Review: Facebook's Portal+ video chat gadget is a hard sell

Facebook is taking its new Portal+...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 2:31 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 2:31 PM

Facebook is taking its new Portal+ video chatting gadget extremely seriously. But it might be difficult for customers to do the same.

For my review, the device arrived packed in a large matte-black suitcase, escorted by a single professional security guard. The agent would not leave the delivery with a doorman or let them look inside -- and I had to show ID.

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Companies

Computer science and information technology

Facebook

Mobile apps

Mobile technology

Software and applications

Technology

Electronics

Consumer products

Consumer electronics

Cameras

Internet and WWW

Social media

Telecommunications industry

Telecommunications services

Teleconferencing

The device features a voice-controlled screen designed primarily for video chatting with Facebook friends and doubles as an Alexa speaker. It's Facebook's first stab at consumer hardware outside of Oculus headsets and has been in the works for a year and a half at the company's hardware lab.

The Portal+ is a pricey gadget with always-listening microphones and a camera made by a company known for privacy issues. The timing of the original announcement came less than two weeks after Facebook revealed a massive hack that impacted 30 million users.

We used two $349 Portal+ devices to make video calls, try on augmented reality filters, watch videos and listen to music. We didn't get to test the smaller, cheaper version — the $199 Portal (no plus) — that does many of the same tasks.

The hardware: Towering but sleek enough

The Portal+ is basically a 15-inch tablet mounted on a speaker. The display can rotate, so the device had to be tall enough to hold the screen on its side but still show the camera above and some speaker below. It makes for a bulky and heavy device that I had a hard time finding a home for. If you can get over the size, the shape and feel, the hardware is attractive but forgettable enough. It comes in black or white.

The screen quality is decent, but because it pulls in video chats from the users' phone cameras and wireless connections, you may get a low-resolution result on a big screen. Music sounds solid on the speaker, but audio on video calls is distant and flat.

There is a button that mutes the microphones and disables the camera when it's not in use. It also comes with a tiny plastic cap to place on top of the device to cover the camera, if you're as worried about your camera spying on you as Mark Zuckerberg is.

The interface: Simple with a split personality

There are two virtual personalties living inside the Portal+: Amazon's Alexa handles the majority of voice tasks, but Facebook created a second mini-assistant you activate by saying "Hey Portal." It only controls basic functions like making video calls, changing the volume and opening apps. The voice sounds computerized and a few years behind current technology.

Like the Echo and Google smart screen devices, the Portal+ keeps the screen interface easy for anyone to figure out. There are a two main views, one of your Messenger contacts and another of Portal apps. The pickings are slim and there's no app store yet, but you can also do the basics like listen to music, watch videos, and look at photos.

The screen is wide and would be good for watching TV shows or movies in landscape. However, many of the video apps it has at launch, such as the Food Network, don't take advantage of it. They're filled with square videos optimized for the social network's mobile app.

You can set up multiple Facebook accounts but will have to switch between them to get your own Messenger contacts. It can call anyone through their Messenger app, so they don't need to have a Portal of their own.

The highlight: Video calls that follow you around

The Portal+ has one neat trick. Its wide-angle lens can take in a huge view, but the software will zoom in and track a person or people. But during our tests, the tracking feature was a bit slow yet it was excellent at following you while you go about your life if you're not zipping around too fast. The technology could allow for longer, more casual chats than you might have when glued to a computer or phone.

It would be ideal for anyone who wants to broadcast activities, such as doing a cooking show for Facebook Live. However, Facebook doesn't allow live streaming from the device for privacy reasons.

It also has fun AR filters such as a werewolf, mouse, cat and glasses that sits on your head. The best filter is the one you barely notice: a light application of lipstick. It's easy to imagine more realistic overlays in the future that change your appearance so realistically, the other party will have no idea that's not what you look like.

The use case: Who is this for?

The oddest thing about the Portal+ isn't the interface or design. It's that Facebook thinks people will be comfortable having one of its always-listening microphones and cameras in the home, despite its string of recent privacy issues.

The Portal+ is new and will likely evolve as Facebook sees how people are using it. For now, it's an awkward mishmash of technology trends that despite any redeeming qualities -- and there are a few -- feels like a genuinely bizarre product for a company plagued by privacy concerns.

West Lafayette
Clear
41° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 24°
Feels Like: 37°
Kokomo
Clear
37° wxIcon
Hi: 41° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 32°
Rensselaer
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 22°
Feels Like: 36°
Fowler
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 36°
Williamsport
Clear
41° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 37°
Crawfordsville
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 34°
Frankfort
Clear
35° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 31°
Delphi
Clear
35° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 22°
Feels Like: 35°
Monticello
Clear
35° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 22°
Feels Like: 35°
Logansport
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 26°
Mild Conditions Ahead
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 344373

Reported Deaths: 5864
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion46886885
Lake29643475
Allen19836332
Elkhart18265242
St. Joseph18122242
Hamilton14617175
Vanderburgh10672129
Tippecanoe964833
Porter903491
Johnson7267175
Hendricks6961162
Vigo6513103
Monroe582653
Madison5580124
Clark554881
Delaware5299107
LaPorte5100101
Kosciusko491745
Howard390578
Bartholomew361665
Warrick353673
Wayne351190
Floyd341978
Marshall323348
Cass315832
Grant309052
Hancock297662
Noble278949
Boone270356
Henry268740
Dubois257432
Jackson247834
Dearborn244232
Morgan244144
Gibson211130
Shelby208659
Knox199922
Clinton197723
DeKalb197638
Lawrence197549
Wabash187523
Adams184524
Miami183117
Daviess170345
Montgomery164329
Jasper162013
Fayette161735
Steuben160815
Ripley160621
Harrison159624
LaGrange154033
Whitley152316
White143624
Huntington142810
Decatur140745
Putnam140629
Wells139233
Randolph136823
Clay136626
Jefferson134716
Posey131618
Scott120723
Greene114553
Jay110415
Sullivan107718
Jennings100415
Starke99126
Spencer9418
Fulton92019
Fountain8978
Perry87721
Washington8658
Franklin78427
Carroll76913
Orange73928
Vermillion7069
Owen6879
Parke6636
Tipton65627
Rush6198
Newton60813
Blackford60114
Pike55220
Pulaski47018
Benton4113
Brown3945
Martin3836
Crawford3301
Union2962
Switzerland2745
Warren2683
Ohio2467
Unassigned0266

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events