Facebook Portal, the company's smart display that's predominantly used for video calls, has arrived in the UK. And, well, we have mixed feelings. After reviewing the larger Portal+ earlier in 2019, it split opinion - as everyone we asked didn't like the idea of having one, due to various Facebook fiascos over recent years.
Think of Portal as an alternative to the Amazon Echo Show or the various Google smart displays. Only with Portal, Facebook is attempting to help you stay connected with more people in your life via the medium of video calls through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
But is it worth buying Portal for your home, rather than simply using your phone? Here are the ups and downs of Facebook's move into smart displays...
Stylish design and seamless setup
- Works with Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Spotify and Amazon Alexa
- 13-megapixel (720p) camera with 114-degree field-of-view
- 10-inch touchscreen display (1280 x 800 resolution)
Facebook Portal is a large, inoffensive-looking device that fits easily into the home. It's available with either a white or black frame and the ability to set it up in either landscape or portrait orientation. At a glance, you'd easily overlook it as just a digital photo frame, only with slightly more bulk and a couple of design hints at the camera and sensors present. We can't say that of the 15.6-inch 'Plus' model, which is much larger and more imposing.
Portal boasts an appealing 10-inch touchscreen display, which makes for nice photo viewing, but unfortunately is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. We have noticed that the screen isn't as responsive to touch as we'd like, but that's rarely an issue as you're mostly going to be controlling Portal with your voice anyway. You certainly won't be browsing the web on this device (though you can), as this isn't a phone or tablet replacement.
Portal works with both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp primarily, but also has support for Spotify and Amazon Alexa. If you have those services, you might already be dreading the thought of entering usernames and passwords on a touchscreen. Even more so if, like us, you use a super-secure password and two-step authentication. Thankfully, you can bypass all that faff by simply visiting specific URLs on another device (laptop, phone or tablet) and inputting an authentication code. We found this was joyfully easy and put us on the right foot straight away.
That convenient experience continues on into the rest of the design too. Once your accounts are logged in, you then get easy access to all your contacts from those services. Of course, you're unlikely to want to place a video call to everyone on your Facebook friends list, so there's also the option to choose certain people as favourites for easy access. Doing that not only means you can then quickly and easily dial them in for a chat, but also means you'll get pop-up notifications when they're online so you know they're available.
When you place a call you'll discover where Portal shines. Firstly, it's a much more convenient way to place a video call than holding your phone or awkwardly clutching a tablet. As long as you've found a good spot in the room, you can go hands-free and just enjoy some face-to-face time with friends and loved ones. The video quality is great and the 1280 x 800 resolution display ample.
Portal is also designed with intelligent camera tech that follows callers as they move about the room. So if you can't sit still, it's no problem as the camera will track you in the frame. If there are multiple people in the room, then it will track them too, or you can use the touchscreen to pick the main person to focus on.
This device also has a far-field four-microphone array which helps to keep audio quality as good as video. This setup means it can cancel out background noise and focus on the important things - your voice.
Using Portal to call family and friends, we quickly found that if you want the best experience then everyone needs a Portal. Portal's screen makes the video captured by selfie cameras on smartphones look blocky and awful. So people you're talking with might get a clear view of your end, but not so much the other way around.
- AR effects, games and Story Time
- Shared experiences on call include Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio listening
There are other reasons why it would be better if everyone had a Portal as well. It can make video calls to any device that has the ability to place or receive Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp video calls. During those calls, you can make use of various different features. These include things like AR effects to add sometimes daft, sometimes entertaining visuals to your calls - a bit like Snapchat filters or Instagram effects. Imagine virtual sunglasses or fake hats appearing on everyone's heads while you chat.
But some of the more interesting experiences and features are only available when calling Portal to Portal. There are various shared experiences, such as listening to Spotify together, watching videos, playing games or even reading an interactive story to children with Story Time. Alas, none of this is available if you don't have a Portal talking to another Portal device. We see Facebook's angle here: buy, buy, buy!
You can do other nifty things with it though, like adding extra people into the call and making it a group video party with just a few clicks. That can include a total of eight people on Messenger or four on WhatsApp.
We have to admit, we really enjoy the convenience of calling with Portal. The image quality and sound is great and it's an uber convenient device to have around if you see yourself regularly making these sorts of calls. But that's the big hurdle: a lot of people simply won't use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to make video calls anyway.
What is lacking, at the moment, is the ability make a call using your voice. Users in the USA can use a voice command to start a call with a simple "Hey Portal, call [contact]", but unfortunately this feature hasn't rolled out to other locations yet. Which seems a bit bizarre for a device that's all about voice and calls. Despite the fact that Portal works with Amazon Alexa, you cannot place a call that way either. So you need to use your fingers, which isn't an entirely distressing hardship in these modern times but something that hopefully gets improved in future.
A focus on privacy
- Physical camera and microphone shutter
- On-screen messaging to let you know its muted
- Settings for controlling voice data stored by/sent to Facebook
Some might be wary of having a Facebook-centric device in their home. Facebook is aware of it as well, which is why all the devices in the Portal range are built with some physical privacy capabilities.
The Portal has a physical camera and microphone shutter that blocks the camera and disables the mic too. This means when not in use you can ensure no one is spying on you if that's the sort of thing you're worried about. Portal's camera also doesn't use facial recognition to identify you - it can "see" faces in order to track, but these aren't IDed.
There are also privacy settings that allow you to opt-out of data collection for voice requests you make with the device so even your voice won't be recorded or stored.
Facebook 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. 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.
Using WhatsApp also means you get the added bonus of end-to-end encryption as well. So we're not overly concerned with privacy with Portal - not any more so than any other smart home device, or than we are as Messenger and WhatsApp users.
All that said, as we said in our Portal+ review: "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."
Smart home intelligence and off call experiences
- App integration
- Pairs with Portal app for Android and iOS devices
- Photo Booth selfies, 3rd Party Apps, Superframe photo display
- Music playback
Besides the video calling capabilities, Portal is also smart in other ways. It has a web browser, an interface to watch Facebook videos, various different apps, games and more. Highlights include the ability to login to and use your Spotify account to listen to music with a surprisingly capable speaker.
There's also the Superframe photo display which shows off your best images from Facebook, or specific ones you select using the Portal app for Android or iOS devices. However, this can get awkward: Superframe pulls uploaded or tagged photos on your Facebook account to display whenever it's in standby, but you might not want to see yourself with certain people from the past, so it depends on your Facebook use, history and friends.
Facebook Portal is also compatible with Amazon Alexa. This gives you the ability to use your voice to do more, like controlling smart home lighting, seeing the latest news from your favourite sources or playing music. But we found this experience to be a bit hit and miss. Simple things like asking Alexa to play Spotify, for example, just doesn't work at the time of writing - even when Spotify is linked to our account and set as the primary music source. But when you play using the Spotify app you can then ask Alexa to skip, play, pause and adjust the volume.
We've looked at Alexa on screens like this before - Amazon has its own Echo Show series of devices of course - and Alexa does work better on Amazon's own devices. There is a bit of a general limitation with Alexa for screens in that many Alexa features - especially third-party skills - just aren't optimised for a screen. Instead, they're more geared towards Alexa as a voice assistant. That doesn't matter too much here, since Alexa isn't central to the Portal's operation, but it doesn't take away from the fact the current experience is just a little too flaky for our liking.
This smart display is for people who often use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to video call friends. If you don't use those services, or if you don't ever video call your friends, then it's a non-product for you. Sure, it has built-in Alexa too, but that's not working too well yet - and you want an Alexa device then you really should get an Amazon Echo Show.
Still, we were honestly surprised by how much we've enjoyed having Portal around. The display is excellent, the speaker doubly so. It's packed full of camera tech and clever microphones to ensure you get a clear and capable video call experience (when connecting with another Portal anyway - so buy two and give one to your favourite friend or loved one and you'll have no excuse not to regularly see their face).
The big question is whether you'll actually want to buy. We feel that Portal is lacking some of the intelligence of other display-centric smart home assistants, and despite the privacy-first features there's still that question mark hanging over Facebook's security history.
If Messenger and WhatsApp is your all, then this premium video-calling experience is an ideal match. Otherwise, for many prospective users, it's a mixed bag. Just as we said of Portal+, after months of testing that, we wouldn't blame you for passing on it.
Facebook Portal TV
If you're not keen on having another screen in your home, then Portal TV is an interesting alternative. This is essentially a smart camera that plugs into your television and turns that into a large video calling screen instead. It actually has more microphones than the standard size Portal and is cheaper too. Since your TV is naturally already positioned conveniently in your room, it's likely to be even more useful.
Amazon Echo Show
Available in 10-inch, 5.5-inch and a new 8-inch size (pictured), the Echo Show is probably the most recognisable device in this category and also comes with Alexa, of course. It supports Skype for video calling and, like the Portal, has a privacy shutter. The disadvantage is that many of Alexa's skills and capabilities are designed for audio, so some of the visual experience is a little basic.
Google Nest Hub Max
Probably the best of these devices for accessing information, Nest Hub Max has Google Assistant at its core. Video calling is provided by Google's Duo app, which is less useful than Portal because, well, do you know anybody who uses Duo? Also, the Nest features require you to have a subscription.