Facebook Portal makes video chatting while quarantined so much better—here’s why
If you're looking for the best way to stay connected to your loved ones during quarantine, the Portal might be it
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It’s easy to use your smartphone or laptop to see your friends and family, but Facebook Portal, a smart video display that features Amazon Alexa, makes quarantine video chat awesome with its augmented reality effects and other cool features.
What is Facebook Portal?
Facebook Portal is a smart video display screen that closely resembles a picture frame. The high-definition touchscreen display is sold in two colors (black and white) and comes in three screen sizes:
The device uses Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to make video calls, but the person you’re trying to call doesn’t need a Portal to answer your call—just a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp account. All three Portals can be used in landscape or portrait orientations, or you can use Portal TV to broadcast your video calls onto your television screen. During video calls, Facebook Portal’s smart camera automatically follows you around the room.
As for sound, the Portal and Portal Mini have front-porting stereo speakers and a rear woofer. The Portal Plus, which comes with its own stand for rotation purposes, comes with two-inch tweeters and a four-inch woofer.
After linking your account during setup, you can use Alexa on the Portal at any time by saying her name. You can also say “Hey Portal” to summon the speaker’s native smart capabilities. For example, to call a friend you can say, “Hey Portal, call [contact name].” You can also get the forecast and check out the latest headlines (among other handy features) by saying, “Hey Portal, good morning.”
Portal plugs into any standard electrical outlet and connects via WiFi.
What we like
A smart camera that automatically pans and zooms
I first tested the Portal Mini’s smart camera during a Facebook Messenger video call with family while I was putting away groceries. As I moved back and forth across my kitchen, I was impressed by the camera’s ability to keep up with me.
Where the smart camera really shines, though, is with young kids (or at least mine, who are in constant motion). It also must drive my parents crazy to stare at the ceiling whenever my daughter sets her tablet down during a FaceTime call. The Portal Mini camera keeps my kids in view at all times, making video calls so much better.
However, the camera’s movements are a bit slow. As soon as I started moving, I noticed a short delay, about two or three seconds, before the camera began to follow. This has no impact on the audio or video quality, but it's something to be aware of if you plan on being mobile during your chat.
As for the camera’s privacy, Facebook says it uses artificial intelligence technology, which runs locally on your Portal, not on Facebook’s servers. The company also states that all WhatsApp calls are end-to-end encrypted, which means no one else but you and the other caller has access to your private chat.
Doubles as a digital picture frame
Facebook Portal pulls images from your connected Facebook and Instagram accounts to display on the screen. Although digital picture frames aren’t anything new—and it’s not Portal’s primary function—I enjoyed seeing my old Facebook and Instagram photos on display more than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a Facebook account since 2006, so the photo frame feature is like a trip down memory lane. The Portal app also allows you to select only specific photos, just in case you don’t want your college photos from 2006 on display in the living room.
During a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp video call, anyone with a Portal or Portal Mini can turn on augmented reality effects like Story Time. This fun feature is similar to a Snapchat filter and transforms the Portal's screen into an interactive storytime experience for kids.
Loved ones can easily follow along as the words appear on the screen to read classic tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Other popular book series for kids like “Llama Llama,” “Pete the Cat,” and “Otto” are also available on Portal. In times of social distancing—and for friends and family who don’t live nearby—Story Time is a really nice way for loved ones to stay in touch with younger family members.
Good sound and even better video quality
Despite being the smallest of the bunch, the Portal Mini pumps out good sound, similar to what you might get out of a smaller smart speaker. It gets the job done without audio issues during video calls. Our smart home editor, Sarah Kovac, has also been impressed with the speaker on the (much larger) Portal Plus.
Another thing to love is the Portal’s clear display screen during video calls. Portal Mini has a 13-megapixel camera and 114-degree field of view that made everyone in my video chats look good. And with four far-field microphones, there’s no need to shout at the Portal Mini during video calls.
What we don’t like
Not enough video chat options
Don’t get me wrong, millions of people use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to stay in touch with friends and family, but I do wish there was a way to utilize other video chatting platforms (like Zoom or Google Hangouts) on Portal. Since Portal’s primary function is video calling, it would also be nice to have other options, like being able to sync my cell phone with Portal to make calls that way.
I was really excited to get Facebook Portal out of the box, but it took a good 20 minutes to get up and running. After connecting to my WiFi, Portal took 15 minutes to install an update and another five minutes to get the rest set up. In the grand scheme of things, this is a really minor problem to have. But for comparison’s sake, Google's Nest Hub Max took a lot less time.
I haven’t had to run any updates since setting the device up, but I’m wary about how long the next update, whenever that may be, will take to install.
No Google Assistant functionality
Amazon Alexa is the most popular smart assistant out there, but I prefer to use Google Assistant to control my smart home. It can handle up to three requests at once and is easier to engage with during everyday use. Portal could improve by adding the option to choose between Alexa and Google Assistant, like the Sonos Move does.
Ah, yes, inviting Facebook into the everyday workings of your household sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? After all, Facebook was hit with $5 billion in fines from the Federal Trade Commission in 2019 for violating consumer privacy laws.
However, Portal comes with a few features to help protect your privacy. The camera and microphone can be turned off by sliding the switch on the top left portion of the device. Unlike the Nest Hub Max, Facebook Portal comes with a physical shutter that covers the camera—not just a switch. And then there's the signal light on the front of Portal, which turns red when the microphone and camera are off. Only a touch of the physical button can turn it back on when muted.
You can also control who accesses your Portal by setting a passcode. As a mom of two kids, I appreciate this feature because I do not want my kids accidentally calling a random friend from Facebook that I haven’t talked to in several years.
The other thing to remember is that the device uses third-party apps like Amazon Alexa, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Facebook Messenger. Even if you’ve adjusted the privacy settings on the Portal itself, you’ll still want to check your privacy settings on each of these apps, as well.
Finally, you can delete your voice interactions with Portal in the device’s settings menu or from your Facebook Activity Log. Voice interactions can also be turned off entirely in Portal’s Settings.
Is Facebook Portal Mini worth it?
It really depends on how you’re going to use it. If you’re looking for a smart display to control your smart home, I’d recommend going with a more robust option like the Amazon Echo Show or Nest Hub. If your primary use is going to be making hands free video calls to friends and family using Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, then the Facebook Portal could be just what you need.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.