Facebook’s US launch of its first branded hardware in the form of Portal
was relatively underwhelming, but why is that? Unfortunately for the big blue, it was perhaps a case of the right product but the wrong timing. With the Cambridge Analytica data debacle and a series of other security breaches not far in the rear view mirror, Portal was showing up with a tattered reputation right off the bat. After all, who would wilfully invite a Facebook camera into their homes with these crises of privacy still so fresh? It turns out that plenty of people did and we’ll look today at both models of Portal along with some news about how it might develop on into further generations. Can these hulking displays compete as Amazon scale things back down with Echo Show 5 and Google continue to tweak Nest Hub with the all-new Nest
Hub Max? Does Facebook Portal still remain relevant or can we expect these devices to fade away? We’ll kick off with some Portal updates following Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference…
Facebook Portal Updates
Portal is set for sales in Canada over the summer with a handful of European launches coming this coming fall. WhatsApp encrypted video calling support will enhance Portal’s appeal to the billion users of WhatsApp. Prime Video support gives Portal an extra edge in terms of streaming. The new Portal app is another way Facebook want to start gripping you into a smart home ecosystem
worth investing in. Portal, then: what’s it all about?
What Is Facebook Portal?
Portal is primarily a video chat device
. While technically a smart display, reach is much more limited than either Echo Show
or Google Home Hub
so you should be clear about intended purpose before you go any further. If you’re looking to make calls, you’re in safe hands. If you’re hoping for a robust smart display experience, you might end up disappointed. You can use Portal to make video calls to Facebook friends using the Messenger platform. The recipient of the calls needs Messenger, but they don’t need a Portal device. The display is freestanding and you’ll benefit from a camera that follows you through a full 140-degree field of view. This gives you a hands-free chat experience far removed from needing to grasp your phone for Messenger calls. So in essence, you’re getting a video conferencing tool with a few extras thrown in. So far, so good?
Who Is Facebook Portal For?
By definition, you need to spend plenty of time video chatting to justify purchasing Portal. Whether you’re a teen chatting all day with friends, a grandparent looking to stay connected with the lives of all the kids, or you’re a busy family always on the go, Portal is a punchy residential video chatting tool. If you’re hoping to get down to some heavy-duty home automation, you’re out of luck with Portal, as functionality is limited there. It doesn’t make the best fit for business users either, mainly due to the need for Messenger as a communication platform. We’ll glimpse at where this smart display stands and falls in a little more detail now.
Facebook Portal Specs
There are 2 Portal models:
- Facebook Portal
- Facebook Portal+
There are very few differences between these devices aside from screen size, resolution and price. Here’s a snapshot of the key metrics for each model. Display
- Portal: 10.1 inches
- Portal+: 15 inches (rotational)
- Portal: 9.84 x 8.20 x 3.68 inches
- Portal+: 8.78 x 17.1 x 3.68 inches
- Portal: 720p HD (1200 x 800)
- Portal+: 1080p HD (1920 x 1080)
- Portal: 12 megapixels with 140-degree field of view
- Portal+: 12 megapixels with 140-degree field of view
- Portal: 10 watts (2 full-range drivers)
- Portal+: 20 watts (2 tweeters, 4-inch bass)
has a much smaller screen. At 10 inches, it’s sized the same as Echo Show while outflanking Nest
Hub Max’s 7-inch display. The touch screen is angled and sits above a speaker grille. The camera is positioned at the top in the center of the bezel. In many ways, Portal is like an enhanced version of the original Echo Show, without looking quite so striking as the second generation Amazon smart display. Portal+
is a much more substantial piece of kit. You get the same touch screen, but in hulking 15.6-inch form. This beefier model stands almost 18 inches proud. Portal+ works best when it’s set up and left alone. The Portal+ screen rotates between landscape and portrait mode when you pull down on the corner. It’s relatively slimline, but certainly not a portable device. With the mounting tower and camera, this is certainly not
a display that blends in resembling a huge tablet on a giant tower. The power button is tucked behind while haptic buttons on the top allow you to control the volume, camera and mic. Given the size of Portal+ this placement is far from ideal.
Both models of Portal come with a 12-megapixel camera packing a 140-degree field of view. This gives you far more resolution that you’ll get on the camera of competing smart displays. Nest Hub doesn’t have a camera while Echo Show’s 7-megapixel offering is pretty underwhelming by comparison. We'll talk about privacy in due course, but there’s a plastic camera cover provided if you’re not content to just turn it off. While pretty flimsy, it gets the job done.
Video calling is the core function of Portal and you won’t be disappointed. A serious limitation if you’re chatting on a regular smart display is the need to position yourself directly in front of the screen. While this is usually not a problem, if you’re sitting with several people, it can be awkward to get everyone on screen. It’s also prohibitive if you need to move around the room. Facebook addresses this problem head on with the use of AI. Video is digitally cropped and zoomed then panned so everyone stays neatly in frame. Panning and zooming is silky smooth, but the tracking effect is limited to people. You can make both video calls and voice calls. You can, of course, make calls between Portal devices, but what if the other party doesn’t have one? Well, as long as they have Messenger app installed, you can place a call. All you need to do is click the icon of the person you want to call then say, “Hey Portal, call ”. You can call up to 7 contacts if you want a group call. This requirement for Messenger is one of the first sticking points we encountered with Portal. Integration with WhatsApp is something Facebook has hinted at, but there’s no firm news of when this might happen.
Facebook Portal Features
When you’re considering whether or not to invest in Portal, one of the first things you should do is consider whether the people you plan to call use Messenger. If not and you can’t convince them to join the Facebook party, you’re better off passing up the Portal. When you’re calling from Portal to Portal, there’s no choppiness to the video, picture quality is crisp and you won’t get any of that annoying lag that blights so many video calling platforms. Portal+ inches slightly ahead in terms of picture quality, but the base model is still a lot more stable and less grainy than FaceTime. When you’re placing calls from Portal to Messenger, quality drops but not dramatically. Facebook is acutely aware you can do little else besides call on Portal, so it’s ramped up the experience with a few add-ons. You’ll get plenty of those augmented reality effects from Messenger – you know, the werewolf mask and the animals. This might be fun but it’s fundamentally a pretty useless feature. If you and the person you’re calling both have Portal devices and Spotify Premium, you’ll be able to share songs while calling. Again, this is of questionable value. Something of potentially more use for parents spending lots of time on the road is the ability to enter Story Time mode. You’ll get a script on screen of a reworked classic like Little Red Riding Hood. You can interact with the story making use of those AR effects and animated characters. So, if you’re on yet another business trip but still want to read a story to your kids from afar, this is a nice touch. Overall, in terms of its core functionality as a video calling device, we must concede Facebook has delivered admirably. Will it be enough, though?
Portal and Portal+ differ slightly in terms of audio but both work well for video calling and listening to music. Portal has a pair of drivers kicking out 10 watts, while its bigger brother has a couple tweeters and a single 4-inch bass driver. The only real downer is that you’ll notice some distortion at full volume. Bass is not the strongest, so don’t expect the soundscape of an upscale speaker since it’s more in line with what you’d find on Echo Plus. When you’re on a call, Portal creates virtual microphones for everyone then uses the beamforming technology in place on the physical mic to ensure you can be heard clearly even at a distance.
Portal uses Amazon Alexa and also its own digital assistant, Portal. While you can make reasonable use of Alexa, Portal itself is crude and you’ll be able to do nothing beyond place calls or perform simple navigation.
Smart Home Functionality
With Alexa built in, you’ll be able to work with Skills to some extent and also control smart home devices via Portal, much like with an Echo device. You’ll be able to exercise some control over other smart devices in your home, but this is an area that Facebook is working on, so you won’t be able to check in on your video doorbell or security camera as you can with Echo Show. If you’re hoping for an Amazon-rivaling experience in terms of smart home control, you’re clean out of luck for now.
The last few years have been rocky for Facebook on the privacy front. They have worked hard to address the main concern of an always-on camera. This can be disabled with a plastic cover. You can also tweak settings to disguise whether or not you’re available if you prefer to fly under the radar. When logging in for the first time, you’ll need to authenticate yourself. You also need to perform authentication when you use third-party apps or alter the settings. Facebook has set up two sites devoted to the privacy issue. General privacy and security is showcased here while the other site deals with data concerns. Calls are encrypted but the company has issued no firm specifics on encryption keys or protocols which is less than inspiring. The face recognition AI on the camera runs on the device locally rather than on Facebook’s servers. This is a little more reassuring. So, you need to ask yourself whether or not this idea sits comfortably with you or whether it’s enough in and of itself to put you off investing in Facebook Portal. We’re not here to nudge you one way or the other, but it’s clear that the privacy factor is where this device is likely to stand or fall.
The principal problem Facebook Portal faces, then, doesn’t concern the hardware or video calling. On both fronts it acquits itself admirably. For heavy Messenger users not overly concerned about the potential privacy flashpoints we raise today, Facebook Portal is a great way to enhance video calling. That said, with no browser, the need for a Facebook account to use Portal and sorely deficient smart home functionality, Portal will struggle carving up a large slice of the smart display pie. Come back soon as we’re constantly updating our home automation blog. And, as you’ve seen today, we’re never here to sell you on something you don’t need. We’ll always give you a frank and honest rundown so you can get the best decision for you. We firmly believe the key to success with home automation is to make it personal.