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Facebook Portal review: trust fail


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.

Facebook Portal review: AI makes video calls better


More than two years ago, Facebook tasked a team with creating a piece of hardware to integrate Facebooks family of apps more closely into peoples lives. The result of that effort is Portal and Portal+, 10-inch and 15-inch devices, respectively, that were designed for making AI-enhanced video calls with Facebook Messenger. They are available for the first time this week. Portal responds to basic voice commands for making video calls and playing music and comes with Amazons Alexa. Here are some thoughts on Facebooks first piece of consumer hardware, which competes with similar smart display devices, like the Amazon Echo Show or Google Home Hub. The first thing to note after about a week with a Portal+ is that the AI-powered enhancements Portal brings to video calls are not just a novelty — as advertised, on-device machine learning makes video calls better. Smart Camera is AI that anonymously recognizes people in a video call, so every shot is automatically framed based on the people in that shot. The camera on both Portal devices is able to cover 140 degrees of view so no matter where you are in the room, if you can see the Portal camera, it can see you. Smart Volume also enhances calls by ensuring your voice is consistently heard, whether youre standing in front of the device or across the room. These two features are a big plus if you make video calls with a laptop or smartphone and are used to having to constantly reposition the camera or repeat what youre saying because you were too far away from the microphone. These are also features currently unavailable from other smart display competitors. Smart Camera can be disorienting for people, however. On my first call with a friend, he said: It looks like youre in the same room but creepy. Another feature that sets Portal apart from almost any of its competitors is its in-call experiences. These include augmented reality effects and filters like the kinds available today on Messenger — so you can put a cat on your head or toss on a cool hat and shades. Theres also Storytime, a collection of half a dozen five-minute stories. Today theyre all for kids, but the Portal team at Facebook will invite third-party developers to build experiences with AR for video calls, which will introduce experiences adults can do together, as well a larger Storytime collection. A Storytime animationIn-call experiences also include the ability to listen to streaming music like Spotify with a caller, but you both have to be using Portal devices for this sort of thing to work. Another feature that sets Portal apart from its competitors is the ability to quickly sling a call from Messenger on Portal to Messenger on your smartphone. This is important when you need to move away from Portal and is really useful for privacy. For example, during one call with a close friend, the conversation began to drift to a sick family member and his relationship with his girlfriend. Since there was another person in the room with me, I quickly moved the conversation to my phone by tapping a button in the Messenger app, and I left the room. After Cambridge Analytica and repeated privacy breaches, the question for a lot of people is whether Facebook can be trusted to enter their home, though the same could be asked of Google and Amazon. Using a device so closely associated with Facebook reminded me that — like a lot of people — I dont use Facebook as often as I used to. It also made it clear how many of my friends have deleted their accounts or stepped away from Facebook. Beyond core family members, and even though Facebook Messenger has 1.3 billion monthly active users, it was a challenge at times to get even close friends on the phone. Even though calls are encrypted and there are no recordings, I dont think the privacy issue will be made easier by the fact that Portal devices, as previously reported by Recode, use information about Portal usage habits to sell ads on Facebooks apps. To address privacy concerns, Facebook says Portal is unable to take or share any photos or video recordings during calls, or even to take screenshots. On the downside, this makes for a far less capable device and takes away the option of sharing interactions in social media. When its not in use, Portal device deploys something called Superframe, displaying photos from your Facebook profile and recent photos of friends that appear in stunning clarity on the devices screen. Superframe also recommends friends you can call, though these suggestions were never able to nudge me to make extra calls. Portal requires you to manually pick your favorite friends one by one, and their images are then included in Superframe. This is rather different from the carousel of news articles and reminders Amazon has on its home screen or the Live Albums that smart displays with Google Assistant inside are able to use. After five or 10 minutes of watching the Superframe, I got a sense of how much Ive missed from my core group of friends who still use Facebook, but while I enjoyed catching up, the content began to repeat itself rather quickly. It was also frustrating that I couldnt double tap the screen or use generic Portal voice commands to like a photo or comment or to scroll through a friends latest Instagram posts. The omission of such social elements on a device made by the biggest social media company on Earth is perplexing, to say the least. Showing me awesome recent photos by friends and family without giving me the ability to like or comment is a bug, not a feature. The lack of Stories for Portal at launch is also confusing. Facebooks facial recognition software could have been extremely helpful for switching between accounts for multiple people in a household, though Im pretty sure this would have made the heads of privacy advocates explode and could have potentially made Portal dead on arrival. One feature Facebook — as well as the makers of ambient displays for Google and Amazon — could consider making is a physical gesture to remove a photo from an album. You dont really have control over which photos your friends are tagged in, so when photos appear on the screen that may not be suitable for kids, you need a quick way to address that beyond skipping to the next photo with a swipe. Of course, the gadgetry, AI, and quality display are all for nothing if the Portal cant cut it when playing music, the top use case for smart speakers everywhere. The Portal delivers sound quality and output comparable to a Sonos One or Amazon Echo Show, providing a mixture of rich quality, crisp tones, and bass that makes using the Spotify app on Portal fun. But in contrast to playing music on an Echo or Home speaker, you will not be able to treat your phone like a remote control. Portals ability to recognize voice commands was a bit underwhelming. In comparison to Google Assistant or Alexa, music requests werent easily understood. If youre a dedicated Facebook user who spends a lot of time keeping up with friends on the app, you may find Portal is worth the price of admission. Whether you find Portal valuable or not may depend heavily on whether youre the kind of person who makes a lot of family video calls. Portal allows video chats with up to seven people, so families could consider getting one to share a common digital photo album and make calls. And the ability to move freely around a room while still being seen and heard has inherent value. In my lifetime, video calls have gone from non-existent to standard, but often with poor clarity and choppy footage that lead to frustration. For a lot of people, including me, periodic video calls to check in with family members elsewhere else in the world have become a routine deserving of a device that delivers video with little latency and clear communication. People have a lot of choices when it comes to ways to make video calls, including Skype, the Alexa app on Amazons Echo Show, and Duo on Google smart displays. The Lenovo Smart Display even provides a portrait mode option like Portal+, though of course lacking things like Smart Volume and Smart Display. Overall, you will have to ask yourself whether the calling feature is a big enough plus for you. The answer may also depend on whether you already have something like a Google Home or Amazon Echo. Beyond making calls, Im excited to see if working with third-party developers can improve Portal over time and stitch together an ecosystem of in-call experiences. At launch, the Portal+ has some noteworthy elements, but it will likely be a lot more interesting six months to a year from now when more third-party apps and in-call experiences are made available. Most people may be better off waiting for more apps, in-call experiences, and elements from Facebooks family of apps to be included.