The Portal assistant is Facebook’s bid in the smart home assistant market. Just months after the high-profile privacy concerns regarding the company in light of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that rocked Facebook (and the world at large) earlier this year, the company is ready to test waters again with its new Portal and Portal+ devices that resemble the Amazon Echo in function.
Like the Echo, the Portal is powered by Amazon, so advanced features we are used to accessing on our digital assistants are accessed with “Hey Alexa”. Facebook’s hand in the Portal lies in its main feature: video calls. Available in two sizes, the Portal acts as a centrepiece of connectivity in our homes, enabling users to connect with friends and family seamlessly with great ease.
Video-wise, the Portal has plenty of features that justify the purchase of a separate device. The intelligent assistant is able to track subjects as they move within the frame, which is great for video chatting while going about errands and chores. This works for multiple subjects, so the camera will zoom out to accommodate new participants in the conversation. Background noise will also be reduced, so users do not have to stand close to the device to be heard.
To address privacy concerns, Facebook has made it a point to constantly reiterate the privacy-centric features of their new Portal. For example, the Portal has been deliberately designed to lack a video recording feature, instead, it can only facilitate live video transmission.
Facebook claims that they do not listen, view or record any call data. The smart video features are, instead, provided by on-chip, in-device AI technology and does not interact with Facebook data servers. Despite the ability to recognise when new subjects enter the field of view, there is no facial recognition technology involved on the Portal. If any doubt remains, Facebook has included a physical plastic camera cover that ensures an opaque hardware privacy solution.
Voice control, like most other voice-enabled assistants, is activated with the trigger words “Hey Portal” or “Alexa”, which is recognised with a constantly running microphone that processes audio exclusively in-device. Voice search history can be managed and deleted from users’ Facebook Activity Log.
The Portal is able to connect with Facebook users through Messanger, which means users without the portal are able to join in the conversation, too. Partnerships with music services like Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartRadio, along with news and content providers like Food Network and Newsy enables the Portal to provide tailored services at a moment’s notice.
Users are also able to use animations and augmented reality effects in their video chats, adding more fun and interaction opportunities, especially for a younger audience. Music sharing is also enabled, so different participants are able to sing along together on the device.
When not in use, the Facebook Portal can display your Facebook photos and videos and can prompt users when closest friends are available for chat. The hi-fi speakers on board are also powerful, allowing for an immersive listening experience. The larger Portal+ has two tweeters and a large 4-inch diameter bass driver, while the smaller Portal has two 10-watt full-range speakers on board.
The 15.6-inch Portal+ has a 90-degree rotatable 1080p display for both portrait and landscape screen orientations. The smaller Portal has a 10.1-inch 720p display that is fixed in a landscape orientation.
Both devices have a four-microphone array with 360-degree beamforming input for clear voice transmission even in noisy environments, and 12-megapixel 140-degree angle of view cameras with 8x zoom.
The Facebook Portal is available in Black and White finishes, and in Portal and Portal+ variants. The Portal retails at USD 199 (SGD 272), and as a pair with US$100 savings at USD 298 (SGD 487). The Portal+ retails at USD 349 (SGD 477). Preorders in the US begin today, though pricing and availability outside of the US have yet to be announced.