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

Facebook is taking its new Portal+...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 1:31 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 1:31 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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 820011

Reported Deaths: 15407
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1148361924
Mobile726091339
Madison52337697
Shelby37622350
Baldwin37258552
Tuscaloosa35117612
Montgomery34116740
Lee23536246
Calhoun22232488
Morgan20952378
Etowah19834500
Marshall18372304
Houston17390412
St. Clair16064339
Cullman15454293
Limestone15349199
Elmore15264286
Lauderdale14314295
Talladega13842283
DeKalb12662261
Walker11206370
Blount10197176
Autauga10047148
Jackson9874184
Coffee9211191
Dale8900185
Colbert8871201
Tallapoosa7089198
Escambia6775134
Covington6713183
Chilton6645162
Russell637059
Franklin5962105
Chambers5610142
Marion5007127
Dallas4975200
Pike4796106
Clarke475784
Geneva4574127
Winston4519103
Lawrence4324117
Bibb425286
Barbour357876
Marengo338390
Monroe331564
Randolph329764
Butler326496
Pickens316384
Henry312766
Hale311688
Cherokee302860
Fayette294180
Washington251651
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234863
Lamar224447
Conecuh186253
Coosa180240
Lowndes175364
Wilcox168939
Bullock151744
Perry138840
Sumter133238
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
51° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 51°
Columbus
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 52°
Oxford
Clear
46° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 46°
Starkville
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 52°
High pressure will dominate our weather forecast for our Tuesday. This means we will see some good weather for our Tuesday. However, some rain and thunderstorms will be in our weather forecast down the line with some more low pressure in our area.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather