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.
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.