking to someone on a video call and need to move around the room, the camera will zoom in and move to keep you in focus as you move — making Portal calls seem much more personal and less techy. Even with multiple people on camera, the camera will adjust if one person moves to try to fit everyone in the camera frame.
The Portal also doubles as a smart speaker with Alexa integration for voice commands, so any skills that you can use on your Alexa device can be used with the Portal. You give up nothing in terms of Alexa functionality by purchasing the Portal over any of the Amazon Alexa devices (and you gain a superior video chat experience in our view).
In our testing, we set our Portal in a public place in the home, like a kitchen or den, but we could imagine the Portal being a great device for the office. It is not inconceivable to use it as a video chat device for business calls, except we wish it could be decoupled from Facebook Messenger.
Yes, we know a lot of people have voiced concerns about privacy with these types of devices, and Facebook has been pilloried for some of their privacy issues. It’s probably not a great comfort, but the Portal does come with a plastic lens cover that you can use to cover the camera, and there is a button on the top of the device that you can push to disable the audio and video on the device. We make no claims about how Facebook is treating this data that it undoubtedly collects from the Portal. Facebook claims that video calls are encrypted end-to-end and the company cannot even access the feeds, much less use your data. Our recommendation is caveat emptor.
Casting a wary eye toward Facebook’s evolution on the privacy issues it faces, we are pleasantly surprised with functionality of this first Facebook hardware device. Of course, you know we are going to try out the other competing products in this genre (Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub), so stay tuned for more updates.