Go chat yourself with Facebook’s new Portal companion app

Facebook has launched the beginning of its push into smart home software. Ignoring calls that it’s creepy, Facebook is forging onward with its Portal gadget today Facebook quietly released iOS and android Portal apps that allow owners show off photos on the screen without sharing them to the social network, and video call their home whereas they’re out.

The app isn’t likely to move the needle for Portal whose potential users fall into 2 camps: those so afraid by Facebook’s privacy practices that they couldn’t imagine putting its camera and microphone in their home, and those ambivalent or ignorant regarding the privacy backlash who see it as an Amazon Echo with a nice screen and simple way to video call family. Critics were mostly surprised by the device’s quality however too freaked out to recommend it. Those willing to buy it have given it a 4- to 4.4-star average rating on Amazon, praising its AI camera that keeps people in frame of a video chat whereas they move though jeering some setup difficulties.

Facebook announced at f8 a month ago that the Portal app was coming and eventually so would encrypted WhatsApp video calls. It also extended sales to Europe and Canada, although the new app is presently only available within the U.S.A. according to Sensor Tower which tipped us off to the launch. The $199 10-inch Portal and $349 15.6-inch Portal+ launched in October, soured by a swirl of Facebook privacy scandals. Last week, the corporate tried to get some points with the public by funding an art project displayed at the SF museum of modern Art. However the “immersive” exhibit was just some Portals stuck to some funky painted wooden backdrops, and it all felt smarmy and forced.

Facebook stuck Portals into wooden backdrops and called it art.
Portal’s app allows you to video call your Portal so you can say hi to family whereas you’re out. That’s nice for traveling parents or seeing who is around the house in the post-land line age. The app also allows you to add and remove accounts on Portal and manage who’s in your speed dial Favorites, which you could already do from the device. There’s still no Amazon Prime Video or smart home control as were promised at F8.

The option to send pictures directly from your camera roll to Portal’s Super frame fixes the worst feature of the digital photo frame. Previously you’d have to choose just from photo/video albums you’d shared to Facebook. That meant you were only showing off photos you were willing to post online, and if you selected Your Photos or Photos of You, you may end up displaying shots that were embarrassing or that don’t make sense outside of the News Feed.

My workaround was to create a Facebook album of photos for Portal set to be visible only to me, however that was a problem. Now you can manually grab pics and videos from your phone and send them to Portal without the worry they’ll show up on your profile. Portal also now can show off your Instagram photos, as was announced at F8. Still missing is Google Assistant support, which Facebook told me it was working to integrate last year.

Facebook’s steady improvements to Portal might not have shaken its paranoia-inducing reputation amongst tech news readers and privacy enthusiasts; however they’ve kept it maybe the best huge screen and camera-equipped smart speaker. But within the seven months since launch, Google has copied Portal’s auto-framing camera for video chat in its new Nest Hub max while Amazon is making a slew of home appliances smart. Portal will need more marquee innovations and some brand rehabilitation if it’s going to keep competitive.