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Facebook’s new Portal smart speakers could be worthy challengers to Amazon’s Echo

Published Oct 8th, 2018 9:48AM EDT
Facebook Portal Release Date
Image: Facebook

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We first heard rumors that Facebook would make a foray into smart speaker hardware a few months ago, well before the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light. After that privacy nightmare, rumors claimed that Facebook would be pushing back plans to launch the Portal ecosystem to later this year. Fast-forward to this Monday, and after the reported delay, Facebook has quietly unveiled the Portal video-chat and smart speaker platform.

Facebook tried to make smartphones with HTC a few years ago, but that project wasn’t fruitful. Other than that, the Facebook Portal is the first piece of consumer hardware built by the social network.

As previously rumored, the Portal family will have two versions: The more affordable Portal model priced at $199, and the high-end Portal+ that will cost $399. You get $100 off if you buy any two devices, and they’ll ship at some point in November. However, preorders will be limited to US buyers initially — Amazon and Best Buy will also stock them.

The smaller Portal packs a 10-inch display with 1280 x 800 resolution, while the Plus gets you a 15-inch screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution. Also expect a better camera and audio experience from the larger model.

Aside from acting as a smart speaker around the house and competing against similar products like Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s HomePod, the Portal will have an extra trick up its sleeve. Both models come with screens and cameras, as Facebook wants customers to use them for video calls.

Image source: Facebook

But what’s really interesting about the Portal is that Facebook doesn’t have its own voice assistant ready for heavy lifting. The Portal may be competing against Amazon Echo devices, but the same Alexa assistant will power them. By shipping the Portal with Alexa, Facebook might be proactively avoiding a controversy about data collection.

And Facebook seems to be putting privacy front and center for the Portal series, offering users additional features to protect their data. A camera cover can be used to hide the camera away, and there’s also a way to prevent video and sound recording. On top of that, a screen passcode lets you prevent unauthorized use.

The camera is powered by artificial intelligence, and the Smart Camera and Smart Sound technology “take all the guesswork out of video calling,” Facebook says. Augmented reality features will be added to Portal via the Spark AR platform. Portal also comes with Facebook and Messenger integration.

Facebook says it doesn’t listen to, view or keep contents of your Portal video calls, and the calls are encrypted — it’s unclear if that’s end-to-end encryption. Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI tech that runs locally and not on Facebook’s servers, and the camera doesn’t run facial recognition to identify users.

Facebook servers receive the voice commands you issue after the “Hey Portal” hotword, but you can delete your voice history from the Facebook Activity Log. Finally, the Portal devices will support additional apps, including Spotify Premium, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Food Network, Newsy, as well as Facebook Watch. Neither Portal model will deliver ads, although some apps running on Portals might have ads.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.