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FAQ Smart Home

Facebook Portal refresh: 7 things you need to know in 2019

Facebook expands its smart home reach with a refresh that includes two new devices.

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Facebook introduced two new Portal devices in addition to a refresh of its 10-inch Portal smart screen this week.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook announced an update to its Portal line of smart displays this week, including a revamped version of its 10-inch smart display, as well as the addition of a Portal Mini 8-inch display and Portal TV, a set-top device that uses your television as a screen. They join the first-edition Portal Plus, which has not been updated. The devices are designed primarily with video calling in mind and are controlled using Facebook's own "Hey, Portal" voice service, as well as via built-in Alexa functionality.

With 2018's Cambridge Analytica scandal still stirring up controversy, Facebook says it has made the Portal more private this year by keeping the microphone and camera turned off by default. Conversations over privacy have eclipsed sales of Portal devices over the last year, making clear the social networking giant is battling its own reputation for market share. Not to mention, stiff competition from the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon have further thwarted Facebook's attempt to stake a serious claim in the fast-growing smart home space. 

Even if you're not considering buying hardware from a company still at the heart of continuing privacy concerns, here's what you need to know about Facebook's new line of Portal smart devices, including what it says about how Facebook plans to manage your data going forward.

Facebook Portal 2019

Facebook Portal can be used in either landscape or portrait orientations.

Juan Garzon/CNET

What does Facebook Portal do?

Since its inception last year, Facebook Portal mostly lets you video chat with your Facebook friends. The unit sits on a desk or table or near your TV, and the camera follows as you walk around, so you can talk to someone completely hands-free while doing other things. The camera can automatically pan and zoom to focus on you, even in a room full of people. It also has a voice-enhancing microphone that minimizes background noise. 

When you're not on a call, Portal can show pictures from your Facebook photo albums, or display birthday reminders and the weather.

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You can also use the Portal's speakers to play music from Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio, or from other music services connected through Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, such as Apple Music or Amazon Music. For everything else, like YouTube Music, BandCamp and others, you can connect an iPhone or Android device to Portal via Bluetooth.

Finally, Portal can do anything an Amazon Echo device can do, thanks to its built-in Alexa. That means controlling smart home devices, running routines and loading any of Alexa's tens of thousands of Skills.

What's the difference between a Portal, Portal Mini, Portal Plus and Portal TV?

The main difference between the Portal, Portal Mini and Portal Plus devices comes down to screen size. The Portal has a 10-inch screen, the Portal Mini an 8-inch screen and the Portal Plus a 15.6-inch screen. All three Portal displays can be set to landscape or portrait mode. 

Portal TV connects to your TV so it can use that larger screen as the main display for making video calls, while using the device's The own camera and microphone, rather than the TV's. 

Facebook Portal 10

Facebook Portal devices feature a physical on/off switch for controlling the camera and microphone.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Are Facebook Portal devices secure?   

Facebook claims its Portal gadgets don't listen to, view or keep your video calls, nor do they use your calls for advertising purposes. Portal video calls are encrypted, and the camera and microphone's AI technology runs locally on the devices themselves -- not on Facebook servers. 

Facebook also says the Portal's camera doesn't identify you specifically, unlike the Google Home Hub Max smart display, which uses face data to create separate user profiles

Finally, there are software switches in device settings allowing you to turn off the camera and microphone, as well as a mechanical mute switch and a physical camera cover if you want to go the extra mile. 

Like most companies in the smart home space, Facebook does admit to collecting some data, like how often you make calls and how long those calls last. It also keeps recordings of the voice commands you speak to the Portal, which may be reviewed by humans for quality assurance and software improvements. Like other brands, Facebook lets you access and delete this data from their servers.

Who are Portal devices for?

For Facebook Portal video calling to work, you have to already have either a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp account, and so do the friends and family you'll be calling. They don't have to have a Portal device -- it communicates just as well with the Messenger and WhatsApp apps on iPhone or Android phones and tablets, as well as with anyone signed into the Messenger website or WhatsApp app on a Mac or PC.

How do I make video calls?

To place a call, select a Facebook friend's icon on the Portal screen (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.

Facebook Portal TV

Facebook Portal TV is one of the first smart home devices to use your TV as a display.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Once in a call, you can do more than just talk. You can also 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.

We're still waiting on Facebook to explain how calling with WhatsApp works on Portal.

How much do the new Portals cost?

  • Portal Mini: $129
  • Portal: $179
  • Portal Plus: $279
  • Portal TV: $149

Facebook also offers a $50 discount if you buy any two devices at the same time. UK and Australian pricing hasn't been announced for the new models.

Where can I buy one?

First-generation devices are still available on Amazon, Best Buy, B&H and New Egg. Right now only the Portal Plus is shipping from Facebook's Portal online store, with the second-generation Portal as well as Portal Mini and Portal TV available for preorder with a ship date of Nov. 5. You can also preorder the new Portals from Amazon.

For a deeper dive into the privacy concerns raised by Facebook Portal, considering Facebook's track record with regards to personal data, check out our in-depth analysis here. Facebook Portal isn't the only smart home device raising eyebrows when it comes to privacy, either. Google Home Hub Max doesn't just watch you, it knows who you are, too.