Facebook unveils new Portal smart speakers

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The new video call devices are powered by AI, with Facebook's "Smart Camera" technology created to follow you as you move around the room and zoom in to the action, meaning you can continue chatting over video while doing chores, cooking in the kitchen, or looking for something in your room.

Facebook representatives prefer to talk about their "mission" rather than business models and profits, but wireless speakers and video calls are a growing market.

"Portal+ and Portal really live up to that idea of helping you feel closer and allowing you to spend more quality time with people, even if they live thousands of miles away from you", said Dave Kaufman, marketing lead for Facebook's Portal division. The device functions as a smart speaker similar to Amazon and Google's own smart home devices, but the Portal includes a camera amongst its features.

The standard Portal smart speaker features a 10.1-inch 720p display with 10W speakers, and is priced at $199. The larger Portal+ has an HD 15.6-inch screen that can swivel between vertical and horizontal views.

Facebook is now accepting pre-orders for the new devices and will be shipping them next month. You get $100 off if you buy any two devices, and they'll ship at some point in November.

But Facebook has moved to quickly allay security fears, saying that by keeping the processes on the actual device rather than in the cloud, the risk of hacking is lower than with a smartphone or computer.

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In terms of privacy, Facebook claims the calls are encrypted and that Facebook does not listen in or save a copy of them. The cameras and the microphones in these two devices can be disabled with a switch. That means Portal users can call other Portal users, as well as those with Facebook Messenger installed on their smartphones and tablets.

The Portal also sports Bluetooth, so it can play music when paired to a nearby device, but critically, like the Echo Show, it lacks official support for YouTube and other major streaming services such as Netflix.

However, the second version of Portal - called Portal Plus - is a whole different beast. It is controlled using voice commands, although Facebook has eschewed the personal approach of competitors such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa in favour of a more disembodied presence: users initiate instructions with: "Hey Portal".

Powered by AI, Portal's Smart Camera and Smart Sound technology take all of the guesswork out of video calling, letting you enjoy a more convenient, hands-free experience. You'll also be able to delete your Portal or Portal+ device's voice history using your Facebook Activity log.

However, to address potential security concerns about Portal (aside from the general rising distrust of Facebook), Facebook says the Portal's microphones and camera feature an option that will "physically" disconnect those components, and the company has installed an indicator light that glows red so you know they're off. They are the first Facebook-branded hardware products. Both devices have a four-mic array that's created to pick up your voice no matter where you are in the room. There's also a physical camera cover to prevent recording.

Users will have access to services such as Spotify Premium, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Facebook Watch, Food Network, and Newsy at launch, with more services being added later.

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