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.

Terre Haute
Clear
87° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 91°
Robinson
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 87°
Indianapolis
Scattered Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 91°
Rockville
Clear
80° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 83°
Casey
Clear
84° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 87°
Brazil
Clear
87° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 91°
Marshall
Clear
87° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 91°
Hot and Humid 4th of July
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 145750

Reported Deaths: 7005
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook917744618
Lake9864421
DuPage9192474
Kane7796274
Will6839320
Winnebago306796
McHenry208897
St. Clair1965137
Kankakee130265
Rock Island99629
Madison99169
Kendall98121
Champaign93012
Boone60221
DeKalb56719
Peoria54628
Sangamon44032
Jackson33519
Randolph2877
Stephenson2755
Ogle2684
McLean26713
Clinton24017
Macon23222
LaSalle22417
Union19319
Whiteside19215
Coles17317
Grundy1695
Iroquois1605
Tazewell1468
Warren1430
Knox1360
Cass1346
Morgan1303
Monroe12913
Williamson1224
Adams1061
Jefferson10617
McDonough10215
Lee982
Henry931
Vermilion772
Pulaski760
Marion680
Perry561
Douglas540
Macoupin543
Livingston502
Jasper477
Jo Daviess461
Montgomery461
Unassigned460
Christian454
Ford371
Jersey351
Woodford342
Bureau292
Franklin270
Menard240
Fayette233
Alexander220
Carroll222
Mason220
Wabash220
Mercer210
Piatt210
Washington210
Johnson200
Hancock191
Moultrie190
Shelby191
Crawford180
Logan160
Clark150
Fulton150
Massac150
Wayne141
Bond131
Effingham131
Schuyler130
Cumberland120
Brown100
Edgar100
De Witt90
Greene90
Marshall90
Saline90
Henderson80
Lawrence70
White60
Hamilton50
Richland40
Stark40
Pike30
Clay20
Edwards20
Gallatin20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Pope10
Putnam10
Scott10
Out of IL00

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 46915

Reported Deaths: 2681
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11499683
Lake5053242
Elkhart316443
Allen2717128
St. Joseph186366
Cass16369
Hamilton1518100
Hendricks1386100
Johnson1254118
Porter71237
Tippecanoe6778
Madison64864
Clark63844
Bartholomew58244
Howard56057
LaPorte55326
Kosciusko5124
Vanderburgh4806
Jackson4653
LaGrange4657
Noble45728
Hancock43735
Boone43443
Delaware42949
Marshall4273
Shelby42025
Floyd37144
Morgan32531
Montgomery29320
Grant29026
Clinton2852
Monroe26628
Dubois2646
White26010
Decatur24832
Henry24315
Lawrence23624
Vigo2288
Dearborn22723
Harrison21022
Warrick21029
Greene18432
Miami1812
Jennings17111
Putnam1688
Scott1607
DeKalb1594
Daviess14116
Orange13523
Wayne1346
Perry1279
Steuben1262
Franklin1248
Jasper1142
Ripley1147
Carroll1102
Wabash1102
Fayette987
Newton9710
Whitley884
Starke853
Randolph784
Huntington712
Wells711
Jefferson701
Fulton681
Jay680
Washington661
Knox630
Pulaski621
Clay604
Gibson592
Rush563
Adams481
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Blackford372
Posey360
Spencer351
Fountain302
Tipton301
Crawford290
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Warren141
Union130
Vermillion130
Pike90
Unassigned0193