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Smart Home

7 things you need to know about Facebook Portal

Considering buying Facebook's new smart display? Here's what you need to know about the Portal.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Facebook's joined Google and Apple in the world of smart displays with the Facebook Portal and Portal Plus. These two displays are designed primarily with video calling in mind and have Amazon's Alexa voice assistant on board, plus Facebook's own "Hey, Portal" voice service.

Interested in getting one? Here's what you need to know.

What does Facebook Portal do?

The Portal is a new way to video chat with your Facebook buddies. Think about how many times you've video messaged someone with your phone and your arm's cramped from holding the camera just right. That's not a problem with the Portal. 

The unit sits on a desk or table and the camera follows you as you walk in a 140-degree field of view, so you can talk to someone completely hands-free while you do other things. The camera can automatically pan and zoom to focus on you, even when you're in a room full of people. It also has a voice-enhancing microphone. 

Who is this for?

The people most likely to buy a Portal, in my opinion, will be those who already use Messenger to communicate with their friends and family on a regular basis. I know my teen loves it because she primarily uses Messenger to contact, well, everyone. She hates texting and making regular phone calls. So the Portal is a great fit.

I can also see Portal being a big hit for anyone planning to video stream an event, such as a wedding or birthday party, to friends and family.

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What's the difference between a Portal and Portal Plus?

The difference between the two devices really comes down to size. The Portal has 720p resolution and a 10.1-inch screen, while the Facebook Portal Plus has 1080p HD resolution and a 15.6-inch screen. 

Screen orientation is also different. The Portal is always stuck in landscape mode while you can switch between landscape and portrait view with the Portal Plus. 

How much does it cost?

There's quite a price jump between the two devices. Portal is $199 USD and Portal Plus is $349. You can get a special deal if you buy two, though. 

Facebook is offering $100 off any two Portal devices, which means a bundle of two Portals will cost you $298. One Portal and one Portal Plus costs $448 and two Portal Plus speakers is $598.

Where can I buy one?

As of November 8, Facebook Portal and Portal Plus are available for purchase in the US at Facebook's Portal online storeAmazon and Best Buy

How does the video calling work? 

My first concern about Portal was making video calls with my friends. Don't they need a Portal, too? Turns out as long as they have Facebook's Messenger app or use the Messenger web interface, they can connect with you on your Portal. 

To place a call, all you do is select your friend's icon (all of your friends on Messenger will be listed once you set the device up) and say "Hey Portal, call [contact]." You can talk to up to seven people in a group call.

You can do more than just talk to your contact. While you're on a call, you can try on AR masks or share music from Spotify and Pandora. There's also a special story mode, so parents or grandparents can read young ones a story, complete with on-screen graphics, AR effects and music.

What does it do when you're not on a call?

There are a couple of features that make the Portal useful when you're not on a call. You can set up the display to show pictures from your Facebook photo albums, or show birthday reminders and the weather using a feature called Superframe.

You can also use the speakers to play music from Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio or from Bluetooth compatible devices.

Is the Portal secure?   

You have every reason to be concerned about security and privacy on Facebook. The company's track record isn't great.

That said, Facebook says it doesn't listen to, view, or keep your video calls and they don't use your calls for advertising purposes. For added security, Portal video calls are encrypted, and the camera and microphone's AI technology runs locally on Portal -- not on Facebook servers. 

Plus, Facebook says that the Portal's camera doesn't identify who you are. What all of this means is your calls should be safe, though Facebook does admit that they collect some data, like how often you make calls, how long those calls are and keeps logs of the voice commands you speak to the Portal.

Still concerned? You can learn more about the Portal's security and privacy settings, here.

Anything else I need to know?

There's one big thing that makes the Portal less than ideal: You must be a Facebook member to use it. So, if you were planning on sending one to grandma for Christmas and she refuses to join Facebook (like my mom) then you're out of luck. 

Facebook's Portal video device launches amid privacy concerns

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