Facebook Portal and Portal TV review: the video calling gagdets you need for self-isolation?

Facebook Portal review

While the concept of video-calling might have been popularised by science-fiction movies and TV, the idea has been in the heads of scientists and inventors for well over a century and a half. 

Shortly after the invention of the telephone, reports started appearing in newspapers around the world about telephonoscopes or telectroscopes. Even the inventor of the telephone, Dr Alexander Graham Bell, once predicted that video-calling was a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. 

Given that history, it’s faintly surprising that, in a world where video-calling can be achieved with the tap of a smartscreen, we’re still ambivalent towards it. Still, in the panic around self-isolation and coronavirus, people are suddenly giving video-calling the credit it's due, as the perfect way to stay in touch with distant family and friends.

The trouble with video-calling on a mobile phone is that it’s a poor user experience. You have to hold the phone at the right angle lest an unsightly double-chin or inner nostril hair appear, and it’s designed for one-on-one chats rather than group discussions.

Last year, Facebook tried to update the video call with Facebook Portal, a chunky bit of hardware that looked a bit like a picture frame and included a big camera that zoomed and panned automatically, allowing groups of people to gather in a video chat. Reception was muted, in part because the company was fending off negative news about Cambridge Analytica at the time; it seemed the public didn't trust Facebook to plant a camera in their living rooms. 

W2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程hich brings us to 2019, Portal’s second coming: Portal TV, which turns your television into a video conference call machine. I tested it out, alongside the original, to find out if video chats are finally here to stay...

Portal TV

Why we like it: Video-chatting through a TV screen makes it feel like the person you're speaking to is in the room

A2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程 sleek little box designed to sit on top of your TV, the Portal TV is seriously unobtrusive. It has smalls wings which allow it to grip onto the top of the television and connects via a standard HDMI cable. Simply plug it into your TV, and your caller will appear on the screen with their voice projected from your speakers. This is the simple, easy-to-understand video-calling you might have experienced in a boardroom meeting – only now it's in your front room. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程One of the first things that stands out about Portal TV is how clearly Facebook heard the fears about privacy. Not only does Portal TV have an “off” button on its remote, but there’s also a manual switch which turns off the microphone and cameras, as well as a lens cap for the camera. It helps assuage the creeping worry that you're being watched all the time.

On which point, it's notable that the word 'Facebook' isn't anywhere to be seen on the box itself. Everything from the logo to the fonts are as un-Facebooky as could be. You can draw your own conclusions from that – but what's unavoidable is that during the set-up process you have to sign in using your Facebook account.

Once you’re set up (it's all very straightforward), you’re automatically linked to Facebook Messenger and can video-call any of your contacts from there. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程So, what's a video call like? In two words: very good. My internet speed is pretty average and I was able to make various video-calls to my friend in New York without any problems, dropped connections, or pixelated screens. As far as call quality goes, I couldn’t find a thing to complain about here. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The camera pans and zooms automatically, so you and all your friends can fit in the frame. If someone enters the room, it zooms out to get their face in, but if it’s just the two of you then it knows to stay close up on your faces. It looks great and works wonderfully, I’m happy to say.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程There’s also a few extra bits such as filters which track your face, making it look like you’re wearing a funny hat or you’ve got a dragon head. It’s light, silly stuff. Then there's the ability to turn your TV into a giant picture frame, showcasing random highlights from your Facebook albums. You can also use it to view videos from Facebook Watch which is Facebook’s distinctly-less-polished answer to YouTube. 

Another feature is designed for families. Older relatives can read short children’s stories to their kids. The reader sees an autocue, while the child sees the reader's face superimposed onto various characters. Again, it's a bit silly, but this time it has the nice effect of connecting generations via a broadband line.

Portal can also act as an Alexa device – but honestly, none of this really matters. The reason you’ll use Portal is because it’s the only way you can video-call your WhatsApp contacts. While Amazon have managed to build in Skype calling into it’s Echo Show devices, and Google’s Nest Home’s have Duo video-calling, you can’t guarantee that your friends and relatives will have those apps. But since WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are two of the most popular instant messaging services (and they're both owned by the same company), almost everyone you’ll need to contact will have at least one of the two. 

If you want contacts, Facebook Portal is your best bet. And if you want Portal, then Portal TV is the best expression of it, for reasons I’m about to go into... 

 

Portal and Portal Mini

In terms of software, Portal TV and Portal do exactly the same things. The experience is 100pc the same. 

T2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程he difference, as you've guessed, is that Portal doesn't connect to your TV. It's a standalone device, with its own screen. And unlike Portal TV, it's just not very attractive to look at.

It's blocky, for a start. And while the screen is big, it’s not as big and dazzling as the iPad you're used to using. You could just put your iPad on a tablet stand and already it’s got almost all the same functionality as the standard Portal, minus the automatic panning and zooming.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程With the TV version, the person you’re chatting with is closer to life-size, so it’s easier to feel like you’re actually in the room with them. With the original version, you don't feel far removed from a video call on a phone.

The Portal comes in both 8-inch and 10-inch versions but neither measure up to the TV. Honestly, unless you live in a house without a TV, don’t bother with this one.