Facebook Portal TV gives you a giant smart display, but I still don't care

Facebook video chatting is coming soon to the biggest screen in your house, along with a revamped Portal and a new Portal Mini, but I'm not sold.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
6 min read

The $149 Portal TV can connect to the top of your TV or sit below it on your media table.

James Martin/CNET

In a quaint Victorian house on a quaint park-adjacent corner of San Francisco on Tuesday, Andrew Bozworth, Facebook's VP of AR/VR, and Ryan Cairns, head of Portal devices, showed off three new products in the company's line of Portal smart displays. The $179 Portal is the second-generation version of the 10-inch Portal display first announced in October 2018. (International pricing isn't available, but the price converts to about £145 or AU$265.) The $129 8-inch Portal Mini and $149 Portal TV are new for the social media giant. They all perform the same basic tasks: video chatting, playing music, and showing your photos like a digital picture frame. 

While the Portal and the 8-inch Portal Mini have a fresh, boxy design, their focus is the same as last year's Portal screens: video chatting with your friends and family.

Facebook raised a lot of eyebrows when it introduced its first round of Portal devices last fall amid ongoing reports of privacy breaches. Why would customers want to buy a Facebook smart display with a built-in person-tracking camera at the same time that news about misuse of user data hits the headlines? That question remains today, but Facebook feels strongly about its Portal video chatting capabilities.

Watch this: Facebook leans into Portal video chatting with three new devices

"I think that in a couple years' time, if you are shipping a smart screen device that doesn't have a camera allowing you to video call people, you're not going to have a competitive product," Andrew Bozworth said to introduce the new products.

Video chatting was the main draw of the original Portal and the $349 Portal Plus , which Facebook will continue to sell at a reduced price of $279. And Portal devices are great for video chatting via cameras that cleverly track people around a room.

I was hoping to see a stronger effort to turn these things into proper smart displays, but their competitors still shine by comparison. The $229 Google Nest Hub Max and the $129 Google Nest Hub both offer an array of different features, and in particular excel as personal assistants in the kitchen.

Google's smart displays, as well as the Amazon Echo Show and the Amazon Echo Show 5 have solid smart home control screens and can even display the video feed from synced up smart home security cameras and video doorbells. Facebook's Portal line has none of those extras.

The Portal devices' reliance on both "Hey, Portal" and Alexa commands is strange, too. Yes, Facebook is reportedly working on its own voice assistant, but why introduce a product like this before the AI is available?

Yes, the Portal will soon support WhatsApp and work in several new countries, and the Portal and Portal Mini can rotate between landscape and portrait modes. Most other displays don't offer the same flexibility. Facebook also made a play to ease your privacy concerns with a built-in shutter that you open and close to cover and turn off the Portal cameras. Amazon offers a similar feature on its latest Echo Show. Google's new Nest Hub Max doesn't do that.

I'll hold off on final judgment until I get to test these things for real, but I'm still not sure they do enough to justify buying one -- even at more palatable prices.


The Portal TV comes with a remote.

James Martin/CNET

Portal history

Facebook introduced its first Portal devices last year by way of the $199 10.1-inch Portal and the $349 15.6-inch Portal Plus. Both the 720-pixel Portal and the 1080p Portal Plus are high-quality video chat devices, thanks to their 12-megapixel image sensors, 140-degree viewing angles and person-tracking capabilities.

The idea was sound. Buy a Portal for yourself and another for a loved one far away. Instead of holding up a phone or tablet to video chat with them as you move around your house, the stationary Portal devices follow you -- and them -- around a room. That way, you can cook dinner, play with your kids, essentially go about daily life, while having the sense that your family on the other end of the Portal is there with you.

Unfortunately, the Portals don't do much else, and some Portal functionality doesn't make sense. For instance, you have to use Facebook's own Portal voice AI via the wake phrase "Hey, Portal" to start a video call. But the Portal displays also have built-in Amazon Alexa speakers, and the way Portal is designed, you have to use "Hey, Portal" for certain commands and "Alexa" for others. Confusing.

You also have to have Facebook and use Facebook Messenger for Portal to work. Shortly after Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal and amid ongoing subsequent reports about misuse of user data, Facebook introduced its camera, speaker and microphone-equipped Portal product line. Why would customers want to bring a Facebook Portal display into their homes at the same time reports are coming out about significant privacy breaches?

Well, they didn't.

"In the US, we estimate that Facebook held just 1% of the overall US smart speaker market shipments in Q2 2019 compared to Amazon 40%, Google 35%, Apple 9%, Sonos 2%," according to research firm Strategy Analytics. They estimate that Facebook sold less than 300,000 Portal devices worldwide by the end of June 2019.

Facebook said the shipment estimates from Strategy Analytics weren't accurate, but declined to provide corrected numbers.

Facebook Portal 2019

The $179 Portal (left) and $129 Portal Mini (right) can rotate between landscape and portrait mode.

James Martin/CNET

Are these new Portals any better?

Yes and no. I don't mind the new look of the Portal and Portal Mini and their ability to rotate between landscape and portrait is a plus. The sloped base works just as well in either orientation and didn't seem wobbly to me when I moved them back and forth. I also like the built-in shutter and red status light that indicates when the mic is muted. A slide control at the top of the displays gives you easy access to see whether the camera and mic are on or off.

The Google Nest Hub Max has video chatting through Google Duo and the same ability as Portal devices to track people within the Hub Max's field of view. It also offers gesture controls to pause or continue playing music or a video. Amazon's Echo devices don't have any of this functionality, including person-tracking, but you can easily video call other Amazon Echo smart displays directly or use Skype.

Portal TV has a similar shutter that you can slide to cover the camera and open up again to show it. A separate button turns the mic on and off. The Portal TV base can either snap to the top of a TV, or act as a stand and sit on a media table under your TV. It comes with a remote, too, with a button that invokes Facebook's "Hey, Portal" AI.

The video content available currently on Portal TV, aside from video chatting via Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp is Showtime, CBS All Access, Starz, Pluto TV, Red Bull TV, Neverthink -- and Facebook Watch. Facebook Watch is Facebook's own curated video streaming content that works with Portal's co-watching service (where you can watch video content along with your Portal contacts). The Portal devices don't offer nearly the options of typical video streamers such as Roku or Amazon Fire TV -- or the content of streaming services such as Netflix.

So, the main benefit of the Portal TV today is simply a larger screen than the Portal, Portal Mini or original Portal Plus for video calling. I watched demos of Facebook Messenger calls and WhatsApp calls on the Portal TV. It has all the same functionality, including people tracking and Facebook's "spotlight" feature, which lets you select one person on the other end of your video chat for the camera to focus on.

Facebook Portal TV

Chat with friends and family while you lounge on the couch via the Portal TV.

James Martin/CNET

I was able to see what was happening more clearly on the Portal TV while sitting farther away. That's a bonus if you want to hang out on the living room couch and chat with friends and family from a slightly larger distance. A relative with a vision impairment might also appreciate the larger view screen.

All Portal devices still have augmented reality functions, too, where you can put on different masks -- one was your face breakfast-ized, surrounded by toast and eggs. Strange, but kind of funny. You can also play games with people on the other end of your Portal device. One that I saw involved wearing a bunny mask and trying to catch virtual donuts in your mouth. There are still story-time AR features, so you can read books to children and make yourself part of the story through masks and other graphics.

All three new Portal devices still use "Hey, Portal" to make calls and for other basic voice commands and Alexa for the rest.

The $179 Portal and $129 Portal Mini will go on sale on Oct. 15. The Portal TV goes on sale Nov. 5. The Portal Plus costs $279 starting today. I'm not sold on any of these devices right now, unless you love video chatting through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but I'll reserve judgment until we get to put them to the test.