Facebook’s Portal is a high-end home camera used for video conferencing. With an improved design, this year’s iteration better blends into home decors, and with a lower price, it’s attainable for a wider group of people.
However, this time too Facebook didn’t provide any assurance that it has solved the privacy concerns. People this time too blame this Facebook device for always-listening to voice, self-activating video cameras and accessing user data.
The new 10-inch Portal device looks like a picture frame that could fit into a row of family photos on a mantelpiece. It can be situated in either portrait or landscape orientation, and its build quality is fine for a $179 device (there’s also an 8-inch Portal Mini for $129).
The main attraction of this product line is its wide-angle video camera, which can automatically follow a person and zoom in on them as they move around a room during a chat. It neatly combines the unnerving and the magical aspects of technology, and if multiple people are present in the frame, the camera will move between them as they are talking and users can choose a person to focus on at any time.
In calls, you can pin animated masks, such as a dragon, over users’ faces and also modify their voices. That’s one small step toward giving people more control over what representations of themselves they send over the internet.
There are also options to share a book or listen to music together with the person on the other end of a call with the help of Spotify, Pandora or iHeartRadio. The integrated speaker sounds great for video chatting, but it isn’t likely to replace a dedicated music device.
The Portal platform still suffers from a pronounced paucity of apps, including ones to make video calls with that aren’t provided by Facebook itself.
Facebook is banking on its advanced camera to pull users away from more functional smart screens, but that feature alone probably isn’t enough for most people.
Amazon’s new Echo Show 8 costs the same as the smaller Portal, while Google’s Nest Hub Max costs $50 more than the Portal and is a much more comprehensive product thanks to Google’s smart assistant and web integrations. If users are looking just to video chat, that could also be accomplished via video conferencing capabilities now built into virtually every modern phone and tablet.
The main software screen on the Portal shows you a grid of your favorite contacts. Calls take place over Facebook Messenger so you can reach people on whatever device they have that app running. WhatsApp is also integrated. Beyond the main screen, there is a screen saver mode, which turns the Portal into a digital picture frame of your photos from Facebook.
In terms of privacy, Facebook’s hardware team is doing as much as it probably can. The Portal has a built-in mechanical shutter to cover the camera and the same toggle can also disable listening.
The device easily allows users to opt-out of having their voice command recordings stored and listened to by Facebook, though there isn’t a unified menu to simultaneously disable such a setting for both Facebook and Amazon’s onboard assistants.
Facebook also says that it doesn’t listen to or store any video calls and that those are encrypted. Those protections don’t change the fact that the Portal inherently is a Facebook product. That means, according to the company, that the Portal will collect information on user logins, if they made a call, and how often they used a particular feature.
Facebook says this is in order to inform which ads a user sees on Facebook. For example, Facebook says that if a user makes many video calls, they might see Facebook ads about video calling.