Tech Review: Facebook Portal
In April, the government announced they would be working with tech companies to combat social isolation. One of their partners is Facebook, with its ‘Portal’ device being piloted as a communications tool for patients in hospitals, care homes and a variety of other care settings. In this review, we take a closer look at how it works.
The Facebook Portal is a communications device that enables users to make video calls to friends and family. It comes in different size tablets (8”, 10” and 15.6”), as well as a set-top version that utilises your TV as the screen. The key feature that differentiates it from similar devices is the intelligent ‘Smart Camera’ that automatically pans and zooms to make sure that everyone in the call stays in the picture. If you move around the room, the camera automatically follows you, meaning that you don’t need to constantly hold the device or stay in one position to have a video conversation. For communicating with the elderly and with young children, you can quickly see why this is attractive. It also has ‘Smart Sound’, enhancing the voice of whoever is talking and minimising background noise.
The Portal has a built-in Alexa and voice-activation, a ‘Story Time’ (augmented reality) function to make silly faces and superimpose pictures on the screen, and other features we would expect from a Smart Device. Unlike other devices, however, it requires users to have Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to make calls, although if the person you are calling doesn’t have a Portal themselves the calls will still go through to their smartphone or tablet.
Is it Safe?
With growing concerns around online security generally, and the Cambridge Analytica debacle in 2018, this question is rightly centre stage in the discussion. In terms of the hardware, it is easier to disable the microphone or camera than other devices I’ve seen. There is also a physical camera shutter which is a nice touch.
WhatsApp calls are end-to-end encrypted and Messenger calls are encrypted in-transit. The Smart Camera uses AI technology that runs locally on Portal (not on Facebook Servers), and the camera does not employ facial recognition which I think is an important feature given its use in healthcare settings where other people may be unintentionally caught in the background.
I did notice the following on the Portal FAQ page about how Facebook uses data:
It also appears that when you give it the command ‘Hey Portal…’ this is processed on the Facebook Servers.
· The key strength of the Portal for me is definitely the optical tracking- having done many video calls between my son and my parents, I know how difficult it is to constantly hold a device whilst talking and this would make it easier.
· The StoryTime feature is nice- it allows older relatives to read children’s stories, with the reader seeing an autocue and the child seeing the relative’s face superimposed on the characters.
Things to Improve
· Whilst the device is innocuous and not overtly Facebook-branded, you still need to log in to access it.
· The maximum number of people (devices) you can have in a call is 8- I’m sure for the vast majority of people this is enough, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re planning bigger meetings/reunions
Overall, a like.
If you’re a Facebook user and make lots of video calls, the Portal is a good device. With the 10” version priced at £169, it’s also competitively priced. However, I feel the novelty value of the ‘fun’ features would quickly wear off so I wouldn’t buy it just for that, and the functionality outside of making calls is limited.
Please note that the views expressed here are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of any other person or organisation.