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Facebook Portal Plus review: Facebook Portal is an excellent video chat device held back by Facebook's trust problems

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The Good The cameras in Facebook's $349 Portal Plus and $199 smart displays skillfully track people around a room, making you feel like you're actually there with them.

The Bad They're expensive and don't have any standout features beyond their autotracking cameras. You can't use a Portal if you aren't a Facebook user -- or don't use the Facebook Messenger service. Facebook could target the ads you see based on the length and frequency of your Portal video calls.

The Bottom Line Facebook's Portal Plus and Portal displays make video calling much more immersive, but high prices, a slightly awkward design (for the Plus version specifically) and some lingering privacy questions make them a tough sell for most.

6.5 Overall
  • Features 6
  • Usability 7
  • Design 6
  • Performance 8

"If you can't be there, feel there." 

That's a tag line Facebook's using to advertise its new $349 Portal Plus and $199 Portal smart displays

Facebook envisions its new Portal product line as a way to bring you closer to your inner circle of Facebook contacts. The lower-cost Portal looks like Amazon's Echo Show ($230 at Amazon) video chat device. Meanwhile the Portal Plus offers the same functions, but with a larger screen and a unique design that looks something like a pygmy robot giraffe.

By way of the touchscreen on either Portal device, or invoking the "Hey Portal" voice assistant, you can initiate a video call with your Facebook contacts. Portal video calling is accessible exclusively to users of the Facebook Messenger text and video chat service. Your contacts don't need a Portal of their own to receive a call, but at minimum they need to use either Facebook's Messenger app or the Messenger web interface.

What distinguishes the Portal Plus and the Portal from the Echo Show, competing devices powered by Google or even a phone with a decent video chat application like Apple's FaceTime, is the Portal camera. On both Portal devices, the camera boasts a 140-degree field of view, which gives you a much larger look at a caller's environment. The camera can automatically pan and zoom around the video image -- thanks to a feature called Smart Camera -- to concentrate on the person in the frame. Another feature, called Spotlight, tells the camera to focus on a specific person when there are multiple people on screen.

Commentary: Hey, Mark Zuckerberg, is Facebook Portal the wrong product at the wrong time?

The overall effect of the Portal's excellent camera is an expansive view of the caller's environment, and an improved sense of closeness for the viewer. It makes you feel like you're there with the people on the other side of the screen in a way that competing video chat devices and services can't duplicate right now.

As compelling as that experience might be, Facebook doesn't have the best reputation right now in terms of its ability to act responsibly with customer data. How do you feel about letting Facebook put a device with a microphone and an excellent camera into your home? More than any of the Portal's product shortcomings, and there are a few, Facebook's history of privacy-related issues might be the largest obstacle to its success.

Aside from the heebie-jeebie factor, the Portal Plus and Portal smart displays are great for video chatting. They just don't have much use otherwise. Their speakers aren't as good as some of the other smart speakers we've reviewed, and they're missing some features. I would have liked to see a smart home control screen or integration with other services such as maps, restaurant reviews or Google searches. These are the touches that make other smart displays so appealing.

If you're fine with those limitations, and you're not bothered by Facebook's handling of user data, the Portal Plus or the Portal could still work for you. (Note that both are US-only for now.) Anyone with family members who live far away will appreciate the illusion of being in the same room as the person they've called. That just may not be enough to offset Portal's larger issues. 

Read more: Will Facebook Portal spy on you?

Privacy matters

Millions of Facebook user's profiles were exploited in an international scandal first reported by The New York Times and the Guardian and Observer back in March, involving UK-based data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. Concerns about data misuse spread as lawmakers, advertisers, shareholders and the media asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for answers

At least two Facebook data breaches have taken place since Cambridge Analytica, putting the social networking site's privacy policies further into question. Around the same time, Facebook announced its Portal Plus and Portal smart displays. If you're thinking it's a strange time for Facebook to announce camera-equipped smart speakers that go inside your home, you'd be right. 

Facebook has outlined its Portal privacy info on this support page. The page says it doesn't listen in on or "keep the contents" of your Portal calls, but a spokesperson told us that Facebook will, in fact, track information about calls made via Portal to expand on the user profiles it uses to inform ads that show up elsewhere. The company elaborated in an email to Recode

"Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads," the Facebook spokesperson said. 

Basically, you could be targeted for ads based on the length and frequency of your video calls, but the specifics of your calls -- that is, exactly what you've said -- will be encrypted. 

Given Portal's microphone, it also bears mentioning the allegation that Facebook listens to our conversations through our phones to help it serve up ads. That would would be an unauthorized, deeply intrusive method of gathering data. Founder Mark Zuckerberg denied accusations of eavesdropping to Congress earlier this year, but the reality remains that consumers have the perception that Facebook uses the information it gathers in ways that feel creepy or detrimental to society. Anyone thinking of buying a Portal should consider that context before making a purchase.

The Portal looks similar to the Amazon Echo Show, but the large Portal Plus stands alone in terms of smart display design.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The basics

If you decide you're OK bringing a Portal or a Portal Plus into your home, and you have a deep-enough roster of contacts willing to talk with you, you'll get to enjoy what may be the best video chat platform on the market today.

Setting up a Portal Plus or a Portal display is easy. Plug in the device and follow the prompts on the screen to configure it. You'll have to sign into your Facebook account, enter a code displayed on the Portal and provide your local Wi-Fi info. It's all pretty straightforward and should only take a few minutes. Thankfully, the touchscreen display is responsive and easy to use. 

The contacts page is essentially your Portal homepage. It's where you can see your list of Facebook friends and add "favorites" that appear in a separate section. Creating that list of favorites makes it easier to see when the people you chat with most often are online and available for a video call. Swipe the screen to the left and you can see a rundown of the Portal apps and access the settings screen. 

From the settings screen you can customize your display after the initial setup in a variety of ways. Select image galleries from your Facebook and Instagram accounts to create a randomized slideshow screensaver when you aren't actively using your Portal device. You have a lot of control over which specific image galleries you share -- your photos versus photos other folks have tagged you in, and so on.

If you don't want to display images from your own Facebook account, that's fine too. Your Portal will instead rotate through a variety of nature scenes.

The apps offered on Portals are limited today. There's IHeartRadio, Food Network, Newsy, Pandora and Spotify (Premium only). Ask Facebook's "Hey Portal" voice assistant to open the apps -- or tap on them on the display screen. The apps are fine, but, again, there aren't many right now -- where's Instagram, Portal? The apps are also limited when it comes to what's actually available on them.

 A short video on the Portal's Food Network app showed me how to turn a watermelon into a keg holding a delicious-looking watermelon juice mixed drink, but there wasn't a voice-assistant-guided recipe tutorial like you can find on the Google Home Hub ($149 at Google Store), the Amazon Echo Show and other smart displays. I tried to open Spotify as a free subscriber, but it only works for folks with the Premium service.

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