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Facebook Portal TV initial review: Trust Facebook to take over your TV?

Facebook Portal TV is one of the latest additions to Facebook’s expanding line-up of Portal products. It’s essentially an intelligent, feature-packed webcam that sits on top (or in the vicinity) of your television, then transforms that large screen in user-friendly video-calling device.

You can use Portal TV to place or receive video calls from anyone who owns any Portal device or a smart device capable of placing Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp video calls. From what we’ve seen it’s remarkably easy to use too.

We had some time with Portal TV in a recent tech demo. If you’re wondering how it could be useful in your home, read on to find out.

Intelligent video calling

  • 12.5MP resolution camera with 720p video streaming
  • 120-degree field-of-view with Smart Camera features to track people on the call
  • Far-field 8 microphone array with omni-directional capture capabilities
  • Beamforming technology to capture voices and reduce background noise

Portal TV is part of Facebook’s efforts to lead the way with video calling and to connect more people in your life. It’s designed to allow convenient video calling without the hassles that usually come with such things. If you can imagine sitting in front of your television and talking to family and friends without having to hold your phone or tablet in awkward positions to capture everyone in the room then you get an idea of what Portal TV is all about. 

Facebook imagines that this sort of technology, alongside its other Portal devices, will see people placing longer video calls with their loved ones and keeping in touch more. Portal TV is therefore designed with a number of intelligent features to make the experience as user-friendly and interesting as possible.

For starters, Portal TV features a wide-angle camera lens that’s AI-powered with ‘Smart Camera and Smart Sound’ technology. This design allows the system to see people in the room and then automatically pan and zoom to follow them around the room if they move. Similar to how Google’s Nest Home Max works.

The wide-angle lens means that Portal TV can also pick-up multiple people in the same room, allowing you to get the whole family involved in a call if you so wish.

A quick press on the included remote control allows you to pick a single person in the room to focus on too. This is called Spotlight mode and it stops the camera following other people (like children) who are moving around the room too much and disturbing the call. 

Portal TV’s camera is designed to only recognise people so it doesn’t get distracted by pets wandering into the room. And when we say recognise people, we don’t mean identify: this smart camera technology is only designed to register people’s presence in the frame, not to identify who is there. No data on who is on the call is sent to Facebook in any way, the company says.

Video calls are also placed using Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, meaning that end-to-end encryption is an option if you’re worried about security. WhatsApp wasn’t a compatible feature when we first reviewed Portal+, so that’s a savvy new addition for the European market launch (it’s not especially popular in the US).

Portal TV also sports eight microphones with intelligent tech that includes beamforming to track the people talking while also reducing the amount of environmental and background noise picked up during the call. 

Private by design

  • Hardware-level privacy shutter
  • Compatible with most TVs via HDMI connection

Like the other Portal devices, Portal TV is designed with user privacy in mind. When not in use, there’s a physical camera shutter you can close to block the view if you’re concerned about privacy. There’s also a button to disable the microphones so Portal TV doesn’t see or hear anything unless you want it to.

Portal TV connects to your TV via HDMI. It’s then designed to switch on when you accept a call and put the call on the screen for you. Facebook says this system is designed so it won’t interrupt your TV viewing by automatically interrupting what you’re watching.

A built-in speaker system will first let you know a call is coming in, then you’ll have to accept that call before you’ll see it on the big screen. A nice touch if you’re in the middle of a movie and don’t want to be disturbed by granny calling. 

Portal TV is also cleverly designed to account for the layout of your home. It comes with a stand that can be tilted into various positions. You can either pop it on top of your TV or simply use the stand to place it lower down – on a shelf for example – if it won’t stay on top of your television for whatever reason (like, you know, if you have one modern OLED that’s about 5mm thick and you’d struggle to balance anything on). 

More than just video calls

There’s no denying Portal TV is super convenient for placing video calls to loved ones without the hassle of worrying about how the camera is positioned, having to hold a device or whether you’re in the frame or not. We also see the benefits for older, less tech-savvy family members who like the idea of staying in touch with you but don’t get how to use a smartphone to place a video call. 

All that said, video calls aren’t always about being sat static in front of your TV. Part of the beauty of WhatsApp calls, or other services like Apple’s FaceTime, is that you can be on the move and show your surroundings. Sure, video conferencing from work purposes is on the rise – but that tends to happen with Skype or Slack, not with more personal apps like WhatsApp/Messenger.

Portal TV has more to offer than just plain old video calls. Other features include AR effects similar to those you’ll see on Snapchat and Instagram (so you can call with a virtual wolf mask on, because who wouldn’t want that?).

Other more useful highlights include Story Time mode, which allows you to read bedtime stories to children, but from afar. The caller reads the story via a simple teleprompter, while on the other end of the call they’re framed and animated with special animations to help tell the story. We’ve seen this in action and think it’ll be a hit with the young ones in your family – although parents wanting to reduce screen time before bed might find that a conflict of interest. There are 15 stories at launch and more coming in the future for the family to enjoy.

For the grown-ups, there’s also the promise of games like Words with Friends that can be played while on the call and you’ll also be able to take advantage of Facebook’s Watch Together system to view your videos or videos directly from Facebook while still on the call. 

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I post weekly videos to my YouTube Channel, and the videos could be anything from the latest Tech News, Smartphone News, Gadget Reviews, Streaming Tips, VPN reviews and much more!

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Lee TV is a Tech Enthusiast, Gadget Geek and Content Creator for the Lee TV website and YouTube channel! Lee TV is the publisher of this site, and also runs other sites in the gaming community. Join the community on the @LeeTVTech Twitter community, and the LeeTVOfficial YouTube channel!

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