Like so many well-intended technology gifts given to older people, the Facebook Portal that my siblings and I gave to our parents for Christmas sat in its unopened box for months. My parents are Midwestern snowbirds who spend half the year in Wisconsin and half in St. Augustine, Florida, so we figured this immersive video chatting device — one of the "it" holiday gifts of 2019 — would be a great tool to help them keep in touch with their grandkids while they're living out-of-state for the first half of the year.
The Portal is essentially a mix between a tablet and a digital photo frame that utilizes Facebook Messenger for hands-free video chats, and its wide-angle smart camera easily allows for multiple people in the frame. It has Amazon's Alexa technology built into it, so you can use it as a regular voice assistant, with all those standard features — playing music from Spotify or Pandora, checking the news and weather, etc.
Explaining all the features on Christmas morning was met with all the "Wow, cool!" reactions you could hope for as a group of middle-aged people trying to impress your parents with the perfect gift. Alas, my parents are in their 70s and pretty technology averse. Without one of us there in Florida to offer hands-on setup help, it was cast aside and pretty much forgotten about by all of us. That is until recently, when "social distancing" became a regular part of the country's vernacular and my family's annual Easter trip to see them in St. Augustine was canceled. As members of the high-risk category, they are more or less housebound for the time being and their craving for connection to the rest of our family finally incentivized them to pull the Portal out of its box.
Surprisingly, the setup was incredibly easy: They just plugged it in, entered their WiFi password, and logged into Facebook using the guided touchscreen instructions. (If you have ever used a modern ATM, rest assured you can figure this out, without a headache, in a matter of minutes.)
The key selling point, in my opinion? The motion-detecting, wide-angle camera that essentially follows you around while you chat. That means you can be preparing dinner in the kitchen, folding laundry in the living room, or making the bed and the camera will zoom in and out as needed and refocus to follow your movements. Even cooler — if another person enters the other side of the room, the camera is smart enough to pull back into a wider frame and include both people at once. The result for the person on the other end of the chat — whether they're using a Portal themself or just holding up their smartphone, FaceTime-style — is a semi virtual-reality experience where you almost feel as though you're sitting in the room with your loved ones.
The only real drawback, for me, is that it looks a lot like an early-aughts digital photo frame when not in video-chatting use. For older people, this is still "fancy" technology that impresses their friends. For the rest of us, it's a little dated looking. You do have the ability to set just one image as your background, which is what I did, but by default it will ask to flip through your Facebook photo albums, and nobody needs to see my college party pics on 10" display.
Half of my family are now using Portals in their own homes. After a 45-minute chat with my sister and her son the other night — me using the Facebook Messenger app and my iPhone, she using her Portal while folding laundry — my sore arm and jealousy over her ability to multitask convinced me that I had to have one too. I was able to get my hands on one same-day via Best Buy's contactless curbside pickup (note: they'll also ship for free). It comes in multiple sizes, with the 8" Mini starting at $129.99 and the 15.6" Plus retailing for $279.99. For $179.99, I went for the 10" medium size, which is generous enough to see from across my average-sized living room. (For my parents' much larger space and older eyes, we went for the Plus.)
Last night three of my family's households had dinner together. My parents bickered as they do, my nephew told some bad 10-year-old jokes, and my sister and I rolled our eyes at each other — in other words, it felt a lot like a typical dinner around my parents' kitchen table. Sure, it won't replace playing on the beach with my nephew during spring break, but at this weird moment in history when we're all feeling a little uneasy and a lot isolated, it feels like a pretty great consolation prize.
Gina is Director of Audience Development at Hunker. She was previously Digital Director at Sunset magazine and has written for numerous other lifestyle and travel sites. In her spare time, she likes to cook, drink wine, talk to her houseplants, and rearrange furniture for no good reason.