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Facebook Portal TV – Review 2019

Facebook Portal TV – Review 2019

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We hold many video meetings here at PCMag. They often don’t work well. There’s usually some sort of disconnect between the TV, Google Hangouts, and whatever else we’re trying to plug into our TVs; it’s frustrating. Facebook’s $149 Portal TV is a far superior way to video conference. Think of it as that, and it makes a lot of sense. But think of it as a general purpose media streamer, and it doesn’t fare nearly as well.

Design and Setup

The Facebook Portal TV is an attractive little black bar that measures 1.25 by 7.50 by 2.25 inches (HWD) on a folding, rubberized metal foot that can go above or below your TV. Ideally, it should go on top, so it’s looking down over your living room; angled at 90 degrees, the foot becomes a clip that balances the camera on top of your TV. On the back, there’s a proprietary power port, an HDMI port (you must supply your own cable), and a mysterious USB-C port that isn’t used for anything right now.

On the front, there’s a 13-megapixel wide-angle video camera with a big black sliding cover. Eight microphones sit across the top, and there’s a button on the side to disable the mics.

The Portal TV comes with a 4.4-by-1.5-inch (HW) wireless remote that looks a lot like an Amazon Fire TV remote. It has a cursor pad and buttons for power, home, play/pause, back, volume, and voice assistant (there’s another mic in the remote).

The setup process required a few reboots to get the remote connected, but other than that it was relatively easy to get up and running. I’m not thrilled that the device is dependent on Wi-Fi—when I’m streaming video, I like to have a wired networking option to be able to control quality of service. That said, it has dual-band Wi-Fi and had no trouble connecting to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz.

Portal TV Call

The Best Chat Experience

The Portal TV has the same UI and chat features as the smaller Portal smart display. It starts up into Superframe mode, which shows a carousel of Facebook photos from you and selected friends, your photos from Instagram, and photos you’ve uploaded from your phone. If that’s a little much—and it can be a little much on a huge TV screen—it defaults to some anodyne landscapes.

Click through from the Superframe, and you see your top contacts as well as options to enter the Portal’s streaming apps. You’re most likely to operate the Portal TV by voice, though. It has both Amazon Alexa and its own “Hey Portal” voice assistant, like the smaller Portal does. Alexa skills act like they’re being operated on a gigantic Echo Show, with results and song lyrics often displayed on the screen; you can’t use Amazon Prime Video or Drop In calling, though. “Hey Portal” answers some simple queries like setting timers, and telling the time and weather, but is mostly used to say, “Hey Portal, call so-and-so.”

You can join up to seven Messenger contacts or three Whatsapp contacts to a chat, whether they’re on Portal, desktop, or mobile. You can add funny, lively AR filters, and you can read animated children’s stories to the people on the other side of the call.

The Portal series has the best video chat experience on the market today, and the Portal TV makes it scale to the size of your room. I’m very excited for what this means in a conference room. I attached the Portal to a TV in PC Labs, and the automatic pan-and-zoom camera did a great job of including people as they walked in and out of frame. Video and audio quality were highly dependent on the quality of the Wi-Fi network our devices were connected to, but with a solid connection, images were sharp and the mic picked up voices from about 20 feet away.

Facebook Portal TV Watch Along

Portal, Not TV

The Portal TV has a few non-video-chatting features, but its collection of content is thin enough that it won’t satisfy anyone as a set-top box.

On the Portal TV’s menu, you can watch video from Facebook Watch, CBS All Access, Sling TV, Starz, or Showtime. You can stream audio channels from iHeartRadio, Pandora, or Spotify. There’s no YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, although Facebook says Amazon is coming. I don’t see Facebook keeping on top of the insane proliferation in new streaming platforms, like Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, and on and on. That means you’re likely going to need a second set-top box (and another HDMI port for it) to keep up with all that streaming.

Of the bunch of video services, Neverthink, Red Bull TV, parts of Sling TV, and Facebook Watch are free or ad-supported; the rest require specific separate monthly subscriptions. Video on Facebook Watch frequently looked low-resolution, washed out, or not designed for the TV’s aspect ratio. Free episodes of Kitchen Nightmares on Sling TV looked heavily compressed. The content on the other two services is just awful, bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Neverthink is a bunch of linear streams of poorly curated, quick-hit content from YouTube that technically credits the creators, but makes it impossible to look for more video by the same creators.

The Portal TV also has a “watch together” feature which lets two people with Portal TVs watch something on Facebook Watch at the same time and comment together on it. That’s a compelling idea, but Facebook Watch is not compelling enough content to make the feature useful.

Facebook Portal TV Frame

Ah, Facebook

If you use the Portal TV the way Facebook intends—to connect faraway family members—you are putting a gigantic, AI-enhanced, pan-and-zoom Facebook camera dead center in your living room. Facebook addresses the potential security issues there with a prominent physical lens cover and a software option to disable the “Hey Portal!” audio recordings (which it sends to mysterious human contractors with your permission).

But Facebook gives people the creeps right now. The company revealed yet another data breach while I was writing this review, this one allowing third-party software developers to get access to the names of people in Facebook groups they weren’t supposed to have access to.

Facebook closes down these breaches by the time we hear about them, but the number and frequency of the negative stories give the impression that the company doesn’t have a good handle on data security, in a way that makes you not want to give it more access to your private life. That means no matter how good a conferencing system the Portal TV is, very few people will want to put it in their living rooms right now.

Best for Business

The calculus changes when you’re in a business that relies on Facebook Workplace for its intranet. I couldn’t test the Portal TV with Workplace, as that feature is coming in December, but I’m excited for it. Workplace is Facebook’s enterprise networking product, and all of the data on Workplace is held by your business. Logged into a Workplace account, all of your Portal data should stay within your business (and if your business doesn’t trust Facebook on that, your IT department probably shouldn’t have signed up for Workplace).

The Portal TV’s pan-and-zoom camera, especially on a screen mounted at one end of the room, captures the primary speaker in a meeting and focuses on them, giving remote workers more of a feeling of being-there than most other systems. It’s also stunningly inexpensive compared with other enterprise solutions. The Poly EagleEye Cube, which has similar auto-tracking capabilities, costs $700. The Meeting Owl costs $799. The Logitech MeetUp costs $899. Of course, you have to be willing to rely on Workplace to take advantage of this inexpensive hardware.

Conclusions

Even if the Facebook Portal TV wasn’t made by Facebook, it would be a tough sell for families because it’s not a second but a third potential attachment to most TVs, after your cable box and your streaming stick. As Facebook has a great relationship with Amazon, it would be smart for Facebook to add Fire TV’s capabilities to the Portal TV. More than anything else, though, Facebook needs to shake its reputation that it’s careless about personal data.

The world of business is different, though. Facebook seems to take business security more seriously, and Workplace has major corporate clients including Walmart, Spotify, Domino’s, and PCMag’s very own Ziff Media Group. Once the Portal TV works with Workplace, it looks like a super-smooth, low-cost way to transport remote workers into your conference room.






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