Here’s a shocker – I actually like Facebook’s new Portal video chat device.
Portal is the best video experience I’ve yet seen for video chat, trumping Apple's FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts and the rest. Additionally, the digital photo frame features of the Portal are terrific if you, like me, upload a lot of photos to Facebook. It's cool to see them play back on the beautiful video screen. The entry level models have a 10-inch screen, and start at $199.
From there it goes downhill. The other features are pretty much worthless.
Portal is aimed at connecting you to family and friends through video chat. The idea is that, instead of holding your phone up to your face for a jerky visual conversation with grandma and grandpa, you get a beautiful mini-TV, with a 10-inch screen, from which — in a perfect world — would involve the entire family for a group chat.
The installed camera is the breakthrough: It moves with you and the sounds of other voices to automatically scan the room for all the participants.
The result is video chat that suddenly looks professional, with a camera that zooms in instead of giving you one steady, boring image.
The downside is that the device comes from Facebook, the company that’s been hindered by two years of public relations nightmares. A rogue app developer took our personal information and sold it in 2016; just two months ago, Facebook admitted that some 30 million members were hacked, and had their personal information revealed.
Facebook insists it won’t record our calls, which is good. But it does record us every time we say “Hey Portal,” with a command and stores those recordings online. It monitors who we have called, where they live and how long we’ve spoken, something it automatically does every time we make calls on the Facebook Messenger platform. It admits it could sell ads and show them to us elsewhere based on the information gleaned from Portal.
So if you’re willing to live with that kind of exposure, and have family members you’d like to stay in contact with more often, then Portal could be the device that really pushes video chat to the mainstream. It’s that good.
Note that this is coming from the person who wrote just a few weeks ago that the Portal was doomed to failure, due to Facebook’s endless privacy issues, and suggested the social network pull it before it even launched.
So Facebook surprised me with a really nice device. That said, the rest of the features beyond chat and the digital photo frame leave a lot to be desired. Compared to the $229 Amazon Echo Show or $149 Google Home Hub, similar products that allow voice command of things like listening to music or watching videos, Portal (which starts at $199) is stuck in the dark ages.
On Portal, your voice can only open an app or initiate a phone/video chat. Huge fail in that regard.
The Portal is available from Facebook’s online store, Amazon and Best Buy.
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