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Facebook Portal brings Alexa and Messenger video chats to one device

Its innovative camera makes video chats look like they were filmed by a professional camera operator.

The Portal Plus is dominated by a 15.6-inch screen.

James Martin/CNET

According to Facebook, people spend 1.5 billion minutes on video calls every day. To improve that experience, the social media giant on Monday announced its first "branded" hardware device, called the Portal.

The idea is simple: The Portal wants Messenger video chats to be more conversational. The tablet-like device was designed to remove the inconveniences of video calls, like holding a phone or having to stay in one place in front of a computer.

It keenly uses an AI-powered camera to pan, zoom and reframe the picture, allowing you move freely and naturally around.

The Portal's camera automatically follows and reframes you during a video chat.

John Kim/CNET

For example, when I was seated in front of the Portal, it framed my head and shoulders. But as soon as I stood up and moved across the room, it reframed the shot to a wider field of view. I didn't need to worry about constantly moving and adjusting the camera like I do when video chatting on a phone or tablet.

The Portal is like having a personal camera operator expertly film your chat. It could make Messenger video calls as much about the actual conversation as they are about sharing a moment cooking or playing with your kids.

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It starts at $199 and comes with Amazon's Alexa built-in, which is more of an add-on as opposed to a main feature. (UK and Australian pricing was not available but that converts to about £150 or AU$280.)

But do you really need a device whose main purpose is Facebook Messenger video chats in your home? And, given Facebook's history of account breaches and its generally mercenary vibe toward your personal data, how much do you trust it to protect your privacy?

The smaller Portal has a fixed 10.1-inch horizontal display.

James Martin/CNET

Portal and Portal Plus by Facebook

There are two models of Portal: a 10.1-inch version and a 15.6-inch one called the Portal Plus. On the inside, both run the same custom processors and software, but on the outside they couldn't look more different.

The smaller Portal has a screen fixed in a horizontal orientation with a speaker that makes up its base, kind of like the Lenovo Smart Display 10 or Amazon Echo Show 2. The Portal's screen is dotted like a letter "i" by a single camera.

The Portal Plus, on the other hand, looks as unique as it does large. On first glance, the tall vertical screen seems to float above the table, throwing some serious iMac G4 vibes. A side view reveals that the display is mounted on the back of a chair-shaped speaker and base.

The screen can rotate 90 degrees for a wider view of the caller on the other end. By the way, the screen hinge is addictively satisfying to use.

facebook-portal-plus-messenger-chat-2297

A view of the Portal Plus from the back.

James Martin/CNET

The Portal Plus' design is slick and premium and I wonder why the smaller Portal didn't take the same form.

One curious choice is that the name is relegated to the back: In large letters "Portal" sits above the smaller letters "by Facebook." Maybe this is in the same vein of a Leica M10 P camera, forgoing all obvious logos in favor of a simple elegant feel. Or perhaps Facebook doesn't want its own logo to get between you and your friends and family as you talk.

'Hey Portal, your camera is impressive'

To call someone via Messenger, you simply say, "Hey Portal, call Dave" -- or whatever the name is of the person you're calling. You can call any of your friends who are on Messenger whether or not they have a Portal device. You can also use the touchscreen to start a call.

After a quick confirmation, the call goes through and the video chat begins from what might be the Portal's best feature, its smart camera. The camera can follow movement, detect multiple people and even focus in on one with a feature called Spotlight.

Both the Portal and Portal Plus have a single camera that uses AI to reframe your video chat as you move.

James Martin/CNET

In my limited time trying a few Portal calls, the camera worked just as advertised. Obviously, we need to test the device further for a full review, but I'm impressed with the camera and interface.

I'm curious if Facebook will ever bring this AI camera software to the Messenger app and allow you to prop up a phone and imbue your selfie camera with the same video chat cinematographer smarts as the Portal.

Facebook and your privacy

With a renewed acute awareness on privacy, Facebook encrypts Messenger data locally on the Portal, meaning your data never goes online. But after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which affected the data of 87 million Facebook users and the "View As" vulnerability that affected 50 million people, is local encryption enough to convince people that the Portal is secure?

Both the Portal and Portal Plus encrypt your data on the device to protect your privacy.

James Martin/CNET

Ultimately, no matter how good the Portal is, placing a device with a camera in your home made by a company that mishandled your data is a big ask.

And it seems Facebook is aware of this, because the Portal has a physical mute button on the top and an actual camera cap to cover the lens when you're not chatting.

Chat effects, music sharing and story books

When you're on a video call, you can add Snapchat-like effects that can turn you into a carrot-eating rabbit or Groucho Marx, among other things. It can also place a cat on your head -- my favorite.

Yep, that's a cat on my head during a video call on the Portal.

John Kim/CNET

You can also share music you're listening to via Spotify, iHeartRadio or Pandora. Shared songs are synchronized for both you and the person you're chatting with.

One of the coolest features is Story Time: It has five interactive story books you can read, and Facebook is working with book publishers to add even more.

When you start a story book your screen becomes a mini-teleprompter displaying copy from the book. But as you read, the person on the other end sees drawings and animations. When I read a Three Little Pigs storybook, it added a Big Bad Wolf overlay to my face encouraging me to "act" out the role. The appeal of Story Time for families is immediately obvious and fun.

Facebook Portal has Amazon's Alexa

Yep, the Portal has Alexa which adds an immense amount of value to the device when you're not chatting. But unlike the Amazon Echo Show 2 and Google's smart display platform, the Portal is not meant to be a content and virtual assistant hub. Aside from Facebook Watch, it lacks dedicated video streaming services like YouTube and doesn't have a focused smart home device control screen like the ones found on other devices.

You can listen to Spotify and Pandora -- and the audio quality out of the Portal Plus speaker sounded good. It was demoed in a hotel room, so I look forward to having more time to test the audio elsewhere.

Also, when you're not making calls, the Portal can display Facebook photo albums that you choose as well as parts of your Newsfeed.

Portal pricing and availability

The Portal costs $199, while the Portal Plus is $349. If you bundle two of either model together, Facebook will take $100 off the combined price and offer to separately ship each Portal to different addresses.

To put this in perspective, the Amazon Echo Show 2 costs $230; the Lenovo Smart Display 10 is $250. And while the Portal is cheaper than either, the Portal Plus costs quite a bit more.

The Portal is available to order on Facebook, Amazon and Best Buy starting Monday and will ship in early November. Currently it's only available in the US.

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