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Hands on: Facebook Portal TV review

Does your TV need a webcam? Facebook thinks so

What is a hands on review?
(Image: © TechRadar)

Early Verdict

For home video calls through your TV – something with quite limited support elsewhere, especially after Skype shuttered its smart TV app – there’s certainly a reason to get the Portal TV into your living room.

For

  • Camera tracking during calls
  • Turns TV into smart display
  • Alexa integration

Against

  • Blurry motion at a distance
  • Unimproved camera quality
  • Filters don’t scale up well

What is the Portal TV? The latest addition to Facebook’s Portal smart speaker range is incoming, and the TechRadar team has tested it out to tell exactly what it means for your living room.

The social media giant raised some eyebrows when it started shipping smart displays last year, given ongoing concerns over user privacy – not least the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has rocked the online platform since 2016.

Despite some poor first-quarter sales this year, too, Facebook has ramped up its plans for the Portal range, expanding to Canada, Europe, and the UK, while adding a Portal TV device to the family that essentially turns your television into one big smart display.

So what does the Portal TV do, and do you want it clipped to the top of your TV? Here’s everything you need in our Portal TV review.

Price and availability

The Portal TV accessory costs $149 / £149, making it cheaper than the $179 / £169 Portal smart display, but a tad more expensive than the $129 / £129 Portal Mini. The Portal TV will start shipping on November 5.

Design

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The Portal TV differs considerably from the rest of the Portal range in its appearance, given it doesn’t ship with a screen of its own – relying instead on a television to display calls and the Portal interface.

The Portal TV has a wide, flat shape, with an eight-microphone array along the top for picking up sound from across the room. There’s a small speaker inside the Portal TV too, for when the television is off, but otherwise you’ll be using the (likely superior) TV speakers for your audio needs.

There’s a camera on the front of the device, facing into the room, with a physical camera shutter – like that on the Echo Show 5 – allowing you to feel safe that you aren’t accidentally being spied on. (Only consensual spying, thank you.)

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Along the back is an HDMI port, for transmitting audio and video to the TV, as well as a micro USB port for power.

But how does it actually attach to the top of the TV, you ask? There is, sensibly, no physical installation required. The Portal TV has a small fold-out stand that clips on either side of the television display, with only a couple of millimeters encroaching on the screen itself – which, given the usual height of a bezel, shouldn’t actually impact the picture.

Performance

(Image credit: TechRadar)

So, how did the Portal TV actually fare? From what we’ve seen, you get the same Portal interface and capabilities, including integration with Alexa and the in-house Portal smart assistant.

One of the more unique factors of the Portal range is its tracking camera, meaning that the lens on your Portal will pan and zoom to focus on people within view, or even follow them across the room.

With the wide-pan view from the television, there’s even more scope for capturing group gatherings, or following a figure while they move around the room.

We found videos were a lot clearer when figures were up close, as the camera had trouble focusing on far-away objects, especially when they were moving. While the gestures of someone smiling and waving their hands near the lens generally held together, someone wandering across the back of the room was very blurred in motion – and this certainly isn’t an action camera, even if it will likely prove sufficient for mostly static home use.

(Image credit: TechRadar)

You can use the same AR effects as on the smaller Portal displays – over Facebook Messenger – even if doing them in real-time on quite a large television screen is somewhat more disconcerting than in a throwaway Instagram post on your mobile.

The video quality will also depend on your TV, too, given the 12.5MP camera – which is worse than some other Portal displays – will be upscaled to the size of the television screen.

Early verdict

While we’ve only had so much time with the Portal TV so far, this new addition to the Portal range offers a new and unique position among its sibling devices. For home video calls through your TV – something with quite limited support elsewhere, especially after Skype shuttered its smart TV app – there’s certainly a reason to get the Portal TV into your living room.

For those concerned about their privacy, encrypted Whatsapp calls should help to put you at ease – while the Portal’s settings will allow to opt out of your data being collected and utilized by Facebook. But if you’re happy making calls through your mobile as is, you probably don’t have any need of a gadget like this.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.