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Facebook Portal and Portal+ review: Video chat takes center stage


Smart camera algorithms follow your movements. Facebook was set to launch Portal -- its first consumer hardware -- at this year's F8 developer conference. However, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal still fresh in people's minds, the company, perhaps wisely, opted to introduce its connected cameras for the home instead. While Facebook hasn't exactly mended its reputation, the Portal and the Portal+ are finally ready for their public debut. The key feature with both Portals is a smart camera algorithm that follows you around the room as you're talking. It's not a bad idea, and I like that there are other features like apps and Alexa, making both Portals viable Echo Show rivals. The question remains, however, whether or not you deem Facebook to be trustworthy enough to have a Portal in your home. First, I'll go over the differences between the two Portals. The "normal" $199 Portal has a 10-inch screen and looks similar to Amazon's Echo Show except it's white instead of black and the speakers are underneath the display (instead of behind it). Then there's the $349 Portal+, which has a large 15.6-inch display that rotates from landscape to portrait mode. Both have decent displays with good color and contrast -- the smaller Portal has a 1,280 x 800 resolution while the larger Portal+ is 1,920 x 1080. The Portal+ obviously takes up way more room, which I found to be pretty overwhelming. It barely fits between my kitchen counter and cabinets, and when it's in landscape mode it doesn't leave a lot of room on either side for other countertop items. I also think it's pretty ugly. For a device that's supposed to be part of your home, it sticks out like a sore thumb. If I had to choose a Portal based on design alone, I would definitely opt for the Portal over the Portal+. The larger Portal+ certainly has better video quality, and the portrait mode is useful in some instances (I'll get to that shortly), but I'm not sure if the tradeoff is worth it. Other smart displays like Amazon's Echo Show and the Lenovo Smart Display offer video chat, so the idea behind Portal isn't new. The two Portals, however, step it up with several features that make video chat the focus, rather than an afterthought. For one thing, it works with Messenger, which already has millions of users. Another is that the software and camera are designed to enhance conversations by following whoever's talking. Before we get into that, though, let's talk about setup. I tested the Portal+ with my colleague Roberto Baldwin, who used the regular Portal. Obviously, the first step was to set it up with my Facebook account, which involved going to the Facebook app while the Portal was in pairing mode. You have the option to set up as many as four accounts, ostensibly for each person in your home, so you can switch between via settings. After that, the Portal automatically pulled in all my contacts, which allowed me to add them to my Favorites list. Because it's one of the first things you see when you wake the device, it's much easier to call your Favorites. Additionally, when someone on your Favorites list comes online, the Portal will beep to let you know. To make a call, you select the person's profile photo or use Portal's voice assistant (more on that later). For example, I could say "Hey, Portal, call Roberto Baldwin" from across the room instead of having to tap the screen. As with the Messenger app, you can set your availability status to be on or off whenever you like. The Portals also have a Home/Away function, so that it only rings when you're home and goes into standby mode when you're out of the house. It sets this automatically based on the geolocation of your phone. The key feature of both the Portal and Portal+ is the 12-megapixel camera that sits above the display. During calls with Roberto, I tapped the picture-in-picture mode so I could see how I looked on camera as well. I was impressed with the wide 140-degree field of view, which captured my entire open-concept kitchen and living room in a single screen. I imagine this is especially useful when you're chatting with large groups of people, as everybody can likely be in the shot at once. More important, the cameras use AI and algorithms to track your movements, keeping you perfectly in the frame as you walk around the room. Despite my initial skepticism about this, I have to admit it was really impressive. The shot pans around, zooming in and out, almost like a professional cinematographer, and I was never out of frame no matter how much I pranced around. It even followed me when I crouched on the floor. Flip the Portal+ screen to portrait mode and the shot automatically reframes to center on just the other person, making it perfect for one-on-one calls (more on that below). It's especially ideal if the other person is on a phone, as most people hold their phones vertically to chat anyway. I'll admit, the movements were so smooth that it verges on a little creepy, as if the camera lens was physically following me around. However, it remains perfectly still -- all of that aforementioned tracking is done with software. This really comes into play in Spotlight mode, which is a way to focus on a specific person (when there are multiple people in a room). Simply double-tap on a person's face, and the Portal automatically zooms in on them, following their head movements as they move and speak. I can see how this is especially useful for keeping track of fidgety kids. I'm fairly disappointed, however, that Spotlight mode doesn't seem to work on dogs or cats. It's also a surprisingly refreshing way to have a video chat. Instead of being held captive by the hardware, you're free to go about your daily life, preparing dinner or chasing after the dogs, without losing the person on the other line. I naturally found myself walking around the kitchen to put away the dishes or just grabbing a bite to eat. Facebook says that one of the ideas behind Portal is to make it feel like the person is right there in the same room as you, and I definitely felt that. Of course, if you don't want the camera following you around, you can enable Fixed Camera view, which keeps the screen in a fixed shot. There are a few other cute video-chat features, like augmented-reality filters that overlay your face or environment with amusing effects. Another is StoryTime, which lets you tell a dramatic story with the help of teleprompter text, complete with animations, graphics and sound on the recipient's end. This is clearly meant for entertaining kids. Another neat trick is the option to listen to Spotify tunes together. If you want to share a song with your friend, you can tap Spotify, play a song and you'll both hear it at the same time. There's even smart noise-canceling tech to handle the song volume separately, so you can pump up the volume to the max on your end, while your friend can lower it on theirs. I tried this out with Roberto, and it worked as promised. Yet I have to wonder if anyone actually does this in real life -- I don't remember the last time I shared a song I liked over the phone when I could just shoot them a URL. Both Portals support groups calls of up to seven people. I tried this with Roberto on the Portal and a couple of other colleagues on the Messenger app on their phones. You can add people to an existing call by selecting them from your Contacts list. Once they answered, all of them appeared on my screen at once, sort of like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. The larger screen on the Portal+ really comes into use here, as I liked being able to see everyone's faces on such a big display. You can also transfer calls between Portal and your phone's Messenger app. Simply tap the "Transfer call from [contact]" notification on your phone (if transferring from Portal to phone) or select the transfer icon on the top right corner of the app (if doing it the other way round). When not on a call, the Portals can be used as smart displays. They come with several apps, such as Newsy, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, Food Network and Facebook Watch, with more to come. But the app experience isn't perfect. The YouTube app, which is essentially just a browser shortcut to YouTube.com, doesn't have an intuitive interface. Scrolling through the videos, for example, resulted in stuttery clicks instead of smooth swipes. The Food Network app seems like a good idea, as it replicates the cooking guides found on other smart displays, but it lacks essentials like ingredients lists and step-by-step instructions. Plus, there's no Search function, so I can't even look up a specific recipe. What makes things confusing is that the Portal and Portal+ come with two voice assistants. There's "Hey Portal," which is used for device controls and calls, and Amazon's Alexa, which is used for other functions. If you want to make calls, you have to use "Hey Portal." But when you want to play Spotify, ask for the weather, set a timer and so forth, you have to use Alexa. "Hey Portal" can also be used for Facebook-specific services. For example, I could say "Hey Portal, play Facebook Watch" to launch the social network's streaming-video service. For some reason, however, I can't use Alexa to do so. In fact, neither Alexa nor "Hey Portal" work with some of the aforementioned apps, like YouTube or Food Network. I found it all a little perplexing and mixed the two voice assistants up constantly during my testing. That said, the collaboration between Facebook and Amazon isn't final. According to Facebook, Portal has incorporated Amazon's Smart Display SDK, and the companies are working closely to improve the experience on the Portal and Portal+. Plus, access to Prime Video and other Amazon services are coming in 2019. As far as sound quality goes, it's not great, but it's not terrible. The Portal+ comes with 20-watt speakers plus a 4-inch sub, so it sounds slightly better than the Portal, which has only 10-watt speakers. Of course, neither are as good as dedicated speakers like Sonos, and they're not quite as powerful as the latest Echo Show. Still, both had loud, punchy volume and decently crisp audio. I wouldn't use them as my primary devices for listening to music, but they certainly work in a pinch. Last but not least, we have to talk about privacy. There's a button on both Portals that shuts off both the camera and the microphone via an electronic switch. Both also come with a physical camera lens cover if you're feeling extra paranoid or if you want to shut the camera off but still want to use the microphone for voice functions. I did wish that the camera lens cover was built in to the hardware instead of being a separate piece of plastic that I might lose, but it's better than not having one. You can also set up a passcode so your kids can't make random calls to your friends. According to Facebook, all of the video chats are encrypted and the company doesn't listen, view or keep records of your calls. The AI on the camera and voice features are run locally, not on Facebook's servers. Though the camera does use the shape of your face and voice to track your movements, there's no facial-recognition technology at work here -- it can't differentiate between your face and someone else's, for example. Like on Amazon's Echo devices, your voice history is stored online, but you can delete it manually. You can delete your Portal's voice history by going to your Facebook Activity Log, and Alexa history can be deleted by going into the Alexa app. But not everything is as it seems. Over a week after Portal's announcement, Facebook said the company does collect some types of information from video chats, such as usage data like length and frequency of calls, and that that information could be used to serve you ads. Facebook's business model is based on advertising, so this isn't exactly surprising. But the fact that the company wasn't forthcoming about this is a little concerning. When you add to that the recent massive data breach of as many as 50 million users along with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I have to admit that I'm a little wary of it. Of course, that's not to say that Amazon products haven't been accused of listening in on people's homes, either, and it's a risk that every consumer has to keep in mind when investing in a smart speakers. It's all about whether you trust that your data is safe with these companies. Unfortunately for Facebook, it hasn't done a lot to earn anyone's trust lately. Facebook's Portal line is not a bad idea; a smart display that puts video chat at the forefront is pretty clever, and though it's a little creepy, a camera that follows you around adds to a sense of social presence with someone even if they're far away. Other features like YouTube and Alexa integration are great too, as they make it more of an Echo Show rival. At the same time, however, it doesn't quite match up to other smart displays. It doesn't have a step-by-step cooking guide, there's no built-in browser like on the Echo Show, and you can't use it to view the feed from your home-security cameras. Not to mention that having two voice assistants is really confusing, and not all of Amazon's Smart Screen features are here. If you and your family rely on Messenger for communications, I can see giving Portal a shot. In that case, I would recommend the cheaper and smaller Portal, which costs $199; $349 for the larger Portal+ is a little too much money, and I don't think it's practical for most people. In the end, however, it's up to you whether you trust Facebook enough to have one of its cameras in your home.

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.