For a while we've been hearing rumours about Facebook developing its own smart devices, specifically smart speakers and smart displays (ala Echo Show). Well now we finally get to see them for ourselves, properly, because the company just announced tow Alexa-enabled smart displays: the Portal and Portal+. Sadly neither of them are going to be available outside the US for the immediate future. Which is just typical.
If you're still reading, let me run down what each speaker has. The regular Port has a 10-inch 1280 x 800 display, and looks like any other random smart display. The Portal+, on the other hand, has a 15-inch Full HD display that actually pivots, just in case you want to do stuff in portrait mode. So that's the weird looking one up top, looking like it was developed to watch terrible phone videos on YouTube.
The idea behind both devices is to improve the quality of video calls, so the camera and microphone are able to adjust and optimise what they're doing based on what's going on around you. The camera will zoom in, out, and move in order to keep the subject in frame, while the microphone is capable of honing in on your voice and minimising background noise. The ultimate goal being to make it feel as though you're actually in the room together. Or at least that's what Facebook says. We'll have to try it for ourselves to whether that's try or not.
Portal devices are also designed to hook up through Facebook Messenger, so you can call people via the social network - even if they didn't buy one of these devices themselves. Because there's no way Facebook wouldn't hook any of its products through the main features of the social network. Naturally, being an Alexa device it also has access to all of Amazon's AI tools. though it's not clear whether it'll have the same extras as the Echo Show. Plus those limitations like the fact you can't use Google services.
This being Facebook you might also have privacy concerns, and rightly so. That's why the company has got some privacy in mind, with a button letting you disable the camera and microphone in one single click. If you still don't trust that it also has a built-in cover to stop the camera from spying on you, though that doesn't prevent it from listening to what you're doing - and taking voice commands. The screen can be locked behind a passcode, and you'll need to log into your own Facebook account if you want to change it.
The company has also made it clear that everything is totally private, and that it won't be snooping on your calls to sell you adverts:
- Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.
- For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.
- Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, “Hey Portal.” You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.
Both the Portal and Portal+ are available to pre-order today, though as I said they're restricted to the US for the time being. Why? Who knows, but it's not exactly a shock that a big tech company isn't bringing it's new product to the UK. If you want to try and get oen for yourself anyway, with some importing methods, they'll cost $199 (£152) and $349 (£268) respectively. Facebook will also give you $100 (£77) off if you buy two in one go.