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Facebook's new Portal device: It is meant to bring people closer together

Mike Isaac and Farhad Manjoo | NYT/ 09 Nov 18 | 10:28 AM

Facebook Portal Device. Photo: Portal website

Facebook’s new gadgets, Portal and Portal Plus, are meant to bring people closer together.

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So we — Mike Isaac and Farhad Manjoo, two technology writers for The New York Times — took the $199 and $349 devices for a test run over the last week to see if they could make us feel more connected to each other.

We both installed the Portal, which starts shipping on Thursday, in our homes (our bedrooms, to be exact). The devices are video-calling machines that people can use to talk through a screen to other Facebook users. They have a 12-megapixel camera with high-definition video and artificial intelligence software; the camera follows people about as they move around.

The Portal has raised some privacy concerns, especially since Facebook has been scrutinized for how much information it already has on users.

Were we worried about what these always-on devices might collect on us? Here’s how it played out.

Mike: Why, hello, Farhad! It’s been a while since we last shared a column together.

Farhad: I’ve had the time of my life not talking to you. Then last week, I learned I’d be getting Facebook’s new video-calling machine so you could call me up whenever you felt like it. Oh, boy.

Do you know how The Times has been running ads showing all the hazards reporters have to go through to get important stories? I think agreeing to install a Facebook-designed machine that puts me on speed dial for Mike Isaac should get me a starring role in one of those spots.

Mike: You should be so lucky.

So I have to say, waking up next to you in my bedroom was, uh, quite an experience. I put my Portal Plus on the desk that sits bedside. The screen saver cycled through my photo albums on Facebook and Instagram — and also occasionally your face.

Farhad: I’m guessing you loved this thing.

Mike: Er, not exactly.

What was your experience like initially? The unboxing process was funny to me. It felt like an Apple design moment; every piece of plastic and “pull here" tab was carefully placed, with the intentionality that Apple usually saves for its device packaging, but with a very Facebook-y twist on things. There was an iconic Facebook thumb on my power cord holder, for example.

Setting up my Portal Plus was easy. Popped the thing out of the box, plopped it on my desk, plugged it in, connected to Wi-Fi and my Facebook account. From there, I think, I called you almost immediately.

Farhad: You sure did!

I was frankly blown away by how well-designed Portal was. It has one purpose — calling other people who use Facebook — and it does that extremely well. I’ve used other calling devices, like Amazon’s Echo Show, but to me they’ve been more promising than practical.

The great thing about these devices is that they are stationary and always on. When you want to call someone, you just tell it to call the person — no looking for your phone, no holding the phone while you chat. It all just works with a single utterance. (Everything old is new: These devices are like landlines!)

The problem with Amazon’s Echo Show is its fixed viewing angle — if you don’t have it pointed exactly at you, it’s hard to have a conversation. My kids, who use the Show to call my parents, are always fighting with each other about who gets to stand right in front of the screen.

The Portal solves that problem in a neat way: It uses software to follow you around a room, always keeping the speaker in frame and cropped. I found this very useful.

Mike: The hardest part for me was dealing with how much I instantly liked the device. I expected it to be chintzy because it’s the company’s first piece of hardware. But like you said, it wasn’t. The screen is huge on my Portal Plus — basically like an iPad Pro strapped to a tall Sonos — and the calls were all crystal-clear video quality.

I will also admit I loved the augmented reality lenses, a flourish Facebook is adding to pretty much all of its camera-based apps. Just like Snapchat, I can choose a filter that turns my face into a werewolf, or stick a (live) cat on my head as a hat. Cat-as-a-Hat: a goofy gimmick worthy of Dr. Seuss — but it works!

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