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Review: Facebook’s Amazon Echo Rival Is Nice, But Not Worth the Paranoia

7 minute read

Facebook’s had a rough year. From the improper use of users’ personal data to a report this week detailing the company’s efforts to delegitimize its critics, the company’s not on good terms with almost anyone. So it’s not exactly ideal timing for Facebook to launch the Portal and Portal+, a line of smart home hubs with displays and cameras for making video calls to other Facebook users. Facebook’s issues with cybersecurity and transparency are likely to kill both devices in their cradles, especially when considering the superior rival products already on the market.

And that’s a real shame. Both the Portal and larger Portal+ are interesting smart home gadgets, and boast a surprising level of refinement on the hardware end. The smaller Portal is similar to smart home devices from Amazon and Google. Like Amazon’s Echo Show, the chunky tablet-sized Portal sports a 10.1-inch 720p touchscreen display. The 12-megapixel camera and a set of microphones is housed in its thick black bezel, and its speaker grille sits below.

The larger Portal+ is different, looking more like a sleek all-in-one computer. It’s essentially a monitor mounted to a speaker, with a 15-inch 1080p display that rotates smoothly with the push of a finger from portrait to landscape mode. It’s great for chatting from afar, or watching high-definition video. Above the monitor is the camera, and at its base is the large, square speaker grille. It offers punchier sound than the smaller Portal, but neither will win any awards compared to actual smart speakers.

Unlike the smaller Portal, the Portal+ commands attention. That isn’t a good thing. That sizable screen is useful when you’re standing a few feet away, but it’s so large as to be distracting, and finding a place to put it without getting in the way of your furniture or walls is harder than it seems. In addition, the monitor in portrait mode partially obscures that booming speaker. That being said, I prefer the larger Portal+ due to bigger screen and better audio.

Atop both Portals are volume controls and a mute button that cuts off the device’s access to the camera and microphone. There’s also an included camera cover for the especially paranoid. It should be integrated into the devices themselves, given Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s own penchant for camera covers.

The Portal doubles as a smart home assistant using both Amazon’s Alexa or Facebook’s own assistant, also called Portal. While you can use the built-in Alexa assistant as though the Portal were a traditional Echo device, Facebook’s assistant is limited to rudimentary call and navigation-based commands.

Otherwise, the Portal’s interface is simple enough. It presents a set of recently-contacted friends in a grid, along with a separate section for the people you most regularly chat with. You can swipe on the display (or ask Portal to show you your apps) to see the available services. There aren’t many right now, with Facebook Watch, Pandora, Spotify, and a weird webapp version of YouTube making up the only truly interesting offerings.

When off, the Portal devices will show scenic images chosen by Facebook, or your own photos and videos stored on the social network. No, you can’t see any Instagram photos (unless you’re sharing them to your Facebook page as well), and you can’t import photos from another service like Google Photos or Flickr. That might compel you to just let the Portal display pictures of the scenic wilderness instead of the embarrassing pictures from 2012 you’ve still got stored in your seldom-visited Mobile Uploads albums. Portal will also display information like the weather, upcoming birthdays, and which of your frequently contacted friends is available (or at least online).

When it’s time to contact them, the Portal makes it dead simple. You can have up to six users on a call, and easily transition from the Portal to your smartphone running Messenger. The calls themselves are pretty seamless and fun to make thanks to the wide angle 12-megapixel camera (identical on both models). It won’t wow you with its image quality, which can vary based on factors like internet speed or room lighting. But it will impress you with how much it can see and how smart it is.

The Portal has a surprising 140-degree field of view, which captured my apartment’s front door, living room, and kitchen. That wide-angle camera tracks people as they move, too. Step away from the Portal and it will smoothly zoom in, pan left or right, and generally follow you around to ensure you’re the center of attention. It can also track multiple people, and zoom out to make sure everyone’s in view. All that people-tracking is done thanks to AI running locally on the Portal. The device is able to track multiple people without using facial recognition, though you can selectively track people by selecting their, well, faces. This “Spotlight” mode is perfect for shifting the attention from yourself to your partner, child, or whoever’s chatting while you move about your home.

You can enhance Portal calls by syncing music between callers for impromptu duets, and employ the various Snapchat-esque face filters available, though they work best when you’re up close and personal with the Portal. There’s also a strange story time feature that overlays visual elements and basic AR filters while you read from a list of ready-made children’s stories.

Of course, all that impressive hardware will likely do little to assuage anyone’s fears about putting a camera-and-microphone-enabled Facebook device in their home. Before its launch, Facebook took pains to emphasize the device’s privacy features. The company said none of your calls or conversations are recorded or transmitted to Facebook for storage. You can’t get a copy of your talk with your friend for later, it won’t show up on your Facebook feed, and only you and the person you called will know what took place, though there is a record of calls made on the Portal itself. Your voice command history will be stored with your Facebook account, as is common with other voice assistants, and you can delete them whenever you want. In short, everything that happened on Portal stays on Portal. Well, almost everything.

Facebook has since backtracked. While the Portal still won’t collect any video or audio data at all, information about app usage, who you’re calling, and other “usage data” on the Portal is in fact being collected, and could be used to serve you ads. Sure, Facebook’s not listening to your calls, but they do know when you’re calling, who you’re calling, how long your call is, and how often you’re making calls, which could lead to more targeted advertising. If you’re cool with putting a product in your home made by a company invasive enough to convince people it’s listening to their conversations, you’re a braver soul than I. (There’s no evidence that’s actually happening, of course.)

Almost everyone in tech has tried to crack the nut that is video calling. From Skype to FaceTime to Xbox Kinect to those weird, HAL 9000-like cameras from Cisco you put on top of your television, so many companies have tried to reinvent the phone call using cameras. The Portal does a great job furthering the idea, especially with that wide-angle, person-tracking camera designed to keep you on-screen. And Facebook’s built-in network of billions of users makes Portal almost perfect for facilitating more face-to-face time with your friends. It’s an easy to use video chat gadget with a big screen and a smart camera. What’s not to like? Ah, yes, it’s made by Facebook.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com