(Pocket-lint) - There's something interesting we've noticed about the Facebook Portal and Portal+ compared to other smart displays: nobody seems to want one.
Our parents, our siblings, our friends... They all said they'd never put a physical Facebook device – especially one with a camera and a microphone – in their home. When asked why they either mentioned Cambridge Analytica or vaguely referred to the social network's various breaches and privacy scares over the past couple years.
And yet, every single one them is a Facebook and Instagram user and says Messenger is their primary messaging app. Some of these people also own an Amazon Echo device, such as the Echo Show, which the Portal's main competition.
Warranted or not, the Portal and Portal+ seem to be the most vilified devices to launch in tech in recent times. So naturally, we had to see what all the fuss is about. For two months we've been testing the Portal+ and here's what we think...
What is Facebook Portal+?
Both Portal and Portal+ are smart displays that, among other things, are designed to call your friends via Messenger video. That, pure and simple, is what Facebook wants you to use these devices for.
The Portal+ is the larger sibling of the Portal. However, the 'Plus' is the most futuristic-looking of the pair, with its bright and responsive 15.6-inch touchscreen which comes connected to a backward L-shaped base made of smooth, quality plastic materials. With just a light touch, the tablet-like screen can gracefully rotate 90 degrees, from portrait to landscape orientation.
The stand comes in minimalist white or black colour options and houses a large loudspeaker at the bottom and a camera at the top. Both the Portal+ and Portal actually share the same camera: a 12-megapixel sensor with a 140-degree field of view and up to 8x digital zoom. They have an identical four-mic array, too, with 360-degree beamforming input. All that effectively means is both Portal devices can follow you and your voice around a room.
The Portal+ must be plugged in to function, due to the power that its HD screen requires, and because it's an always-listening device. It responds to "Hey Portal", but you can add your Amazon Alexa account under settings to use it as proper Alexa device. That's right; it listens for "Alexa" commands and will even let you use Alexa to control your smart home.
Despite being a Facebook product, however, it's somewhat ironic that it doesn't even offer a native way to check your newsfeed or messages. But, hey, you can video-call your grandma as an apparent wolf-person. Yep, Portal+ supports augmented reality filters; there are only a few, but if you want to wear an AR mask during your call then that option is available.
How to set up Facebook Portal+
Portal+ is meant to sit on a dry, cool, flat surface. It seems like people always want to stick their smart displays in their kitchen, so they can view recipes and whatnot, but since Portal+ isn't water- or heat-proof and is all about video calls, the kitchen doesn't seem like the right fit. We don't usually call people when doing the dishes or cooking dinner, anyway. We tend to do that from the couch. So, our Portal+ sits on the TV stand.
Once you pick out a spot in your home, plug your Portal+ in with the included power cord and tuck the cable away so that people and pets won't trip over. Once powered on, follow the on-screen instructions to connect to your Wi-Fi network and log into your Facebook account. The setup process lets you add up to four different Facebook accounts to a single Portal device.
You'll also be asked to setup Amazon Alexa, give your Portal+ a name, and add your Facebook photos and videos to "Superframe", Facebook's name for its screensaver mode. Lastly, you can connect to various music accounts, like Spotify Premium or Pandora.
However, you can skip those steps after adding a Facebook account, because at any time you can go into settings to do all that stuff. That's what we did. Honestly, we weren't sure how much of our data we wanted to give Portal+ at first. But we really thought about it and realised – as Facebook users, Instagram users, and Messenger users – that Facebook already has all the info. Heck, we even use Facebook Connect to log in to Spotify. So, it seems redundant to not add or use these features and therefore miss out on the full Portal+ experience.
How does Facebook Portal+ work?
Facebook's unnamed "Hey Portal" voice assistant and Amazon Alexa voice services are built into Portal+, providing you with hands-free control. You don't need to do anything to set up "Hey Portal" but, to enable Alexa, you must sign in to your Amazon account.
You can use "Hey Portal" to place or answer a call, check the weather and time, open apps, and adjust device settings like the volume and screen brightness. You can also hear a morning news report that includes the weather, birthdays, events, and news, by saying, "Hey Portal, good morning." We never do that, however. We only ever say "Hey Portal, call [name of friend]" or "Hey Portal, end call" or "Hey Portal, turn up the volume." That's it.
As for Alexa, you can play music through music services connected to your Amazon account, set alarms or timers, shop and create to-do lists, check the date and time or weather, and control your Alexa-enabled smart accessories. But your Portal+'s microphones must be turned on to use any of these voice features, of course. There's a button on top of the device you can press to completely disable the microphones if you want.
To be honest, we don't use Alexa on the Portal. We already have a few Alexa devices in our home, including a Fire TV Cube near the Portal+, so it caused some issues. Every time we asked the Fire TV Cube to, say, change the input, by saying, "Alexa, switch to [name of input]", the Portal+ would show an Echo-like light strip at the bottom of the screen and then do nothing. But if we asked Alexa a question, both devices tried to answer.
You can use your voice to easily call friends via Messenger, or you can tap their profile photo from the Portal+ home screen, which shows both suggested friends to call and friends that you've marked as favourite contacts (tap their photo and hit 'favourite').
At any time, you can press the button at the top of the Portal+ stand to completely disable the camera and microphone with a single tap, or you can block the camera lens with the included camera cover. We tend to leave the camera cover on at all times, meaning we have to get up and slide it to the side whenever someone calls us. Interestingly, we don't do that with our Echo Show, but maybe we would if it came with a camera cover.
Remember, too, that the Portal+ is in our living room, which, for us, is a much more personal space than the kitchen. Because of that, we're happy that the Portal+ doesn't have "Drop In" like the Echo Show. Amazon pitches that feature as a way to be able to call and see what, say, your elderly grandmother is doing at any time. It sounds creepy, but it's handy if she fell and is on the floor and unable to call for help.
So, you can't use Portal+ for that. But you can use it to just straight-up video call your grandmother if she's on Messenger. Calls placed from Portal+ can go to other Portal devices or the Messenger app on your friends' mobile devices. You can also group call with up to six people at once. We've never found a group of people who want to video call with us, but we do call our mother often.
The neatest part about video calls, on either Portal device, is that the camera automatically zooms in and focuses on a human subject and keeps them in the frame at all times. If there are multiple people in the frame, you can even select a single face for the device to follow. It doesn't work on pets, sadly.
The picture is sharp, with high frame-rates, and even the sound is clear and loud, thanks to the 20W speaker (two tweeters and a single 4-inch bass). The Portal also creates what Facebook describes as "virtual mics" for every person on a call, and uses beam-forming tech in the actual mics to zero-in on voices. Facebook's name for all this is "Smart Camera", and it's probably the most high-quality video calling we've ever experienced.
As for the AR masks, we really don't use those. We tried them once, and while neat if that's your thing, we just never think to turn them on during calls. There's also an AR "Story Time" mode that includes a few children's stories, complete with animations, sound effects, and music. So, if you're out of town and happen to, weirdly, bring your Portal+ on the trip, you can call your kid to read them an interactive bedtime story, like Three Little Pigs.
There's only one thing we wanted to say about this feature: it can get awkward, fast.
Superframe turns the Portal+ into a digital photo frame, pulling uploaded or tagged photos on your Facebook account to display whenever it's in standby. We enabled the feature, and while, at first, we thought it was cute, it quickly got weird when we started seeing exes show up on the screen. Luckily, you can hide these images under settings on the Portal+, but really, it just reminds you to delete or private them on Facebook.
Apps and websites
You can download apps on Portal+! Swipe to the right (from the home screen) and you'll see a grid of apps for device settings, tips (Portal video tutorials), a web browser, Facebook Watch, and apps. From the actual 'apps' app you can find a dozen or so third-party apps to download, like CNN, Food Network, Words with Friends, Draw Something, and iHeartRadio. Facebook also lets you download simple web apps from here.
Although there isn't an official YouTube app, for example, you can install an unofficial YouTube web app, which opens up a tablet app-like experience for YouTube.com. Don't forget Facebook also offers its own web browser, so you can visit any site that your heart desires, including Facebook and Instagram, because, oddly, Facebook didn't include native Portal apps for its own services.
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We downloaded a handful of apps, but we barely use them. We do use YouTube – well, technically, we just cast YouTube videos from our mobile device to Portal+ – so we treat the Portal+ like a second screen on our TV stand. While one person is using the main separate 4K TV to play videogames, the other will queue a YouTube Premium music playlist. That's probably our favourite part about the Portal+.
Is Facebook Portal+ safe to use?
This one is tough to answer because there is no easy answer. We can only tell you what Facebook claims: it doesn't listen to view or keep the contents of your video calls. It says all conversations stay between you and the people you're calling, and that its Smart Camera technology runs locally on Portal+, not on Facebook servers. Portal+'s camera also doesn't use facial recognition to identify you.
Supposedly, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say "Hey Portal." And you can delete Portal's voice history in your Facebook Activity Log, while your Alexa voice commands can be deleted in the Alexa app. Lastly, as we mentioned before, you can cover your camera with a cover, and disable your camera and microphones with a press of a button. So, in theory, you can trust Portal+.
But, Facebook has a proven history of saying one thing and then we later find out the company wasn't being explicitly clear or upfront with its users. For instance, it was recently revealed that Facebook used third-party contractors to listen to Messenger users' audio clips. All apps and connected devices pose potential security risks, so unless you're Amish or abstain from the internet, then you have to accept that.
This smart display is for people who often use Facebook Messenger to video call friends. If you don't use Messenger, or if you don't ever video call your friends, then it is pointless to buy. Sure, it has built-in Alexa too, but if you want an Alexa device then you really should get an Amazon Echo.
As for those of you who want a smart display purely to watch recipes in the kitchen, there are cheaper options available. You can use Portal+ to watch and cast YouTube videos. But even that comes with a caveat because there is no official YouTube app.
Add it all up and we can't see who'd want to buy this thing. Portal has as many plusses as it does minuses, and for many, those minuses, like Facebook's questionable history regarding your privacy, are really hard to ignore.
After months of testing it, we ultimately think Portal+ offers the most premium video-calling experience of any device or service out there. So if you care about video calls via Messenger then perhaps Portal+ is a perfect partner. Otherwise, like the majority, we wouldn't blame you for passing on it.
Amazon Echo Show
The Echo Show is a super additional device for a kitchen or communal space, while the audio has been given a much-needed boost. There are some foibles – such as lack of YouTube, a slightly reflective display, and some skills lacking screen-based optimisation – but all-round the second-gen Show is a notable improvement.