Facebook Portal TV Takes Video Chat to the Big Screen

(Image credit: Facebook)

Maybe you're reluctant to bring a Facebook product that features a camera and microphone into your home, but Facebook remains undaunted when it comes to pushing its Portal smart display to consumers. In fact, Facebook is so convinced you'll want a screen that lets you make video calls to friends and family, it's now targeting the biggest screen you've got in your home with a new Portal product.

That would be your TV, and with the new $149 Portal TV box, you can turn your television set into a video call screen that also lets you view pictures from your Facebook-tied social media accounts or watch Facebook programs with far-flung friends and family. In addition, Facebook is also releasing a revamped version of its main Portal smart screen for $179 while also unveiling a smaller Portal Mini screen for $129.

The new Portal and Portal Mini arrive in stores Oct. 15, while the Portal TV follows on Nov. 5. Here's what you need to know about Facebook's latest efforts in bringing video calling into your home.

Portal TV: Look, Grandma, I'm on TV

Unlike the other Portal devices that come with their own screen, Portal TV takes advantage of the big-screen you've already got. The 7.5 x 2.2 x 1.2-inch box connects to your TV via an HDMI port. You can either use a clip on the Portal TV to attach it to the top of your big screen or a built-in stand to position the device right in front of your television set.

The camera inside the Portal TV offers a 120-degree field of view, and there's a far-field eight microphone array to pick up what you say from anywhere in the room. You won't have to crowd in front of your TV when it's time to call grandma or grandpa.

A spotlight feature lets you focus in on specific faces during a call. That way, in that theoretical to grandma and grandpa, they can zero in on the grandkids who, let's face it, are the real stars of the show here.

(Image credit: Facebook)

Portal TV includes other features such as the ability to view Facebook Watch programs together. (The person you're watching with appears as within a picture-in-picture window, and if they start talking to you, the audio on the video you're watching together drops down.) Watch Together is limited to Facebook Watch for now, though Portal devices let you download other streaming apps including Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, Starz, Pluto TV, Red Bull TV and Neverthink. Augmented reality features let you superimposed graphic effects over you face Snapchat-style, and a Story Time feature lets you read along with included bedtime stories that also have AR effects of their own.

That list of features should give you a hint at exactly who Facebook's targeting with its Portal products. The company hasn't disclosed any sales figures other than to say that Portal has exceeded expectations since its 2018 launch. But the preponderance of kid-friendly features clearly suggest that Portal's most likely customers include families separated by distance who want to stay in touch. Grandparents, in particular, seem like the prime candidates to get a Portal device, particularly around gift-giving holidays.

Whenever Facebook is involved in something, it isn't long before privacy comes up as a topic of conversation. Like Facebook's other Portal devices, Portal TV features a sliding switch to cover the camera, and there's a small red light offering a visual cue that the microphone is off; you're also able to disable the camera and the mic with a tap. There's visual feedback on the Portal TV when it is capturing your voice, and the fact that your face is appearing on your TV is a pretty good indicator that the camera's live.

Facebook insists it's not listening to or watching your Portal calls. Portal will send voice commands to Facebook's servers where a human might listen to them in the name of improving voice recognition, but you're able to delete your voice history within your Facebook Activity Log. You'll also be able to turn off storage of those commands, Facebook says.

Be aware that Facebook will know what you're viewing with the Watch Together feature, just like it would if you're watching video on other Facebook properties.

Other Portal updates

The changes made to the new 10-inch Portal as well as the addition of an 8-inch Portal Mini seem to address some of the complaints people had about the original device. Think the Portal+ took up too much space? The Portal Mini is much compact at 8.5 x 5.9 x 5 inches. Put off by the bezel-heavy panels of the original Portal? The new models look a lot more like picture frames, which is exactly what they become when they're not handling video calls and they're serving up photos from your Instagram, Facebook or camera roll.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

"We wanted this to be a device that fits in every home," Facebook vice president of AR/VR Andrew Bosworth said of the new designs.

One of our complaints when we reviewed the original Portal was that it limited to calls using Facebook Messenger. That's changed, thanks to a software update, with all the Portals, including the Portal TV, able to support WhatsApp calling in addition to Messenger. The contacts app for Portal now includes separate tab for your Messenger and WhatsApp contacts.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Facebook is also expanding Portal beyond the U.S. and Canada with these new products. Look for Portal to launch in the U.K., France, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.