MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – If last year’s holiday shopping was all about the connected speaker and saying “Hey, Google,” and “Alexa,” multiple times after bringing home discounted fare, this year it’s all about video.
Amazon has enlarged and enhanced its Echo Show device, which brings video to its line of smart speaker, Google counters with the Home Hub, adding video to the Home line of speakers, and Facebook is in there as well, with its controversial Portal video speaker.
We’ve taken all for intensive test drives. Which one is for you? Read on:
The Google speaker, ($149, on sale for $99 during Black Friday sales) is our all-around favorite of the trio because it does more than the others. It’s a digital photo frame, accessing your pictures from the Google Photos app; it’s a YouTube viewer, showing videos on command, playing endless songs from the YouTube library and a recipe helper. Ask how to make chicken cacciatore, and it will show you, in step-by-step detail, in words and video, just how to do that. It connects to the cable TV alternative service YouTubeTV if you’d like to watch cable or broadcast TV on the device, along with your Google Calendar, Google Podcasts and other Google functions. Unlike the other two devices, there is no built-in camera for video calls. So while you will still have to live with knowing that every time you say “Hey, Google,” your wake word and the command are being recorded, at least you know an always-on video camera isn’t pointed at you.
At 7 inches, the screen is too small and pales in comparison to the other two. But since it does so much more, without the privacy concerns of Facebook’s Portal, it gets our top nod.
Facebook Portal and Portal+
With a 10-inch screen for the entry level edition, ($199, on sale for $149 for Black Friday), the Portal has a big, bright screen that’s beautiful to look at. Unlike the Home Hub and Echo Show, Portal exists for two key functions: video chat and a digital photo frame.
The other features – recipes, watching YouTube clips, listening to podcasts and the like – can be done, but not on command.
That said, the video chat looks so good and so superior to any video chat I’ve ever done before, you may think twice about the perils of letting a Facebook product into your home. (More on that in a minute.)
The Portal has a built-in camera designed to not just offer a static image of you during a video chat, but the whole family, and it zooms in and out and moves across the screen as others talk, looking like a professionally made video. FaceTime, Skype, Hangouts and the others pale in comparison.
But Portal is from Facebook, the company that has struggled with outside forces getting into our personal credentials, the firm that’s known for taking our personal information and creating targeted advertising out of our likes. This is the social network that served as a portal through which foreign entities wreaked havoc in the 2016 election.
Just last week, a bombshell New York Times report said that Facebook knew about the Russian attack for months before making it public and spent much time and energy on covering it up. It was followed with many calls for the ouster of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who says he won’t step down.
That said, Facebook says it’s not recording the calls you make on Portal but does say it will use the information of whom you called, how long you spoke and where both parties live to potentially target ads to you elsewhere on the Facebook platform.