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What is Facebook Portal?

Ever worry you connect with friends and family only through social media? That could all be about to change – thanks to the king of social media itself.

Facebook’s new Portal is a smart display that gets you away from merely liking your friends’ posts in favour of actually chatting on video calls.

So what’s good about it, what’s less good, and how does it stack up against the competition? Is it worth your investment.

Read on for our low-down on Facebook Portal.

What is a smart display?

If you’re tech-savvy enough to have heard of Facebook, you’ll be aware of smart speakers.

These handy devices have become standard in many homes around the UK, with virtual assistants such as Alexa responding to voice commands to play music, find out the weather forecast, or even, if part of a smart home system, turn on the central heating.

Smart displays are really just the next step, with added touch screens and visuals. They’re similar to tablets but focus on a giving you a hands-free experience and allowing you to make video calls.

So instead of logging on to a laptop and loading up Skype or similar apps, Facebook Portal offers you an instant alternative.

Remember all your gadgets, large and small, need protection against accidents. That’s where gadget insurance comes in handy!


Facebook Portal – the specs

Facebook on phone

There are actually four versions: the Portal, the Portal Mini,the Portal + & Portal TV. The main difference is simply the size.

The Portal has a 10-inch touch screen above a speaker grille with a camera at the top, while the Portal Mini looks identical but with an eight-inch display. The Portal+ is nearly 18-inches tall, with a 15.6-inch touchscreen.

Each device has a 12-megapixel camera with a 140-degree field of view. All use AI to track people and pan in and out, so you can move around as you make your call. They can each be set to display in landscape or portrait mode.

In terms of audio, the Portal and Portal Mini have two drivers producing 10 watts, while the Portal+ has two-inch tweeters and a 4-inch bass driver that produce a total of 20 watts. Microphones are voice-enhancing and can minimise background noise.

All versions make calls through the free services Messenger and WhatsApp, both of which are owned by Facebook. The recipient of your call does not need to have a Portal device but must have one of those apps installed on their phone or tablet or be able to access those websites through their PC or laptop.

At £129, £169 and £269 respectively, they’re not cheap. That’s why you might want to look into gadget insurance.

Facebook Portal – apps and effects

The voice command “Hey Portal” wakes up your device. You can use Hey Portal to make calls, ask for the weather and time, turn up the brightness and control the video.

Hey Portal’s Photo Booth feature allows you to entertain yourself with fun augmented reality camera effects, such as placing a cartoon cat on your head throughout your call. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

There’s also a special story mode, allowing parents or grandparents to read children stories complete with on-screen graphics, effects and music.

The devices also incorporate Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, meaning that if you have an Amazon account, you can use it in a similar way to an Amazon Echo smart speaker.

This includes commanding Alexa to play music through services such as Spotify, set alarms, and create to-do lists. If you have a smart home system, you can control it through Alexa on your Facebook Portal.


Pros of Facebook Portal

Facial Recognition

  • AI tracking

“If you can’t be there, feel there.” That’s the promise from Facebook Portal, and to a certain extent, it’s true.

That AI really does work, so you can move naturally as you chat, safe in the knowledge your friends can still see you. If there is more than one of you on your side of the call, you can choose who the AI will focus on.

Impressive – or disconcerting, depending on how comfortable you are with AI technology in general.

  • Camera and display

The high-quality camera and screen ensure that pictures are sharp. So while it’s not quite the same as having your friends in your kitchen with you, it’s a decent close second.

Of course, screens are prone to damage, rendering an otherwise healthy machine useless. Check your gadget insurance covers screen cracks.

  • Audio quality

All set-ups offer high quality sound for music and calls. The smaller versions should be fine for your home, while the largest will fill an office.

As well as playing your Spotify or Pandora tunes, you can share them during calls with others, so long as they also have a Spotify or Pandora account.

  • Group calls

You can add up to seven Messenger users or up to three WhatsApp contacts onto any call, plus yourself. However, you can’t have both Messenger and WhatsApp connections on one call.

  • Flexibility

You can start calls on the Messenger app on your phone and transfer them to your Portal, and vice versa. In fact, the AI will even detect when you’re home and route calls automatically to your Portal if so.

Cons of Facebook Portal

Facebook Messenger

So Facebook Portal really is a technological step up in terms of offering you an ambient experience for video calling. But does that mean you should rush out and buy one?

  • Privacy

This is the big drawback for many. If you’re moving away from posting on your friends’ Facebook walls, chances are that you’re someone who appreciates privacy. But will you get it from Facebook Portal?

Data privacy is a huge topic for the hyper-connected world of the 21st century. Many of us have been alarmed to find out how much the Internet seems to know about us. Rumours have also abounded that smart speakers are listening in to all conversations, whether they’re ‘awake’ or not.

So what does Facebook promise on the Portal privacy front?

Firstly, it assures users that the AI technology is on the device itself, and the data it collects is not transferred to the Cloud. Its algorithm does not track individual faces, but instead looks for human shapes.

Facebook has also stated it does not record the content of calls, only collects metadata such as call duration – much as it does for Messenger chats.

Really, it all depends on your personal take on data privacy. And for true peace of mind, you can switch off the microphone and even place a cap over the camera when not in use, and bask in the privacy of your own home.

  • Messenger

Facebook Portal uses Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to make video calls. So if the person you want to talk to does not use these services, then you can’t call them.

Still, since Messenger has around 1.3 billion users and WhatsApp around 1.6 billion users worldwide each month, it’s likely that at least some of your pals are ready to receive your calls!

However, Portal cannot make direct dial voice-only calls, so your contacts need to have at least a smidgen of internet know-how.

  • Size

While the Portal and its mini sister are pretty slimline, the Portal+ is a hefty gadget. Once you’ve set it up, you probably won’t want to move it again.

Considering the privacy concerns that many people have about Facebook and AI, installing a Portal+ in your kitchen can make you feel a bit like a huge CCTV camera is watching and recording your every move.

While they’re all reasonably robust, they are of course as prone to knocks, spills and drops as any other device. Consider getting gadget insurance to protect your purchase.

  • Limitations

It can be confusing to remember that you need to use the Hey Portal command to make video calls, but Alexa for pretty much everything else.

Portal itself has limited capabilities or features beyond making video calls. Sure, those camera effects are fun at first, but chances are that you’ll quickly tire of making calls wearing an AR bunny rabbit ears and whiskers.

Its Alexa capacity is also quite limited: this is not the smart display for you if you want to watch movies.

More apps and features are in development, but can Portal catch up with what’s on offer already from its rivals?


Smart display

The past few years have seen a plethora of smart displays come onto the market. So how does Facebook Portal stack up? Here’s a brief round-up of three of its main rivals.

  • Echo Show

Another device that incorporates Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, the Echo Show comes in a five-inch, eight-inch and 10-inch version. It uses Alexa Messaging and Skype for video calls.

Plus points are that it’s a one-stop shop, using Alexa for everything: calls, playing music, streaming videos, and controlling smart home devices. It can connect with Ring doorbells to give you a live video stream of your own front door for security purposes.

If you have privacy concerns, you’ll be reassured by its physical camera shutter.

Minus points are that its camera is lower spec than Portal’s.

  • Lenovo Smart Display

This was the first smart display to have Google Assistant built-in.

Its key limitation is that it uses Google Duo for video calls. While this app is free to download for both iOS and Android, it’s not as widely used as Messenger or WhatsApp.

However, its screen and sound quality are great, so even if you don’t make video calls, you can still enjoy watching movies.

Where the Lenovo Smart Display really comes into its own is in the kitchen. Place it by the side of your stove, ask Google for a recipe, and follow the steps!

It comes in an eight-inch mini version and a 10-inch Full HD screen mode. The 10-inch version has an unusual bamboo back, making it a stylish addition to your kitchen.

  • Google Nest Hub Max

Whereas the Portal puts video calls first and smart home controls second, with this device, it’s the other way round.

It’s basically a larger version of the Google Home Hub smart speaker, but with a screen and camera included.

With a 10-inch screen, it’s great for watching videos – though resolution might not be as sharp as that of its competitors. Sound quality is good, though, so it’s a useful device for playing music.

For video calls, it uses Google Duo. Its camera has a 127-degree wide-angle lens plus automatic subject tracking, so offers a somewhat ambient experience.

You can also use it as a security camera, as it can monitor your home and send you activity alerts while you’re out.

Other gadgets you can use for video calling

Elderly Skype

The area in which Facebook Portal excels is video calling.

Of course, you can also make video calls on your mobile phone, tablet or computer using Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype or any number of other services. Since you almost certainly already own one of these, you may wonder what Facebook Portal can add.

However, Facebook Portal’s AI-powered technology gives you a far more ambient experience, while its audio and HD screen are crisp and clear.

It eases and enhances the experience of making video calls, whether that’s for work or leisure.

If you don’t see as much of your loved ones as you’d like, this does go some way to bringing them closer into your everyday life. If that’s important to you, then it’s an investment that’s priceless.

Get a quote for gadget insurance today

Once you’ve got a smart display, you’ll wonder how you ever kept in touch with friends and family without one.

Our modern homes are filled with devices that need protecting in case of accidental damage, breakdown, theft and unauthorised usage ­– from mobiles and e-readers to tablets and smart watches.

Find a policy through Gadget Cover and you can take your gadgets abroad for up to 180 days, or lend them to your immediate family – they’ll still be covered.

Get a quote from Gadget Cover today.

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