Facebook Portal Review

Facebook’s Portal is a smart display that puts video chat at the forefront. It works with both Messenger and WhatsApp, two of the most popular chat apps in the world. A smart camera algorithm follows you around to keep you engaged in conversation.

In standby mode, Portal will display what Facebook’s calling a “SuperFrame,” which appears to be a fancy term for wallpaper. You can choose which Facebook Photos album you want displayed, and it’ll also occasionally show you birthday reminders and alerts for when your friends come online. Alternatively, you can download an optional Portal app that’ll let you load the display with photos from your phone’s camera roll. The app can also be used as an intercom of sorts to communicate with the Portal without having to go through Messenger or Whatsapp.

When activated, the home screen shows your Contacts screen, complete with favorite or recent contacts. You can then swipe right to get to the rest of the Portal’s apps, which include a browser, a Food Network app (this is the same as the one on Echo Shows), news apps from CNN and Fox, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Pandora and Facebook Watch. There’s no YouTube app here; the only way to access it is via the aforementioned browser.

Of course, the primary reason you would get the Portal is to make video calls. Portal now works with WhatsApp as well as Messenger. Messenger works straight away, since it shares the same login credentials as Facebook, but if you want to add your WhatsApp account, you’ll need to undergo an additional step to set that up. All you need to do is scan the QR code with the app on your phone — similar to how you’d set up WhatsApp on the desktop — and you’re ready to make or receive calls.

With Messenger calls, you can use the “Hey Portal” voice command to initiate calls — “Hey Portal, call my mom” would make it do exactly that. But you can’t use the “Hey Portal” command with WhatsApp, apparently because Facebook and WhatsApp accounts are maintained separately. Instead, you’ll have to make WhatsApp calls the old-fashioned way, by tapping on the screen and selecting the appropriate contact’s name. That said, you can add WhatsApp contacts as Favorites so it’s easier to call them from the home screen.

You are able to use AR effects — which are funny face filters you can put on yourself — on both Messenger and WhatsApp calls, and the Storytime feature is available on both. You can also share songs over Spotify on both services. The one difference is AR games — such as competing with your friend to chomp on virtual donuts — which are available only on Messenger. The number of people you can have in a group call is different too. For Messenger, it’s up to eight people, and with WhatsApp, it’s up to four.

The Portal’s main selling points is its AI-powered camera that can pan and zoom to follow you around. You can switch to manual focus by pinching out on the screen, and if there are multiple people, you can tap on someone’s face to zoom in and “Spotlight” them.

The Portal comes with two different voice assistants: “Hey Portal” and Amazon’s Alexa. The idea here is that “Hey Portal” can be used for on-device controls like making calls and launching apps, while Alexa is more for the usual Amazon voice assistant commands like looking up restaurant recommendations and controlling smart home gadgets like thermostats and lights. However, there is some overlap: both assistants can check the weather, set timers and alarms, and play music.