The Portal is a sleek new video camera and screen that makes chats with family and friends look great. It has just one problem: It was made by Mark Zuckerberg. That means the elephant in the room is privacy and if you trust that Facebook can protect yours.
The Portal, available for preorder in November, is the first consumer hardware from the world’s largest social network. The toaster-size gadget, along with a larger $350 Portal+, is a cross between a smart speaker, video camera and digital photo frame.
As a camera, the Portal offers a nice upgrade to the Skype or FaceTime video chat. The Portal sits on a shelf or kitchen counter, and your voice do the dialing. Facebook’s advantage over other video chat services: Chances are, almost everyone you might want to call already has an account.
It is similar to smart devices from Google and the Echo Show from Amazon — and has a partnership with Amazon so Alexa’s voice and intelligence is built into the system.
What’s unique about Facebook’s device is the tech it uses to make the video calls look good. A 12-megapixel camera — equivalent to most phones — identifies the shape of people within its 140-degree field of view and pans and zooms to make sure they are all always in the frame. You can wander around the room, and the camera will follow.
The Portal also has a few other tricks. You can share music over a chat, and the AR storybook mode, which adds animated effects to your chat screen while you read a children’s story.
The Portal isn’t a fully functional computer. It does less than the Echo Show or Google Smart Displays — there’s no YouTube to make it double as a kitchen TV, for one. The Portal does have a few apps, including Facebook Watch for video and Spotify and Pandora for music.
As far as privacy goes, Facebook said it and your friends can’t look into your house anytime they want: Video chats have to be explicitly accepted before the camera cuts on. Also, the chats are encrypted and not recorded, Facebook said, so the company can’t hear or see what you are talking about or who all is in the room.
Facebook is hardly alone in pushing the boundaries of privacy in our homes. But the Portal, reportedly delayed from an earlier launch by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, will pay an extra price for Facebook’s years of playing fast and loose with our privacy.