When I first heard about Facebook’s plan to introduce the Portal and Portal+, I was skeptical. In light of the recent trouble that the social media giant has gotten into regarding privacy violations, are people really going to want a Facebook-branded, Alexa-enabled smart speaker with a roving camera in their homes? It seems tone deaf to introduce such a device in the wake of the major scandals.
So, with some trepidation, I requested a review unit of the device, thinking I would dislike it.
But to my surprise, I don’t. While I still have reservations and complaints about the limitations of the device, (including the $349 price tag), with some tweaks, it could make a good (but expensive) gift for all the Facebook-loving parents and grandparents out there.
Look at the size of that thing!
First, let’s talk about looks. While the Portal features a 10-inch display, the Portal+ boasts a whopping 15.6 inch display (bigger than many laptops, mind you) and looks like a giant tablet mounted to a tall, narrow base. The whole thing is almost 18 inches high and barely clears kitchen cupboards. There’s a camera on top that has 140-degree field of vision. The camera can actually follow you around as you walk through a room. So, if you’re busy moving about the kitchen while asking Grandma how to make her famous meatballs, you can keep busy while listening to her talk.
The Portal+ screen rotates from landscape to portrait mode by pulling down on the corner of the device. The camera on/off button and volume control buttons are found on the top of the device. It also comes with a plastic cover for the camera in case you’re one of those people who’s paranoid about whether the camera is on even when it says it’s not.
A large speaker fills out the base of the Portal+. It features two tweeters and four inches of bass. Overall, the device is huge, and regardless of whether you have it set up vertically or horizontally, it will take up a lot of space.
The Portal+ is primarily a video-calling device that allows you to call your Facebook friends. Once you’re connected to your Facebook account, you can add people as “favorites” and get notifications on when they’re online and available to talk. As long as the contact has the Facebook Messenger app, you should be able to talk to them while they’re on a phone or tablet. It will not work if the person you’re trying to call is using the web version of Facebook.
Yep, you read that right. The Facebook Portal+ does not have the Facebook app.
You can also select various photos and videos from your Facebook feed and add them to a running photo/video slideshow on your device when you’re not talking to someone on it.
The device has some built-in apps that allow you to do other things. It comes with YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and a few others, for example, meaning you can browse through videos on how to cook asparagus or listen to your favorite playlist while cooking dinner.
It also works as an Amazon Alexa speaker, so you can ask Alexa to play music for you or tell you who won the World Series in 1992 (answer: the Toronto Blue Jays). It can control Alexa-enabled smart home devices, although you can’t use the screen to view camera or video doorbell footage like you would be able to on a Google Home Hub or Amazon Echo Show device.
Some glaring omissions on the Portal+ include the lack of a Facebook app, web browser, and the ability to add apps. Yep, you read that right. The Facebook Portal+ does not have the Facebook app. So, if you were thinking you could use the device as a giant screen to scroll through your Facebook feed, you’re out of luck. And if you don’t like your streaming music app choices, tough, because you can’t add apps to the device — at least not yet. There are no web browsers on the device, although you can use Alexa to get some internet answers using your voice.
Can you see me?
When Facebook provided me with the Portal+, they also sent a $199 Portal device to my Mom so that we could video chat. My Mom is an avid Facebook user, and I figured she’s probably the target market for this device. I wanted to see how she liked it.
It’s confusing to have two different voice assistants built in, especially when there’s overlap on what each can do.
We tried out the camera by moving around the room to see how the tracking worked. The camera on the Portal+ focused on me and moved ever-so-slightly with me as I moved to the left and the right in my kitchen. It did the same on my Mom’s Portal, moving from side to side when the camera tracked her movement. The feature definitely seems a little bit like a 3D effect, and the quality of the video is pretty great overall. My mom was delighted by the ability to clearly see her grandson moving around the room.
During the call, you can add special effects to yourself so that the person you’re talking to sees you as, say, a werewolf, or with a cat on your head. It’s a fun feature that my Mom and little niece, who was visiting my Mom, found really entertaining.
Alexa, er, I mean, Hey Portal, umm, Alexa
There are two different ways to interact with the Portal+ with your voice, and that’s by asking Alexa or asking Portal something. Let me explain. You use “Hey Portal” when you want to call someone or adjust the volume, but you use “Alexa” to play YouTube videos, turn off connected smart lights, turn down the volume and lots of other things. Confused? So was I. I tried “Hey Portal” to call someone, and it worked fine. But I found myself automatically defaulting to Alexa for everything else. It seems confusing to have two different voice assistants built in, especially when there’s some overlap on the things each can do. Plus, the Portal voice is quite a bit more disjointed than Alexa or Google Assistant.
As for sound, I tested out the speaker by asking the Portal+ to play “Happy” by Pharrell, and then playing the same song on an Amazon Echo Show. The verdict? The Portal+ gives off a surprisingly loud, room-filling sound, but compared to the Echo Show, it sounds a bit hollow and less robust. Still, it’s more than sufficient for video chatting or listening to streaming music while chopping veggies for dinner.
A note about privacy
Facebook’s privacy fails are well-documented by now, which is part of the reason we were concerned when we heard about this device. Will people buy a Facebook-branded roving camera that collects information about you and your smart home? That remains to be seen, but Facebook has tried to head off privacy concerns by promising that the Portal and Portal+ do not collect data from users.
It’s clear that Facebook has put some thought into this. For example, a confirmation code is required for every privacy setting change made on the device. In order to make changes, you have to go to facebook.com/devices and enter the confirmation code you see on the Portal screen — a process I actually found to be a bit too much.
And to quell the fears of those who get the heebie-jeebies about cameras inside their homes, the company built in some safeguards. Not only can you turn both the camera and mic off, there’s also a separate fitting that you can place over the camera entirely. Although I should note that it’s a loose piece of plastic that could get lost.
Facebook has promised that it won’t use your data to target ads at you. But “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t” are two different things, as one of our writers noted in a recent news article. Despite the privacy safeguards built in, trusting the social media giant to be responsible with an always-listening device in the home is a hard sell.
The Portal+ comes with a one-year malfunctions and defects warranty.Our Take
While the Facebook Portal+ has some great video-chatting features and a neat photo and video display feature, the lack of apps (including Facebook), disjointed voice control experience, privacy concerns, and cost make us take pause on the device.
Still, the Portal+ is perfect for Facebook lovers who cherish the idea of reaching out to friends and loved ones via video chat. We’re thinking of our parents and grandparents who might not have a laptop or tablet, or if they do, might not be comfortable using Skype or other platforms for video chats.
But, the Portal+ costs $349, which is a lot of money to spend for a device without a web browser and limited apps. The 10-inch Portal is cheaper at $199, but that’s still a fair amount to spend on a device with limited functionality.
Is there a better alternative?
There’s not a lot out there like this device. The Portal’s closest competition is probably the Amazon Echo Show, which is an Amazon Alexa voice assistant speaker with a screen. The Echo Show costs $230 and offers more for the consumer, including smart home control, a built-in smart home hub, better sound, a smaller footprint, endless apps and skills, and the ability to video chat on multiple platforms.
The Google Home Hub, at $149, offers a smaller screen and doesn’t sound as great as the Echo Show, but offers many of the same features as the Echo Show otherwise. The Lenovo Smart Display is another Google Assistant option that comes in two different sizes and features a sleek design and crystal-clear display.
How long will it last?
This is a tough question. We’re not sure. This is Facebook’s first foray into smart home hardware, which means there’s no track record of support and continuity. The device fully depends on firmware upgrades, which, if it doesn’t take off, might not happen. We will say that the hardware is durable and well-made, if a bit clunky.
Should you buy it?
Even if your Grandma is a Facebook junkie, for now we’ll have to say to pass on buying this device. While it’s a good start and features strong video-calling features, there’s too much missing from the Portal+ at this point to make it a worthwhile expenditure. If Facebook adds more functionality later on, such as the ability to add apps, it might be worth it. For now, if you’re wanting to get Grandma on video chat, consider buying her a Lenovo Smart Display or Amazon Echo Show instead.