Let us go on a little journey of discovery. I have on my desk something called the Facebook Portal. I haven’t opened the box yet. All I know about it at this point is what’s printed on the front of the box: “Smart video calling designed to fit your home, with Alexa Built-in.” And two logos which tell me that it can “Make video calls with WhatsApp and Messenger”.
Let’s open the box and see what we find.
Opening up the Facebook Portal
The box is a decent size because I can see from the picture on the front that the Facebook Portal has a 10-inch screen. Also available are the 8-inch Portal Mini ($199) and the 15.6-inch Portal+ ($449). And the Portal TV ($229), which uses your own TV as its screen. I’ll be reviewing that one as well soon.
So, let me open the box. Golly, the packaging is more like a sturdily built gift box than anything. I lift the lid and see what at first glance looks like a picture frame. It’s white, with a 4mm wide outer frame, a 2mm gap inside that and then a 15mm wide inner frame. Inside that is the 10-inch screen. The whole thing is nearly 260mm wide and 180mm tall. And it’s almost entirely flat. There are no curves to the frame. The sides are at right angles to the face and are 23mm deep.
The only marked departure from the flatness is a bulge at the rear. That’s due to a 120mm wide speaker grille for the woofer. I was later to confirm that the higher-frequency speakers emit their sound through that gap. Oddly, one speaker is at bottom left, the other at top right.
At the top left is a camera with three nearby small holes: the ambient light sensor, a red LED to indicate the camera and microphones are off, and a microphone. Two holes on the top edge of the frame and one on the back near them are also microphones. A two-position slide switch on the top edge of the frame switches off and covers the camera in the first position and disables the microphones in the second.
Standing up the Facebook Portal
On the edge of the frame to the left of the camera are the volume up and down buttons. At the bottom right on the rear is what is clearly the DC power input.
So, how does the Facebook Portal stand? Does it just sit on it’s edge? I remove the plastic covering and then explore deeper into the box.
There’s a lightly-built box within the box. Inside that is a small “Let’s get started” guide, five languages, six pages each. And a thicker waste of paper that companies are seemingly legally required to include, containing all the regulatory information.
And also in there is the power supply and plug. This is very nifty. The power socket on the back is set back a little in a round inset. The end of the power cable is contained in a 105mm long prong which mates with that inset. So the power plug is held strongly and neatly in place, while the prong acts as the stand, canting back the display by ten or fifteen degrees. It works in both portrait and landscape orientation. And that explains why the speakers are at opposite corners. If they weren’t , then there’s be no stereo separation in portrait mode.
Starting up the Facebook Portal
I plug in the power and place the Facebook Portal on my desk. I was a bit slow with the stopwatch, but it seems to take at least a couple of minutes to fire up. Then the touchscreen is asking me to select my language. Yes, it has both Australian and New Zealand English, in addition to the lesser varieties of English along with several non-English languages.
I select the proper language and tap “Next”, bringing up the screen is for connecting to Wi-Fi. I tap on my preferred access point and type in the password – the keyboard is well laid-out, unlike that on the Echo Show 8 – and within a few seconds a chime indicates I’m on Wi-Fi. The little info button next to it shows me that it’s using the 5GHz band and also tells me the IP address. The “Next” button takes me to a page where I agree to “download and install the latest Portal software.” I have my stopwatch ready this time.
Touring the Facebook Portal
While the new software is downloading, you can take a “tour” to learn “all about what Portal can do”. According to the tour, I can:
“Instantly connect with friends and family”
“Call friends even if they don’t have a Portal” using Messenger or WhatsApp (of course, they’ll need some other device, such as a phone, supporting the relevant app).
“Display Facebook and Instagram photos, birthday reminders and see when friends are available to connect”.
Play AR games, “become some of your children’s favourite characters with Story Time.”
listen to music,
and more, with more apps “coming soon.”
One of the tour pages emphasises that the Facebook Portal is “Private by design”, noting that you can turn off the camera and microphone with the “push of a button”, or you can “block the lens with the camera cover”. It also notes that “video calls on Portal are encrypted.”
Having read all that, I’m still waiting for the software to update. I’m on a 45-ish Mbps NBN connection. It took about 11.5 minutes for the download and installation to complete, followed by a long reboot. That took nearly two and a half minutes, which strikes me as rather slow for a device of this nature. Anyway, then the Facebook Portal was right to go.
Of course, you can’t ignore the first word in “Facebook Portal”. To use this device you must have a Facebook account, even though you don’t need Facebook to use WhatsApp. So there’s a bit more to do before finally using the Portal. You accept the terms of service, name the device so you can refer to it later, and sign onto your Facebook and (if you wish) WhatsApp accounts.
For Facebook, the Portal generates a code which you enter into Facebook on a browser and that authorises the Portal. It also makes your “Facebook friends and Messenger connections” your “Portal contacts.” You can either have the Portal remain signed on so that anyone using it can contact your contacts, or you can set it to require reauthorisation. You connect to WhatsApp using a QR code generated by the Portal, the same as you do with a browser. I’m always startled by how the WhatsApp device authorisation is instant, as soon as the QR code comes into focus on one’s phone. How come other systems don’t work as quickly? That done, my WhatsApp contacts are now also available on the Portal. But the WhatsApp and Facebook contacts are kept separately.
I go through and tick those I want as my “favourite contacts”.
There’s a brief demonstration of how the camera can pan and zoom in on your during calls, allowing you a bit more flexibility when chatting with others. I’m told by the people I called with the Portal that this worked quite well.
Spotify on the Facebook Portal
Now it’s time to link my Spotify account to the Portal. As it happens, Spotify is the only thing I’ve ever employed my Facebook account as a login shortcut. So I figured I could just tap the “Continue with Facebook” login button and the Portal would log me in. Not so, so I log into Facebook (again). Presumably I’ll get to a point where I enable an Alexa skill to control the Portal by voice, so I’m wondering whether I even need to log into Spotify on the Portal. After all, Alexa has Spotify access. Still, I enable it to be safe.
At this point, I’ll note that I later came to fine the Facebook Portal Spotify interface quite useless. Will you? It depends on how you use Spotify. Perhaps I’m odd, but I like to choose the music I want to listen to. But what this interface presents is ten rows of suggestions. The top row is “Your heavy rotation” – basically, the five albums I’ve recently played. The other nine rows are curated selections on what Spotify thinks I might like. If I want to play one of my favourite albums from Spotify that isn’t on that first line, tough. If I want to search for something different, tough. I had far more control using the Alexa to dial up the Spotify stuff I wanted to play.
The Facebook Portal supports Bluetooth for sending music out to an external speaker or headphones. (Right now I have it feeding music to $10,000+ of stereo and it’s sounding rather nice.)
The sound from the Portal itself is okay. It steers clear of the over-emphasised upper bass, resulting in a slightly less satisfying grunt than some systems, but a more natural result.
Photos and Alexa
Alexa turned out to be easy to install. It was just a matter of entering a Portal-generated code into amazon.com/code and it was connected. No special Alexa Skill required. Alexa was less responsive than on the Echo Show 8, often taking a second or so before being ready to listen. It also, unaccountably, thought that I was three suburbs away from where I actually am. I don’t know why. Alexa on the Echo Show 8 correctly identifies the suburb. Perhaps it’s because in the Portal settings, I could only specify “Canberra” as my location, since none of the dozens of suburbs within Canberra were listed.
I complained about the Echo Show 8 because it was quite limited as a photo frame. The Facebook Portal is much, much better. The first step of adding photos to the Portal is simply giving it permission to grab your Facebook photos and display them, more or less randomly. But then it says you can add photos from your phone by installing the Portal app. Portal app? I should have known. So I installed that on my phone. It turns out to be easy to select photos and send them to the Portal.
A bit later I dug into the settings, and I found that I could choose which photos to display. Indeed, I could have just one photo display all the time simply by “Hiding” the ones I didn’t want. So I could get rid of the Facebook photo display, load up the Portal with a bunch of photos from my phone and see the things I really wanted to see.
Other apps and features
There are other apps already loaded: a browser (of course), your contact list and photos manager, Facebook Live (live streaming to your Facebook page), Facebook Gaming and Facebook Watch (kind of a YouTube). Facebook Live worked well – there was a delay of around nine seconds between me doing something in front the Portal and it appearing in the live stream on Facebook on my computer. Photo Booth lets you take photos, and provides plenty of silly hats and distortions to keep you amused.
There were things I didn’t understand. For example, when you open Photo Booth it puts up on the screen in quotes “Hey Portal, take a photo”. As suggestion that you can voice activate it? I couldn’t make it work. Maybe that’s something that’s coming. You can’t get rid of the silly hats, etc, in Photo Booth without exiting and re-entering the app. I suspect that the next few months will see some of these things being refined.
There’s no app for YouTube, but you can install a web shortcut to YouTube.com and then Alexa your way right into it. Neither is there an app or shortcut for Amazon Prime, so you can’t – I couldn’t anyway – get Amazon Prime video to play. There’s an ABC News Live link, but that’s American ABC, not ours. There’s no iView.
Incidentally, you can have up to four people logged onto the Portal. When you tap the screen, you can choose which one’s logon to use. Their WhatsApp/Messenger contacts will then be used, and calls will be seen at the other end to be coming from them.
The main functions of the Facebook Portal
The main function of the Facebook Portal is video calling via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. I tried it on both, and it worked very nicely. With a three-way call on WhatsApp, it put all three participants into Zoom-like boxes across the screen. What more to say? It worked smoothly and effectively.
The coolest feature might be “Notes”. Tap on that and you can create one of four different kinds of notes: typed-in text, finger-drawn drawings, a photo or a short video. The photos and video are stored in the cloud to save space on the Portal. They’re all great for leaving messages to others in the house. A multimedia whiteboard, so to speak.
The screen has a resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels in an 8:5 aspect ratio. The finish is shiny, which I suppose may increase reflections, but it also makes for a classier-looking product and picture. The colours were strong and bold and the black levels adequate. Photos and video both looked good.
Finally, I should note that there’s a USB Type-C port on the back. You can plug in an Ethernet adaptor or a USB to HDMI adaptor. I tested the former and it worked well. I only have the Apple version of the latter and its compatibility is explicitly ruled out.
(How about keyboard and mouse? I tried them both with both the USB-C and Bluetooth, with no go either way.)
The Facebook Portal is a great device for those who like video calling using Messenger or WhatsApp. The Alexa support makes it more useful than it otherwise would be, especially for those who also use Spotify. Best of all, it looks good and has a very nice display, with good-enough sound. And the pricing is surprisingly keen.