Six months after reviewing the first batch of Portal devices, I cancelled my Facebook account. Not only were the $349 Portal Plus (now $279) and the $199 Portal (replaced by this new redesigned $179 Portal, reviewed here) not compelling enough to draw me back into Facebookland, but testing them helped me realize that it was, in fact, time to grab the photos and messages from my otherwise idle account and call it a day.
Facebook did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.
So, why would folks want to put a Facebook video-chat device with a built-in camera, microphone and speaker in their homes at the same time news of data breaches and ads with false information are flooding in? Short answer: they don't, or at least most people don't.
This September, Facebook announced a second-gen Portal and two additional video-chat products -- the $129 Portal Mini and the $149 Portal TV. In addition to my concerns about privacy, I had a new problem: I needed a Facebook account to test the Portal -- and someone else willing to lend their login info to a second Portal to try out Portal-to-Portal calling via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. (The person you're calling doesn't have to have a Portal device. They just need Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but the effects and features will be limited on their end of the call.)
Of the seven colleagues in my immediate vicinity to ask, only one volunteered their account, and only then with some hesitation. Everyone else either didn't have Facebook or didn't feel comfortable enough with the state of Facebook privacy to share their info on a video-chat device. Eventually, someone else offered their account for use on the second Portal device, but with significant reservations. I don't blame 'em.
With the account hiccup out of the way, I dug into Facebook's Portal privacy policies and tested the new Portal hardware and features. I still don't recommend that you buy into Facebook's smart display ecosystem. Here's why.
The new Portal costs $179 (£169), making it the most affordable 10-inch smart display. Setting it up is as simple as plugging it in, logging into your Facebook account and following the prompts to add your Wi-Fi credentials -- and to customize your settings.
Customizations include setting your favorite contacts and managing what photos display on the screen when it isn't otherwise in use. You can also log into your Spotify account (free Spotify works on the Portal, but only Spotify Premium works during calls) or your Amazon account to use Alexa voice controls.
Like the last-gen Portal, this model works with Facebook's "Hey Portal" voice assistant, in addition to Alexa. Use "Hey Portal" for basic controls on the device, like initiating a call, turning on in-call effects (like disco ball) and opening Spotify and other apps. Alexa functions like it does on any other smart display with the exception of echo spatial perception, a feature that's supposed to make only the closest connected Alexa device answer when you say the wake word. Facebook claimed Alexa ESP worked on the last Portal, but it never worked for me. The same is true this time around, although every other Alexa test I ran it through worked as expected -- from adjusting a smart thermostat to getting a local weather report.
I still find it confusing that "Hey Portal," the native voice assistant, can't perform all of the same functions as an Alexa or a Google Assistant. Instead, you need "Hey Portal" to place a call and Alexa to control smart home devices. It's a confusing hodgepodge where neither assistant can do everything you need, so you have to remember which one to use before initiating any commands.
If you don't have an Alexa account or otherwise aren't interested in using "Hey Portal" or Alexa, you can always scroll and click around on the responsive touchscreen display to get where you want to go.
The main Portal screen displays your favorite contacts and a button to view and scroll through all of your contacts on Facebook Messenger and on WhatsApp. The addition of WhatsApp makes the Portal slightly more appealing since you aren't absolutely tied to using Facebook Messenger to video chat. While you can use "Hey Portal" to call Facebook Messenger contacts, you have to physically scroll through and select WhatsApp contacts to call. Saying, "Hey Portal, call Andrew Gebhart on WhatsApp," returns this response: "To call people on WhatsApp, find them in your Portal contacts. Then hit video."
Ah, well. Beyond that, a WhatsApp call is identical to a Facebook Messenger call.
When you answer a Messenger or WhatsApp call, you have the option on the display to add up to seven contacts to the call, add AR effects like filters, story time (where you become part of the story you're reading) and games. If you have Spotify Premium or Pandora, you can play music during the call too. You can also mute yourself and turn off the video.
While Facebook has added some new filters and games, this works much the same as it did before, with one exception. Facebook reduced the field of view on this Portal down to 114 degrees from 140. That's a major decrease in lens size and you can definitely tell. Facebook told me most people chat while sitting or standing near their Portal device and that's why it decided to drop the field of view down so much.
That makes sense, but one of its biggest features is its person-tracking capabilities, created so that you can cook dinner or otherwise go about your business while chatting on video with your friends and family. If most people are staying close to their Portal device while using it, I'm not sure the person-tracking feature has much use. Still, it worked as well as ever, following me and the person on the other end of the call as we walked around. It also did a good job framing multiple people in the video when two or more people were there.
And, like before, this Portal has Spotlight. If you don't want your Portal cam to frame everyone within its field of view, tap on the one person you want to see and the camera will focus on them as they move around the room. This works particularly well if you want to focus in on a kid who's more interested in running around than sitting still to chat with family in front of a camera.
My Portal arrived with some predownloaded apps like Pandora and Facebook Watch, Facebook's curated video player. But you can add more when you click on the Apps app. Some options include CNN News and Food Network. There still aren't a ton of choices here, but Facebook is slowly adding more. I downloaded the CNN app and was able to view video of the latest news and select top news by topics such as Business and Lifestyle.
One of the apps is a browser, too, so you can search Google, watch YouTube videos (there's no YouTube app) and more.
The Portal also underwent a design update. It looks less like its Google and Amazon counterparts and more like a digital photo frame -- and that was Facebook's intention. The look is fine to me, although the last iteration was fine too. But there are two important design changes that went into this version. The stand is different and the Portal can sit in either a landscape or portrait orientation; simply rotate it to switch it from one mode to the next. Keep in mind that when you're using your Portal in portrait mode, whoever you call will see you in portrait mode. That works well if your contact is on their phone, but less well if they're using their Portal in landscape mode. Still, it's easy to switch between the two.
Facebook also added a built-in shutter toggle for added privacy. From the camera's open position, slide the control over one stop to close the shutter and turn off the camera -- and two stops to turn off the microphone. A red light will turn on indicating that the camera and mic are off. You can also control your privacy settings in the Settings app on your Portal device.
You can lock your screen with a four-12 digit passcode.
Portal calls are encrypted.
Portal records and makes a transcript of your "Hey Portal" conversations.
Facebook keeps "Hey Portal" transcripts for "up to three years."
Facebook uses human reviewers to monitor "Hey Portal" conversations to improve its AI.
You can review, listen to and delete "Hey Portal" voice conversations.
The camera's AI tech runs locally rather than on Facebook's servers.
Facebook says it doesn't listen to or store recordings or transcripts of video calls.
The company gathers info on call frequency and duration.
All of that sounds pretty standard, but Facebook's going to have a hard time shaking how people feel about using the Portal amid its broader privacy issues as a social media company.
Privacy isn't just a Facebook problem -- concerns over user information and how it's used pervade the smart home and broader tech industry. The Google Nest Hub Max uses facial recognition tech to scan the faces of the people it sees to offer up their custom settings when they're near, raising privacy concerns of its own. Amazon gave its most recent smart display, the Echo Show 5, a built-in shutter similar to the Portal's, knowing that the seemingly small addition could help people to feel more secure in their own homes while using these devices.
Ultimately, it comes down to how you feel about your private data and what you're willing to share. At least Facebook has taken some steps to make it easier for Portal customers to control their cameras through the built-in shutter and their data in the Settings app.
Not today, Facebook
Are those privacy efforts enough to recommend the new Facebook Portal? Nope. As with the original Portal and the Portal Plus I tested last year, the new Portal is a solid video-chat device that I would never suggest buying, despite its design improvements like the rotating display and the added features such as WhatsApp (now available on the older-gen models too). Even the addition of the built-in shutter doesn't really change things for me.
The privacy concerns supersede any of the Portal's positive traits. My CNET colleague Ian Sherr was right when he asked if the Portal was the wrong device at the wrong time. It's still not the right time today, and I'm not sure it ever will be unless Facebook dramatically overhauls its policies around user data and policing its platform for misinformation.