Facebook, like Amazon, Google and Apple, is trying to put hardware in your home. But, unlike those other companies, which are focused on smart home security systems and/or smart speakers, Facebook's strategy is to build hardware products, called Portals, that keep friends and family connected through video chat.
The latest to hit the market is the $149 Portal TV, which has really good cameras and connects to your TV to let you video chat with friends and family through WhatsApp calls or Facebook Messenger. Yes, some people are still worried about Facebook's ability to protect their privacy and may be too uncomfortable putting this in their homes. The good news is you can block the camera and turn off the microphone whenever you want. I'll talk about that a bit later.
The Portal TV is being sold along Facebook's other Portal devices, which look and act like digital photo frames that also let you video chat. But I like the Facebook Portal TV way better than those, since video chatting on the biggest screen in my house is the best way to see and hear family and friends around the world.
It can do other things, like stream movies and TV shows or music, and even works with Amazon Alexa, but it's best thought of as a way to chat with other people. I've been using it to stay in touch with my family and I love it. It might be a sleeper hit this holiday season. After all, Facebook has 2.52 billion unique monthly users who might like something like this.
Here's what you need to know.
Setup is easy. The Portal TV is a small bar that sits on above or below your TV screen. It plugs into your TV with an HDMI cable (not included, though I wish it was) and comes with a remote that you use to control it. I had it up and running in about 10 minutes after logging in to my Facebook and WhatsApp accounts.
I used the Portal TV during a weekend trip to my sister's home in Seattle over the weekend, and called my brother and his family down in Santa Monica. You can call someone by saying "Hey Portal call Ryan," for example. In total, we had four people and a dog chatting in Seattle and two people and a toddler hanging out down in Santa Monica using a regular Portal. On the big screen in Seattle, it felt like we were all sharing a living room. I could hear and see everyone in Santa Monica clearly, including my niece walking around the room. We spent more than an hour catching up.
If people get up and walk around, the camera on the Portal TV follows them around and pans and zooms, so they don't easily just walk out of frame and can move freely about, doing whatever they might be doing while they're chatting with you.
Facebook's Portal products have augmented reality story-telling software called "story time" built-in, so we read my niece a version of the children's book "Five Little Monkeys," which overlaid digital masks on us as my sister read the words on the screen to her. It felt a little silly, but my niece liked it and jumped around while we read.
There's no other device that does something like this so seamlessly. Amazon's Echo Show products and the Google's Nest Hub Max have cameras, but they don't attach to big screens like the Facebook Portal TV does. Instead of having to gather around a smaller smart photo frame-like device, we just sat comfortably on the couch in the living room.
You can do other things, like listen to Spotify together or watch shows on Facebook Watch, but I didn't find much content in the latter that was of interest. You can also call up Alexa if you want, but I have an Amazon Echo in my living room and use that instead. There aren't a ton of apps here, like you'd find on streaming devices like the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast or Apple TV. That means the Portal TV is missing key streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu. Just think of it as a video chat device that can do a little more, just not a whole lot more.
If you're worried about Facebook privacy, as I still am, then I advise either unplugging the Portal TV or sliding the cover over the camera and turning off the microphone when you're not using it. That way it's only active when you're on video calls over Messenger or WhatsApp, the latter of which is encrypted.
I don't have a whole lot of complaints with the Portal TV. It does what it's supposed to do: connect family and friends through video chat, and it does that really well. I like it a lot more than the regular Portal, which isn't as good at being a smart photo frame as competitors from Amazon and Google. But those companies don't have a product like this.
I wish the Portal TV came with an HDMI cord, though you can buy one from Facebook during checkout for $10, or get one really cheap from somewhere like Amazon, if you don't have a spare in the house. Still, it just seems like something that should be included so that you're up and running right away.
And, yeah, we should all be worried about putting cameras and microphones owned by Facebook in our homes. It hasn't really earned back our trust after the big Cambridge Analytica scandal yet, and I know plenty of people who have deleted their accounts outright.
But there are still 2.45 billion monthly active users, so Facebook has a big audience of people who clearly still use the service.
If you have family all over the country, as I do, or friends you want to stay in touch with, then yes, the Portal TV is a really fun product worth buying. I love that I can use it to see my niece walk around while I hang out on the couch. Sure, products like Apple's FaceTime work fine for this, and plenty of families use FaceTime for similar things, but this is so much better than crowding around an iPhone, Mac or iPad.
It comes down to whether or not you trust Facebook. If you do, and you're one of the more than 2 billion people using the service, then you'll love it. If you don't, then don't buy the Facebook Portal TV. Spoiler to my family members, though: you may find one of these under the tree at Christmas.