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

You'll feel like you're really with the person on the other end of the screen. That almost doesn't matter.

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Megan Wollerton
meganwollertonportraits0719-23a

Megan Wollerton

Senior Writer/Editor

Megan Wollerton has covered technology for CNET since 2013. Before that, she wrote for NBC's Dvice.com (now SyFy). Megan has a master's degree from the University of Louisville and a bachelor's degree from Connecticut College, both in international relations. She is a board member of the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. When Megan isn't writing, she's planning far-flung adventures.

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13 min read

"If you can't be there, feel there." 

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6.5

Facebook Portal

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.

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 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.

Facebook's video calling smart display connects you with friends and family

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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.

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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, 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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A select number of apps are available on the Portal displays today.

James Martin/CNET

I also find it confusing that Portal has two different voice assistants. In some cases, devices have overlapping assistants that can perform roughly the same functions so you can pick one and ignore the other, say Google Assistant versus Alexa. With the Portal, you actually need both Alexa and "Hey Portal" to take full advantage of the voice integrations. 

Alexa voice commands work in much the same way as any Amazon smart speaker. You can ask Alexa to tell you the current time in Barcelona, ask for a joke or ask to adjust the smart thermostat in the other room. I couldn't get Echo Spatial Perception (ESP) to work with it, although Facebook says the feature works with Portals -- so when I said "Alexa," both my Portal Plus and a nearby Amazon smart speaker responded.

"Hey Portal" is different. It controls some of the smart display's core functionality -- adjusting speaker volume, placing video calls and opening Portal apps, but it doesn't offer the broad usability of Alexa or Google Assistant. You can't use it to search for answers to general queries. Hey Portal can't even play music on the Spotify app, it can only open it. So you really have two voice assistants performing the job that one should be able to handle. 

Video calling

Unlike the various Google-based smart displays, and even the Echo Show, the primary reason to buy either Portal is for making video calls. Facebook has made video calling incredibly easy, from the way it lets you establish "favorites" from your list of Facebook contacts, to the ease of saying "Hey Portal, call Mom," to initiate a call. 

Both the Portal Plus and the Portal have a camera with a 140-degree field of view, and an autotracking "smart camera" feature. That means you can essentially walk from one end of a room to the other and not only stay within your Portal's field of view, but the camera will also keep you centered on the screen. That's the beauty of these Facebook displays: None of the other smart displays track you around a space. 

Your friends and family don't actually have to have Portal Plus or Portal displays for you to use your Portal, either. As long as they have Facebook Messenger on their phone or tablet, they can track you around a room via your Portal's smart camera. Unfortunately, they'll appear on your Portal screen more like a regular video chat -- no camera tracking or other fancy features. You will need Facebook's Messenger 4, announced back in October, to communicate with a Portal from your phone or tablet. Facebook said it would "gradually roll out" Messenger 4 "over the coming weeks" in an Oct. 23 press release, so you likely already have it. 

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See which of your Facebook contacts are online from this screen.

James Martin/CNET

Video chatting with a Portal display is a unique experience. At one point my editor and I chatted, me with a Portal Plus, him with a Portal, in our respective homes. My two dogs were running around like maniacs. I tried to calm them with a sit and stay command for a couple of beef-flavored treats. They sat dutifully for their snacks and then took off playing and chasing each other around. My Portal Plus, in turn, dutifully followed me around the entire time, as I walked from the dining room to the kitchen to get the treats and back again -- all the time staying within the Portal's wide field of view. 

I was also able to see inside his home -- chat with his family, including his two children, as they walked around their living room. Chatting with kids is a great use case for Facebook's Spotlight feature. Spotlight lets you double-tap on someone's face to get a close-up view that focuses more on them than anyone else in the room. Tap on their face until a green box appears around it. The person on the other end of the screen will see text popping up that says you've enabled Spotlight. It then focuses in on that person, as if you've tagged them, and largely ignores any other people on the room, even if they're running around a room.

A few other features stand out while you're video chatting. Augmented reality tech lets you "try on" a variety of face filters and even become part of the Itsy Bitsy Spider and a few other included children's stories. Imagine a grandparent with an animated big bad wolf graphic laid over their face reading Little Red Riding Hood to the kiddos over video and you get the maybe-fun, maybe-terrifying idea.

At least Facebook's trying

While yes, Facebook's Portal Plus and Portal displays are essentially touchscreen tablets with cameras, speakers and microphones, the company has taken some semicomforting steps towards privacy with these devices. Press the "mute" button on top of each display to disable its camera and microphone. You'll see the status light turn from green to red, that's how you know it worked. As an added security measure, each Portal comes with a removable plastic cover you can pop over each camera so the lens can't see anything. You can still receive calls and use the voice assistants, though.

If you don't want everyone in your home to have access to the Portal, you can set a custom security code from 4 to 12 digits. This keeps the screen locked and you'll have to sign in with your Facebook password to update the code. Turn on your Portal's Home and Away feature and it will connect to your phone's location to determine when you can answer your Portal versus Facebook Messenger on your phone (if you're out). The Home and Away feature worked well for me, automatically routing Messenger calls between my phone or my Portal Plus depending on my location. 

In addition, each Portal camera's AI tech runs locally on the device itself and Facebook's servers only receive voice commands after the "Hey Portal" wake phrase. For Alexa, after you say the "Alexa" wake word, recordings of your voice commands go to Amazon. You can look at -- and delete -- the recordings in the Alexa app. Facebook told CNET in a statement that it "does not see or retain any data from Alexa interactions on Portal. That's strictly handled by Amazon."  

Portal performance

Are you curious how the Portal Plus and Portal compare to devices like the Google Home Hub, the second-gen Amazon Echo Show, and other smart displays? Let's take a look:

Smart display comparison


Google Home HubAmazon Echo Show (2018)Facebook Portal, Portal PlusLenovo Smart Display 10 inch, 8 inchJBL Link View
US price $150$230$200; $350$250; $200$250
Screen Size 7-inch (177.8 mm)10.1-inch (256.5 mm)10.1-inch (256.5 mm)/15.6-inch (396.2 mm)10.1-inch (256.5 mm)/8-inch (203.2 mm)8-inch (203.2 mm)
Resolution 1024x600
720p (1,280x800)720p (1,200x800); 1080p (1,920x1,080)1080p (1,920x1,200); 720p (1,280x800)720p (1,280x800)
Dimensions (WxHxD) 7.02x4.65x2.65 inches (179x118x67 mm)9.7x6.9x4.2 inches (246x175x107 mm)9.8x8.2x3.7 inches (250x208x94 mm); 8.8x17.7x5.7 inches (224x450x145 mm)6.8x12.3x0.5-5.4 inches (173.87x311.37x13-136 mm); 5.6x10.4x0.5-4.4 inches (142x263x13-111 mm)13x6x3.9 inches (332x152x100 mm)
Weight 1.1 pounds (480 grams)3.9 pounds (1.76 kg)2.7 pounds (1.25 kg); 7.4 pounds  (3.36 kg)2.6 pounds (1.2 kg); 2.2 pounds (1 kg)2.9 pounds (1.3 kg) net weight
Wireless Connectivity Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth speakers requiring PIN codes not supportedWi‑Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.2Wi-Fi (802.11ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), BluetoothWi-Fi (802.11b/g/n/ac, 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.2
Voice Assistant Google AssistantAlexaAlexaGoogle AssistantGoogle Assistant
Calling (from US) and messaging Direct dial (US, UK and Canada, outgoing calls only), video calls with Google DuoAlexa Messaging, Skype, direct dial (US and Mexico)Facebook MessengerDirect dial (US, UK and Canada, outgoing calls only), video calls with Google DuoDirect dial (US, UK and Canada, outgoing calls only), video calls with Google Duo
Smart kitchen features Step-by-step recipe assistance with YouTube tutorial videosStep-by-step recipe assistance; Amazon Meal Kits integrationLimited Alexa recipe assistanceStep-by-step recipe assistance with YouTube tutorial videosStep-by-step recipe assistance with YouTube tutorial videos
Onscreen smart home controls YesYesNoYesYes
Built-in Camera NoYes (5-megapixel)Yes (12-megapixel)Yes (5-megapixel)Yes (5-megapixel)
Privacy Shutter n/aNoYesYesYes
Microphones Two-mic arrayFour-mic arrayFour-mic array (two front, two rear)Four-mic array (two front, two rear)Two-mic array
Speakers Full range speaker (80 dB SPL @ 1KHz, @ 1m)Dual 10W, 2-inch neodymium drivers with Dolby processing, passive bass radiator10W (2 full-range drivers); 20W (two tweeters, single 4-inch bass)0.75 10W full range speaker, two passive tweetersTwo 10W speakers with 2-inch (51 mm) full range drivers
Streaming Music Services iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube MusicAmazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIniHeartRadio, Pandora, SpotifyiHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube MusiciHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube Music
Streaming Video Services YouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play Movies, CBS All Access, HBO NowAmazon Prime Video, DailyMotion, Hulu, NBC, VimeoFacebook Watch, Food NetworkYouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play Movies, CBS All Access, HBO NowYouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play Movies, CBS All Access, HBO Now
Compatible smart home cameras D-Link, EZVIZ, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Skybell Video Doorbell, Smartcam, Swann, TP-Link Kasa Cam, VivitarAmazon Cloud Cam, Amcrest, August Doorbell Cam, Blink, Canary, D-Link, EZVIZ, Logitech Circle, meShare, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Ring Video Doorbell, Toucan, TP-Link Kasa Cam, Wyze Cam, ZmodoNoneD-Link, EZVIZ, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Skybell Video Doorbell, Smartcam, Swann, TP-Link Kasa Cam, VivitarD-Link, EZVIZ, Nest Cam, Netgear Arlo, Skybell Video Doorbell, Smartcam, Swann, TP-Link Kasa Cam, Vivitar
Other notable features Ambient EQ automatic adaptive screen brightness; Digital picture frame via Google Photos with Live Albums; Live TV with YouTube TV; Digital Wellbeing mode for parental restrictions and downtime hoursBuilt-in Zigbee smart home hub; Integrates with Fire TV Recast to show live TV and DVR recordings; YouTube access via Silk or Firefox browsersAutomatic AI camera framing; Video chat filter effects; Home and Away location tracking; Facebook photo albums and birthday reminders; Interactive Story Time story books; 90-degree rotating display (Plus only)Live TV with YouTube TV; Digital Wellbeing mode for parental restrictions and downtime hoursLive TV with YouTube TV; Digital Wellbeing mode for parental restrictions and downtime hours
Color options Charcoal, Aqua, Chalk, SandCharcoal, SandstoneBlack, WhiteBamboo, GreyBlack
Availability US, UK, AustraliaUS, UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, JapanUS only at launchUS onlyUS only
Expected ship date Oct. 26Available nowNov. 13Available nowAvailable now
Warranty 1-year1-year1-year1-year1-year

The Echo Show and the Portal are somewhat comparable in terms of specs. While the Echo Show costs $230 compared to the Portal's $199, the two displays have the same screen size and resolution. But the Echo Show offers Alexa Messaging, Skype and direct calling options, while the Portal (and Portal Plus) are limited to Facebook Messenger.

That said, both the Portal and the Portal Plus have impressive 12-megapixel cameras compared to the Echo Show's 5-megapixel camera. The Google Home Hub doesn't even have a camera, although that's a good thing for many folks concerned about privacy. 

Looking closer at the $349 Portal Plus, the price is significantly higher than any of its competition, but it's also the only device with a high-end 12-megapixel camera and 1080p resolution. The $250, 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display comes the closest with its 5-megapixel camera and 1080p display, but the Portal Plus still looks better. 

You can physically rotate the screen on the Portal Plus between portrait and landscape modes. The Portal's screen is fixed since its built into the body of the device, and defaults to landscape, but you can adjust it to portrait viewing via a software toggle.  

The Portal Plus's top-of-the-line camera and resolution is really the only reason it could be worth the splurge over the 720p Portal or Echo Show -- but both of those devices are smaller, making them simpler to incorporate into a home. The video image is still good enough on those devices, just not as good as the Portal Plus. 

Audio quality is another story. I was particularly disappointed by the performance of the Plus, given that it costs $349. It sounds distant compared to the clarity of devices like the Echo Show, and more like the Google Home Hub, whose audio quality was similarly underwhelming. While the Portal Plus is priced like the Apple HomePod smart speaker, don't expect to feel immersed in the music it plays. Both the Plus and the Portal are best suited to play background music. 

I set a second-gen Echo Show and a Google Home Hub next to a Portal Plus and a Portal to see how the microphones stack up. The Portal Plus and Portal microphones do a solid job of picking up the "Alexa" and "Hey Portal" wake phrases at various distances and perform comparably to their competitors. I made it as far as 50 feet away speaking at a regular volume and both the Portal Plus and the Portal (along with the Echo Show and the Home Hub) still managed to react to my voice commands. 

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The $199 Facebook Portal looks a lot like the second-gen Amazon Echo Show.

James Martin/CNET

The verdict

The $349 Facebook Portal Plus and $199 Portal aren't all that similar to the Amazon Echo Show, the Google Home Hub, or any other smart displays we've reviewed. Yes, each Portal doubles as a voice control speaker and has a screen (like other smart displays) but that's where their comparability ends. 

Portal and Portal Plus are primarily designed for video calling -- everything else is secondary. Amazon, Google, Lenovo and other smart displays focus more on how a voice assistant can translate its spoken AI tech onto a screen for day-to-day utility, like for schedule keeping or walking you through a recipe. The Google Home Hub, for example, offers a straightforward guided cooking tutorial. That sort of functionality isn't available on the Portal Plus or the Portal, but Facebook said it's working on ways to improve the smarts of its displays, including working with Amazon and its tools for incorporating visual elements for Alexa on the Echo Show.

Facebook also said it's open to adding other voice assistants in the future, so that could mean Google Assistant support at some point.

Facebook's Portal Plus and Portal displays really do make video calling simpler and more immersive. I like being able to walk around a room hands-free and still chat easily with someone -- without having to grab and reposition my phone or tablet. Even so, the Portals don't offer much more functionality beyond their advanced video calling. And for $349 or even $199, that seems too high a price for most, especially since you're locked into Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Factor in any potential privacy concerns as well, and the Portals seem like a great idea that came at the wrong time. 

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6.5

Facebook Portal

Score Breakdown

Features 6Usability 7Design 6Performance 8
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