It's not often that a new gadget is announced and I do not want to immediately get my hands on it. I am an extreme early adopter, both of profession and of inclination. But when Facebook's new Portal and Portal Plus were announced a month ago, my response was a firm "no thanks". And I'm not alone: after a year of data security scandals, many people have first reaction to the portal, a smart screen device that has an ever listening microphone and always looks at camera, landed somewhere between tough and disgusting.
The $ 1
99 Portal and the larger $ 349 Portal Plus are not the first smart screens of their kind, and both Amazon and Google have similar products already in the market. But while the Amazon Echo Show and Google Assistant-Driven Smart Displays are designed to perform a variety of tasks, from controlling smart home gadgets to video playback, the portal has a near-singular focus: putting video calls using Facebook Messenger to others The users of Facebook Messenger.
For this purpose, the portal works very well. I used both models the last week to call the office – and across the country – and the portal gave a better experience than any other smart screen I've used. It also worked better than a smartphone or tablet to make video calls, which I can not say for Echo Show or Lenovo Smart Display. As a generally smart screen, the portal is far behind the competition.
Bright portable sound
Room filling sound
Auto Frame for Video Calls
Highly Limited Videos
Only Supporting Video Calls on Facebook Messenger
Limited Functionality Over Video Calls and Playing Music
Both 10.1- inch portal and the massive 15.6-inch Portal Plus feature modern design that does not look great in a trendy home. The smaller model looks very like Amazon's Echo Show, while Plus reminds me of a kiosk in the store you want to order a Big Mac. Both are assembled quite well with quality plastic materials, lightweight, responsive touch screens and speakers that can easily fill a space to a large room with music.
Portal Plus has not only a larger screen and higher speakers, it has a trick that the smaller model can not retrieve: the screen rotates 90 degrees to switch from landscape to portrait orientation. The hinge is smooth, yet stable, and it takes only one finger to change directions. It's probably my favorite hardware detail on the product. These are surprisingly fine parts of hardware for a first generation product; The biggest bank against both models is that they take up a lot of space, especially Portal Plus.
Of course, in addition to the screen, the portals camera and microphone are the most important things you will spend time interacting with. Both models use the same camera and microphone systems: a four-speed 360-degree beamforming input and a 12 megapixel camera with a 140-degree field of view and up to 8x digital zoom. This setup allows the portal to see and hear you wherever you move around the room.
It's really the big differentiation for the portal as opposed to other smart screens. Although Amazon and Google devices have similar long-range microphone arrays, their cameras are almost not as good as the portal. While the Portal camera is technically stuck in place, Facebook has developed smart software that can identify human shapes (the company tells me that it's not with use of face tracking) and reframes the video view automatically. As I move around in the room, the camera follows me as if it had the ability to move and zoom the lens. Amazon Echo Show has a single fixed position for its camera, and it is often not ideal.
This automated frame, called Facebook, by Smart Camera, makes every video call more comfortable to participate in. I do not have to worry that I'm in the right place for the other person to see me – I can only move free and know that they will be able to see and hear me without problems. It's also easier to use than a smartphone or tablet, which I have to keep the case in place all the time and essentially be the camera person for my own video call. The portal eliminates all these issues.
The audio and video quality of Portal calls is also much better than I'm used to from Facebook Messenger calls on mobile devices, or even other services like Apple's FaceTime or corporate Zoom video conferencing we use every day at The Verge . The image is sharp, bright, with high frame rates, and the sound is clear and easy to hear without anyone having to raise his voice. Facebook states that the portal creates "virtual microphones" for each person during a call and uses the beamforming technology in their physical microphones to enter their voice.
Facebook argues that all of these features make it possible to have a conversation on the portal is more natural than standard video calls, but I do not think it goes so far. A video call is still a video call, and while using the portal for video calls, it's certainly more comfortable than a phone or other smart screens, it does not feel like the other people on the line are actually in the room hanging out with me.
The portal has other features designed to bring both parties closer. It can stream Spotify music (assuming you have a Premium account) and you can play a song during a video call that both parties can hear, with individual volume controls. Unfortunately, this only works for Portal to Portal calls, and not when you use the portal to call someone with a phone.
The portal supports Messenger's enhanced reality masks, which are limited in number, but fun to use. Finally, it's a historic historical historical time that contains some children's stories and lets you read along with animations, sound effects and music. This is something I could see parents who travel a lot to call home and read a bedtime story to their children, but it only works if you call from a portal, not from a mobile device, which makes This use case is unlikely.
Outside video calls, the functionality of the portal is quite limited. It can display images from your Facebook account when not actively used. It can stream music from Spotify, Pandora, or iHeartRadio. It can stream video from an extremely limited number of sources, including Facebook's Floundering Watch service, Newsy's short news clip series, and the Food Network, which offers a multitude of Tasty Knockoff videos in a square format that does not fill the screen. It's also a very rudimentary YouTube experience, consisting of a lumpy browser view of the YouTube smart TV app, which is hard to navigate by touch, and can not work with voice management.
The portal does not have Netflix, HBO, Hulu, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video, or any other video service you can think of. You can not cast content from the phone to it, nor does it have a browser to look up recipes or other information. Hilariously, you can not even browse the Facebook News Feed on it. Facebook says it plans to bring more video content to the portal in the future, but at the launch it is unhappy.
Facebook has built some rudimentary voice controls so you can say "Hey Portal" to start a call or adjust the volume. But you also have the opportunity to use Alexa, so the portal is basically the largest Echo speaker ever made. A handful of Alexa skills, like weather, will make use of the screen, but the portal version of Alexa is not as functional or complete as what you get at the Echo Show.
All these limitations make it really difficult for the portal to justify its place in your home. It's a big device that basically do two things: make Facebook conversations and play Spotify. There is not much functionality for something that takes up a lot of shelf or disk space and takes up a valuable power outlet all the time.
But the bigger problem most people want with the portal is that it's an always-looking and always listening device connected to Facebook . The device's release was eventually delayed for several months in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook was pilloried for not having strict controls on data that was shared with third party developers. And just like Facebook prepared to release the device, the company revealed that a new breach of data had compromised the accounts of more than 50 million people.
Rafa Camargo, Facebook's vice president who monitors portal development, says the company was aware of privacy concerns from the beginning when developing the product. He says that the company can not listen to Facebook Messenger calls because they are encrypted and that the only time the portal sends audio and video recordings over the Internet is when you are active in a conversation.
A muted button on the top of the device disables camera and microphone functionality, and Facebook also includes a small plastic cover for the camera to block it when you're not using it. The device does not record or save your conversations – all video calls are live streamed – and its Smart Camera feature that identifies topics in a conversation is run locally on the portal, and does not use Facebook Face Detection.
Facebook says all the right things about privacy, but I'm not sure it will be enough to convince the skeptics. There have already been mixed messages from Facebook if it will be able to use data from the portal for advertising purposes, so people have the right to be skeptical.
Beyond that, unless you are a heavy user of Facebook's Messenger calls, the portal is currently not sufficient to justify its existence.
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