Are you ready for Facebook to have a physical, semi-permanent presence in your home? That’s the central question you’ll need to consider before you invest in the company’s new Portal or Portal+ speaker.
The pair of speakers, Facebook’s first non-VR hardware product, come at a time when trust in the social network is at an all-time low. The company is reeling from scandal after scandal, and is still facing tough questions about users’ privacy.
But, if you like the idea of a dedicated video chat device, and you’re generally not creeped out by Facebook (a tall order these days), Portal actually isn’t bad.
The Portal and Portal+
With the Portal, you have two choices: the $199 Portal and $349 Portal+. The features on both are pretty much the same, the main differences being size (the Portal+ is larger and has a slightly better speaker and display) and price.
I personally tested the larger Portal+, which has a 15.6-inch rotating display, and it’s downright huge — think having a full-sized iPad (with a little extra) mounted to a heavy base. Besides the larger display, it also has a more powerful 20-watt speaker. The greater Mashable team also tested the regular (and cheaper) Portal, with that unit living in our offices in New York City.
But the main difference is size. And the Portal+, at 17.7 inches high, is quite massive. It’s likely too tall to fit in smaller corners or shelves. And the hulking speaker, with its more prominent camera, definitely ups the “creepy” factor a bit more compared with the smaller version.
For most people, the smaller Portal is probably more than enough for simple video calls and listening to music. It’s much more compact, with a 10.1-inch display, looking a bit like an Amazon Echo Show.
Both speakers have volume and mute switches on top and a power button on the back. You can also use voice commands to control volume and other basic functions by saying “Hey Portal.” Because Facebook never actually created its own digital assistant (“M” was downgraded to mere suggestions in Messenger earlier this year), the “Hey Portal” functionality is limited to controlling basic features and making calls. But if you want to use voice commands to check the weather or play music, you can use Alexa directly through the Portal. The only downside is Alexa doesn’t display any information on the screen, which makes it inferior to an Echo Show or Google Home Hub, and honestly, wastes the display.
Made for video calls
While the Portal and Portal+ are often compared to Amazon’s Echo Show, Facebook’s devices are actually much more limited. Yes, you can use Alexa skills, but there are very few third-party apps available for the Portal right now. There’s Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartRadio for music, as well as YouTube, Food Network, and Facebook Watch for video.
But Portal is first and foremost a video-calling tool. Yes, it can technically do a bit more than that — you can add your Amazon account to use Alexa skills and perhaps future functionality — but if you’re not planning on spending a lot of time video chatting, there’s no point in getting one.
If you do already spend a lot of time video chatting with friends and family (or want to start), then there’s a lot to like about the Portal. It runs on Facebook Messenger, so you can easily call anyone who you’re friends with on Facebook, regardless of whether they have a Portal of their own. It supports group calls (up to seven people) and you can use Facebook’s augmented reality effects while you chat for some added fun.
Facebook seems to think one of the best use cases for Portal is for distant parents and grandparents who want to be able to spend time with kids. There’s a “Story Time” feature that lets you read to kids (complete with animations and sound effects for specific stories), which seems like a nice idea but only has a couple of stories at the moment.
The standout feature, though, is the Portal’s camera. The wide-angle 12-megapixel camera has a 140-degree field of view. It uses software to automatically detect faces and it can pan and zoom as people move around the room to track them. All this gives you considerably more freedom while chatting as you can move around without worrying about stepping out of frame.
In fact, I was consistently surprised at just how much I could move around and Portal’s camera was still able to find me. Even when I moved so far back that I was almost physically behind the Portal, the camera was still able to adjust.
Portal and privacy
As good as the video-chatting features are, they don’t matter much if you don’t have anyone to talk to. And, given Facebook’s recent track record, the idea of long, intimate conversations via Portal may be a tough sell for some.
To be clear: there is relatively little data that gets fed from Portal back to the advertising behemoth. The content of your calls is kept private, but the company can use certain information about how you’re using the speaker generally to inform the kinds of ads you see on Facebook. You’ll also see and hear ads on YouTube and other ad-supported services that connect with the device.
In terms of privacy controls, there is a plastic cover for the camera which, as someone who has taped over my laptop webcam for years, I appreciated. There’s also a physical mute switch on top of the device, which disables both the camera and microphone.
Still, privacy concerns are completely understandable. Facebook has done very little to prove its trustworthiness over the last two years. So even though Portal may have decent privacy controls and relatively little data sharing (at least, by Facebook standards), the company has provided few reasons to trust that this will always be the case.
The case for having a Portal in the office
One use case where I do think Portal actually makes a lot of sense — and one Facebook hasn’t talked about very much — is not as an in-home video calling gadget, but as a corporate video conferencing tool.
Think about it: corporate video conferencing systems tend to suck. They’re expensive and bug-ridden and never quite work the way you need them to. And Facebook already has relationships with thousands of companies, thanks to Workplace.
Mashable’s Tech team tried out our set of Portal speakers during a team meeting to see just how viable it might be. There were a few complications at first. We had one Portal in our San Francisco office and one in New York. But we also needed to add several other remote team members.
Because it’s not officially part of Workplace yet, this meant the only option for those without access to a Portal was for them to join the call via Messenger on their phone.
Having used quite a few different corporate videoconferencing systems over the years, I fully expected this somewhat hacked-together solution to be horrible, but it was actually pretty good once we managed to get everyone into the same call.
The sound was good throughout, even if the video quality was inconsistent (despite everyone being on speedy WiFi connections). For the NY and SF team members, who were joining the call via Portal speakers, the cameras were able to track our faces when we were speaking. However, there was sometimes a delay when there were several people in the room. And it was still pretty fun to sit through an entire meeting with different AR effects, as cheesy as they can sometimes be, projected onto various faces. I’m partial to the cat ears myself, but there are tons more, including some that transform the whole scene around you so your boring office looks more like dance floor.
There are some drawbacks compared with other systems. For starters, you can’t share your screen or “present.” You also can’t take screen grabs or natively record video or audio, which might make it a nonstarter for some. And the process of actually setting up a group call can be a bit tricky when you have many participants.
But, assuming Facebook adds Workplace integration (which the company says it’s looking at), these shortcomings are certainly solvable. A quick and easy video chat tool for business is, to me, the most compelling use case for Portal. Of course, Facebook didn’t build the Portal to make a better business chat gadget (even if that’s what they ended up creating). The social network, which counts more than 2 billion users, built the Portal because it’s planning for a future beyond our smartphones. And having a voice-activated speaker is an essential first step toward that future.
Unfortunately for Facebook, though, Portal’s launch not only comes much later than its competitors, it comes at a time when Facebook’s relationship with its users is beginning to deteriorate. But there could still be a narrow path forward for Facebook. For every person who distrusts the company, there are others who still find Facebook an integral part of their daily lives.
And for some of them, a $199 video chat device may not seem like such a terrible idea. Facebook is, after all, about communicating with people. And Portal, for all its flaws, certainly makes that communication a lot easier — and a lot more fun.