First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini play to their strengths

Facebook's smart speaker is back. Now say hello to its little friend

First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini
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The first Facebook Portal was a weird one. Here was a company launching a smart display at a time when its privacy and hardware track records were in shambles – and it was asking us to put its camera in our homes?

It made the Portal a difficult sell, despite some admittedly cool tricks. But the company is taking another stab with the new Portal and Portal Mini, which overhaul the design of the first two Portal speakers (which included the Portal+, don't forget) and introduce WhatsApp video calling.

Oh, and they're joined by Portal TV, a camera that connects to your television via HDMI and turns it into a giant video calling device.

Essential reading: Our guide to the best smart speakers around

But Facebook is acutely aware of how saturated the smart speaker market is, and how Amazon and Google have it largely sewn up. With its new Portal displays, it's doubling down on video calling, and leaning on the knowledge that Facebook has billions of users – even more if you throw in WhatsApp – along with some impressive camera technology, which it believes gives Portal an edge.

The price is also nicer: $179 for the Portal and $129 for the Portal Mini.

First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini double down on their strengths

The Portal has a 10-inch display while the Portal Mini's measures 8 inches. Both are designed to look like photo frames, and both come in the choice of black or white.

The original Portal had a much blockier, Echo Show-like look to it, but the new models are designed to better blend into the home on a bookcase or nightstand. Side by side with the OG Portal, the design shift is dramatic – and definitely for the better, we'd say.

When not being used for calling, Portal will scroll through a slideshow of photos, which can include pics from your Facebook or Instagram if you allow it to.

First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini double down on their strengths

Cameras and privacy

The headline feature of Portal is video calling, which takes place through Messenger and, now, through WhatsApp. You can have the Portal assistant initiate Messenger calls with a "Hey Portal, call [name]".

However, WhatsApp calls will need to be made using the touchscreen. This is because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and initiating a video call by voice would require sending contact information to the cloud.

Of course, exclusively Portal-to-Portal video calling would be ridiculously limiting. Portal also lets you video chat with someone using Messenger or WhatsApp on their phone, and you'll be able to use the various AR effects between devices. If you're calling on WhatsApp, you won't get access to the AR games – otherwise, it seems like the experiences are identical.

The more functional AI will work the same for both Messenger and WhatsApp video calls too, panning and zooming to keep everyone in the frame as you move around the room.

Both Portal speakers have a 114-degree field of view, which is bumped up to 140 degrees if you buy the Portal+. Facebook thinks 114 degrees is enough, as it believes most people tend to stay reasonably close to the camera while on a call.

And if there are multiple people in the room, the camera will pick them up and zoom out so they're visible too.

First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini double down on their strengths

During a media briefing, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's AR and VR vice president, declared almost boastfully that some other smart speakers on the market have avoided cameras altogether, while the Portal goes all in.

Facebook's betting that technology will trounce privacy concerns, but the proof will be in the sales. That said, Facebook is still treading carefully by adding a physical shutter that can conceal the camera, along with a red light that will show up when the mic is off.

It's also being more transparent about how it collects and uses data. You'll now be able to choose to opt in or out of Portal's voice training. Opt in and all your "Hey Portal" voice interactions will be stored on Facebook's cloud servers, some of which may be used to improve Portal. Facebook says it uses a mixture of internal and contracted reviewers for this.

Users will be notified explicitly about this during setup. You'll also be able to listen to and delete individual recordings, or wipe them all at once, in the Portal settings.

First look: Facebook Portal and Portal Mini double down on their strengths

Alexa, Spotify and more

Other than make calls and give you weather updates, Facebook's assistant can't do a lot else, so Alexa is built in too. That means you'll be able to use the Portal like an Echo speaker if you have other Alexa-connected smart home devices.

There's also Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio apps. Sound quality was surprisingly good on the first Portal, and both the new models come with two full-range drivers and a single two-inch woofer.

We got a short demo of Spotify running on the larger Portal, and it sounded decent enough in a kitchen, but it's hardly going to keep Sonos up at night. Spotify multi-room won't be supported out the door, but Facebook told us it's on the roadmap.

As for video, there will be several apps to choose from, including Amazon Prime Video, Showtime, CBS All Access and Starz. Facebook promises more down the road, too. And of course, let's not forget Facebook Watch. That's also on here.

Early verdict

It's almost better to think of this less as a "smart speaker" and more directly as a "Facebook speaker". Yeah you've got Alexa, Spotify and a few other, but Facebook really sees you using this as a video calling device.

If you're someone who lives and breathes Facebook services, the Portal is probably an easy sell. For everyone else, I'm not so sure. We'll have a better idea when we can give the new Portal speakers the full review treatment after it releases on 15 October.

TAGGED    speakers

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