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​Facebook Portal and Portal+ video calling devices: Should you buy them?

Facebook has the right pricing and strategy for its Portal and Portal+ video calling devices, but your individual return on investment will go well beyond the usual tech economics.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Facebook launched a video calling device, called Portal and Portal+, in a move that highlights the company's smart home and potentially smart office ambitions. What remains to be seen is whether Facebook Portal will be widely adopted due to trust issues as well as an overall saturation of Facebook.

Also: Facebook's Portal video device launches amid privacy concerns CNET

Facebook Portal and Portal+: Should you buy them?

Turns out a question like "should I buy Facebook Portal?" isn't that simple.

The video communication devices were announced by Facebook -- and the strategy on the surface looks sound. Facebook has Messenger, which already connects people. And Facebook already has you as a customer, whether it's through Facebook or Instagram. There's a natural progression to be had for Facebook when it comes to video calling.

The secret sauce

The secret sauce for Facebook is leveraging its Messenger base.

According to Facebook, Portal and Portal+ will make you "feel there" with a voice interface and 10-inch 1280 x 800 display. The Portal will run $199. The Portal+ costs $340. Preorders are available from Facebook, Amazon, and Best Buy.

Facebook claims its secret sauce will be artificial intelligence that will apply to the camera and sound systems. The camera automatically pans and zooms while background noise is minimized. Portal also has Amazon Alexa built in and can incorporate augmented reality. While calls aren't happening, the Portal's Superframe will display favorite videos and notifications.

So far so good, right?

Also: Facebook Portal first look: Next level Messenger video chat CNET

Trust issues

Not so fast.

CNET noted many of Facebook's trust issues, but the buying decision on Portal and Portal+ really comes down to weighing the social network's motives as well as the overall return to you.

Facebook's launch statement includes so much about privacy and security that it's like the company is basically saying: "We know we're trying to earn your trust but..."

At least Facebook is trying. The Portal and Portal+ come with the ability to disable the camera and microphone with one tap. The devices also have a camera cover to block the lens and there are ways to keep the screen locked.

Facebook also said it won't listen, view or keep the contents of Portal and Portal+ conversations, calls are encrypted and camera and sound run locally not on servers. Facebook also doesn't use facial recognition or identify you.

Those security and privacy features are table stakes for Facebook to even get into the game. Now let's look at some other things to ponder before pulling the trigger.

What's Facebook's strategy with Portal and Portal+?

To engage with Facebook on a regular basis, it helps to think through what the company is trying to do. In a nutshell, Facebook will elicit any response it can to get you to engage. Sometimes Facebook is needy, sometimes it's enjoyable, and sometimes it's like being stuck in a haunted house of mind games.

As noted, Portal devices are really about leveraging Facebook's installed base and boosting interaction with the social network. Portal can be used to bring augmented reality, voice, and Messenger -- not to mention Facebook notifications -- into your home beyond the small screen.

Also: How to protect yourself on Facebook TechRepublic

Once Facebook gets some smart home play, perhaps it goes into the smart office the same way Amazon did with Alexa. Facebook needs you to interact to have a platform that thrives, and it plans to win you over with integration of the familiar -- Facebook and even Amazon's Alexa. In addition, Facebook Portal gives the company a device business that it can use to compete with Google, Apple, and Amazon. It's also fairly obvious that Facebook Portal could become a key customer service channel for enterprises.

The mental hurdle to buying Facebook Portal and Portal+

Facebook's biggest problem with Portal and Portal+, which on the surface look like fine devices, is that many folks are trying to curb usage of the social network. I deactivated my Facebook account, and after a week, I can't say I miss it at all. In fact, ditching Facebook made me feel better. It's almost like I escaped a codependent relationship and just figured out the emotional toll Facebook took. That said, I still plan on using Messenger on some level. I just don't care about what's being shown on Facebook. It has become a social network that revolves around negativity and complainers. Facebook isn't the best use of my time.

When the public starts questioning Facebook's motives and their own usage, a service like Apple's FaceTime and iMessage looks more like a replacement for core features.

Also: How has Google dodged data privacy issue? It's the ROI

Note that my attitude directly influences my use of Workplace by Facebook at Temple University, where I'm an adjunct professor. Assuming I'm not an outlier, you really have to wonder if Facebook's Workplace ambitions can go that far. Given that backdrop of Facebook usage, I'm not sure I want Facebook on a 15.6-inch screen.

Are Facebook Portal devices priced well?


Facebook's 10.1 display Portal goes for $199 and there's a deal for a two-pack at $298. A Portal+ with a 15.6-inch display goes for $349. If you still enjoy Facebook's ecosystem and use Messenger, perhaps video calling via Portal makes sense. Echo Show with a 10.1-inch screen goes for $229.99. Facebook's Portal undercuts Amazon -- probably not for long -- and has integration with Alexa as well as services such as Spotify. Facebook lacks the smart home integration and ecosystem, but you won't have to worry about finding your contacts.

Also: Facebook data privacy scandal: A cheat sheet TechRepublic

Bottom line: Next stop for Facebook Portal and Portal+ will be reviews and then word-of-mouth. The trust issues can be overcome and the pricing is right. The big question is whether you want Facebook in your life more than it already is. Every answer will come down to the individual no matter what Portal price points and features are.

Adjust these Facebook privacy settings to protect your personal data

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