Cutting the cord on the traditional smart display, Facebook’s Portal Go has become a staple of my daily routine. It’s light enough to travel in between rooms with ease, the large HD screen looks incredible, and the Go lasted 12 hours without needing a recharge in real-world testing. From controlling my Alexa smart home to letting me jump into video meetings, the Portal Go provides a competent smart assistant experience. The Smart Camera and voice technology that Facebook implemented into traditional Portal devices translates well to the new portable body, allowing for high-quality video chats for work or family meetings. With that said, I’ve run into quirks with the software, there’s a lack of apps available for the device, and the biggest issue is suspending your disillusion with Facebook’s privacy practices to benefit from the video chatting services—a major hang up for most people
- 12 Megapixel Smart Camera with ultra-wide field of view and automatic subject tracking for cinematic video calls
- 10-inch 1280×800 HD display
- 2 full range speakers and one woofer for clear sound with a bass that thumps
- Works with Facebook, WhatsApp, and Workplace accounts
Unboxing Portal Go
The Portal Go is Facebook’s take on the smart display, with its ten-inch screen competing directly with Amazon’s Echo Show 10 and the Google Nest Hub Max. In the box I found the Go next to its round charging base with three contact points that align under the Go to transfer electricity. The charging cable comes in at just under six feet, which is plenty of slack to set it up even in the tightest, more wire-packed spaces, like behind an entertainment center. I had hoped that the charging dock would magnetically snap on to the Go, as does a MacBook’s MagSafe charger, for a slick and fast attachment process. Instead you have to line up the Portal Go with the dock. It’s not a big deal, but it would be a neat time-saving mechanic and really help sell the Go as a premium device.
Pulling the Go from its packaging, I plucked it out by grabbing the integrated handle. Deep enough to fit your fingers, this addition makes lugging around the light 3.2-pound body feel surprisingly natural, whether I shifted the Go around my office or carried it up and down stairs. The whole display sits against a sloped mesh base with the 12-megapixel camera front and center. You can block it with a built-in privacy tab or push the circle button on the top of the device to kill the camera, and shutting down the microphone (signified by a red light next to the camera) takes the push of a button. On the top of the Go sit three buttons: the circle button, which controls the mic and camera; a minus for lowering the volume; and a plus for raising the volume. Encased in the mesh sit two subwoofers, which produce a crisp sound (more on that below).
Getting Started With The Portal Go
The Go asked me to sign into my Facebook account, connect it to my Wi-Fi network, and pick out some favorite contacts for calls. Once I finished this, the main menu appeared, displaying my favorite contacts in the top right corner, a scrollable suggestion feed directly below it, a tiny apps tray in the top left corner, and finally important status information like the date and weather in the bottom left corner. For some reason, there’s nothing in between the corners on the left side of the screen, and this blank space feels ideal for a news feed.
Swiping up from the bottom of the Go pulls up a quick menu where you can adjust brightness and sound with a touch. You can also control Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and power with a tap. Each button is big enough to avoid things like accidental mis-presses, and the media sliders for the more important functionality like screen brightness and volume make it easy to control the Go with a tap. The Bluetooth has no noticeable latency when it decides to comply. I found it difficult to keep devices paired to the Go at first, but they remained connected once a signal was established.
Premium Video Calls
The Portal’s first on-screen suggestion was to make a call, so I rang my partner two states away. When you tap on a contact, you have the choice of launching into an audio call, a video call, or leaving a 30-second message through Facebook Messenger. Anyone with a Facebook account can receive your calls and messages, and the Messenger app works with phones, tablets, and computers for a wide reach. Calls support up to 50 people at a time (including yourself), but the most people I had on a call with me at any given time was five. While you can make calls on an Echo Show smart display, the recipient needs to have the Alexa app or an Alexa Show as well. Google’s Nest Hub Max utilizes Google Duo, however Facebook is prominent on more devices and has more users.
Should you choose to send a message, you’re limited to only a video option. You can close the camera shutter to leave an audio message, but the lack of a basic text support with a touchscreen is quite an oversight on Facebook’s end. Still, it amounts to a minor annoyance. You can use augmented reality effects on calls to change your background, insert 3D objects, and even add music to your messages. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave some spontaneous freestyles for family and friends.
While in an active Messenger call, you see buttons to “do things together,” mute your audio, cut the camera feed, add others to the call, and hang up, all at the bottom of the screen. The Do Things Together button is signified by smiley faces and leads to an activity submenu. During your video chat, you can use AR effects such as animated masks, cast photos, watch TV shows or movies together, and read interactive stories with younger kids. Every feature works extremely well, from the effective background removal and 3D object tracking to the surprising mix of content to watch together.
The Go’s 12-megapixel Smart Camera is the biggest draw of a Portal device, as it keeps you in the center of the screen, smoothly panning to follow you in a space. Whether I paced around my apartment at night or moved around my balcony during the day, the Smart Camera followed me with an ultra-wide angle for an immersive view during calls. The definition is crisp enough to show things like textures in a towel and the straggly hairs of my beard but missed the scar above my right eye. I often use this as a gauge when testing laptop webcams to see just how much detail they capture. Colors popped and were accurate, displaying vibrant color from a RGB gaming mouse to a red tee shirt.
While the Alexa or Google Nest Hub Max cameras are clear enough, their image reproduction proportions look a bit stretched and unnatural, and their colors definitely appear duller than on the Portal camera. The Go also handles light better. Standing in front of my apartment skylight, I pointed the cameras upward and noticed better detail retention on the Go. With that said, the footage can look staticky or pixelated when there isn’t plenty of light, but still offers excellent low-light performance.
The smart camera functionality extends into third-party video-chat apps like Zoom (the most popular), and you retain app-specific features of the full program like virtual backgrounds and whiteboard access. Overall its a hell of a lot more fun than a standard video call and allows for a level of connection that no service has really reached in making you feel like you’re together in a space.
Portal Go—The Best Portable Smart Display
When you aren’t on a call, the Portal Go functions as an Alexa smart speaker and display from which you can control your smart home, watch videos, and play music via popular streaming services or Bluetooth. While the voice control works as well as any first-party Alexa device, the portable ten-inch screen makes for an enjoyable touch experience. I adjusted light brightness, scrolled through camera feeds, and dialed in my thermostat all right from bed.
The Go’s Calendar app integrates with Google and Microsoft accounts to show upcoming events, and allows you to join video calls directly from the Go itself. At the moment, this works with Zoom, WebEx, and Blue Jeans, with more services coming later this year. With my computer freed up for notes, I found myself with more screen real estate and the ability to get more work done in the background.
I unplugged the Portal from the charger at 9 a.m. on the dot and used it until 6 p.m. each day for a week to get an average battery usage percentage over the work day. While I didn’t use the Go for the exact same meeting duration or play the same number of songs on it each day, the device pulled its weight controlling my smart home and playing YouTube videos. On average, the Go had 45 percent battery to spare, decreasing at a rate of around 6 percent per hour. This allowed me to use the Go as I cooked dinner or laid down before bed, calling my little sisters at the end of each day.
In terms of music services, you have access to Pandora, Tidal, and Spotify. Compared to the best smart speaker we’ve tested, the latest fourth-generation Amazon Echo, the Go pumped out comparable sound, enough to fill a room, but was edged out by the Amazon Echo due to its extremely faint hiss at maximum volume. Otherwise, the Go sounded incredible as I listened to everything from rap to alternative indie hits. The bass thumped and vocals were clear. The 360 shape of the Echo gives it the advantage from the front as well as overall fuller sound. But the fact that the Portal Go can even compete with the Echo speaks to the overall sound quality, which I am a stickler for.
As a digital photo frame, I appreciated the easy Instagram and Facebook photo integration, which pulled up some of my favorite memories during work. You can also use the Portal App to upload images directly to the device. Over the years, Portal devices have had a bit of an identity crisis from digital photo frames to the best place to make video calls. I find that it does all tasks equally well, yet somehow it still feels unfinished.
The Best Functionality Is Coming But Not There Yet
The Portal Go is a portable smart display that offers hands down the best video calls—its biggest drawing point. Facebook’s continued refinement has taken the device to a really cool space that intersects work, recreation, and establishing genuine connections over the internet, but there’s still work to be done. At the moment the Portal app store is one of the most meager offerings I’ve come across. Where I can watch Netflix, Hulu, or even Tubi TV on my Alexa or Google smart displays, I can only access Facebook Watch and Netflix video apps natively. While the browser is functional, it would be nice to have additional options. At the moment, you won’t find categories or a top app list because there are just 25 apps to choose from.
While the display can serve as a form of a smart dashboard with day, time, and weather information in a small font in the bottom left corner, I used DAKBoard software to create a helpful browser-based feed at a glance. With my Outlook Calendar, Google Tasks, RSS feeds, and a motivational YouTube video in one place, it’s frustrating that the Go doesn’t allow for an always-on screen option. At the moment, a screensaver pops up if you don‘t tap the screen in a set amount of time. While this would be fine if you could tap and wake the Go back up to your DAKboard, the screensaver kicks you out to the main menu and requires you to reopen the browser to return to the webpage. Facebook should look into either adding its own smart dashboard functionality or enabling an always-on screen option if it continues to push for its usefulness during work. The Calendar app begins to address this, with the Go acting as a second screen for showing your schedule and taking work calls which is a massive boon to work productivity. Facebook already offers Zoom and WebEx support but has plans to get Microsoft Teams up and running by December.
Between allowing harmful propaganda to run on its platforms to taking a disturbing amount of data from its users without disclosure, Facebook is often in hot water for its ethical practices, or lack thereof. I understand why someone wouldn’t want to provide Facebook a microphone and camera into their home. With that said the platform is essential to my everyday communications and activities, so I cover the cameras of each Portal device I own with the included privacy tabs and kill their microphones when not in use. While there is plenty to say about Facebook as a whole, the engineering teams behind their social devices deserve kudos for making each online encounter feel as real as it can virtually.
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