(Pocket-lint) - Facebook Portal TV is one of the company's line-up of Portal products. It is essentially an intelligent, feature-packed webcam that sits on top (or in the vicinity) of your television, then transforms that large screen in user-friendly video-calling device.
You can use Portal TV to place or receive video calls from anyone who owns any Portal device or a smart device capable of placing Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp video calls. In the current climate, it's an ideal way to keep in touch with loved ones from the comfort and safety of your living room.
We've been Portal TV in the home for quite a while now and have been using it to keep in touch with family and loved ones. Is it the best Portal product of the lot?
Intelligent video calling
- 12.5MP resolution camera with 720p video streaming
- 120-degree field-of-view with Smart Camera features to track people on the call
- Far-field 8 microphone array with omni-directional capture capabilities
- Beamforming technology to capture voices and reduce background noise
Portal TV is part of Facebook's efforts to lead the way with video calling and to connect more people in your life. It's designed to allow convenient video calling without the hassles that usually come with such things. If you can imagine sitting in front of your television and talking to family and friends without having to hold your phone or tablet in awkward positions to capture everyone in the room then you get an idea of what Portal TV is all about.
Portal TV features a wide-angle camera lens that's AI-powered with 'Smart Camera and Smart Sound' technology. This design allows the system to see people in the room and then automatically pan and zoom to follow them around the room if they move. Similar to how Google's Nest Home Max works. The wide-angle lens means that Portal TV can also pick-up multiple people in the same room, allowing you to get the whole family involved in a call if you so wish.
A quick press on the included remote control allows you to pick a single person in the room to focus on. This is called Spotlight mode and it stops the camera following other people who are moving around the room too much. This also works both ways, so you can even choose to highlight and focus on people on the other end of the call, if you so wish.
Portal TV's camera is designed to only recognise people, so it doesn't get distracted by pets wandering into the room. And when we say recognise people, we don't mean identify: this smart camera technology is only designed to register people's presence in the frame, not to identify who is there. No data on who is on the call is sent to Facebook in any way, the company says.
Video calls are also placed using Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, meaning that end-to-end encryption is an option if you're worried about security. WhatsApp wasn't a compatible feature when we first reviewed Portal+, so that's a savvy new addition for the European market launch (it's not especially popular in the US though).
Portal TV also sports eight microphones with intelligent tech that includes beamforming to track the people talking while also reducing the amount of environmental and background noise picked up during the call.
For the most part, calling on your TV is a great experience. Portal TV doesn't interfere with your television viewing, instead it's just there when you need it. Depending on your internet connection, the call quality is superb too. If you're calling between Portal devices then the capable cameras on both ends result in a crisp and clear image and great sound. Things become less pleasant when broadband speeds aren't any good and when that happens quality can be quite choppy and blocky.
Video calling on your television has other benefits. The screen real-estate is incredibly useful, especially when you want to add more people into the mix. That's right, Portal TV can support group calls too. You can have as many as eight people on a Facebook Messenger video call, or four via WhatsApp. With the display on your TV, you can make the most of the space rather than talking to tiny faces.
When we reviewed the 10-inch Portal display, we commented on just how easy it was to setup - with logins involving just visiting confirmation URLs on your phone or browser rather than having to awkwardly type in a password. Similarly, the remote control that comes with Portal TV makes it easier to navigate menus, place calls, change settings and more. The remote's design is also familiar and straightforward too; pressing-and-holding the microphone also gives you the ability to speak to Amazon Alexa.
Private by design
- Hardware-level privacy shutter
- Compatible with most TVs via HDMI connection
Like the other Portal devices, Portal TV is designed with user privacy in mind. When not in use, there's a physical camera shutter you can close to block the view if you're concerned about privacy. There's also a button to disable the microphones so Portal TV doesn't see or hear anything unless you want it to.
Portal TV connects to your TV via HDMI. It's then designed to switch on when you accept a call and put the call onto the screen for you. A built-in speaker system lets you know a call is coming in, then you'll have to accept that call before you'll see it on the big screen. A nice touch if you're in the middle of a movie and don't want to be disturbed by granny calling.
In the US (and soon elsewhere) Portal TV owners can use "Hey Portal" commands to interact with Portal. These may be sent to Facebook for quality reasons, but you can turn that off in the settings and delete any recordings too.
Portal TV is also cleverly designed to account for the layout of your home. It comes with a stand that can be tilted into various positions. You can either pop it on top of your TV or simply use the stand to place it lower down - on a shelf, for example - if it won't stay on top of your television for whatever reason (like, you know, if you have one modern OLED that's about 5mm thick and you'd struggle to balance anything on).
More than just video calls
There's no denying Portal TV is super convenient for placing video calls to loved ones without the hassle of worrying about how the camera is positioned, having to hold a device, or whether you're in the frame or not. We also see the benefits for older, less tech-savvy family members who like the idea of staying in touch with you but don't get how to use a smartphone to place a video call.
All that said, video calls aren't always about being sat static in front of your TV. Part of the beauty of WhatsApp calls, or other services like Apple's FaceTime, is that you can be on the move and show your surroundings. Sure, video conferencing from work purposes is on the rise - but that tends to happen with Skype or Slack, not with more personal apps like WhatsApp/Messenger.
Portal TV has more to offer than just plain old video calls. Other features include AR effects similar to those you'll see on Snapchat and Instagram (so you can call with a virtual wolf mask on, because who wouldn't want that?).
Other more useful highlights include Story Time mode, which allows you to read bedtime stories to children, but from afar. The caller reads the story via a simple teleprompter, while on the other end of the call they're framed and animated with special animations to help tell the story. We've seen this in action and think it'll be a hit with the young ones in your family - although parents wanting to reduce screen time before bed might find that a conflict of interest.
For the grown-ups, there's also the promise of games like Words with Friends that can be played while on the call and you'll also be able to take advantage of Facebook's Watch Together system to view your videos directly from Facebook while still on the call. Unfortunately, the Watch Together system only works when calling Portal TV to Portal TV (oddly not with other Portal devices) but that's something the company could update in future.
Like the other Portal devices, Portal TV can also be used in Superframe mode where you're essentially turning your TV into a large photo frame to show off your favourite images from your phone or Facebook account when the device is not in use. There's an accompanying smartphone app available for iOS and Android that can be used for basic things like selecting favourite contacts, calling your Portal TV remotely or setting the images you want to display in Superframe.
Alongside all this Portal TV has some limited Amazon Alexa functionality. It's certainly not as fully-fledged as dedicated Amazon Echo devices - you can't use it to play music from Spotify or to place audio calls to other Alexa devices, but you can use it for basic smart home controls like turning off the lights.
There are some apps built into Portal TV that include things like Facebook Watch, Red Bull TV, Neverthink and Spotify. These add some nice extras to the device, but nothing that'll blow your socks off. This isn't meant to be an all-singing, all-dancing smart home device, but rather a convenient video calling widget. And in that capacity, it does a thoroughly good job.
Out of all three available Portal devices, we think TV makes the most sense of the lot. The dedicated Portal and Portal+ devices made us wonder whether people were truly ready for a dedicated Facebook calling device. The Portal TV, however, augments your existing hardware and that seems most logical if you want to call loved ones from the comfort of your living room.
There are a few niggles with it though, such as only having 720p streaming for calls, which, on a large 4K TV, doesn't quite stand up. We also have questions about what the functionality will be like alongside other Facebook Portal devices and whether it will play nicely with things like Amazon Prime Video.
Then there's the wider issue of public perception and trust. Because Facebook has had its share of issues over the years, will people really want to let it take over their TV? We pose that as an open question; after all, Portal TV allows for privacy with its video shutter and microphone disengage button and it shouldn't interrupt your viewing either.
This review was first published 18 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its position as a full review.
If you're not convinced by Portal TV and want something standalone that acts as your gateway to video calls that can be placed anywhere in the house then Portal+ might be another option. It's not cheap, mind.
A version of Portal that appears as a 10-inch display that resembles a digital photo frame. A nice display, capable camera and nifty speaker setup make the 10-inch Portal a great alternative.