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Facebook Portal Plus review: A decent video-chat display marred by its maker

CNET logo CNET 10/20/2021 Molly Price
Molly Price/CNET © Provided by CNET Molly Price/CNET

In 2019 we reviewed Facebook's Portal, Portal Plus and Portal TV devices, video chatting displays and cameras that included fun AR, but left us scratching our head about their real practicality. We didn't feel comfortable recommending them due to Facebook's questionable data privacy issues in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica breach

Fast-forward to today and things haven't improved for Facebook. Despite continued investigations into how Facebook uses and shares data, the company is pressing forward with new, camera-focused hardware. The $350 Portal Plus is Facebook's most expensive display. The 14-inch touchscreen comes with AR features, video chatting and a handful of streaming music and media services. Alexa is built in for smart home commands and general knowledge inquiries. 

© Molly Price/CNET

Even without the dark cloud of Facebook's branding hovering over the Portal Plus, it isn't a device worthy of anyone's $350. Apps are limited, controls aren't always intuitive and the dual-assistant setup of "Hey, Portal" and Alexa doesn't simplify anything. For the same (or likely less) money, you'd be better off with a tablet and folio stand or a smart display, depending on your wants and needs.

I've included two charts at the end of this review [insert "Jump to Recipe" button here] comparing tablets, displays and Portals. For now, let's dive into the details of the Portal Plus. One note: I reviewed the new, $200 Portal Go alongside this larger model and the two are extremely similar save for a few details of the physical design and of course the size and price. For that reason, several sections in this review are similar to my observations about the Portal Go. 

The Portal Plus is large and looks good displaying my favorite photos. Molly Price/CNET © Provided by CNET The Portal Plus is large and looks good displaying my favorite photos. Molly Price/CNET

Design

The Portal Plus' second generation has an entirely different look than the first. It's sleeker, with a slightly smaller 14-inch display with a 2,160x1,440-pixel resolution mounted on a rectangular speaker base. You can tilt the display up or down. A physical camera shutter and mute button offer manual privacy for the 12-megapixel front-facing camera that has a 131-degree field of view and will pan and zoom to keep you in frame.

Beneath the fabric base, a four-mic array listens for your "Hey, Portal," "Hey, Facebook" or, "Hey, Alexa" commands. Two 5-watt full range speakers and one 20-watt woofer put out plenty of sound for music, video streaming and chatting. The Portal Plus uses what Facebook calls "Smart Sound" AI to reduce background noise for the person speaking to Portal. 

The first-gen Portal Plus was big and bulky, but its screen could rotate. James Martin/CNET © Provided by CNET The first-gen Portal Plus was big and bulky, but its screen could rotate. James Martin/CNET

The design is a sure improvement over the bulky, original Portal Plus. However, this screen can't rotate between landscape and portrait orientations. 

Features

Nearly everything about the Portal Plus is identical to the Portal Go, only on a larger and corded scale. The limited amount of apps available on these two devices is a disappointment. These new Portals just doesn't do as much as any tablet or smart display and the Portal Plus costs more than many of those. There are so few apps (24 to be exact) that I can list them all right here. If I tried to do that with a tablet, Amazon Echo skills or Google Nest compatible apps and devices we would need a bigger internet. Here's the full list, in alphabetical order:

  • Alexa
  • BlueJeans
  • Browser
  • Calendar
  • CBS News
  • Deezer
  • Facebook Live
  • Food Network
  • GoToMeeting
  • iHeartRadio
  • Newsy
  • Pandora
  • Photo Booth
  • Plex
  • Red Bull TV
  • SideChef
  • Spotify
  • Story Time
  • Tidal Music
  • Watch
  • Webex Meetings
  • Workplace
  • Workplace Live
  • Zoom

The odd thing about this list is what's not on it. There aren't apps for Facebook, Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp. Instead, features from those apps are built into various parts of the Portal experience. You can link your Instagram account to display your Instagram feed photos on the Portal Plus' ambient screen. Messenger chat rooms are used when you video-call your contacts. You can use WhatsApp to set up the Portal instead of Facebook (but doing so will disable the "Hey, Portal" voice integration). 


Video: Facebook’s pricey Portal Plus brings loved ones closer (CNET)

I asked Facebook representatives why these in-house apps aren't available. Here's what they had to say:

The core use for Portal is video calling and to make it easier for people to connect with their family, friends and colleagues. You can use the web browser on Portal to access your favorite Facebook apps. People have other devices they typically use for browsing Facebook, Instagram, etc.

That makes sense. My first instinct wouldn't be to scroll Instagram on a display that isn't handheld like my phone or tablet. I probably also wouldn't choose to hunt and peck on a vertical touchscreen to reply to WhatsApp messages. All that to say, just be warned if you think this device primarily for your social media apps -- it isn't. 

Facebook could add more apps to the Portal Plus with future updates. Smart displays from other brands have taken this approach. I expect this list to expand, but for now these are the only for apps available on the Portal Plus. 

Video chatting

You can video chat with BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, Webex, Workplace and Zoom. Support for Microsoft Teams is in the works for later this year. Video-calling your contacts begins in the Contacts app, where you'll create a Messenger room in order to chat. The contacts available here are pulled from the WhatsApp or Facebook account you used to set up the Portal. However, if someone you want to call doesn't have a Facebook or Messenger account, you can send them a link to join the room. 

The Portal Plus's AR camera and Story Time are the headlining features of this device. When you're in a video call, tapping the Experiences button brings up a menu to access Story Time, Photo Casting, Watch Together or Effects. This is where you'll find fun filters and special effect backgrounds. 

Here's a collection of the weird and wacky filters you'll find in the Portal Plus Photo Booth app and in Messenger room effects. Molly Price/CNET © Provided by CNET Here's a collection of the weird and wacky filters you'll find in the Portal Plus Photo Booth app and in Messenger room effects. Molly Price/CNET

Open Story Time during a call (or on your own without a call ongoing) and you'll find stories with filters and special effects that interact with the person in front of the camera. The story text appears in the top left corner of the screen and little instructions pop up here and there to show you how to initiate some special effects.

Stories include popular series like Dr. Seuss, Pete the Cat, Llama Llama, Todd Parr and Jon Burgerman. You can also select classics like Three Little Pigs, Itsy Bitsy Spider and Little Red Riding Hood. Story Time is the most fun you can have on Portal. I just wish it were available as an app on third-party devices like tablets or other displays.

Privacy

We can't really review Facebook hardware without pointing out the ongoing saga of Facebook's data and privacy issues. Dig deeper into the Portal privacy features here if you like, but these are the big takeaways.

The Portal Plus is listening for the "Hey, Portal" or "Hey, Facebook" wake word. If it detects the phrase, Portal sends a transcript and recording of that voice interaction to Facebook. Those "Hey, Portal" and "Hey, Facebook" transactions are kept on Facebook's servers for up to three years, while "false wakes" are deleted within 90 days of detection. That's if you don't take any action. If you choose to, you can review and delete your voice interactions in the Portal Plus's settings. 

You could choose to disable voice interaction recording entirely in the device's settings, but it is turned on by default. If you only connect your Portal to WhatsApp on initial setup, "Hey, Portal" won't work at all, thanks to WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption. 

A physical camera shutter and mute button add some peace of mind. A red light indicates the microphone is muted. The Portal Plus's camera uses AI technology that is processed locally, not on Facebook servers. The camera doesn't have any facial recognition abilities. 

A physical shutter, red light and on-screen notification let you know the camera and microphones are turned off. Molly Price/CNET © Provided by CNET A physical shutter, red light and on-screen notification let you know the camera and microphones are turned off. Molly Price/CNET

Better options

There are two ways you could approach Portal Plus alternatives, but you need to know what exactly you're after. If you're looking for a device that's great for streaming video, has thousands of apps, including social media, get a tablet.

There are plenty of 10- to 15-inch tablets available that provide a big enough screen and a good camera. Nearly any model from Samsung, Amazon or Apple will give you more features, processing power, apps for streaming and social media platforms. Treat yourself to an Apple Pencil or S Pen for Apple or Samsung models, and you've got even more options.

If you're looking for an Alexa-focused smart home screen, the Echo Show 8 and Echo Show 10 are both far better (and often more affordable) options with broader apps for streaming and video chatting. Both are often available for less than the Portal Plus' $350 list price.

The following charts compare popular tablets and smart displays with Portal Plus and Portal Go.

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