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.

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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.

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