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Facebook Portal

Facebook’s Portal ($ 199) is a supremely capable video calling appliance you shouldn’t buy until we’re all convinced that Facebook isn’t destroying democracy. It’s not as good as its competitors as a digital picture frame or a smart speaker, but it’s better for video calling. As a business video chat solution, it’s absolutely terrific. Facebook is such a mess in terms of controlling who uses your data for vicious ends, though, that we can’t recommend this product to individuals until the company gets its house in order.

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Models and Physical Design

There are two models of Portal: The $ 199 Portal, reviewed here, and the $ 349 Portal+, which has a much larger screen. If you buy two, you get $ 100 off the bundle. The two devices have mostly the same functionality, but we’re noting the differences in our individual reviews.

The Portal looks very familiar to anyone who’s seen a smart display before. At 9.8 by 8.2 by 3.6 (HWD) and 2.7 pounds, it’s taller than Amazon’s Echo Show and Lenovo’s Smart Display, mostly because of its 10.1-inch, 16:10, 1,280-by-800-pixel display. The dual speakers are below the screen, and the 12-megapixel, 140-degree fish-eye camera is above it. The Portal comes with a physical plastic clip you can use to cover the camera, and it also has physical volume buttons and a physical camera/mic button that disables the camera and mic.

The device has no ports, only an AC power adapter. It connects to your local network using dual-band Wi-Fi. I had no trouble connecting to both 2.4 and 5GHz networks, although I noticed that the Portal’s 5GHz signal strength is noticeably lower than the larger Portal+.

While it’s only sold in the US, the Portal will work all over the world. It can work with hotel and public Wi-Fi portal pages, so it’s easy enough to take on the road if you want higher-quality video calls than you can get with your phone.

The Portal has Bluetooth, but no 3.5mm input or output. You can use it as an audio destination for your computer or phone, or as a source that plays through Bluetooth headphones. Interestingly, when using a Plantronics Voyager Focus UC with the Portal for video calls, audio played through the headset’s headphones, but the Portal continued to use its built-in mic rather than my headset mic.

When hooked up to a phone playing Google Play Music, I got song names but not album art showing on the Portal. You can’t “cast” video to the Portal from other devices or sources, only audio.

Basic Interface

While the Portal isn’t running Android, per se, its operating system is based on AOSP (the Android open source platform). The user interface is custom, and generally quite smooth. You can add up to four Facebook accounts on the Portal, and switch between them.

The Portal’s default mode is as a digital picture frame, showing photos of you or your friends from Facebook. Any photos it shows must be uploaded to Facebook. They can be set to “me only,” although Facebook will still analyze your data for ads. Most people don’t use Facebook as a primary photo platform, though, and it can’t show Instagram photos, even though Facebook owns Instagram. Google Assistant smart displays work much better as digital photo frames, simply because Google Photos is a more popular photo management platform.

Tap on the screen and you’ll see your Messenger contacts to call, with some favorites you can set, and some suggested contacts the Portal thinks you should talk to. I don’t care for the suggested contacts: My old friend Joe and I have vigorous political debates on FB, sure, but I don’t think we need to see each other’s faces for it.

Swipe right, and you get to the Portal’s handful of apps. YouTube is the killer video app here, and it isn’t a bad YouTube interface. You can log in and swipe through, although entering titles on the touch keyboard has a lot of lag and requires patience. Facebook Watch, Food Network, and Newsy fill out the video offerings. For audio, you have iHeartRadio, Pandora, and Spotify. You need a subscription Spotify account to request specific songs.

Really, though, you should set up Alexa. That lets you use the Portal as a standard third-party Alexa speaker with all of the usual Alexa skills, including voice control of music and access to Amazon Music. Some skills will also show answers on the screen. Weather pops up on the screen, as do factual answers from Wikipedia. When Alexa is configured, the Portal often shows you sample queries, the way an Echo Show does.

Currently, the Portal is missing some of the video-friendly skills that you see on the Echo Show. You can’t see song lyrics on the Portal, for instance. You can’t see timers count down, you can’t play Prime Video, and you can’t see recipes listed on the screen. Facebook is working on getting more video skills on board. One difference that’s likely to stick is that you also can’t call arbitrary phone numbers, like you can on an Echoyou can only call people through Messenger.

Facebook told me it intends to soon upgrade the Portal with a full web browser so it can play Netflix, Hulu, and other arbitrary sites. That’s great.

The Portal as a Speaker

The Portal has twin drivers with a total of 10 watts of power under the screen. The base $ 199 model is not a great speaker for music. It’s tinny and muddy at the same time. It’s obviously tuned to be best for human voices, and so vocals are clear as a bell, but deeper instruments completely lack conviction.

Volume isn’t the problem. It’s sound quality. The small Portal gave us 98-100 dB at six inches, while the larger Portal gave us 101-103dB. That’s not a huge change. But the larger Portal has a separate woofer, which makes a major difference. The snares in Miike Snow’s “Genghis Khan,” which are pretty much absent on the smaller Portal, pop up on the larger one. On the larger Portal, you can also hear the decay in the synths on Metric’s “Breathing Underwater,” but not so much on the smaller one.

The new Echo Show doesn’t have a separate woofer, but it sounds better than the Portal.

A Video Calling Star

With Alexa and Google Assistant speakers also out there, the real reason to get the Portal is video calling. From a purely technical standpoint, this is by far the best video calling appliance we’ve seen.

The Portal has a 140-degree, wide-angle 12-megapixel camera that makes calls through Facebook Messenger. Video call quality is highly dependent on your Wi-Fi network. With strong Wi-Fi signal, it’s super smooth; with weaker Wi-Fi, I got skips and frame drops.

Call setup is flawless and much easier than on other similar devices. You can call people with a Portal or with Facebook Messenger on their phones. In both cases, I connected calls every single time I tried. Video quality is shakier when calling a phone, of course. You can include up to seven people in a call.

Messenger’s broad reach means the Portal is better for calling a wide range of people than Amazon or Google smart displays. Amazon’s Drop In calling only works with other Amazon smart displays. Google uses Duo, which is available on phones, but not many people use it.

Call quality is good enough. A test video call to someone nearby was perfect. A video call to Facebook staff, through multiple layers of corporate networks and 3,000 miles of distance, occasionally had lip sync issues, but I didn’t find them bothersome.

The Portal’s flagship feature, body tracking, absolutely delivers. No other smart display does this. The Portal will track and zoom a primary caller as you sit down, get up, walk away, or walk around. If there are multiple people in frame, it will split the difference and try to fit them all in, or you can “spotlight” one person and have the camera follow only them. It’s spooky and wonderful, and you’ll wish every video calling device did this. With good Wi-Fi, audio capture was fine up to around 15 feet, at which point it got really thready and quiet.

There are some other fun features as well. You can apply various AR masks to yourself, like a werewolf head, mouse ears, or cool sunglasses. There’s also a “story time” mode that lets you read a few children’s stories using a teleprompter, with AR masks that change timed to what’s in the stories.

Behind the scenes, the Portal uses H.265 compression at bit rates up to 2Mbps, with streams generally running at 720p with an adaptive frame rate up to 30 frames per second. A 20Kbps Opus audio codec keeps voices sounding real. When Portals and phones are mixed in a video call, Facebook’s system will send each device the best quality stream it can handle.

Facebook says the video calls are end-to-end encrypted, so it cannot watch or use their contents for advertising purposes. But it can use your metadata to target ads, including who you call, when you call, and for how long you call. And, of course, it could change its policies at any time. Any company can, but we trust Facebook less than we trust most other companies.

For You, or for Your Business?

Facebook’s marketing for the Portal centers around bringing families together, and its easy-to-use video chat features have given a lot of thought to what families want. But I’d personally rather see this in conference rooms throughout America, because of Facebook Workplace.

Workplace is an ad-free subscription product where the companies subscribing get to keep their data. There are no Russian trolls on Facebook Workplace (unless you’re a Russian troll company, I guess). Pair this excellent video conferencing hardware with Workplace’s tools, and you have a smooth multimedia conferencing experience that’s much more reliable than Google Hangouts, more cross-platform than FaceTime, and on better hardware than Skype.

The Portal’s 15-foot microphone range easily captures your average conference room, and its ability to effortlessly track a presenter can make remote workers feel like they’re right up front as they watch someone sit, stand, whiteboard, and take questions. It’s a much more dynamic experience than the usual fixed-focus conference room cam.

That said, the Portal doesn’t work with Workplaceyet. Facebook tells me it’s running an internal pilot, though, and it intends to offer a software update that will integrate with Workplace accounts. If that actually does become the case, the portable and easily installed Portal+ looks like an amazing solution for remote workers.

Facebook Needs to Get a Handle on Itself

Looking at standard consumer Facebook rather than Workplace, though, the company seems utterly out of control in terms of what political and social advertisers and group pages are doing to global societies.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the most recent UK parliamentary hearing

In just the past few weeks: Facebook removed more than a billion fake accounts, but admitted it only catches about 15 percent of bullying. It admitted it was working with a rather unsavory opposition research firm that The New York Times said crafted a message blaming right-wing bogeyman George Soros for Facebook’s problems. The Times further said the company hid the extent of its Russian influence problem, which was so bad that the mother-in-law of the company’s head of public policy was unknowingly following Russian trolls online.

Facebook is being questioned by both the US Congress and the British Parliament over privacy and data usage issues. The Parliamentary questioning is going badly. In Myanmar, Facebook is implicated in an actual genocide. Advertisers (advertisers!) say it has “absolutely no morals.”

Why is Facebook worse than Amazon here? The worst thing Amazon can do with your data is sell you white goods you don’t really need. The worst thing Facebook can do is subtly but powerfully try to shape your opinions until you’re convinced Hillary Clinton is running a pedophilia ring out of a pizza parlor. There’s a massive difference in the quality of harm that the two companies have caused with data, and I’m still not convinced Facebook is coping with the issue properly.

In terms of Google versus Facebook, well, Google certainly has the potential to be as damaging as Facebook, but the company seems to have better control over not injecting total insanity into your web pages. Bottom-feeder Google ads tend to be about questionable replacement batteries. Bottom-feeder Facebook ads tend to be about the coming race war. Once again, there’s a difference in harm.


You can cover the camera, but Facebook is still collecting your metadata

So while from a technical standpoint, the Portal is a leap forward in video conferencing, from a policy and privacy perspective, it’s a horror, because Facebook has been uniquely bad in terms of how third parties have used its platform to sow misery and hate.

Let me be clear: This isn’t a privacy issue in terms of collecting data. It’s about trusting the company to manage data after it’s been collected. It’s not about the Portal “listening all the time,” or Facebook analyzing your video. Facebook says it doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t need to. It’s using your usage habitswho you call, for how long, and their biographies and likes and suchto bundle you up as a product for advertisers on Facebook’s site and apps. Since Facebook is a social and political platform, those advertisers are trying to warp your social and political mind in a way that Amazon doesn’t bother with. That’s part of why I think the Portal has a future in corporate conference rooms using the ad-free Facebook Workplace product, not in Americans’ homes.

That said, I am still on Facebook. There are ways to sort of protect yourself from the company’s data sharing.

Conclusions

If the Facebook Portal worked with Workplace, I’d say it should be placed in every conference room in America. You’ll reclaim five minutes from every meeting because you won’t be arguing over Skype or Hangouts problems, and its body-tracking technology is perfect for bringing work-from-home employees into meetings, or for bringing conference rooms together.

In general, though, I’d say bigger is better. I like the Portal+ more than the Portal for this corporate use, as its larger screen makes it easier to keep everyone in the frame. I’m comfortable with Workplace, and confident in it because it’s a subscription service that’s controlled by the companies who subscribe to it.

The massive abuses of data on Facebook’s consumer platform make me squeamish to recommend the Portal to consumers. If you’re looking for a smart display with video calling, you’re going to have to sell your soul to some big-data giant. But Amazon and Google seem to be more in control of whether their primary platforms are being used to spread fear, hate, and destroy societies (I’d debate that in regards to YouTube, thoughhave you seen its recommendation engine lately?).

It’s extremely rare that we don’t recommend something at PCMag because of corporate policies, not technical failings. But Facebook needs to clean and order its house before it can move further into yours.

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