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Facebook's new Portal is great for video calls, but it's not as useful as Google and Amazon's competitors

Key Points
  • The new Facebook Portal video chat device launches Tuesday in two sizes for $129 and $179.
  • CNBC tested the 10-inch model. It's good for video chat with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger friends.
  • While video calls are great, it it lags behind in apps and other features offered by Google and Amazon's competing products.
A picture of me skydiving on the Facebook Portal.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The new Facebook Portal is Facebook's second attempt to deliver an in-home smart display that competes with the Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub. It serves as a digital photo frame and lets you place video calls over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to phones and other Facebook Portal devices.

Facebook isn't well known for building great hardware yet, but it's getting more aggressive with a new round of these Portal devices and its Oculus virtual reality business. But these devices make sense for a company that prides itself on connecting people, and the Portal does a good job at that.

While the Portal I tested is a marked improvement over the model I tested last year, and the best video chat device of its kind, Google and Amazon's devices are still better for most people since they can do more.

Here's what you need to know about the latest Facebook Portals, which launch Tuesday.

What's good

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Last year I tested the massive Portal+, which was huge and a bit goofy looking, even though it worked as advertised. This year, Facebook's $129 8-inch Portal Mini and $179 10-inch Portal (the one I tested) look like digital picture frames, which I'm more willing to let sit out on my kitchen counter or living room table.

The Portal is great for video calls, so long as the people you're calling use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Most of my family is on WhatsApp, but the Portal only lets you call up to 4 in a video chat, far from the 32 people that you can call with Apple's FaceTime. Most of my family doesn't actively use Facebook anymore, but folks with Facebook Messenger can call up to 8 people at once.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I liked it for simple video calls with my brother and his wife in Santa Monica, who had an identical loaner unit from Facebook. The video was really clear and has a nice wide angle lens so I was able to see my brother, his wife and my niece. Facebook also did a good job with the microphones, so I could hear people even if they walked to the other side of the room during a call.

There are some fun options, too, like silly augmented reality masks — I liked one that gave me a mustache — or an option to listen to the same Spotify song together. Parents might appreciate a storybook function, which lets you read a book to your kids over video chat with animated characters. It worked well in a test, though I don't have any kids of my own to read to.

The Portal has an AR feature that lets you read books over video chat to your children.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The camera can also follow people around the room, so they don't need to be sitting still. If you want an in-home video calling system, the Portal is better than an Amazon Echo Show or Google Nest Hub Max, since the cameras are better.

While the best feature is the video calling function, the Portal spends most of its time as a digital picture frame, showing pictures that you can upload from your phone, or that you've selected from Facebook and Instagram. I like that I was always able to look up and see pictures of my niece or recent vacations, but it doesn't support Google Photos or Apple Photos, where I keep all of my pictures.

There are some apps, but not a lot.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It has a touchscreen that's easy to use. There are apps and a few games (though not many), like Spotify, which you can tap into to play your favorite music or chess if you want to play a quick game against a random person on Facebook. A Food Network app has a few recipes if you want to scroll through them in the kitchen, but there aren't enough for the app to be very useful. There's a web browser, which was useful for checking in on CNBC.com, and helps if you want to find and follow a recipe in the kitchen. Still, you can do a lot more with an Amazon Echo Show or Google Home Hub, which have apps like Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube TV and Hulu, better cooking apps and more. 

The Facebook Portal has a web browser.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

So, while the video quality may be better on the portal, almost everything else is better on an Echo Show or the Google Nest Hub Max.

What's bad

There are some (but not many) apps for the Facebook Portal.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's a switch that lets you cover the camera and turn off the microphone, which is good, but it seems like Facebook still has a long way to go before it earns people's trust again. When I told family and friends about the Portal, a lot were skeptical about putting Facebook hardware in their homes, more so than an Amazon Echo or Google speaker.

If your friends don't use WhatsApp or Facebook, then you can't place a video call. Plenty of people use WhatsApp, like my siblings, so that's a nice added option that wasn't available last year. But my inlaws and my parents haven't fully adopted it yet.

Spotify on the Facebook Portal.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The speakers on the Portal are better than last year's model but it still didn't really blow me away. I prefer using either Google, Amazon or Sonos speakers, since I have more of them around the house and can music across all of them at once, too.

The Facebook Portal has a speaker on the back and its charger doubles as a kickstand.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's also not very smart. The Portal has Amazon Alexa on it, but that can't be used to do everything Alexa on an Echo Show can do, like play videos. But you can still do things like ask the weather or control your smart home. I also like that the Google Nest Hub Max recognizes my face and shows me news, my commute time with Google Maps and other information that's specific to me. My wife thinks that's creepy, though, so maybe it's too early for Facebook to add that kind of support.

Should you buy it?

A photo of me skydiving displayed on the Facebook Portal.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you want a photo frame that can show you your Facebook and Instagram albums and place really good video calls to your friends and family members, and they're all on Facebook or WhatsApp, then the Portal is great. It's a fun way to connect with friends and family, especially since the camera works well.

You can call WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger contacts.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you want a smart display that can show you more information and has more apps for cooking, music, videos and photo libraries you have stored elsewhere, then look at the Amazon Echo or Google Nest Hub Max. I like the latter the best, since it syncs with Google Photos where I keep all of my pictures. That matters more than the camera quality to me, since smart displays are simply digital photo frames 99% of the time when they're not being used.

Or, if you don't care for a standalone smart display at all but want the Facebook video calling options, consider the $149 Facebook Portal TV, a camera that clips onto your television to provide similar functionality as the Portal.

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