“Facebook's Portal makes video calls easily, but only for Facebook superfans.”
- Video calling fun with AR effects
- Excellent audio quality
- Sharp, color accurate display
- Amazon Alexa compatible
- Awkward power cord stand
- Lacks easy way to watch YouTube
- Boxy design
Remember when The Facebook was the cool and hip social media platform?
Well, I certainly don’t. That’s because my foray into Facebook didn’t happen until this decade – 2010, to be more precise – long after the social media giant opened up registration to everyone in 2006. Your parents, relatives, and even your creepy next door neighbor were all able to send friend requests, and if you happened to accept, it was possible for them to see all of your photos, snarky comments, and favorites. Needless to say, it didn’t take too long for Facebook to become uncool.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first to say I appreciate what Facebook offers, knowing how it helps me stay connected with people and catalog my memories. Up until now, however, Facebook lived in the cloud, only accessible through my computer or smartphone. All of that is changing with Portal, a smart display with a camera that wants to be in your home. If you didn’t know it was made by Facebook, your initial opinions about it may have been favorable, but given Facebook’s track record of late, reception has been sour.
In short, the deck is stacked again Facebook’s Portal. Can it make the most of a bad hand?
Before you even think about buying a Portal, know this. You need to be an active Facebook user for the Portal to have any purposes. You won’t get far beyond the splash screen, which requires Facebook credentials to proceed, if you’re not. You’ll also need an Amazon account to use Alexa, which serves as the brains behind the scene.
The Alexa collaboration makes sense, because it functions nearly as well as on Amazon’s full featured Alexa speakers. From asking questions, to finding about the weather, and controlling smart home gadgets that are tied to my account, voice commands offer me the convenience of interacting with the smart display using my voice.
For something made by Facebook, I was a little surprised by how much the experience is diluted from what you see on computer, or even on mobile. Instead, Portal ties in only a handful of the platform’s experiences. This largely centers around Facebook Messenger, recent photos you’ve shared publicly, and connecting with people.
I found this jarring at first, but after some time with the Portal, I was happy it didn’t replicate the full Facebook experience. Portal is meant to be an extension of using the Facebook app on another device, not a replacement.
The Portal isn’t going to win a beauty contest. Compared to some of its contemporaries, it’s boxy, with hard lines that converge at 90-degree angles. On top of that, I’m not a fan of how the power cord connector doubles as the stand for the display. I’m afraid of it breaking off if the display somehow tumbles to the ground. I would’ve prefer the styling of its rivals in the space — like the Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub Max.
You could use the Facebook Portal just as a photo frame.
While its design isn’t attractive, I have to admit the 10-inch 1,280 x 800 display has the same compelling qualities as the Nest Hubs’ display. Like the Nest Hub’s Ambient EQ technology, the Portal’s adaptive display adjusts to match the color and lighting of the room, creating a photo realistic look that could be mistaken for an actual printed snapshot inside of a photo frame. The Portal matches the look of the Nest Hub with its wide viewing angles, clarity, and true to life colors.
For the price, you could use the Facebook Portal just as a photo frame. You won’t be disappointed by the display, which interestingly enough will cycle through the most recent photos you’ve shared on Facebook. You’ll just want to cognizant about photos you may not want to be shown, something that can be done using the Portal app for mobile. The last thing you want to see is a questionable photo that pops up because you forgot to make it private.
The Portal is centered on keeping in touch with people through Facebook Messenger, and it excels in that area. Making video calls has never been more fun thanks to the multitude of AR filters that you can apply at any time. This is especially handy for kids, such as my niece and nephew, who both enjoyed chatting away with me.
The 13-megapixel camera, combined with some AI magic and a 114-degree field of view, allows the view to dynamically track faces. It’s very similar to the Nest Hub Max’s tracking, which mimics digital zooms and pans to keep people in frame. While this isn’t cutting-edge, I appreciate that I don’t have to sit directly in front of the Portal. On top of that, the microphones picked up every word, so there was rarely any repetitions on my end. While the Nest Hub Max can compete with the Portal in video call quality, Amazon’s Echo Show devices are a step behind.
There’s a switch on the unit that will cover the camera as well as mute the microphones. Given recent privacy concerns over cameras being hacked, this is one way of easing concerns.
Surprisingly, the Portal delivers hefty audio through a pair of front-firing speakers and a rear woofer. There’s plenty of bass, so it does justice to songs with heavy beats. Audio in the higher ranges are overwhelmed, however, resulting in less detail. Still, it’s a good speaker with enough volume and range to fill a large room with sound.
The Facebook Portal looks like a clunky tablet. And just like a tablet, it has apps you can download and use. For example, there’s a built-in web browser. Unfortunately, though, most ‘apps’ are shortcuts to the web browser. Yelp is one example.
Worse, some apps don’t support portrait view. For most casual users, playing a clip on YouTube requires a few extra steps beyond just asking Alexa. You’ll need to actually run the ‘app,’ which then opens the web browser.
Some apps don’t support portrait view.
When it’s not being used, Portal resorts to showing a slideshow of my recent pictures from Facebook and my linked Instagram account. Every now and then, it’ll even recommend video calling a favorite contact of mine who’s online. I did find it a bit aggressive with this and would’ve preferred seeing recommendations beyond just my favorite contacts.
Portal is trying to do a lot, but as a smart display, it still needs some growing up before it can reach its rivals. For example, Google Assistant powered smart displays, like the Lenovo Smart Display 7, are intelligent enough to show on-screen traffic conditions of my morning commute the moment I wake up. It’s this kind of detail that make smart displays, well, smart.
I liked the $179 10-inch Portal better than expected. It’s perfect for video calls thanks to its dynamic camera, exceptional audio performance, and the fun you can have using the AR effects. It’s also a sharp looking digital photo frame that does justice in showcasing photos I’ve posted. The Portal’s functionality is more limited than Amazon and Google alternatives, however, with fewer apps and less robust web browsing.
Facebook’s recent privacy woes are hard to forget, as well, and they translate to this device. Just imagine having family and friends over for a party, only for them to see the photos you’ve taken with college friends on a night out. Yea, you can make photos private – but are you really going to remember every time?
Is there a better alternative?
For the best end-to-end solution, the $230 price Google Nest Hub Max is the ultimate smart display with its beautiful screen, built-in Nest Cam functionality, powerful sound system, and the intelligent actions of Google Assistant. Amazon’s 2nd generation Echo Show is an equally compelling offering at $230 if you’re looking for an Alexa enabled smart display.
How long will it last?
My only concern about the Portal’s durability is the power cord stand that holds it upright. You’ll want to make sure Portal is placed somewhere away from sharp edges, because the weightiness of the smart display combined with its plastic casing doesn’t instill confidence if it’s dropped. Besides that, Facebook offers a one year manufacturer’s warranty for defects.
Should you buy it?
Not unless you’re a committed Facebook user and truly enjoy everything the social network has to offer.
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