Facebook Portal 10-inch 2019 review: better design, familiar limitations

Facebook Portal 10-inch 2019 review: better design, familiar limitations

Last year, Facebook released the Portal, a smart display that you put in your home and use to make video calls over Facebook Messenger. Unsurprisingly, the thought of having an always-connected camera and microphone that’s linked to Facebook gave many people pause, including me.

Despite those pervasive reservations — and undisclosed sales figures — Facebook is back with a new range of Portal devices for this year. A redesigned 10-inch model is joined by a new 8-inch version and a Portal camera that clips on top of your TV to use the biggest screen in your home for video calling. The 15-inch Portal Plus is unchanged and remains in the lineup as well.

Aside from the new design, the new $179.99 10-inch Portal has a lower price than last year’s model and comes with a few new software features that were missing the first time around. It’s available to order from Facebook and other retailers starting today. But if the reason you didn’t want a Portal in your home was because it’s a dedicated Facebook calling machine, then you’re not going to want this one either.

The most obvious change with this year’s Portal is its new design. The mini-TV look of the original has been replaced with something that looks more like a picture frame. It’s still obviously a screen, but it can blend in better with your home’s decor, and it has a smaller footprint while maintaining the same size screen.

The display is a 10-inch, 1280 x 800 pixel touchscreen, which seems like a low resolution, but it’s perfectly fine for the distances from which you’ll be using the Portal. It’s bright and colorful, with good viewing angles, and it has a Night Mode that cuts down on blue light in the evening, much like your phone’s night mode. It also has automatic brightness, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impressive color balancing you’ll find in Google’s Nest Hub smart displays.

The Portal can stand in either portrait or landscape orientations.

The kickstand also provides handy cable management for the power cable.

Cleverly, the Portal can be rotated to either landscape or portrait orientations, thanks to the kickstand on the back that also provides some cable management for the power cord. You can switch orientations at any time, including in the middle of a call, and the software will rotate and adapt to fit the screen properly. It’s not quite as fancy as the larger Portal Plus’ rotating screen, but it takes up far less space and doesn’t look like a McDonald’s kiosk sitting on your counter.

Facebook also redesigned the speakers in the Portal with a 2.1 system using a rear-firing woofer and stereo front speakers that emit sound through the gap between the screen and the frame. The speakers sound fine for voice calls, but they’re disappointing for music, which has an echoey, hollow sound. It’s clear Facebook tuned these speakers for voices at the expense of music, and they don’t compare to the sound from Amazon’s 10-inch Echo Show.

The most important new hardware detail is the three-position sliding switch on the top of the Portal that lets you block the camera and mute the always-listening microphone. You can opt to block just the camera, which gets hidden behind a physical shutter, or both the mic and the camera for the full privacy treatment. It’s a much better solution than the little plastic camera cap the original Portal had, which felt like an afterthought.

The three-way privacy switch can block the camera with a physical shutter and mute the microphones independently.

The Portal gives you a visual indicator when the mics and camera are disabled.

I called the original Portal the best smart display for making video calls, so it’s no surprise that the new model is just as competent in that front. All of the features from last year, including the wide-angle camera that automatically frames subjects, the beam-forming microphones that home in on a speaker’s voice, and the integrations with Spotify and storybooks carry over here. Facebook has also expanded the AR masks to support multiple faces simultaneously and even change voices depending on the mask used. There are also new AR-based games you can play between two Portal devices.

Calls made through the Portal have clear video and audio and don’t require me to raise my voice unnaturally. The automatic framing feature, which Google has also adopted for video calls on its Nest Hub Max, makes it easy to casually make a call without having to stay in a rigid spot the entire time. I still don’t think that Portal calls feel the same as an in-person interaction, as Facebook would like you to believe, but they are still better than video calls on the smart displays from Amazon or Google.

Unfortunately, the Story Time mode, which lets you narrate stories with AR effects, is still limited to Portal devices and isn’t very practical for parents who are traveling and want to call home to read a story to their children. I’d have loved to see Facebook add the ability to host a Story Time session from a phone or tablet using the Facebook Messenger app.

The big new addition to calling is the ability to place WhatsApp calls in addition to Facebook Messenger. You can link your WhatsApp account to the Portal just like you can with a laptop or desktop and then make end-to-end encrypted calls from the device. (Facebook says end-to-end encryption is coming to Messenger calls next year.) WhatsApp calls don’t support all of the same features as Messenger, such as the AR masks and games, but they provide largely the same experience, which should make the Portal much more useful in places where WhatsApp is the dominant messaging platform.

Aside from video calling, Facebook has expanded the Portal’s capabilities on other fronts. (The company says the software updates and improvements will be delivered to all Portal units once the new model is available for purchase.) It’s now using Amazon’s smart display SDK for Alexa, so it provides the same kinds of screens and information from Alexa voice requests as Amazon’s own Echo Show devices. I can view a summary of weather, recent sports scores, or my Alexa shopping list right on the Portal’s display. I can even call up video feeds from security cameras and doorbells that support Alexa integration, such as Ring products.

The Portal now has a full web browser, which you can access from the grid of app shortcuts on one of the home screens. It’s a bit clumsy to use, and it’s not something I’d even use every day. But for pulling up a website in a pinch, it gets the job done. It also supports YouTube and other video streaming sites, but unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t work.

Video streaming services are still very limited on the Portal, though Facebook says that Amazon’s Prime Video will be coming later this year. Still, video services are largely limited to Facebook’s own Watch platform, and you can’t use the Portal for watching Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or most any other streaming video service you might want. And you can’t “cast” video from your smartphone or tablet to the Portal, like you can with Google’s smart displays. A web browser doesn’t really make up for this lack of options, either.

The built-in web browser supports YouTube, but it’s clumsy to use.

Streaming music is a little easier since you can use Alexa to request songs and there are dedicated Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora apps on the Portal. You can also use Spotify Connect to play music to the Portal from your phone. But as I noted earlier, the sound quality for music isn’t great, and it’s not something I’d recommend if you want to listen to a lot of music with it.

Facebook has also added the ability to send images from your phone to the Portal through a new mobile app, so you can use it as a digital photo frame. It also still can show slideshows of images from your Facebook or Instagram accounts. But compared to the Nest Hub’s Google Photos integration, the Portal’s photo features are far more limited.

Overall, although the new Portal has a much-improved design, costs less, and fits into more places in my home than the prior model, it’s still a Portal and it still has many of the same limitations as before. Unlike other smart displays, which act as information centers, smart home controllers, and video streamers in addition to making video calls, the Portal is primarily a video calling device that’s limited to Facebook’s services. And it’s still a camera connected to Facebook inside your home.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

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