Its not often that a new gadget gets announced and I dont immediately want to get my hands on it. I am an extreme early adopter, both by profession and by inclination. But when Facebooks new Portal and Portal Plus were announced a month ago, my response was a firm no thanks. And Im not alone: after a year of data privacy scandals, many peoples first reaction to the Portal, a smart display device that has an always-listening microphone and always-watching camera, landed somewhere between hesitation and revulsion. The $199 Portal and the larger, $349 Portal Plus, are not the first smart displays of their kind, and both Amazon and Google have similar products already in the market. But while the Amazon Echo Show and Googles Assistant-powered Smart Displays are designed to perform a whole host of tasks, from controlling smart home gadgets to playing video, the Portal has a near-singular focus: to place video calls using Facebook Messenger to other Facebook Messenger users. For that purpose, the Portal works very well. I used both models for the past week to make calls across the office — and across the country — and the Portal provided a better experience than any other smart display Ive used. It also worked better than a smartphone or tablet for making video calls, which I cant say for the Echo Show or Lenovo Smart Display. As a general-purpose smart display, however, the Portal lags far behind the competition. While the Portal excels in its intended role as a video phone for the modern era, I remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a Facebook-connected camera in my home. Both the 10.1-inch Portal and the massive 15.6-inch Portal Plus have modern designs that wouldnt look out of place in a trendy home. The smaller model looks very similar to Amazons Echo Show, while the Plus reminds me of a in-store kiosk youd use to place an order for a Big Mac. Both are put together rather well, with quality plastic materials, bright, responsive touchscreens, and loud speakers that can easily fill a medium to large room with music. Not only does the Portal Plus have a larger display and louder speakers, it has a trick that the smaller model cant pull off: its screen rotates 90 degrees to switch from landscape to portrait orientation. The hinge is smooth, yet stable, and it takes just a single finger to switch orientations. Its probably my favorite hardware detail on the product. These are surprisingly nice pieces of hardware for a first-generation product; the biggest knock against both models is that they take up a lot of space, especially the Portal Plus. Of course, aside from the screen, the Portals camera and microphones are the main things youll spend time interacting with. Both models use the same camera and microphone systems: a four-mic array with 360-degree beamforming input and a 12-megapixel camera with a 140-degree field of view and up to 8x digital zoom. This setup lets the Portal see and hear you no matter where you move around in the room. Thats really the big differentiator for the Portal versus other smart displays. Though the Amazon and Google devices have similar far-field microphone arrays, their cameras are not nearly as good as the Portals. While the Portal camera is technically fixed in place, Facebook has developed clever software that is able to identify human shapes (the company tells me it is not using face tracking) and reframe the video view automatically. As I move around the room, the camera follows me, as if it had the ability to move and zoom its lens. The Amazon Echo Show has a single fixed position for its camera, and its often not ideal. This automatic framing, which Facebook calls Smart Camera, makes every video call more comfortable to participate in. I dont have to worry that Im standing in the right spot for the other person to see me — I can just move about freely and know that they will be able to see and hear me without issue. Its also easier to use than a smartphone or tablet, where I have to hold the thing in place the whole time and essentially be the camera person for my own video call. The Portal does away with all of those hassles. The sound and video quality on Portal calls is also much better than Im used to from Facebook Messenger calls on mobile devices, or even other services like Apples FaceTime or the corporate Zoom video conferences we use every day at The Verge. The picture is sharp, bright, with high frame rates, and the audio is clear and easy to hear without anyone having to raise their voice. Facebook says the Portal creates virtual microphones for every person on a call, and then it uses the beamforming tech in its physical microphones to home in on their voice. Facebook argues that all of these features make having a conversation on the Portal more natural than standard video calls, but I dont think it quite goes that far. A video call is still a video call, and while using the Portal for video calling is certainly more comfortable than a phone or other smart displays, it doesnt feel like the other people on the line are actually in the room, hanging out with me. The Portal has other features that are designed to bring both parties closer together. It can stream music from Spotify (provided you have a Premium account), and you can play a song during a video call that both parties can hear, with individual volume controls. Unfortunately, this only works for Portal to Portal calls and not when you use the Portal to call someone with a phone. The Portal supports Messengers augmented reality masks, which are limited in number, but fun to use. Finally, theres an AR storytime mode that includes a few childrens stories and lets you read along with animations, sound effects, and music. This is something I could see parents that travel a lot using to call back home and read a bedtime story to their kids with, but it only works if youre calling from a Portal, not from a mobile device, making this use case unlikely. Outside of video calling, the Portals functionality is rather limited. It can display pictures from your Facebook account when it isnt being actively used. It can stream music from Spotify, Pandora, or iHeartRadio. It can stream video from an extremely limited number of sources, including Facebooks floundering Watch service, Newsys series of short news clips, and the Food Network, which offers a bunch of Tasty knockoff videos in a square format that doesnt fill the screen. Theres also a very rudimentary YouTube experience, which consists of a clumsy browser view of the YouTube smart TV app thats difficult to navigate by touch and cant work with voice controls. The Portal does not have Netflix, HBO, Hulu, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video, or any other video service you can think of. You cannot cast content from your phone to it, nor does it have a web browser for looking up recipes or other information. Hilariously, you cant even browse your Facebook News Feed on it. Facebook says it plans to bring more video content to the Portal in the future, but at launch, its woefully unequipped. Facebook has built in some rudimentary voice controls, so you can say Hey Portal to initiate a call or adjust the volume. But you also have the option of using Alexa, so the Portal basically becomes the largest Echo speaker ever made. A handful of Alexa skills, such as weather, will make use of the display, but the Portals version of Alexa is not as feature-rich or complete as what you get on the Echo Show. All of these limitations make it really hard for the Portal to justify its place in your home. Its a big device that does basically two things: make Facebook calls and play Spotify. Thats not a lot of functionality for something that takes up a lot of shelf or counter space and occupies a precious power outlet all the time. But the bigger issue most people will have with the Portal is that its an always-watching and always-listening device connected to Facebook. The devices release was reportedly delayed for several months in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook was pilloried for failing to put strict controls on data shared with third-party developers. And just as Facebook prepared to release the device, the company revealed that a new data breach had compromised the accounts of more than 50 million people. Rafa Camargo, Facebooks vice president overseeing the Portals development, says the company was conscious of the privacy concerns from the beginning when developing the product. He says the company cant listen in to Facebook Messenger calls because they are encrypted, and that the only time the Portal broadcasts audio and video feeds over the internet is when youre actively on a call. A mute button on top of the device disables the camera and microphone functionality, and Facebook also includes a little plastic cover for the camera to block it when you arent using it. The device does not record or store your conversations — all of the video chats are live streamed — and its Smart Camera feature that identifies subjects in a call runs locally on the Portal and does not use Facebooks face detection features. Facebook is saying all the right things about privacy, but Im not sure that will be enough to convince the skeptics. Theres already been mixed messaging from Facebook on whether it will be able to use data from the Portal for advertising purposes, so people are right to be skeptical. Beyond that, unless you are a heavy user of Facebooks Messenger calling, the Portal doesnt currently do enough to justify its existence.
When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, its the timing that will be remembered most. Theres never a great time for a company like Facebook to launch a product like Portal, but as far as optics go, the whole of 2018 probably should have been a write-off. Our followup headline, Facebook, are you kidding? seems to sum up the fallout nicely. But the company soldiered on, intent to launch its in-house hardware product, and insofar as its intentions can be regarded as pure, there are certainly worse motives than the goal of connecting loved ones. Thats a promise video chat technology brings, and Facebooks technology stack delivers it in a compelling way. Any praise the company might have received for the products execution, however, quickly took a backseat to another PR dustup. Heres Recode with another fairly straightforward headline. It turns out that Facebook could in fact use data collected from its Portal in-home video device to target you with ads. In a conversation with TechCrunch this week, Facebook exec Andrew Boz Bosworth claims it was the result of a misunderstanding on the companys part. I wasnt in the room with that, Bosworth says, but what Im told was that we thought that the question was about ads being served on Portal. Right now, Facebook ads arent being served on Portal. Obviously, if some other service, like YouTube or something else, is using ads, and youre watching that youll have ads on the Portal device. Facebooks been serving ads on Portal. Facebook is working to draw a line here, looking to distinguish the big ask of putting its own microphones and a camera in consumer living rooms from the standard sort of data collection that forms the core of much of the sites monetization model. [T]he thing thats novel about this device is the camera and the microphone, he explains. Thats a place that weve gone overboard on the security and privacy to make sure consumers can trust at the electrical level the device is doing only the things that they expect. Facebook Portal+ reviewFacebook was clearly working to nip these questions in the bud prior to launch. Unprompted, the company was quick to list the many levels of security and privacy baked into the stack, from encryption to an actual physical piece of plastic the consumer can snap onto the top of the device to serve as a lens cap. Last night, alongside the announcement of availability, Facebook issued a separate post drilling down on privacy concerns. Portal: Privacy and Ads details three key points: Facebook is quick to explain that, in spite of what it deemed a misunderstanding, it hasnt switched approaches since we spoke ahead of launch. But none of this is to say, of course, that the device wont be collecting data that can be used to target other ads. Thats what Facebook does. So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook PortalI can be quite definitive about the camera and the microphone, and content of audio or content of video and say none of those things are being used to inform ads, full stop, the executive tells TechCrunch. I can be very, very confident when I make that statement. However, he adds, Once you get past the camera and the microphones, this device functions a lot like other mobile devices that you have. In fact, its powered by Messenger, and in other spaces its powered by Facebook. All the same properties that a billion-plus people that are using Messenger are used to are the same as whats happening on the device. As a hypothetical, Bosworth points to the potential for cross-platform ads targeting video calling for those who do it frequently — a classification, one imagines, that would apply to anyone who spends $199 on a video chat device of this nature. If you were somebody who frequently use video calls, Bosworth begins, maybe there would be an ad-targeting cluster, for people who were interested in video calling. You would be a part of that. Thats true if you were using video calling often on your mobile phone or if you were using video calling often on Portal. Facebook may have painted itself into a corner with this one, however. Try as it might to draw the distinction between cameras/microphones and the rest of the software stack, theres little doubt that trust has been eroded after months of talk around major news stories like Cambridge Analytica. Once that notion of trust has been breached, its a big lift to ask users to suddenly purchase a piece of standalone hardware they didnt realize they needed a few months back. Certainly, the headwinds that we face in terms of making sure consumers trust the brand are ones that were all familiar with and, frankly, up to the challenge for, says Bosworth. Its good to have extra scrutiny. Weve been through a tremendous transformation inside the company over the last six to eight months to try to focus on those challenges. The executive believes, in fact, that the introduction of a device like Portal could actually serve to counteract that distrust, rather than exacerbate it. This device is exactly what I think people want from Facebook, he explains. It is a device focused on their closest friends and family, and the experiences, and the connections they have with those people. On one hand, I hear you. Its a headwind. On the other hand, its exactly what we need. It is actually the right device that tells a story that I think we want people to hear about, what we care about the most, which is the people getting deeper and more meaningful hashes of one another. If Portal is ultimately a success, however, it wont be because the product served to convince people that the company is more focused on meaningful interactions versus ad sales before. It will be because our memories are short. These sorts of concerns fade pretty quickly in the face of new products, particularly in a 24-hour news environment when basically everything is bad all the time. The question then becomes whether Portal can offer enough of a meaningful distinction from other products to compel users to buy in. Certainly the company has helped jumpstart this with what are ultimately reasonably priced products. But even with clever augmented reality features and some well-produced camera tracking, Facebook needs to truly distinguish this device from an Echo Show or Google Home Hub. This is the first Facebook-branded hardware, says Bosworth. Its early. I dont know that we have any specific sales expectations so much as what we have is an expectation to have a market thats big enough that we can learn, and iterate, and get better. This is true, certainly — and among my biggest complaints with the device. Aside from the aforementioned video chat functionality, the Portal doesnt feel like a particularly fleshed-out device. Theres an extremely limited selection of apps pre-loaded and no app store. Video beyond the shorts offered up through Facebook is a big maybe for the time being. During my review of the Portal+, I couldnt shake the feeling that the product would have functioned as well — or even better, perhaps — as an add-on to or joint production with Amazon. However, that partnership is limited only to the inclusion of Alexa on the device. In fact, the company confirms that we can expect additional hardware devices over the next couple of years. As it stands, Facebook says its open to a broad spectrum of possibilities, based on consumer demand. Its something that could even, potentially, expand to on-device record, a feature that would further blur the lines of what the on-board camera and microphone can and should do. Right now, theres no recording possible on the device, Bosworth says. The idea that a camera with microphones, people may want to use it like a camera with microphones to record things. We wanted to start in a position where people felt like they could understand what the device was, and have a lot of confidence and trust, and bring it home. Theres an obvious area where you can expand it. Theres also probably areas that are not obvious to us […] Its not at all fair to say that this is any kind of a beta period. We only decided to ship it when we felt like we had crossed over into full finished product territory. From a privacy perspective, these things always feel like a death by a million cuts. For now, however, the company isnt recording anything locally and has no definitive plans to do so. Given the sort of year the company has been having with regards to optics around privacy, its probably best to keep it that way.