FACEBOOK PORTAL $199

Video call device very good at what it does

Facebook’s new gadget, Portal, has one purpose: calling other people who use Facebook. And it does that extremely well. Other calling devices, like Amazon’s Echo Show, have been more promising than practical.

For Facebook’s first piece of hardware, it’s impressive. The basic costs $199, and the Portal Plus costs $349.

Setting up my Portal Plus was easy. You pop the thing out of the box, plop it on your desk or table, plug it in, and connect it to Wi-Fi and your Facebook account. Then you are ready to call.

The great thing about these devices — or the absolutely worst, depending on the person — is that they are stationary and always on. When you want to call someone, you just tell it to call the person — no looking for your phone, no holding the phone while you chat. It all just works with a single utterance. (Everything old is new: These devices are like landlines!)

The Portal uses software to follow you around a room, always keeping the speaker in frame and cropped. This reviewer found this very useful.

But it also will likely be Facebook’s most difficult hurdle to overcome when selling the Portal. For some, there is no shaking the feeling that you are being watched, and with Facebook’s privacy issues, it could cause some paranoia on the part of the user.

Facebook anticipated this. To protect from that creepy feeling, the company built a kill switch into the hardware that turns off the microphone and camera. There’s also a piece of plastic to physically sheathe the camera’s eye.

Facebook also went out of its way to let us know that all video chats are encrypted, and the company does not store the contents of the calls, nor does it listen in on them.

But the tech environment we find ourselves in is largely a situation of Facebook’s own making. Facebook has a demonstrably worse record on privacy than many of its big-tech peers.

It also has a business model, targeted advertising, which encourages it to walk up to the limit of what users will accept, and sometimes to walk beyond that line.

All that said, a lot of people are just fine with the level of insight Facebook has into their lives. If you already chat and call on Facebook Messenger on your phone, then chatting and calling from Portal isn’t putting you in any greater danger.