A first look at Facebook's Portal smart speakers: Entertaining video calling, but weak streaming content

  • Facebook's smart speakers stand out with video calls over Messenger.
  • The Portal and Portal+ bring augmented-reality capabilities to video calls similar to those on Instagram and Snapchat.
  • The exclusion of Netflix, HBO Now, YouTube and others hurts the useful of the Portal devices.

Facebook is the latest tech company to enter the smart-speaker market, offering a pair of voice-controlled devices that are optimized for video calling.

The Portal and Portal+ are smart speakers that feature tablet-sized screens. There are plenty of similar devices already on the market, but Facebook is betting on augmented reality and AI to make video calls more entertaining and easier to conduct.

I got to try them out. Here are my thoughts.

The good

While chatting on video, I was able to turn on the augmented-reality capabilities to give myself virtual masks such as a pair of bunny ears and a werewolf face, or turn myself into a dancing strawberry person. If you've ever played around with augmented reality on Facebook's Instagram or Snap's Snapchat, this is the same concept but applied to video calls. Similarly, the devices include a story time feature that is designed for parents or grandparents to read to their children over video with the aid of animations that help illustrate the tale.

The Portals also use artificial intelligence to get a sense of all the people within their line of sight and frame them front and center. This technology can also be used to focus on a specific person during a call. This feature should make video calls on Portal easier and more casual than they are on a smartphone or laptop, where you're constantly having to hold up the device or adjust its angle.

CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez demos the Facebook Portal+.
Andrew Evers | CNBC
CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez demos the Facebook Portal+.

Portal can call anyone with Facebook Messenger, which likely is most people you know. That's a major strength of the device over its competitors. For example, the Echo Show and Echo Spot are limited to calling other Show and Spot users or folks who use the Alexa app and the Lenovo Smart Display is limited to calling users of Google Duo.

Additionally, at $199, the 10-inch Portal is more competitively priced than its peers. The 10-inch Echo Show sells for $229.99 while the 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display is priced at $249.99.

Aside from video, both Portals feature everything else you'd expect from a smart speaker. The devices can stream music from Spotify, Pandora and Amazon Music, and they are enabled with the Alexa assistant, giving Portal users access to the many skills available on Amazon's service. I found audio over a video call to be a tad underwhelming, but once music started playing, the sound was perfectly crisp.

The bad

The 15.6-inch Portal+ has a hefty price tag at $349, but its huge screen is almost enough to justify the purchase. The screen stands out due to its slender length and ability to swivel from a vertical to horizontal position.

Unfortunately, the screen on the Portal+ feels like a missed opportunity due to its lack of content.

Both Portals can stream video from Facebook Watch, the company's YouTube competitor, but that's pretty much it. Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video are all missing. The company stresses that more content partnerships will become available down the road, but which services or when they will be added remain a mystery.

Facebook's Portal is the company's first entry in the smart speaker market. 
Facebook
Facebook's Portal is the company's first entry in the smart speaker market. 

Should you buy one?

I won't be getting a Portal device because I don't make too many video calls and am pleased with my Google Home.

But if you're a Facebook user and want to connect with distant loved ones more often, the Portal could be the right home speaker for you, especially if you don't already have a speaker like the Google Home or the Amazon Echo.

Preorders for the devices are open now at $199 for the 10-inch screen Portal and $349 for the Portal+, which has a 15.6-inch display. They will begin shipping in November.