Facebook’s recent US launch of its first branded hardware is already polarizing opinion.
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…
• 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)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This one word is the reason Facebook Portal is highly unlikely to become much of a success.
Before you even consider adding Portal to your smart home, you need to ask yourself if you feel comfortable allowing Facebook to have a connected camera inside your house.
Privacy issues have been a thorn in Facebook’s side for some time. Following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, trust in the brand is at an all-time low when it comes to privacy. This was worsened with another recent security breach affecting 50 million users. It goes unsaid that Facebook is acutely aware of this erosion in trust and they’ve gone to some lengths to assuage fears.
The camera, as we mentioned, can be disabled with a plastic cover. You can 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.
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 far, so good right?
Well, not really since Facebook has backtracked since pre-launch. The company initially stated that no calls or conversations would be recorded or transmitted for storage. They claimed no history of calls would pop up on Portal or your Facebook feed nor would your history of voice commands be stored. And much of this is true.
The sticking point is that while video and audio data won’t be collected, Facebook has now admitted that information about app usage along with who you call and other unspecified “usage data” is indeed retrieved in order to serve you ads. This updated version of a report of an interview with Recode illustrates the way Facebook did an about turn and admitted they “could” use data for ad targeting.
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 will face, then, doesn’t concern the hardware or video calling. On both fronts, it acquits itself admirably.
That said, there’s no browser, you need a Facebook account to use Portal, and smart home functionality is somewhat limited. The thing is, 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. It’s really down to you whether or not you can justify the purchase.
Come back soon as we’re constantly updating our home automation blog.