Sep 18, 2019 - Technology

Facebook makes another bid for the living room

Ina Fried
Facebook's expanded family of Portal devices in a kitchen

Facebook's expanded family of Portal devices. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Facebook on Wednesday announced a significant expansion to the Portal family of video chat devices that debuted last year, offering new features, lower prices and increased versatility.

Why it matters: Competition in the space is heating up, with Google's Nest Hub Max just hitting the market and Amazon potentially introducing new smart displays at an event next week.

Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth told reporters he believes video chat is the key feature for smart displays, as long as you can actually reach the people you want to chat with — a not so subtle dig at Google's device, which only supports its Duo video conferencing app.What Bosworth wouldn't say is how many Portals the company has sold.

  • "We’re not going to share specific numbers," he said, adding, "We’re not going to share vague numbers either."

The new devices are:

  • Portal Mini, a $129, 8-inch frame-shape device that can sit in either portrait or landscape mode. It ships Oct. 15.
  • Portal, a $179, 10-inch model. Also ships Oct. 15.
  • Portal TV, a $149 device with a camera and 8 microphones that connects to any television via HDMI and will ship Nov. 5.

Facebook is also keeping last year's bigger-screen Portal+ in the lineup.

What's new:

  • The devices have a built-in toggle switch to turn off the camera and physically disconnect the microphone.
  • Support for Amazon Prime Video.
  • Support for video chat with WhatsApp contacts.
  • An improved smart camera for tracking any of multiple people in a room.
  • Improved augmented reality tricks for spicing up video chats.
  • Expanded global distribution, with Portal hardware coming to the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.

What's still there:

  • It's still Facebook behind Portal, meaning you have to be willing to allow Facebook to put a camera and microphone in your house, which for many is a deal-breaker.

That said: Facebook has gone to great lengths to try to assuage privacy concerns.

  • It added the physical button to make it easy to shut off the camera and microphone.
  • It says it won't listen or record calls.
  • For interactions with the built-in voice assistant, Facebook is adding an option to not have conversations stored or reviewed.

The bottom line: There's a lot to like in the new products, from the fun augmented reality features, to the karaoke-style app for telling kids stories, to what seems like a really great experience for family video chats. The devices are inexpensive and have a wide range of uses. You just have to trust Facebook.

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