Facebook Portal+ is the Video Calling Elephant in the Room

An effective video conferencing device — and incredible smart camera technology — are overshadowed by, well, its shadow.

Hands-Free Video Conferencing Simplified

“It’s huge,” said my wife, considering the Facebook Portal+ for the first time.

Moments earlier, I’d situated the new video call/entertainment device on my kitchen counter, where, at 18-inches tall, it towered over the assorted notepads, a bread basket and our takeout menu cubby.

Facebook’s big idea for its largest consumer electronics device is hands-free video conferencing simplified. Built on the backbone of Facebook Messenger, which 1.3 Billion people around the world already use, Facebook Portal+ is designed to transfer the emotional connections you share while chatting with your family and friends on Facebook’s social network and messaging platform to a very big screen.

Making video calls easy is not the ultimate goal, Facebook wants to make it feel like you’re there with your friends, like you’re just hanging out. To do so, Facebook imbued the Facebook Portal+ ($349) and its little brother, the 10.1-inch screened Facebook Portal ($199) with a 140-degree-view Smart Camera that, by initially narrowing the view of the super-wide video, makes it appear as if the camera is following you around the room.

It’s a remarkable effect, but, in my house at lease, the innovation was often at odds with the footprint.

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Getting Started

To Facebook’s credit, setting up the Facebook Portal+ is easy. You unbox and unwrap it, plug it in, and the Portal+ guides you through setup, including Wi-Fi and connection to your primary Facebook account (you can add other accounts). To connect the hardware to your Facebook, Portal+ displays a code that you enter into your Facebook account (this is best done through a Web browser). As soon as that’s done, the Portal+ shows you your Facebook Contacts. At the top of my list were my family members whom I interact with most often on Facebook. I could choose any of them as my favorites and they’d then appear on my Portal homepage.

It’s worth spending a little time on the Portal+’s unusual design. As I mentioned, it’s tall. However, the base is a roughly 5×5-inch cube, the front of which is a full-face speaker grill. A thin, 5-inch-wide stem extends up from the base.

At the top are three touch-sensitive buttons, two for volume control and one dead-center to mute the microphone and camera (Facebook appears to have split the difference between these being just touch and physical buttons. The result is three buttons that are too sensitive to touch, but that don’t always respond when you press them). For added privacy, Portal+ ships with a physical plastic cover that you can slip over the camera. On the back is a four-finger-wide handle for carrying the roughly 4-lb device around your home. I like handles, but it does end up making the Portal+ feel like a tiny piece of luggage.