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.
Who am I going to be worried about? Oh Facebook seeing? No, Im not worried about Facebook seeing. Theyre going to look at my great art collection and say they want to come steal it? No, I never really thought about it. Thats my 72-year-old mother Sally Constines response to whether shes worried about her privacy now that she has a Facebook Portal video chat device. The gadget goes on sale and starts shipping today at $349 for the 15.6-inch swiveling screen Portal+, $199 for the 10-inch Portal, and $100 off for buying any two. The sticking point for most technology reporters — that its creepy or scary to have a Facebook camera and microphone in your house — didnt even register as a concern with a normal tech novice like my mom. I dont really think of it any different from a phone call, she says. Its not a big deal for me. While Facebook has been mired by privacy scandals after a year of Cambridge Analytica and its biggest-ever data breach, the concept that it cant be trusted hasnt necessarily trickled down to everyone. And without that coloring her perception, my mom found the Portal to be an easy way to video chat with family, and a powerful reminder to do so. For a full review of Facebook Portal, check out TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heaters report: Facebook Portal+ reviewAs a quick primer, Portal and Portal+ are smart video screens and Bluetooth speakers that offer an auto-zooming camera that follows you around the room as you video chat. They include both Facebooks own voice assistant for controlling Messenger, as well as Amazon Alexa. Theres also a third-party app platform for speech-activated Spotify and Pandora, video clips from The Food Network and Newsy, and it can slideshow through your Facebook photos while its idle. For privacy, communications are encrypted, AI voice processing is done locally on the device, theres an off switch that disconnects the camera and mic and it comes with a physical lens cover so you know no ones watching you. It fares well in comparison to the price, specs and privacy features compared to Amazons Echo Show, Google Home Hub and other smart displays. When we look at our multi-functional smartphones and computers, connecting with loved ones isnt always the first thing that comes to mind the way it did with an old-school home telephone. But with the Portal in picture frame mode rotating through our Facebook photos of those loved ones, and with it at the beck and call of our voice commands, it felt natural to turn those in-between times we might have scrolled through Instagram to instead chatting face to face. My mother found setting up the Portal to be quite simple, though she wished the little instructional card used a bigger font. She had no issue logging in to her Facebook, Amazon Alexa and Spotify accounts. Its all those things in one. If you had this, you could put Alexa in a different room, the Constine matriarch says. She found the screen to be remarkably sharp, though some of the on-screen buttons could be better labeled, at least at first. But once she explored the devices software, she was uncontrollably giggling while trying on augmented reality masks as we talked. She even used the AR Storytime feature to read me a bedtime tale like she did 30 years ago. If I was still a child, I think I would have loved this way to play with a parent who was away from home. The intuitive feature instantly had her reading a modernized Three Little Pigs story while illustrations filled our screens. And when she found herself draped in an AR big bad wolf costume during his quotes, she knew to adopt his gruff voice. One of the few problems she found was that when Facebooks commercials for Portal came on the TV, theyd end up accidentally activating her Portal. Facebook might need to train the device to ignore its own ads, perhaps by muting them in a certain part of the audio spectrum as one Reddit user suggested Amazon may have done to prevent causing trouble with its Super Bowl commercial. My mom doesnt Skype or FaceTime much. Shes just so used to a lifetime of audio calls with her sister back in England that she rarely remembers that video is an option. Having a dedicated device in the kitchen kept the idea top-of-mind. I really want to have a conversation seeing her. I think I would really feel close to her if I could see her like Im seeing you now, she tells me. Convincing jaded younger adults to buy a Portal might be a steep challenge for Facebook. But perhaps Facebook understands that. Rather than being seemingly ignorant of or calloused about the privacy climate its launching Portal into, the company may be purposefully conceding to the tech news wonks that includes those wholl be reviewing Portal but not necessarily the much larger mainstream audience. If it concentrates on seniors and families with young children who might not have the same fears of Facebook, it may have found a way to actually bring us closer together in the way its social network is supposed to. Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal