Facebook Portal Go review: A great portable video calling screen marred by the company’s privacy and trust issues

  • The Facebook Portal Go is a device designed for video calling that you can easily move around your home, and for that specific task, the Portal Go works perfectly.
  • Portability distinguishes the Portal Go from other video calling devices like the Amazon Echo Show or the Google Hub Nest Max.
  • The biggest complaint when it comes to the Portal Go is the fact that it's made by Facebook. Anyone who is concerned about trusting Facebook with their privacy has every right to feel that way.

Facebook's new Portal video calling devices hit stores and began shipping to customers on Tuesday. I've been testing out the new portable Portal Go for the past week.

The $199 Portal Go is part of Facebook's third generation of Portal devices that the company announced last month. Facebook is still pretty green when it comes to putting together hardware products, but the social media company has made strides in its design and execution since releasing its first Portal devices in 2018. Since then, Facebook has also introduced Portal devices that attach to your TV, and mini versions that look like picture frames. The Portal Go is the first of these products that can be moved around and it works without being plugged into a wall.

Along with the new Portal+, the Portal Go is Facebook's first redesign of its video calling device since 2019, and in that time, it shows that Facebook has only gotten better a putting together hardware products.

Facebook has never broken out sales figures for its Portal devices, so it's hard to say how successful these products are. In its financial results, the company includes Portal within its "Other" revenue stream, which also includes its Oculus virtual reality headsets and Workplace enterprise communication software businesses. Since the fourth quarter of 2018 when the first Portal devices were released, Facebook's Other revenue has grown nearly 223% from $274 million to close to $885 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Unfortunately, for everything there is to like about the Portal Go — I like the big 10.1-inch screen, the portability and the speakers — the device is made by Facebook, and over the past several years, the social media company has wrecked its trust with its users, lawmakers worldwide and consumers at large. The Portal Go is fantastic for video calling, but do you really want a Facebook-controlled camera in your home?

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

The Facebook Portal Go is a device designed for video calling that you can easily move around your home, and for that specific task, the Portal Go works perfectly.

In my testing of the gadget, I was able to use the Portal Go to call friends and family via Messenger and WhatsApp. The Portal Go would ring if they called me, and I could accept by touching the screen. I could initiate calls by searching for my friends on the device.

The Portal Go sits on a charging mount when not in use, but as soon as you have a call to make, you can grab it by the handle notch hidden in its posterior and move it wherever you need to go. At times I chatted with friends while on the move, but often, I would simply take the Portal Go and sit it on my coffee table, my bed or my kitchen counter. Once situated, I was able to enjoy my video call hands-free.

I liked that I could use it while relaxing on the couch and then pick it up and continue my call while cooking. Short video calls can be fine on a phone, but anything longer than five minutes is better situated for a dedicated video calling device like the Portal Go.

Amazon has the $249.99 Echo Show and Google offers the $229 Nest Hub Max, but none of those devices are portable, forcing you to make your video call in whatever spot where you connected your gadget to an outlet (hopefully you picked somewhere comfortable).

Portability might seem like a small difference, but that feature distinguishes the Portal Go.

I received a call on the Portal Go while my partner was working in the same room. So I picked up the Portal Go and moved to a different room. We also tried the Portal Go to call my partner's family during their weekly dinner. They were able to position their Portal Go testing device at the head of their table, making us feel like part of the dinner.

With a 10.1-inch screen and an excellent speaker system, the Portal Go makes video calls that are crystal clear in both visuals and sound. You can easily hear whoever you are chatting with whether you're leaning in during the call or sitting back.

As for battery life, we never came close to running out of juice during a call, but Facebook told CNBC that the Portal Go has enough battery to last up to five hours of one-on-one calling via Messenger or 14 hours of listening with its screen off.

Like other Portal devices, the Go also includes augmented reality features that can be used to make funny faces, add colorful backgrounds or change up the sound of your voice. These features keep calls interesting and would be especially entertaining for kids.

My other favorite use of the Portal Go was uploading pictures onto it to use it as a digital picture frame — pictures look gorgeous on the Portal Go's display.

What's bad

My biggest complaint about the Portal Go is the fact that it's made by Facebook.

It's very difficult to trust Facebook with a device that has a camera and microphones in your home.

Fortunately, the Portal has a cover that you can slide over its camera whenever it's not in use, and you can also press a button that will electronically turn off its camera and microphones. But that doesn't change the fact that Facebook made the device, and time after time, Facebook has violated its users' trust. Just last month, a whistleblower leaked internal documents that showed the company knew that Instagram is hurting teenagers' mental health and was doing nothing to alert the public about it.

"Our track record in the market is ultimately how we'll build trust," Facebook's head of product management for Portal Micah Collins said when asked about the privacy concerns.

The Portal would already be a hit if it was made by Samsung, Apple or pretty much any other major hardware tech company. They're fantastic for what they were designed for. Anyone who is concerned about trusting Facebook with their privacy has every right to feel that way.

It's also missing a lot of features.

It doesn't have Netflix, YouTube, HBO Max or basically any video-streaming service that you would want on a device with a screen as gorgeous as the Portal Go's. This was also the case with the original Portals that launched in 2018, but it feels like an even more pertinent absence now that the Portal Go is a portable gadget. I'd be more willing to buy it if I could do video calls, have a digital photo frame and watch my favorite shows all for $199. You can, however, watch content on Facebook Watch, if that's something you ever feel like trying out.

Among the few apps worth using on the device are the audio-streaming services, which include Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio. I tried out the Spotify app and was quite impressed by the audio quality of the Portal Go. Unfortunately, the Spotify app was extremely disappointing. There's no search function, so you're limited to listening to whatever playlists the app recommends to you. It feels like someone developed the Spotify app for the Portal and then forgot about it.

Should you buy it?

The Portal Go is a fantastic video calling device with much-needed portability built-in as its signature feature. I recommend the Portal Go for anyone who makes frequent video calls. If you're like me and live far away from many of your relatives and loved ones, the Portal Go is fantastic for keeping in touch. And at $199, the Portal Go makes for an excellent gift idea with the holidays coming up.

Unfortunately, Facebook's repeated and frequent trust issues with the public and lawmakers make it incredibly hard to trust the company with a device that relies so heavily on a camera and microphones. If you can bring yourself to trust Facebook with a camera in your living room, the Portal Go is an excellent device. But I don't blame you if you don't trust Facebook.

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