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.
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.