Facebook Portal – what is it and is it safe for kids?
The first Sunday of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown was particularly hard on those of us who couldn’t be with our mums to celebrate Mother’s Day. Fortunately, tech offered plenty of alternatives to face-to-face contact, with video chatting, texting and messaging all on hand to help us connect remotely.
Facebook Portal is one such video-calling device, available in four different varieties and promising “a new way to spend more time with friends and family”. So it any good? We hooked our parents up to one and gave it a try.
What is it?
Although the four Facebook Portals are all video-calling devices, they come in two distinct forms: the Portal, Portal Mini and Portal+ are tablet-like gadgets with built-in smart cameras, while the Portal TV is essentially a smart camera that uses your TV as the screen. The device used in our testing was a Portal TV, but the functionality is mostly the same whichever type you’re using.
They all use Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to make the video call, with the display and camera combining to give you a better view of the person you’re calling; look forward to fewer tops of heads on the screen and thumbs over the lens.
The smart camera gives you a wide-angle view, ranging from a 114-degree field-of-view with the Portal Mini and Portal to 140 degrees with Portal+. It means you get to see the whole room, with the camera also panning in and out, depending on where people are in the room.
The Portal TV uses your TV as the display and you need to buy an HDMI cable to connect it (not included in the price). It costs £149 – but note that it is currently out of stock everywhere. Of the standalone devices, the Portal Mini consists of an 8in screen with built-in smart camera and speakers and is currently £79, while the Portal has a 10in display with the same features as the Mini (£119).
The Portal+, meanwhile, has a hefty 15.6in display with 140-degree field-of-view on the smart camera, plus tweeters and woofers for richer sound quality. It’s the most expensive Portal of all, with a price tag of £239.
How does it work?
Facebook Portals work even if the person you’re calling doesn’t have one – though they will need a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp account. Each device comes with a quick-start guide and the only other equipment you’ll need is an HDMI cable if you have the Portal TV version.
Aside from video calling, there is a range of other functions; all of the Portals have Amazon's Alexa smart assistant built in and can be used to listen to music, ask questions and more.
Is it any good?
Once they’d bought an HDMI cable, my parents had no problem setting up their Portal TV in a matter of minutes. The quick-start guide gave them all the information they needed.
The sound quality was good and it meant they could sit in their favourite chairs and be seen without having to pass a phone between each other, or grapple with reversing the camera on their device. And with the knowledge that we won’t be seeing them for a number of months, it’s been in action several times a day as they connect with their family and friends, lowering the risk of them becoming isolated.
Is it child friendly?
All Portals come with a microphone- and camera-disable switch and an integrated camera cover to slide over the lens when it’s not in use. As Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp are needed to use the Portal, the same safety rules apply for children using it as they would to using these services – you’ll find our Parents’ Guide to WhatsApp here and our Facebook guide here.
Is it worth it?
The Portal TV definitely gives you an enhanced video-calling experience without the shakiness of handheld calls, and with the added ability to see everyone in the room. If your house is already full of devices, it may seem like an unnecessary addition and one more thing to try and get the hang of. But at the moment, it’s given my parents a new way to connect with us and the rest of the family in an uncomplicated way – and that’s reason enough to recommend it right now.