Facebook’s recent US launch of its first branded hardware is already polarizing opinion.

Portal and Portal+ sees the world’s largest social network going head-to-head with Amazon and Google for a slice of the lucrative smart display market.

With over 2.2 billion Facebook users, the world’s largest social network has a massive customer base on tap. While “It’s free and always will be”, Facebook is clearly remarkably savvy at turning enormous profits.

We’ll give you a frank rundown today on Facebook’s capable but limited smart displays. Exploring what Portal does is the easy part. What’s tougher is determining whether or not it’s wise to invite another camera and microphone into your home when the provider in question has been so recently called to task over privacy issues.  Before we get into that, though, we’ll break down the basics of Facebook Portal.

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.  You can use Portal to make video calls to Facebook friends using Messenger regardless of whether the person you’re calling has a Portal device.

You pop the display on a table or desk then the camera follows you through a full 140-degree field of view so you get a hands-free chat experience far removed from needing to use your phone for Messenger calls.

Who Is Facebook Portal For?

Unless you spend plenty of time video chatting with family and friends, it just doesn’t make sense to invest in Portal.

Whether you’ve got grandchildren you don’t see as often as you’d like, you’re a college student who wants to stay in touch with family or you just spend plenty of time shooting the breeze with online friends via Messenger, Portal is a solid video-chatting tool.

For business users and anyone looking for a robust device for streamlining home automation, Portal is less than ideal. For anyone already spending lots of time on Messenger, it offers significant improvements as you’ll see in due course.  We’ll look at this smart display’s strengths and weaknesses in a little more detail now…

Facebook Portal in More Depth

There are two models as we mentioned:

• 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 metrics that count before we press on…

Display
• Portal: 10.1 inches
• Portal+: 15 inches (rotational)
Dimensions
• Portal: 9.84 x 8.20 x 3.68 inches
• Portal+: 8.78 x 17.1 x 3.68 inches
Resolution
• Portal: 720p HD (1200 x 800)
• Portal+: 1080p HD (1920 x 1080)
Camera
• Portal: 12 megapixels with 140 degree field of view
• Portal+: 12 megapixels with 140 degree field of view
Audio
• Portal: 10 watts (2 full-range drivers)
• Portal+: 20 watts (2 tweeters, 4-inch bass)

Design

As you can see from the above stats, Portal has a much smaller screen. At 10 inches, it’s the same size as Echo Show outflanking Google Home Hub’s 7-inch display. The touch screen is angled and sits above a speaker grille. The camera is 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 and this beefier model stands almost 18 inches proud. Unlike Portal, the screen rotates between landscape and portrait mode when you pull down on the corner. Portal+ works best when it’s set up and left alone. 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. It’s like 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.

Camera

Both models of Portal come with a 12-megapixel camera with a 140-degree field of view. This gives you far more resolution that you’ll get on the camera of competing for smart displays. Home Hub doesn’t even 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.

Video Calling

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 between Portal devices but how about 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. 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 giving Portal a swerve.

When you’re calling from Portal to Portal, there’s no choppiness to the video, the 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.

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.

And it’s in many ways busy parents or grandparents with children spread across the world who will find most benefit from Portal.

Overall, in terms of its core functionality as a video calling device, we must concede Facebook has delivered in pretty fine style.

Audio

Portal and Portal+ differ slightly in terms of audio but both work well for both 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.

Digital Assistants

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 a