Vastly more people are video-conferencing from their homes because of the pandemic, which has created high demand for webcams — those standalone video-chat cameras that link to computers for home schooling, work meetings and virtual happy hours.
If you’ve had trouble finding a webcam from the likes of Logitech and Microsoft, consider an alternative: a “smart display.”
Such gizmos are compact, simplified computers with high-quality speakers, integrated microphones and cameras, and support for top video-conferencing services. The devices are meant to be placed on a desk, table or kitchen counter, where they respond primarily to voice commands.
The devices are worth a look if you are trying to up your video-conferencing game with minimum effort because they require little setup, and provide high-quality video and audio without a lot of futzing. Their angled-display designs and wide-angled cameras are ideal for video conversations with friends or work colleagues.
But you need to select your smart display with care. Your options include:
The social-media giant has a line of Portal consumer video-conferencing devices. I have been trying out the $179 Portal, a 10-inch smart display that I have positioned beside my computer in my home office.
There’s also the 8-inch Portal Mini ($129), a 15.6-inch Portal+ with a rotating display ($279), and a $149 Portal TV that has no screen of its own but is positioned atop a TV for a big-screen video-chat experience.
The Portals use the same video-conferencing features found in Facebook’s mobile Messenger apps and on its website. You can do one-on-one Messenger calls with your friends, or set up Rooms for group chats.
Portal also supports Facebook’s popular WhatsApp, if you prefer to video chat that way. And Facebook has lately begun adding support for other video-conferencing services, like its own, business-y Workplace, along with third-party offerings such as Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting and BlueJeans.
I was keen to try Portal because I am a heavy Facebook user, and I mostly have not been disappointed. The hardware, created by the Facebook-owned Oculus maker of virtual-reality cameras, is kind of picture-frame bland. But it’s what’s on the Portal’s display that matters.
Video chats with my sister, who is also using a Portal, look and sound pristine. The camera has a wide-angle view, so you can get a lot on the screen. It automatically zooms in and out based on how far I am from the screen, and keeps me centered if I move around. It requires zero adjusting, unlike my Logitech computer webcam that often needs tweaking.
Portal can be voice-controlled courtesy of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant, which is also built into Amazon Echo Show smart speakers (more on those a bit).
There are reasons to be wary of Portal devices. Facebook doesn’t have a sterling reputation for protecting users’ data and privacy. Some tech journalists have been known to guffaw at the mere suggestion of a Portal purchase. (Note that Facebook has built in privacy features on Portal devices, including a physical switch that can cover the camera and disable the microphone.)
But if you’re heavily invested in the Facebook ecosystem and want zero-fuss gear for super easy, high-quality video conferencing, Portals are a no-brainer. These devices, in terms of video-conferencing sophistication and ease of use, are my favorites. And, as more video-conferencing services are added to the devices, their appeal beyond Facebook’s own realm is bound to grow.
GOOGLE NEST HUB
Google sells a couple of Nest Hub devices with gorgeous screens, swell speakers and support for the popular Google Assistant for voice control. For those (like me) who are heavily invested in the Google ecosystem, the Nest Hubs are compelling.
If you are looking to video-conference, however, there’s a catch. While the 10-inch Nest Hub Max ($229) has an integrated camera, the 7-inch Nest Hub ($89.99) doesn’t. This means the smaller display can receive but not send video, so it’s best used for audio-only calls.
Duo is easy to use. Accounts are associated with users’ phone numbers or email addresses, and calls are super easy to place or receive using Duo mobile apps or the service’s desktop-web site at duo.google.com. On the Nest Hub Max, you verbally ask for a contact and the call to that person is placed via Duo.
Like the Portal devices, the Nest Hub Max’s camera is designed to keep me in the frame, zooming in or out depending on my distance from the device, and following me if I move. This didn’t always work for me as advertised, though.
Google Meet on the Nest Hub Max also works fairly well, but still has a few rough edges. Ask the smart speaker to “start a meeting” and you are offered options to start a new meeting, tap in a code for a scheduled meeting that is about to begin, or join an imminent meeting via its entry on your Google calendar.
I tested Meet during a work call involving dozens of my Pioneer Press colleagues. The audio and video worked as I’d expected, but Meet controls on the Nest Hub’s touch screen behaved unpredictably — some buttons worked properly, but others were unresponsive.
It also dawned on me during a one-on-one Meet chat with my editor that the Nest Hub Max’s screen is too tiny for presentations — this is best done on a computer screen if you want to share documents or spreadsheets.
Like the Portal, the Nest Hub Max has a physical switch to disable the camera and microphone.
Minor performance issues aside, I am delighted with the Nest Hub Max and willing to be patient as glitches are ironed out. In the meantime, I am liking how, among other things, I can pull up Netflix and YouTube TV on the gizmo. Zoom support is coming later this year, too.
AMAZON ECHO SHOW
For those invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, the company’s Echo Show smart displays are logical choices. These include 5-, 8- and 10-inch models that run $89.99, $104.99 and $229.99. Last month, Amazon unveiled a revamped 10-inch version ($249) that has a swiveling display.
I have been playing with the older 10-inch version along with the 5-incher, and I’ve found them to be great gear with pristine audio, decent cameras, and sophisticated software features.
Amazon’s Alexa assistant is built in, as with the Facebook Portal devices. The Echo Show gadgets diverge in the video-chat sense, however, since they use Amazon’s own service for this purpose and don’t support Facebook Messenger at all. Instead of a Facebook account, you use an Amazon account.
Video calls happen between those who own Echo Show displays — or display-less Echo smart speakers, if such exchanges are audio-only. You can also call or receive a call from someone who has the Alexa app installed on his or her phone or tablet. Echo Show calls can be initiated verbally, or by tapping a contact on the Echo Show screen.
The new 10-inch Echo Show is an interesting variation because of its swiveling display. This is how Amazon aims to solve the problem of keeping a user in the frame as he or she moves around, but it is unclear how well it works (the device won’t be released until later this year).
There are other video-calling options. Echo Show devices also support Microsoft’s Skype, meaning you can interact with those who use that popular video-conferencing service on desktop computers or mobile devices.
Zoom support is coming, as well, but it reportedly will be limited to the 8-inch Echo Show initially.
WHICH ONE FOR YOU?
Selecting a smart display shouldn’t be too difficult for you.
If you’re all about the Facebook (or WhatsApp), a Portal makes sense. And the hardware’s support for several other video-conferencing services is a bonus.
If you are a heavy user of Google’s services — perhaps because they are required at your workplace, or because you prefer them for personal use — a Nest Hub Max is a no-brainer.
If you are heavily immersed in Amazon’s ecosystem, an Echo Show is a good way to go.
In my case, either a Portal or a Nest Hub Max would be a good fit since I use Facebook Messenger and Google services a lot. I’d ideally want a smart display that does both, but such a product does not appear to exist (unless you count laptops or iPads).
And if you’re among the millions who use the popular Zoom, any of these devices will surely do the trick. Zoom is currently operational on Portal, and is coming to the other smart displays soon.
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