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How Facebook's Portal Mini earned a place in my home

Despite privacy concerns, the Facebook Portal smart camera and assistant has helped my family and me tremendously these past months.
Image: Portal Mini
When COVID-19 arrived, it made us all rethink life as we knew it: To my surprise, that involved taking a second look at Facebook’s Portal, which I had scoffed at as a redundant device in the distant past that was 2019.Facebook

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In the days before social distancing became part of our collective reality, I was more or less ahead of the game — or so I thought. I worked from home for the entirety of my career, so I didn’t need a primer on Zoom or tips for setting up an efficiency-geared office. And, with the addition of three kids in four years, my social life was only existent if you count conversations about dinosaurs and superheroes.

Basically, we were homebodies before it was necessary. As such, I believed I already had good workarounds for entertaining my kids, staying connected to faraway family members and keeping up with the news. Then: COVID-19 arrived and made us all rethink life as we knew it. To my surprise, that involved taking a second look at Facebook’s Portal, which I had scoffed at as a redundant device in the distant past that was 2019.

In this article

  1. What is Portal?
  2. Portal specs: assistant, camera and more
  3. Why upgrade to Portal?
  4. Why I chose the Portal Mini

Facebook Portal: A family of devices

When a cousin who was on lockdown with her kids (on the other side of the country) first drew my attention back to Portal with her own rave reviews, I still wasn’t entirely sold. Beyond being objectively unnecessary (other modes of video chatting I had were still perfectly functional), I do also harbor some concerns about Facebook’s privacy standards, especially when we’re talking about getting my kids on screen.

Facebook designed Portal with a toggle to easily switch off the camera and/or microphone. It didn’t feel like the perfect solution to me because part of the point of getting Portal was to use its Alexa integration. However, I was (admittedly) desperate in those early quarantine days for anything that offered a glimmer of hope — so I went ahead with it. Just like a phone or laptop with its own privacy issues, I’ve since found myself comfortable with Portal by being mindful of my concerns as it is tucked in a corner of our kitchen, but am not inclined to toss the device anytime soon.

I was initially attracted to Portal TV, which integrates with your existing TV, a la Roku and other streaming devices. It appealed to me because I wanted my children to connect with their grandparents without me constantly running interference when my 2-year-old tried to run off with my phone during FaceTime. But my first attempt to buy one through Facebook itself said it was indefinitely out of stock — seemed I was behind the ball with my quarantine impulse shopping.

Facebook Portal Mini

I then considered the less expensive, standalone 8-inch Portal Mini, which boasts an average 4.4-star rating on Amazon from more than 1,500 reviewers, and was available for quick delivery thanks to my Prime membership. Two days later (and cautiously optimistic), I plugged the Portal Mini into an outlet in our kitchen. We were all instantly transfixed by even better options and functionality than I expected. Now, I can confidently say that the Portal has earned a permanent spot in our house, even after quarantine ends.

Portal is more than child-proof video calls

There are multiple reasons I’ve come to adore our new home robot caller.

  • One of the biggest selling points of Portal that sets it apart from competitors for me is its Smart Camera and Smart Sound features, which automatically focus on one person as they move around the room — like, say, a fidgety toddler is prone to doing.
  • The camera will also widen to fit multiple faces, which I liked so that grandparents wouldn’t have to repeat themselves as my children fought over who could be seen on the screen.
  • While that function met my expectations, I didn’t anticipate how much my husband and I would come to prefer Portal over Zoom or FaceTime options for virtual game nights with our friends. The video quality is great and adults weren’t accidentally talking over each other.
  • Notably, in the case that we wanted to chat with someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account, Portal also facilitates calls through WhatsApp — but keep in mind callers will need one of those accounts.
  • Portal-to-Portal calls unlock even more functions, such as kid-friendly games like moving your head to catch a donut falling from the sky. The only downside here is that my cousin is the only other Portal owner we regularly communicate with, so we haven’t been able to take advantage of this function much.

With Facebook Portal, finally, my kids can safely entertain themselves without co-opting my devices. Although we make an attempt to limit screen time in our house, there are occasions when my 4-year-old and I both wanted a little digital distraction at the same time — which used to be hard when we were both reaching for my phone. With Portal, though, he can entertain himself with dozens of fun face filters or by turning us into characters in “Story Time,” thanks to cool AR effects.

Facebook Portal provided a much-needed update to our old Echo Dot

I first looked to Portal for better video calls, but we honestly get the most use out of its Alexa integration. Sure, we had been getting along just fine with an old Echo Dot, which primarily served to play “Who Let the Dogs Out” on repeat for my kids at their beck and call. However, by adding the screen, I’ve been rediscovering all that I can do through Alexa, like catch the news headlines while I’m prepping dinner, manage other smart devices and gradually steer my kids in the direction of some better music through my Pandora channels.

When we aren’t actively using it, Portal transforms into a digital picture frame that pulls pictures from my linked Facebook account — and displays the outside temperature. These aren’t necessarily reasons to spend more than $100 on a device, but they were some nice perks. The biggest drawback to Portal is one I hadn’t anticipated minding: It’s not portable, of course, lacking a battery. The irony is that, even though I initially hoped for something my kids wouldn’t run away with, I have found myself wishing it wasn’t always tethered to one location — hopefully Facebook is working on a portable model.

Why I'm glad I went with Portal Mini over the other options

What I’ve glazed over here is that there are actually two other Portal options on the market:

Facebook’s 10-Inch Portal

Facebook Portal Plus

Perhaps there is something I’m missing that makes those worth the additional investment to gain extra inches of screen width, but it seems to me that the functions are roughly the same as what I get out of Portal Mini.

Facebook’s Portal TV (Out of Stock)

If availability hadn’t been a barrier, I probably would have gone with Portal TV because that truly allows for a bigger viewing screen and would already be posed to capture our whole family while gathering in the living room. Still, I am more than pleased with everything the Portal Mini offers—and am now planning to purchase one for both sets of grandparents so that we can really unlock its full features.

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