Facebook's Portal TV video chat device was mocked — now it's completely sold out

Key Points
  • Facebook's Portal TV is the best way to video chat with friends and family right now. It's simple to use and has lots of fun features.
  • Critics mocked it when it launched, though, since it seemed weird to put a microphone and video camera from Facebook in our homes.
  • Now the Facebook Portal TV is sold out.
You can read stories using the Facebook Portal TV.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

When Facebook launched the Portal TV video chat system in November, critics quickly shot down the idea of putting a Facebook camera and microphone in their homes. Reviewers, including me, worried that Facebook didn't take privacy very seriously.

But consumers have put those fears aside.

With people stuck indoors and seeking the best way to stay in touch with family and friends, the Portal TV is completely sold out on Facebook's website and from retailers such as Best Buy.

If you're unfamiliar, there are four Facebook Portal gadgets, including a big one that initially launched in 2018, two frame-sized devices and the $149 Portal TV, which uses your TV as a big video chat screen and provides really high-quality wide-angle lenses.

As I said when I reviewed it in November, Facebook Portal TV is my favorite model, since it lets you chat from a big-screen TV in your house, offering the most immersive experience. It's also dead-simple to use. That's the one that's sold out.

I've been using it more over the past several weeks to stay in touch with my brother, his wife and my niece in Santa Monica and my brother-in-law and sister in Seattle. This morning, I helped my mom and step-father set up their Facebook Portal TV, which my mom apparently bought just before they sold out.

"As people are taking measures to socially distance themselves and move to working from home, we're seeing increased interest in Portal, both in sales and usage," a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC. "We're pleased that we can help people connect with family, friends and colleagues during this time. And, like other companies, we're experiencing impact to our hardware production due to COVID-19. Some Portal models have been intermittently out of stock in select channels and regions. We are monitoring the situation closely and will continue to make products available as quickly as we can."

More fun than Zoom or FaceTime

The Facebook Portal TV is more fun than the Zoom app, which was really built for businesses but is being used by seemingly everyone now, and Apple's FaceTime, which runs on smaller iPhones, iPads and Macs but isn't available on non-Apple products.

You can wear silly 3D masks, which I thought were pretty dumb at first but now appreciate for the small laughs they give me in a time of wild uncertainty. I can read to my niece with a built-in storybook tool that lets me read one of a dozen or so digital books and overlays my face over characters.

Facebook Portal TV

The video quality is great as long as you have a good connection at home. If you're not in front of the Portal TV, you can still answer on an iPhone or Android device, so long as you have Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp installed. This morning, I talked to my mom and my stepfather from the iPhone in my office while they were in their living room in front of a Portal TV, for example. Since we're all on lockdown, it was the closest to feeling together that we'll get for a while.

You can do other stuff on Facebook Portal, such as listen to Spotify or ask Amazon Alexa pretty much anything on your mind. I still wish Facebook added other features, though, like the option to watch Netflix or Hulu with someone, so it would feel more like we're all in the same room.

The other models are good if you want something to tide you over until the Facebook Portal TV is back in stock. You still get all of those features and great cameras, but you'll chat on a smaller screen instead of on your TV.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

When I reviewed the Portal TV, I warned that "we should all be worried about putting cameras and microphones owned by Facebook in our homes" and that Facebook hadn't "earned back our trust after the big Cambridge Analytica scandal yet."

I still think we should be concerned about our privacy, and I like that Facebook has the options to turn off the camera and microphones with a manual switch that disconnects them from power entirely. But, it seems like most people are willing to put those concerns aside, at least for now, to see the people they love.

Best Buy's website says more should be in stock by April 10.

A first look at Facebook Portal TV, which combines video chat and streaming
A first look at Facebook Portal TV, which combines video chat and streaming