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.
The Portal is a head scratcher. Its a chat app that manifested itself into a hardware through sheer force of will. The first commercially available product from Building 8 isnt as instantly iconic a piece of hardware as Snaps Spectacles. In fact, at first glance, the device seems like little more than an Echo Show/Google Home Hub competitor. And then theres the matter of timing. In a meeting with TechCrunch ahead of launch, Facebooks hardware team was quick to list the various ways the company is proactively protecting user privacy, from a camera button to a physical lens cap. The social media giant has always been a lighting rod for these issues, but 2018 has been particularly tough, for reasons summed up well in Taylors simply titled post, Facebook, are you kidding? Whats most peculiar, however, is in this age of multi-tasking devices, the Facebook Portal and Portal+ are devices that are designed to do one thing really well. Rather than pushing to develop a true Echo competitor, Facebooks first ground-up piece of hardware is essentially a teleconferencing device for friends and family. It is, in the products defense, one wrapped in solid hardware design with some clever choices throughout. If the Portal ultimately winds up lining the thrift store shelves of history, it wont be due to choices Facebook made to serve its core competency. Rather, it will be due to the fact that the product team has neglected some other features in the name of focusing on video chat — a feature thats got no shortage of delivery devices. Facebook told me that Portals other features will be updated based on user feedback — almost as if the company is unsure what, precisely, customers would want from such a device outside of video chat. The timing of the device is certainly telling. Facebook is clearly banking on selling a lot of Portals for the holidays. You can practically see the ads playing out, as some melancholy voice sings the beginning strains of Ill Be Home for Christmas. The first spot isnt as on the nose, but similar heart-strings are tugged, as evidenced by the Feel There title. Thats Facebooks pitch in a nutshell: We know it sucks you cant be with your nieces and nephews or elderly parents right now, but hopefully this screen will do the trick. From a hardware design perspective standpoint, Im on board. The smaller Portal looks quite a bit like Lenovos Google Assistant-powered Smart Display, albeit with the different speaker placement. Im into it. Lenovos device is probably the best-looking smart screen around, and the Portal is an identical cousin with a slightly different haircut. The Portal+ — the model thats been hanging on my office desk for a few days now — is the more innovative of the two products from an industrial design perspective. It is, essentially, an ultra-wide 15.6-inch tablet mounted atop a tall, thin base. The display is connected to the base via a joint that allows it to swivel smoothly between portrait and landscape mode. The screen is 1080p — plenty good for video chat, and a big step up from the Echo Show and (especially) Google Home Hub. Of course, the large footprint means its going to be tough for those in smaller spaces to find an ideal spot (says the guy living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City). At present, its sitting atop my AirPort router. The all-important camera is positioned an inch above the screen, like an unblinking eye of Sauron. The 12-megapixel camera can do 5x zoom and capture movement within a 140-degree range. The four-mic array flanks the lens on either side, doing double duty of listening to commands and noise canceling during chats. Along the narrow top ridge are three inductive buttons — two volume, one to turn off the camera and mic. When you hit that last one, a notification will pop up on screen, and a small red light will illuminate just to the right of the camera, for added assurance. As an extra measure, Facebook also tossed in a plastic clip to physically cover the camera. I found myself making a point to keep the lens cap on the majority of the time when I wasnt using the device to chat. When I was talking to someone, I slipped it to the side, but kept it clipped on the base. The little piece of plastic is pretty easily lost. If Facebook does end up making another one of these, a mechanical lens cap like the kind you find on a point and shoot camera is probably the way to go. The button placement is a bit of a shit show. The way I have the Portal+ set up on my desk, the buttons are above eye-level. Makes sense, you want the display right around your face, you know, to look at it. This means when I want to, say, change the volume, I find myself fiddling in the dark for them. Given that theyve got no tactility, I invariably end up hitting the wrong one, more often than not jacking up the volume in the process. Similarly, I often end up hitting a button or two when attempting to clip on the lens cap. Next time out, Facebook needs to either go with physical buttons or find a better spot to place them — tough, I know, given the odd shape of the thing. The screen placement ensures that the display doesnt obscure the camera in either portrait or landscape — though when swiveling, the corners do eclipse the shot. When in portrait, the bottom of the display does block roughly half of the bottom speaker. This is a bit of a design flaw, though surprisingly, it doesnt dampen the sound as much as Id initially expected. That said, when youre using the device to listen to music, keep it in landscape mode. In fact, I found myself keeping it that way the majority of the time I was using it, regardless. The sound quality on the thing is decent. I havent had a chance to put it up against the standard Portal, but the deluxe version sports a more complex speaker array — 20w (2 tweeters, single 4-inch bass) versus 10w (2 full-range drivers). Like all of these smart displays, Im not going to recommend this as your default home stereo, but Ive been using it to listen to Spotify all day, and have been largely enjoying the experience. The Portals interface is an extremely bare-bones experience. The UI flips between two primary cards. The primary is, naturally, a list of your Facebook contacts. Up top are the six you most regularly chat with, and below are your hand-picked favorites. One of the nice bits here is that the people you speak with dont actually need a Portal to talk. They can chat with you on their phone or computer. Swipe left and you get a screen full of large icons. From here you can click into Facebook videos or pick from your Portal apps — Food Network, iHeartRadio, Newsy, Pandora and Spotify by default. Click into the apps icon and youll find that thats really all there is for Portal apps at the moment. Thin soup doesnt really begin to describe it. Its a decent enough starting point, but honestly, Facebook doesnt seem particularly interested in courting more developers or opening up the API to all comers. Again, the company is taking a very wait and see approach to just about everything here. Still, Portal does bring some interesting innovation to video chat. To trigger the function, say Hey Portal and then call [enter name here]. Simple enough. Though the actual Hey Portal features are essentially limited to things like making calls and putting the unit to sleep. Anything beyond that and poor Portal gets confused. Even something like Hey Portal, turn off camera is met with an I cant do that yet in Portals uneven speech pattern. For everything else, Portal defaults to Alexa — functionality you can add during the setup process. That the system relies on Amazons smart assistant to do much of the heavy lifting here further makes one wonder why Facebook expects users to adopt its product over the Echo. Portals greatest trick is its automatic zooming and panning. Using built-in AI, the system automatically tracks users and follows them around the frame. So you can, say, cook dinner while chatting and Portal will be with you the whole way. The camera will also pan in and out as additional people enter and leave the room, keeping them all in frame. While chatting with Sarah Perez (who was using the standard Portal on the other end), the camera even zoomed in on her dog when she left the room for a moment. The zooming is smooth and the effect is impressive, owing in part to the fact that the team worked with a Hollywood cinematographer to help polish its execution. By default it moves a bit too much for my liking, slowly zooming in and out in a way that can may you low-level seasick — though you can adjust the sensitivity in settings. My second favorite part in video chat is the ability to share songs via Spotify, Pandora and iHeartMusic. When I start playing something on my end, Sarah hears it, too. And we can both adjust our individual volumes. You can also pair the system to Bluetooth speakers or headphones, if thats more to your liking. This being Facebook, the system comes equipped with AR-style photo filters — 15 in all (with more coming, no doubt). You can turn yourself into a werewolf, add a disco ball — you know, the usual. They do a good job tracking your movements and add an extra little dimension of fun to the system. Story time is another fun feature for those Portaling with young children. On your side, youll see a teleprompter with a story — on theirs, its you embedded inside an AR storybook like the Three Pigs. There are only a few stories at launch, but then most kids enjoy repetition, right? So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook PortalLike the Home Hub, Portal defaults to a makeshift digital picture frame when not in use. Naturally, it defaults to photos and videos from your Facebook feed. As someone who doesnt really use Facebook to put my life on display, the Superframe feature wasnt really by bag, though the ability to display info like the weather and reminders of things like friends birthdays was nice. Above all, Portal is a bit of a one-hit wonder. Admittedly, it does that one thing (video chat) fairly well, and at $200 for the Portal and $349 for the Portal+, its certainly priced competitively (and in spite of Facebooks insistence otherwise, may be a bit of a loss leader). But its a hard sell compared to more well-rounded devices like the Echo Show and Google Home Hub. And, of course, theres all the privacy baggage that inviting Facebook into your home entails. Between the camera/speaker disabling button, lens cap, localized AI and the promise not to eavesdrop or spy, Facebook has gone out of its way to ensure users that its not using the device as a portal into your own privacy. But given the kind of year the companys been having, for many potential buyers not even all of that is likely to be enough. Theres a default screen saver on the device that asks Hey Portal, what can you do? Its meant, of course, to prompt you to click through and discover new features. But its an important question — and in its current iteration, its not one for which Portal is able to offer a particularly compelling answer.