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Facebook’s new Portal ($199 at Amazon) and Portal+ ($349 at Amazon) smart displays went on sale starting Thursday and are designed to leverage Facebook’s Messenger platform to make video calling faraway family and friends more natural—but will we trust Facebook not to snoop on us?
The Portal has Alexa built in and can stream music, but this is so much more than another smart speaker with a display. We’ve been using the Portal and Portal+ to connect with family for about a week. Here are the five things we have enjoyed the most about the Portal so far:
1. “Superframe” always provides up-to-date photos
I am constantly posting cute pictures of my family on Facebook, so the Portal’s Superframe feature means I always have the latest photo of my smiling little ones on display.
It cycles through my Facebook photos at the speed I choose (from 15 seconds to ten minutes), and if a photo pops up that I don’t feel like staring at, I can swipe to the next one. I can select to display my photos, photos of me, photos posted by my favorited friends, or specific albums.
When one of my favorite Messenger contacts comes online, Superframe displays that person’s Facebook picture and online status and pops up a text reminder than I can call them by saying, “Hey Portal, call [Name].” I hate talking on the phone, but the Portal makes me feel like I’m just sitting down to chat with someone, so when I see a friend is online, I actually want to call them.
2. A smart camera that follows you around
Once you’re on a call with a friend, the Portal’s Smart Camera will make sure you stay in frame if you move around the room, and it will zoom out to include other people who walk up to join the call.
This feature is perfect for my kids to show the grandparents their latest ninja moves and ballet steps. Smart Camera’s focus and zoom AI feels exactly like that of the Nest IQ security cameras. All of the Portal’s artificial intelligence happens locally in the device, so what it sees and hears stays private to your encrypted call.
3. Facebook’s Story Time is legitimately awesome
Another feature clearly designed for families to feel more connected is Story Time. Leveraging Messenger’s Snapchat-like masks and filters, Story Time allows the person reading Portal’s built-in stories to become the story.
For example, I read my kids the story of the Three Little Pigs. I read each line as it appeared on my screen, and when it came time for the wolf to huff and puff, I suddenly had wolf ears and could blow the little pig’s house away. My 5- and 9-year-old kids were completely mesmerized and begged for another.
4. A speaker that sounds pretty great (on the Portal+)
The speaker on the Portal+ is surprisingly good. Its bass isn’t quite on par with that of the new Echo Plus, but it’s close. The smaller Portal’s speaker, on the other hand, isn’t anything to get excited about.
Both Portals can stream music from a Spotify Premium account, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. They can also stream video from Food Network and Facebook Watch. We’d love to see these options expand to include basic Spotify memberships and YouTube, but for those subscribers the sound quality isn’t bad at all.
5. The ability to contact anyone through Messenger—not just Portal users
As cool as it is to use one Portal to call another, Portal makes its video calls via the Facebook Messenger platform, so you can video call and chat with anyone who has access to Messenger.
This nullifies one of the big issues with other popular video chat services like Apple’s Facetime, which only works between Apple users on Apple devices.
…but do you really want a Facebook camera in your home?
Considering the recent Facebook hack that affected millions of users, there is bound to be some real concern about inviting a connected camera from Facebook into your home.
Portal has several security features that Facebook hopes will make us more comfortable, such as:
- A single button on the top of Portal turns both the microphone and camera off
- A red light that turns on to let you know that you’re not being watched or listened to
- A physical camera cover that clips over the lens
While the clip-on camera cover is an above-and-beyond inclusion in terms of privacy safeguards, the ability to turn off the microphone and camera is a standard feature on competing smart displays like the Echo Show and Spot. But do we really want a camera from Facebook in our homes given the company’s recent track record? It’s an open question.
“The timing of the launch is a challenge, in terms of the brand and trust, and we’re committed to improving on it,” says Facebook vice-president Andrew Bosworth. “But this is the product you want. It’s exclusively focused on connecting you with the people you care about the most. This is dedicated to having you stay close to them.”
Facebook is upfront that it does receive some data about your calls, but it claims that is limited to things like length and frequency of calls, volume level, and frame resolution. Your identity, video, and audio are supposedly kept private.
This is also apparently the same data that is collected on any Facebook Messenger call, so using the Portal is no more risky than using Messenger on your mobile device or laptop.
If you want to try the Portal or the Portal+ out for yourself, they are available now. You can get the Portal for $199 (with $100 off if you buy two at Amazon) or the Portal+ (with the better-quality speaker and larger display) for $349 with the same deal if you buy two.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.
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