Facebook announces Portal, a video-chatting device for the home

Facebook has introduced an all-new video-based smart display called Portal. Available in two sizes, the device’s primary purpose is to connect family and friends. It also includes other goodies that could eventually make it a winner. 

Officially launching in the United States in November, both the Portal and Portal+ use AI technology to “let you feel there,” during a video call with up to six other users. It does so by using a 12-megapixel camera that follows the action by panning and zooming automatically. From there, it offers so-called Smart Sound to minimize background noise while you’re talking. Facebook says this combination is like having your own cinematographer and sound crew direct your personal video calls.

The 10-inch Portal is $199, while the 15-inch Portal+ is $349. If you buy two devices at the same time, Facebook is offering a $100 discount.

Not surprisingly, Portal focuses on connecting Facebook friends and connections through Messenger. As such, calls can be made to anyone who’s using a Messenger-enabled smartphone or tablet.

Portal also has Amazon Alexa built-in, which means you make calls using your voice and also check the weather, latest sports scores, news, and more.

If you find the idea of a panning and zooming camera annoying, Facebook has added a few levels of security. First, Portal ships with an actual camera cover, which allows you to block the camera’s lens at any time. Even when the camera is covered, you’ll still receive incoming calls and notifications, and can use voice commands. You can also turn Portal’s camera on/off alongside its microphone with one tap. You can also manage Portal access by assigning a four- to 12-digit passcode.

Facebook has also taken a page from Apple’s playbook book and says it doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of Portal video calls. Plus, the device’s Smart Camera and Smart Sound use technology that runs locally, not on Facebook servers. You can also delete your voice history with ease.

Also, the device’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition, so it can’t identify who’s using the device.

Portal isn’t just a video-conferencing tool for the home. It also includes what Facebook calls “immersive experiences,” which allows you to share activities with others such as listening to music together or watching a favorite show. At launch, Portal includes integration with Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, plus Food Network and Newsy. The device also offers Facebook Watch.

I have no way of knowing whether Portal will find an audience. On the one hand, Facebook of all companies should be able to connect people in new ways. Still, for most users, I can’t see how the price of admission is worth it — at least for now. Were Facebook to add other services to Portal, such as YouTube or Hulu, for example, perhaps it would be.

We should know soon enough. You can pre-order devices in the U.S. right now through the Facebook website. Portal will also be available on Amazon and Best Buy.

Will you consider buying a Portal? Let us know in the comments below.