THE technology for video calling has been around for more than a decade now, but it’s really taken off with everyone working from home or realising they’re not supposed to leave the house as much due to the pandemic.
Facebook have entered the video calling device/smart home hub space with their Portal device range which, despite the name, isn’t about solving physics puzzles with a science fiction wormhole gun while being mocked by a deranged AI.
I’ve reviewed the Portal 10in (RRP: $229) and aesthetically, it looks like a picture frame – Facebook seem to be pitching it as becoming part of your household furniture. I have to say I didn’t love the design myself, but I can see how people wanting a more traditional look for it might find it to be up their alley.
The unit has a 10in 1280×800 display, 10w speakers with rear subwoofer, 13MP camera with 114 degree viewing angle, and it works in either landscape or portrait mode.
Facebook are acutely aware they’re not regarded as especially trustworthy by a lot of people, and to that end the Portal includes a physical shutter over the camera to block it, and a setting to go one further and switch the microphone off too.
Set up is pretty straightforward; the unit connects to your Facebook and/or WhatsApp accounts, and you can also integrate it with Amazon Alexa if you like too.
You can also select which contacts you want to be available, which is helpful as pretty much everyone has a bunch of Facebook/WhatsApp connections whom they don’t actually talk to much – or definitely do not want to be video chatting with.
While the Amazon Echo Show 8 is a smart home hub first and videophone second, the Facebook Portal is the opposite – videophone as a primary function, smart home hub as a bonus.
In its primary role, the Portal works well – it’s very easy to set up and use.
It’s also a very handy thing right now, given in large parts of the country people still can’t go and visit friends or family, so video calling is a great way to keep in touch.
My kids haven’t been able to see their grandparents for more than a month now, so they were keen to test out the video function aspects of the unit.
Because Portal is Facebook-connected, it meant we could touch my parent’s details on the screen, the device would put a call through, they could answer on their phone or tablet, and we were in business – no setup at all required from their end.
Video and sound quality were good too – important things in a video calling device.
One of the areas where the Portal really shines is its video tracking. If you move around, the camera will remain focussed on you. While this is good if you like pacing around while talking, it’s hugely helpful when you’ve got active kids who don’t want to sit still.
The tracking is very smooth – no jerking at all – and microphone picks up sound clearly too. I was impressed with both these aspects
Just to make things even more fun, the Portal can apply Snapchat-style filters to you as a sort of Augmented Reality feature – especially in Story Time mode, which allows you to narrate a children’s story and use the AR effects to bring them to life.
There are several stories included (and Facebook say more are being added all the time), including traditional favourites like Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs, and the ability for a parent (or grandparent) to use the AR features to enhance the story is a neat touch that will delight small children, especially when they may not be able to see their extended family in person (although it also works as a standalone feature too; you don’t need to call anyone to use it).
The main drawback to the Portal isn’t so much a fault of the product itself, but the fact that if you don’t have a Facebook or WhatsApp account, you can’t use the Portal, and if you don’t have an Amazon account you can’t use Alexa, either.
If you’re after a dedicated video call device that can blend into your decor and do double duty as a photo frame and Amazon smart home point, the Facebook Portal is worth looking at – although for most of us, Messenger works just fine on a tablet or mobile phone too.