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The easiest way to video chat is, arguably, using your phone or your laptop. But, the idea of stationary, in-home devices that enable face-to-face interaction with people from afar has always seemed inevitable. We’ve seen it in pop culture for decades at this point. The hardware, however, is still kind of awkward if you want to use it in your living room to talk to grandma and not in a corporate board room to discuss shareholder dividends or other business sounding things.
This morning, Facebook announced updates to itsPortal line of video chat devices and dropped the prices on its existing gadgets. The Portals, for the most part, provide a permanent video chat hub integrated with some voice assistant features. The line debuted last year, but it landed hot on the heels of some of the company’s biggest privacy scandals. They were also rather pricey. The $199 standard model with a 10-inch screen wasn’t a bad deal, but the luxurious Portal+, which added fancy features like a rotating base and face tracking to follow you around as you chat, demanded a high price tag of $349. And with recent additions to the video chat/smart screen space from Google and Amazon, we could be getting closer to widespread adoption.
The new Portals
The 15.6-inch Portal+ is still available in the line, but the official price is now $279. The Standard Portal with the 10-inch screen drops by $20 to $179, which isn’t a huge dip, but both products still likely have room to move when the holiday shopping season kicks into gear.
The new Portals, however, drop the barrier for entry into Facebook’s platform quite a bit. The portal Mini, which sports an 8-inch screen, is just $129 and gets you most of the features from the standard Portal. The $149 Portal TV doesn’t have as screen at all. Rather, it connects to your TV and turns the biggest display in your house into a connected smart screen.
While all the devices offer different features, including integration with Amazon Alexa, the video chatting is the real hook and, if you don’t plan on doing that, they don’t make much sense to buy. To sweeten the deal, Facebook also now allows Portal devices to use WhatsApp for video chatting, in addition to the original offering, which relied solely on Messenger.
Across the board, Facebook has added a switch to each device that allows users to turn off the camera by itself, or kill both the camera and mic completely. It’s an obvious nod to the understandable security concerns buyers may have about putting a connected camera in their homes, especially one made by Facebook
Facebook hasn’t released any hard sales numbers for the Portal devices at this point, but this kind of refresh and new product announcement requires a fairly serious investment that reflects the company’s growing interest in video chatting.
While the Portal Mini will likely be one of the most popular models in the line simply due to its price—I wouldn’t be surprised to see it hit $99 during the holidays—the Portal TV is the most interesting. Beyond regular calling, it allows users to watch videos together by keeping the chat in a picture-in-picture arrangement on the screen. Portal also now supports Amazon’s Prime Video service as an app, which obviously makes the most sense on the TV model, unless you’re particularly keen to stand in your kitchen in front of a small screen and watch Dumb & Dumber.
What else is out there?
Amazon has a hardware event happening in the coming weeks, and since it has just announced new Fire TV devices at a separate event, it wouldn’t be surprising to see new Echos show up. The Echo Show 5 with its built-in camera and five-inch screen recently hit its lowest price ever, as well, which suggests a new version could be on the way.
The larger Echo Show with a 10-inch screen has a 10-inch screen and more powerful speakers, as well as a built-in Zigbee hub, which allows it to connect to a wide range of smart home devices to integrate them with the Alea voice assistant.
Just last week, we reviewed the Google Nest Hub Max, which lines up directly in competition with the Echo Show. The Hub Max commands the same $229 price tag, and while it lacks some smart home flexibility from the Echo Show, Google’s offering has facial recognition and the ability to track you as you move around the room, which you’ll also find in the pricey Portal+.