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Facebook Portal is back, but we’re still not sure who really needs it

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Camera panning and zooming is still cool • New speaker is an upgrade New design is a miss • Limited app selection • Not useful outside of very specific circumstances Facebook's new Portal works just fine, but it's a tough sell in a world where most devices can already do these things. ⚡ Mashable Score 2.5

Last year, after close to a year of intense public scrutiny over the company's treatment of user data, Facebook made the fascinating decision to release an always-online camera for people to put in their homes. The 2018 edition of Facebook Portal came and went without making much of a dent in the tech landscape, but Facebook is back with a redesigned and, ideally, improved model.

We can confirm that the new, $179.99 Portal is redesigned. It now has a boxy look that makes it resemble a picture frame more than a tablet or smart speaker. As for improvement, well, that all depends on what you expect and what you think you need from a Facebook-fueled video caller.

The newest hardware from Mark Zuckerberg and friends does what it's asked to do, but an uninspiring new form factor and somewhat limited usefulness in an increasingly connected world make us wonder who, exactly, is supposed to be excited for this.

What's new?

The contacts screen in the new Portal

In the grand scheme of things, not much has changed in Facebook's latest Portal device. It's still basically a smart speaker with a heavy emphasis on video calls through Facebook's messaging platforms. It's also got Alexa integration and a limited selection of third-party video apps, like CNN and Food Network.

Last year, you had to do everything through Facebook Messenger. That changed a bit this year with the addition of WhatsApp calls, but either way, you're still calling people using Facebook technology and nothing else. There's no support for Skype or any other video calling apps on Portal.

I don't mean that as a critique, necessarily. It's more that you need to understand Portal's limitations before judging it further. This is a device aimed squarely at people who not only use Facebook, but who use Facebook as a primary means of communication. Anyone who is fully bought into Messenger or WhatsApp is naturally going to be a little bit more at home here than those who use those apps sparingly.

Facebook controlling all aspects of video calling on Portal does allow for some unique features. The camera still zooms and pans around the room to make sure subjects are in frame, and you can touch someone's face to force the camera to exclusively follow them with Spotlight Mode. Most importantly, you can get real silly with it.

With the new Portal, there are even more goofy filters and AR activities you can mess with in your calls. You can read and even act (sort of) in children's stories using Story Time, an AR feature that makes one caller a raconteur and the other an audience member. AR games allow callers to see who can catch falling objects with their heads or who can go the longest without smiling.

Or, in Mashable's case, you can use filters to make the East Coast tech team look like dogs during a daily meeting.

Story time

Story time

On the hardware end of things, Facebook totally revamped Portal's appearance to make it look decidedly less tech-y. Portal's 10.2-inch screen now lives inside an inconspicuous box that, again, looks like one of those digital picture frames that cycle through family photos. In fact, the Superframe feature on Portal will do exactly that with your Facebook and Instagram photo libraries if you let the device sit idle for a while.

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I won't be subtle about this: I think the new Portal is ugly. Last year's model was no a technological Adonis, but it at least looked like something. You could go into someone's home and not even notice the new Portal unless they pointed it out to you. There's merit to that, but I would rather have something that looks interesting than something that looks as nonthreatening as possible.

Long-distance made personal

When you're actually using the Portal for its intended purpose, it works about as you'd expect. You can still load up a call with as many as eight participants and chat until day turns to night, if you want.

I don't have a huge amount of complaints about video calls through Portal, and the ones I do have are more endemic to the concept of video calling anyway. The camera quality is acceptable, and maybe marginally better than other video calling devices, but not enough to be a selling point. The automatic panning and zooming feature was novel last year and is still neat.

There is a prominent new speaker on the back to improve audio quality, and I did notice a nice aural kick when I watched things like YouTube videos in the web browser. You can also use the Portal as a Bluetooth speaker for music. That said, the built-in microphone hasn't caught up to the new speakers yet in terms of fidelity. It's perfectly usable, but it doesn't sound that much better than a FaceTime call.

Portal's new speaker

Portal's new speaker

One area where Portal succeeds is in making video calls feel a little more laid-back than usual. I typically find video calls a bit uncomfortable because, when I'm holding up a phone or sitting in front of a webcam, I feel like even more of a captive audience than I do during a phone call. Portal is clearly meant to be placed at a central point in a room and otherwise not touched, which is commendable.

One of the main target demos for Portal seems to be grandparents or folks who don't always get real-life time with their families. For them, I completely understand the appeal of Portal. It's easy to set up, works through a service billions of people already use, and allows them to have video conversations while doing something else.

The same goes for businesses, where Portal could make long-distance meetings easier to set up and a little more engaging. While much of what Portal offers works (and often works well), one has to wonder what it's replacing.

Limited appeal

As I laid out earlier, the appeal of Portal is clear, but not universal. If video calls are part of your daily life for family or work reasons, it makes some sense. But even with those kinds of situations in mind, it's hard for me to recommend the new Portal.

Let me put it this way: Portal costs $179.99 for decent video calls that are tethered to one company's services, Alexa functionality, a fairly minuscule selection of streaming apps, and some other odds and ends. Between your phone, computer, TV, or whatever other devices you have lying around, you can probably do all of those things (and more) already without giving Facebook nearly $200.

There's also the privacy concern, which will haunt Facebook like a curse for the rest of time. Facebook says the video call tech lives on the device and the calls are not recorded, for what that's worth. You can also use a switch to cut off and physically cover the camera and microphone.

If you're a devoted Facebook user who trusts the Portal's privacy protections (or just doesn't care), and you have video calling needs that aren't met by the devices you currently own, Portal might work for you. For everyone else, I'd say just stick with what you've got.

You can already do most of this elsewhere.

You can already do most of this elsewhere.

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