Gears & Gadgets

Facebook unveils smart displays, promises not to snoop on your video calls

Just as Amazon’s newest Echo Show comes out, Facebook enters the smart display space with two devices of its own. The company announced the Portal and Portal+ smart displays today, both of which are voice-controlled speakers with touchscreens that focus on video chatting with Facebook Messenger.

The $ 199 Portal looks similar to the new Echo Show with its 10-inch, 1280×800 touchscreen, but its speaker sits at the bottom edge, facing the user. The $ 349 Portal+ has a mammoth 15-inch, 1920×1080 display that can rotate into portrait and landscape orientations. The speaker sits at the bottom of the display, while a camera, more noticeable than that on the regular Portal, sits at the top.

In addition to their price and size differences, the Portal+ has a more powerful speaker that includes two tweeters with high-range frequency and a single, four-inch bass speaker for richer sound. Both devices have a four-mic array that’s designed to pick up your voice no matter where you are in the room.

The mics go hand in hand with what Facebook calls its Smart Sound technology that’s embedded into both Portal devices. It’s supposed to minimize background noise and enhance the speaker’s voice during video chats, while the company’s Smart Camera technology pans and zooms to keep you in-frame while you video chat.

Unsurprisingly, Portal devices use Facebook Messenger to video chat with others. That means Portal users can call other Portal users, as well as those with Facebook Messenger installed on their smartphones and tablets. The devices understand voice commands as well, allowing users to say “Hey Portal” before asking it to call one of their contacts.

Facebook also touts Amazon Alexa integration, but it’s unclear how deeply Amazon’s voice assistant is embedded into these devices. Users can ask for things like weather forecasts, traffic updates, and sports scores, but it’s unclear if all of Alexa’s more than 50,000 skills are available on Portal devices.

Is Facebook Messenger enough?

Plenty of people will scoff at the idea of bringing a Facebook-made smart display into their homes, especially ones with cameras and mics. Facebook hasn’t been the most forthcoming company when it comes to letting users know which data it collects and how it’s using that data. It also doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to keeping users’ data safe. Hoping to quell concerns, the company included a mic/camera disable button on both Portal devices, as well as a physical camera cover.

Also, Facebook laid out how much the company actually knows about Portal video chats and users’ interactions with the devices. Facebook said it doesn’t “listen to, view, or keep the contents of” Portal video calls and that all video calls are encrypted as well. The AI used in the Smart Camera and Smart Sounds technology runs locally on Portal devices rather than on Facebook servers, and only commands stated after “Hey Portal” are sent to Facebook’s servers. Users can delete voice history whenever they wish by going into their Facebook Activity Log as well.

Video chatting is an important feature that most smart displays have. Amazon’s Echo Show can make video Drop-In calls as well as video calls through the Alexa app. Amazon will be adding support for Skype video chatting in the future, too. Google’s smart displays make video calls using the company’s Duo chat app.

Considering the popularity of Facebook Messenger, a smart display focused on video calls makes sense. However, Amazon’s and Google’s smart displays do much more than make video calls—namely, they integrate with other services, many of which are unique to their parent companies. Echo Shows can access all of Alexa’s Skills and play Prime Video shows and movies, while devices like Lenovo’s Smart Display for the Google Assistant can play videos from YouTube and provide video answers to queries thanks to its integration with Google search.

Facebook struck partnerships with companies to bolster the abilities of its Portal devices. Users can play music from Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora and watch videos through Facebook Watch, Food Network, and Newsy. The company also incorporated its Spark AR platform into each device so users can video chat with custom sound and visual effects (a Snapchat-esque feature dubbed Story Time). Nevertheless, smart displays that have a primary focus of chatting with Facebook Messenger will be a hard sell for many.

Facebook Portal and Portal+ will be available in November for $ 199 and $ 349, respectively.

Listing image by Facebook

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