The Facebook Portal was the most-used gadget to keep in touch with family during our COVID-19 Level 4 and Level 3 lockdown.
Yes, I know a few people really dislike Facebook. But like it or not, it's part of the social fabric these days, with billions of people using the platform to keep in touch with family, friends, co-workers and community groups. And even if you don't realise, Messenger and WhatsApp are part of the Facebook family.
Just before the COVID-19 Level 4 and Level 3 lockdown in New Zealand I received a pair of Facebook Portal 10" for review. It was just good timing as we had one last weekend meal with in-laws before the whole country was locked at home.
Basically the Facebook Portal 10" looks just like a picture frame - a high tech picture frame sure, but its design makes it fit in any place that you could have a family photo - on a desk, hall table, on the kitchen bench and so on.
Installation is super simple. You just need to plug the power adapter and immediately after starting the Facebook Portal will guide you through configuration. Basically you have to know your wireless network name and password to connect and have your Facebook account logged in a browser so you can just link the Facebook Portal to your account using a code shown on screen. The whole interface is based on a touchscreen - you tap on large icons to connect calls or set options, swipe left and right to scroll through different screens with apps and settings and so on.
Once the device is connected to your account you can select favourite contacts from your Facebook friends, for quick access. After this initial setup is done you are ready to place voice and video calls to your contacts. Your contacts can answer video and voice calls by either using another Facebook Portal or just using the Messenger app on their smartphone or web browser.
But this is only the start. You can also link your WhatsApp account to the Facebook portal and again, place video and voice calls to your WhatsApp contacts as easily as you can connect to other Messenger users.
During the lockdown period Facebook Portal was an important part of our family routine. We used it to connect with the family in our city, in different regions and even in other countries. We celebrated birthdays together (with a four-way call where we all had cakes and sang Happy Birthday together while being apart), we had virtual Friday drinks with friends and just kept in contact with one another.
Video calls are fun and the Facebook Portal is really good at it. First, the 10" screen shows multiple people/groups at the same time. Second, the camera is really smart - it pans and zooms in and out depending on the number of people in the room. The picture also focuses and follows you as you move around the room for example. It also enhances the voice of the person speaking, making the calls much clearer for the people on the other side.
You can also use a physical switch to turn its camera off in case you want a bit more privacy when talking to friends (you can also use the same switch to turn the microphone off in case you don't want Portal to listen to sounds while not in a call).
The Facebook Portal can be set to automatically use a Facebook album (or your Instagram account) to show photos and images while not in use. You can also set it to sleep after a while. If it goes to sleep, don't worry - just walking in front of it will bring it back up and ready. Other display settings include an option to switch to Night Mode so the display automatically changes colours after hours to avoid eye strain. And if you set the location it will also show you time and weather forecast while the screensaver is on.
If you don't use Facebook for your photo albums (or Instagram) you can still show your photos on the Facebook Portal. Just install the Facebook Portal app on your smartphone and you can select photos you've taken and transfer to the device without uploading to a Facebook album. You can also use the Facebook Portal app to call the device - handy if you want to call home but obviously can't call yourself from Messenger. Facebook Portal will treat this as any other incoming call and ring until someone answers at home.
Facebook Portal comes with Alexa smart assistant built-in, so you can connect it to your Amazon account and use Alexa like you'd with other devices. For example, since I have our Ring cameras connected to my Alexa account we can say "Alexa, show our driveway" and the Facebook Portal will show the video feed streaming live from the driveway. It also works if someone rings the doorbell - we can just say "Alexa, show our front door" and we can see - and talk to - whoever is at the door.
You can also link your Spotify account with the Facebook Portal and use it to play music - or control Spotify using Alexa commands such as "Alexa, play Tom Jones on Spotify". Playing music is especially good, thanks to stereo speakers and a woofer in the back of the unit.
And while talking of apps, there are a few to start with. It's not a rich ecosystem like the Apple or Google app stores but you will find a very capable browser, CNN, ABC News, Facebook Watch, Facebook Live and lots of games such as sudoku, ludo, chess, checkers, words with friends. You even have a Photo Booth so you can take selfies with the option of applying filters - those filters are also available for use during video-calls - which seemed to be quite well received during family calls.
The Facebook Portal 10" is just one of the devices available in New Zealand - other models include the Portal TV (which uses your TV as a display unit), the Portal Mini (8") and the Portal+ with a 15.6" display - all models have HD (high definition) display and cameras.