Facebook Portal is a great way to do video calls with all your Facebook friends, but doesn't do much else

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Facebook Portal is a great way to do video calls with all your Facebook friends, but doesn't do much else

  • CNBC tested Facebook's Portal and Portal+.
  • Facebook's biggest attempt at hardware ever is a bid to connect people with high-quality video calls.
  • While video calling is good, the rest of the product feels unfinished.

Facebook hasn't found its place in hardware, but it's getting closer.

Unlike Apple, Amazon or even Google, Facebook has struggled to find a hardware product with mass appeal. It has a niche virtual reality business with Oculus VR. And, it partnered with HTC in 2013 to launch a phone that ultimately flopped.

Now, Facebook is trying hardware again with two new devices, the Portal and Portal+ smart screens, which are the company's version of devices like the Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub, and available beginning Thursday.

There are two models, the $199 Portal with a 10.1-inch screen and the $349 Portal+ with a larger 15.6-inch screen that rotates. They're meant to be smart displays, but with a focus on video chat through Facebook's Messenger service.

The video chat experience is fantastic, with excellent video quality, top-notch microphones and great speakers. But compared with products by Amazon and Google, the Portal and Portal+ need to do more. Plus, a lot of people are seriously concerned about Facebook's record when it comes to data privacy.

Here's what you need to know about Facebook's biggest hardware attempt ever.

What's good

The Facebook Portal and the Facebook Portal+
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC
The Facebook Portal and the Facebook Portal+

The primary focus of the Portal and Portal+ is video chatting with your Facebook friends, and it's great for that.

I tested the larger Portal+, which has a huge touchscreen display — it's very big — that you can use to tap on friends and place a video call. (Consider the smaller 10.1-inch model if you want something a bit more discrete.) When it's not in use, the bright and sharp screen can show photos from picture albums you've uploaded to Facebook. I liked that it showed photos of a skydiving trip my wife and I took several years ago.

Calling my brother on the Facebook Portal+
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Calling my brother on the Facebook Portal+

I used Portal to call my family in California to see my niece. My brother answered on a phone using the Messenger app. He was able to see me and my wife just fine and remarked about how clear and wide the shot was. That's thanks to a built-in camera feature that tracks you as you move around the room, so you always stay in focus for the person you're chatting with.

Facebook said it worked with professional cinematographers to make sure the camera panned to people smoothly, and it's the best execution of this sort of technology I've seen. I was able to walk around my living room, and the camera followed me around so I didn't walk off screen. If you're talking with someone who owns a Portal, you can tap to lock on their face so the camera follows them around, too.

More filters on the Facebook Portal+
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC
More filters on the Facebook Portal+

Another neat feature: the speaker is great, and software makes sure the microphones point toward the person (or people) who are speaking.

But since my brother was using his phone's video camera for his chat, the quality on my end wasn't as good. The video was less grainy when I used one Portal to call another that my colleague was testing. You really need more than one Portal to get the best experience.

When you're not using Portal, you can place an included plastic shield over the camera. It's nice to have, but feels like an afterthought that Facebook added only after realizing people might be nervous about having an always-watching Facebook camera in their homes.

There's also a button you can press to mute the microphone and deactivate the camera, but that means it won't be able to accept voice commands. Facebook told me that the button physically deactivates the camera and microphone, and it can only be turned on again when someone taps the button.

Facebook Portal+ lets you listen to Spotify.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Facebook Portal+ lets you listen to Spotify.

Portal offers other features, too. The Portal+ has nice, loud speakers for playing music from Spotify, for example, easily filling up the downstairs of my house with music. Another neat feature: If someone else has Spotify, you can both listen to the same song at the same time and control the volume separately. It's a fun way to share music with someone far away. The speaker didn't sound as good as a Sonos speaker, but it got the job done.

Facebook told me it set out to create a video experience that helps make people feel like they're in the same room. It hits that goal because the video and audio quality are very good.

Just don't expect much more.

What's Bad

The smaller Facebook Portal
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC
The smaller Facebook Portal

While the smaller unit looks like a copy of the Amazon Echo Show, the larger one is remarkably awkward looking and clunky, with a too-big screen that rotates around a speaker base for portrait and landscape calls. Despite this, I think most people should buy the bigger one, since it really makes you feel closer to the person you're speaking with.

Overall, Portal is inconsistent in what it tries to do, whether it's from offering apps or serving as a smart voice assistant.

Portal's home screen has a list of people it thinks you might be interested in talking to, for example, but none of them were people I'd want to video chat with. For example, it listed my neighbors, who I've only talked to on Facebook a few times in the past. It also suggested friends I haven't spoken with in years, if ever, on Facebook. The company told me it's still working to tweak these algorithms, and that it should eventually be more accurate.

Speaking with my colleague on the Facebook Portal+
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC
Speaking with my colleague on the Facebook Portal+

Besides Spotify, there are other apps. You can watch YouTube videos or content from the Food Network, for example. But unlike the Amazon Echo or Google Home, the Food Network doesn't actually show the ingredients for recipes or walk you through steps, which makes Portal less desirable in the kitchen than its competitors. Facebook told me more apps are coming, including a web browser so that people can stream TV.

Facebook Portal can play some video content, but it's very limited.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Facebook Portal can play some video content, but it's very limited.

The experience is inconsistent inside apps, too. In some apps, the back button usually returns you to the home screen, but in others, like YouTube.com, it doesn't. It's confusing, and I think it'll also confuse other users.

Finally, Portal has two voice assistants to use. You can ask Portal to call someone by saying "Hey Portal, call Michelle," but you have to use Amazon's Alexa voice assistant for anything else. You can ask it to play music through Amazon Prime Music, check the weather, get sports scores and random trivia and more. Facebook was wise to use Alexa if it knows it can't create a smart assistant that can compete, but I'm worried having to say "Hey Portal" for some things and "Hey Alexa" for others.

Should you buy it?

Facebook Portal+ turned into portrait mode.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Facebook Portal+ turned into portrait mode.

I don't think Portal will be a good fit for most people. Even though I was impressed with the unmatched video quality and the smart camera that followed me around, the rest of the experience felt unfinished. Facebook seemed to admit as much, noting that features like a browser and more apps are coming later.

But there's more.

Over the past year, Facebook has consistently shown that it's incapable of keeping its user's private data safe. Several breaches have exposed personal information on millions of its users, and now it's asking its customers to pay money and bring a Facebook product with microphones and cameras into our homes.

A picture of Todd Haselton skydiving on the Facebook Portal+
Magdalena Petrova | CNBC
A picture of Todd Haselton skydiving on the Facebook Portal+

The company originally said Portal was only going to be used for video calls, but then had to backtrack and explain that data collected from Portal like frequency of calls or the time you spend during a video call may be used for Facebook ad targeting. I don't like that, and even if Facebook says it doesn't listen to the calls, it hasn't proven that it has the security to really promise that other people can't.