The portal is a head scratcher. It's a chat app that manifested itself in a hardware through pure willpower. The first commercially available product from Building 8 is not as instantaneously iconically a piece of hardware as Snap's Spectacles. In fact, at first glance, the device acts as a little more than an Echo Show / Google Home Hub competitor.
And then there is a question about timing. In a meeting with TechCrunch before launch, Facebook's hardware team quickly discovered the various ways the company proactively protects the user's privacy, from a camera button to a physical lens hood. The social media giant has always been a highlight of these issues, but 201
What's Most Weird, But in this age of multi-tasking devices, Facebook Portal and Portal + devices are designed to make one thing very good. Instead of pushing to develop a true echo competitor, Facebook's first basic hardware is essentially a teleconferencing device for friends and family.
The product defense is wrapped in solid hardware design with some smart choices throughout. If the portal eventually works on history, it will not be because of the choice Facebook made to operate its core competency.
Rather, it would be because the product game has neglected some other features focusing on video chat – a feature that has no shortage of delivery devices. Facebook told me that Portal's other features will be updated based on user feedback – almost as if the company is unsure what exactly customers want from such a device outside video chat.
The time of the device is safe. Facebook obviously sells many portals for the holiday. You can almost see the ads being played, as some melancholy voices sing the beginning of "I'll be home for Christmas". The first place is not like the nose, but similar cardiac strings are drawn, as it appears from the "Feel There" title. It's Facebook's pitch in a nutshell: We know it's bad that you can not be with sneezes and nephews or older parents right now, but hopefully this screen will do the trick.
From a hardware perspective, I am on board. The smaller portal looks pretty like Lenovo's Google Assistant-powered Smart Display, albeit with the different speaker placement. I'm in it. Lenovo's device is probably the most beautiful smart screen around, and the portal is an identical cousin with a slightly different haircut.
The portal + model that has hung in my office 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 on top of a tall thin base. The display is connected to the base via a link that allows you to swing smoothly between portrait and landscape mode.
The screen is 1080p – Good for video chat, and a big step up from the Echo Show and (in particular) the Google Home Hub. Of course, the big footprints mean that it will be tough for those in smaller spaces to find an ideal place (says the guy living in a one bedroom apartment in New York City). Today, it's on my AirPort router.
The most important camera is placed an inch above the screen, like a blinking eye with Sauron. The 12 megapixel camera can make 5x zoom and capture motion within a 140 degree range. The four microphone flanks flange the lens on each side and have dual duty to listen to commands and noise interruptions during chats.
Along the narrow peak height are three inductive buttons – two volumes, one to turn off the camera and microphone. When you hit the last one, an alert will appear on the screen, and a small red light will light just to the right of the camera for extra security. As an additional measure, Facebook also threw in a plastic clip to physically cover the camera.
I found myself a point to hold the lens cover for most of the time when I did not use the device to chat. When I talked to someone, I glanced it to the side, but kept it clipped on the base. The little piece of plastic is quite easily lost. If Facebook ends up making another of these, a mechanical lens cover is the kind you find at one point and shooting camera, 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 is the buttons above the eye level. Reasonable, you want the screen right around your face, you know, to look at it. This means that when I say, change the volume, I find myself in the dark for them. Given that they do not have any tactility, I always stop turning the mistake, more often than not hunting up the volume of the process.
Similarly, I often end up pressing a button or two when I try to cut the lens cover. Next time, Facebook must either go with physical buttons or find a better place to place them – tough, I know, given the strange figure to the case.
The display location ensures that the screen does not hide the camera in either portrait or landscape situation – but when swung the corners reinforce the shot. When in portrait mode, the bottom of the screen blocks approximately half the bottom speaker. This is a bit of a design error, but surprisingly, it does not diminish the sound as much as I expected. That said, when using the device to listen to music, keep it in landscape mode. In fact, I found myself keeping it that way most of the time I used it, anyway.
The sound quality of the thing is decent. I have not been able to put it on the standard portal, but the deluxe version has a more complex speaker group – 20w (2-inch, 4-inch bass) versus 10w (2 full-length drivers). Like all these smart screens, I will not recommend this as a standard home theater, but I've used it to listen to Spotify all day and have greatly benefited from the experience.
The portal interface is an extremely bare-leg experience. The user interface flips between two primary cards. The primary is, of course, a list of your Facebook contacts. Upstairs are the six you talk regularly with, and below are your handpicked favorites. One of the nice bits here is that the people you talk to do not really need a portal to talk. They can chat with you on their phone or computer.
Swipe left and you get a screen full of big icons. From here you can click on Facebook videos or select from your Portal apps – Food Network, iHeartRadio, Newsy, Pandora and Spotify by default.
Click on the apps icon and you will find that it is really all that exists for Portal apps at the moment. Thin soup does not begin to describe it. It's a decent enough starting point, but Facebook does not seem to be particularly interested in directing more developers or opening the API to anyone coming. Again, the company takes a very good look and looks at just about everything here.
Nevertheless, Portal gives some interesting innovation to video chat. To trigger the feature, say "Hey Portal" and then "Call [enter name here]." Simple enough. Although the actual "Hey Portal" features are really limited to things like calling and putting the device to sleep. Everything beyond that and bad Portal gets confused. Although something like "Hello Portal, Turn Off the Camera" is met with a "I Can not Do It Yet" in Portal's so-so speech pattern.
All in all, Portal standardizes Alexa functionality you can add during the setup process. That the system relies on Amazon's smart assistant to do much of the heavy lift here anymore, wondering why Facebook expects users to adopt their product over the echo.
Portals biggest tricks are automatic zooming and panning. By using built-in AI, the system automatically tracks users and follows them around the frame. So you can say, cook while chatting, and Portal will be with you all the way. The camera will also pan in and out as more people enter and leave the room, keeping them all in the frame. While talking with Sarah Perez (who used the standard portal at the other end), the camera still zoomed into her dog when she left the room for a moment.
Zooming is steady, and the effect is impressive, partly because the team worked with a Hollywood cinema photographer to help polish the performance. By default, it moves a little too much to my liking, slowly zooming in and out in a way that can make you slow-sighted – even if you can adjust the sensitivity of the settings.
My other favorite part in video chat is the ability to share songs via Spotify, Pandora and iHeartMusic. When I start playing something at the end, Sarah hears that too. And we can both customize our individual volumes. You can also connect the system to Bluetooth speakers or headphones if it is more to your liking.
This is Facebook, the system is equipped with AR style photo filter – 15 in total (with more coming, no doubt). You can get into a wasw, add a disco ball – you know it's common. They do a great job of tracking your movements and adding an extra small dimension of fun to the system.
History time is another fun feature for the Portals with young children. On your side you will see a teleprompter with a story – on yours, you are embedded in an AR history book like the three pigs. There are only a few stories at the launch, but so many children are happy, right?
As a Home Hub, the Portal uses a temporary digital picture frame when not in use. Of course, it's the default for photos and videos from your Facebook feed. Like someone who does not really use Facebook to put my life on the screen, the Superframe feature was not really in the purse, but the ability to display information like the weather and reminders of things like friends' birthdays was fine.
Most of all, Portal is a bit of a one-hit-wonder. Certainly, one thing (video chat) is pretty good, and at $ 200 for the portal and $ 349 for the portal +, it's definitely priced competitive (and despite Facebook's insistence, it may be a bit of a loss leader). But it's hard to sell compared to more rounded devices like Echo Show and Google Home Hub.
And of course, it's all privacy luggage that invites Facebook to your home. Between camera / speaker switch button, lens cover, localized AI and promise not to cancel or spy, Facebook has gone out of order to ensure that users do not use the device as a portal in your own privacy. But given the type of year the company has had, for many potential buyers, not even all this will probably be enough.
There is a default screen saver on the device that asks "Hey Portal, what can you do?" Of course, it is meant to ask you to click through and discover new features. But it is an important question – and in the current iteration, there is no portal that can offer a particularly convincing answer.