Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

Facebook's video chat smart displays are on sale in the US

Facebook Portal guide
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Update: Our Facebook Portal review is now live. Check out our in-depth review of the social smart speaker.

Facebook is looking to take its social ambitions to a new arena with the Portal and Portal+, two screen-enabled smart speakers which are now on sale in the US.

We've seen these explode over the past year, with Amazon's Echo Show and Google's Home Hub and Smart Displays. But what are Facebook's Portal devices, how do they work and what's the deal with privacy on these things?

We've answered all those questions and more in this guide.

Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

Facebook Portal: Design

The Portal and Portal+ actually come in two very different designs. The regular Portal sports a 10.1-inch 720p display, and it looks a little similar to the Echo Show. Underneath the display you'll see a speaker. Up at the top, you'll see a 12MP camera with a 140-degree field of view.

You also have a four mic array and two full-range drivers to power sound. The Portal, like the Portal+, also has a physical latch for the camera so you know it's completely covered. There's also a button near the top that physically cuts out the mics and camera for privacy.

The Portal+ is much larger, sporting a 15.6-inch 1080p display. Rather than sitting short and squat, like the regular Portal, it's more of a tower – 17.71 inches high, more than double the height of the regular Portal. The large display can also swivel, so that it sits in either portrait or landscape mode.

The Portal+ also has better sound, with two tweeters and a 4-inch bass. Otherwise, the Portal and Portal+ are identical. Both have the exact same cameras, camera cover and mic arrays.

Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

Facebook Portal: Video chat

The Portals are built to be really good at one specific thing: Video chat. You can tell your Portal to call someone simply by saying "Hey Portal" and asking to call a friend. Since this is a Facebook product, the video chat is powered by Facebook Messenger. So you'll be video calling folks who have Messenger either on their phone or tablets.

It's not just simple video calling though, Facebook has gone ahead and added some special tricks to make video calling on the Portal a little more compelling. For instance, the camera can track your movements and follow you around as you move. It always keeps you in the frame, so you don't have to worry about moving out of it.

If there is more than one person in the room, the camera will zoom out to show all of you. It intelligently zooms into and out of the action so that everyone can stay in the frame. It also enhances voices and minimises background noise. In our testing, it was able to block out loud music and isolate just our voice. So don't worry, you can video chat your mum while you do the dishes without any worry.

Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

You can also do group calls with up to six people. Of course, everyone will need to have Facebook Messenger – not everyone will need a Portal though. There are also two other big features.

One is something called Storytime, which basically throws music, animation and augmented reality like face filters to help you tell stories for children. Think of this is a grandparent's ultimate toolbox for entertaining their grandchildren from far away. The other big feature is the ability to listen to content together.

You can watch and listen to Spotify music, iHeart Radio, Food Network, Newsy and, of course, Facebook Watch with your friends. So you can, you know, talk about recipes while watching Food Network or just sing and dance together from two separate places. This only works if both people have a Portal though. If someone is on Messenger on their phone or computer, it won't work.

Facebook doesn't want you to just sit down and stare at the Portal while you're video chatting with people, it wants you to do things at the same time. Whether that's listening to music, watching other videos, telling stories or even just doing the dishes. It basically wants you to be video chatting on Messenger all the live long day.

One big caveat here: You can't use "Hey Portal" to do things while video chatting. You're going to need to physically do them by tapping and swiping on the screen. However, it seems like this is something Facebook is working on addressing. When you try to use "Hey Portal" to do something like, say, play Spotify, Portal will tell you that it can't do it "yet".

Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

Facebook Portal: Smart features

While the Portal may be built for video chat, it does do other things. This is where you can throw away "Hey Portal" and focus on an assistant that's a little more familiar: Alexa. That's right, Alexa is built right into the Portal.

You can use Alexa for most of what you already use Alexa for. Control your smart home, set a timer, add items to your shopping list, ask for the weather, all that stuff is here. There are some differences between Alexa on Amazon devices and Alexa on Portal though. For instance, you can't use Alexa to video call people because, well, Portal devices are built for Messenger not for Amazon's budding chat service. However, you can use Alexa to power your smart home and get information like the weather and flash briefings.

Alexa isn't the only assistant that'll be on the Portal either – Google Assistant will be joining in on the fun at an as yet unspecified date. Other than smart assistants, the other big feature here is something called Superframe. Basically, the Portal pulls in your Facebook photos and videos and displays them when you're not on a call.

Facebook Portal
Facebook Portal

Similarly, you'll be able to see the Messenger status of your friends and family so you know when you can call them (the famous Facebook green dot). Facebook will even point out when someone comes online and is available for a video call, even going as far as using captions like "Try 'Hey Portal, call Donovan'". Since this is Facebook, you'll also get birthday reminders.

You're also going to get access to Facebook Watch, the company's YouTube competitor. This is actually pretty useful for following the news, as a lot of news services use Facebook, but you're mostly getting viral videos and comedy. Facebook Watch doesn't have as many content creators as YouTube, and it doesn't yet have original series like Netflix or Hulu.

Elsewhere, you've got a Chrome web browser that you can't sign into and a number of apps. These include apps for Spotify, iHeartRadio and Pandora. There are also Messenger games like Sudoko that you can play with your buddies. These extra features are nice to have, but seeing as this is a stationary display built for video chatting, it's not the most comfortable thing to do for longer than a couple minutes.

There's no general Facebook feed browsing, WhatsApp video calling or Instagram integration. However, Facebook does plan on unifying the technical infrastructure of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram messenger, so it's possible that those things are in the pipeline.

Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

Facebook Portal: Privacy

Facebook has been embroiled in privacy scandals for the better part of a year. Back at the beginning of 2018, there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It rocked the social media company so hard that Facebook actually delayed the release of the Portal.

But then there was another breach this September, where 50 million accounts were exposed. Saying that people are having trust issues with Facebook right now is putting it mildly. Putting a Facebook-made camera that tracks your body and is accompanied by microphones in your home seems like a downright bad idea.

Facebook seems to realise this, which is why it really wants you to know that there are not one, but two ways to cut off the video feed on your Portal. There's the cover that you can place over the camera, and then there's a button that physically disconnects the mic and camera.

When you press the button, you can only turn the mic and camera back on by pressing the button once more. The camera also only uses AI that runs locally on the Portal, and isn't transferred up to Facebook's servers. The company also says that it doesn't use facial recognition or identify who you are.

Read this: Facebook's Portal timing could not be worse

Facebook also says it doesn't listen to, view or keep the contents of your video calls – that's between you and your buds. These video calls are also encrypted, though it's not clear whether that's end-to-end.

You can also set a four to twelve digit passcode to secure the Portal and stop anyone else from using it. The only way to change the passcode is to use your Facebook password. And yes, there is an option that lets Portal know when you're away and when you're home. This uses your phone's location and your Portal's location. When it finds that they're in the same space, it knows that your Portal can be used for calls. When you're away from home, your calls will route through your phone. This is turned off by default. Like other smart speakers, the Portal is only listening for its wake words. In this case, it's both "Alexa" and "Hey Portal".

There are also some preventative measures to keep people from using apps under your account. For instance, Portal will ask you to verify your identity by logging into Facebook on a computer or smartphone for certain Portal apps, like Watch and the browser.

This is Facebook, so you may be wondering about ads. Well, Facebook says Portal doesn't have ads "at this time", which leaves the door open to ads at some point. And finally, your video calls will not show up on your Facebook feed, and you can only be contacted by your Facebook and Messenger contacts.

Facebook Portal: Price and release date

The Portal is available to buy now in the US from Facebook, Amazon and Best Buy. The smaller Portal is $199 while the bigger Portal+ is $349. You can also buy two regular Portals and save $100, getting them for $298 – the idea being that you can hand the second Portal to a beloved family member. No word yet on international availability.

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