Our Facebook Portal has been the ultimate lifesaver for us since the very first lockdown. Our original Portal was bit of an impulse buy in 2019. We were having Christmas with the in-laws and wanted a way to allow my parents to be part of it while the children were still young enough to appreciate the festive fun.
So, on Christmas Day we both set up our Portals and had a hilarious game of charades between Yorkshire and Portsmouth in an impressively unstilted and ‘real’ way. We had a handful of Portal calls after that but it wasn’t until the country entered lockdown that March that it became apparent just how much of a lifeline they would become.
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Throughout our varied lockdowns, the Portal has allowed my parents to feel truly connected to me and their grandchildren, and weekly portal catchups (daily through the school holidays when they become remote childcare solutions for two working parents) have become part of our family routine. So when I heard Facebook was launching their new Portal Go, both my parents and I were very eager to trial it. Since mum remains vulnerable, our Portal conversations are still our main form of contact. And since we'd just moved house, and my parents were unable to come and visit, the idea of being able to show them around our new home with a portable Portal was very appealing for all of us.
Portal Go, £199, Portal from Facebook
How does the Portal Go differ from the original Portal?
The main difference is that the Portal Go is portable. Equipped with a clever mini charging pad, the Portal Go's battery charges whenever it's sitting directly on the pad - it spends most of its time sitting in the kitchen, the in-built Alexa helping me with recipes, music and timing when something's in the oven. But rather than with the old Portal, where we and the grandparents would have to pick a location for our Portal call, plug in and set up around it, now we're completely free.
With a handy carrying handle, you can start your call wherever you are, check the person's available, finish making your cuppa then move to sit wherever you fancy, brining your Portal with you. Since trialling it with a full new home tour (which enabled my parents to feel like they really knew our new home, despite the fact they probably won't be able to visit it any time soon), we've done a multitude of things with our portable Portal. Mum's helped me with the gardening, showing me which plants need cutting back, and which are fine to leave. They've read bedtime stories to the grandkids in their bedrooms, accompanied me while I cooked Halloween cakes and literally moved around the house with me as if they were real life visitors.
We can't wait for summer when we can share in barbeques and watch the seasons change in each other's gardens. It's fantastic.
One other thing to mention is that the Portal Go looks really sleek and modern. I didn't think the original Portal looked out of place - it had the look of a digital photoframe and comes in black or white to match your decor. But the new version is definitely and upgrade and has very clear on/off switches if you're concerned about privacy and keeping the mic and camera off when you're not on a call.
It brought the family closer together
Unlike zoom calls or FaceTime, being on a Portal call really feels like you’re visiting someone else’s home. The graphics are incredible and having been designed by top Hollywood videographers, it’s an entirely different experience to other forms of video call.
The Portal’s automatic ability to pick up both sound and faces means you can literally get on with whatever it is you’re doing and the system adapts to make sure you remain in view (or zooms in if it’s just you in shot). And the sound is crystal clear – there really is no need to yell.
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It’s this that makes the Portal experience so unique and enables you to forget that you’re not actually together – you just focus on catching up. My mum and dad have had to shield for the duration of the lockdown, yet both they and my children – now 13 and 15 – say they’ve become closer than ever. It’s an incredibly heart-warming silver lining to a very difficult time.
It even helped with childcare – sort of!
Usually in the holidays the boys go to stay with the grandparents for a while – a much-needed childcare help and always a lot of fun. When the prospect of a four-week Easter holiday loomed, with me and my husband both working full-time from home, panic rose.
But it turned out even from afar, both sets of grandparents could still offer a form of childcare, keeping the kids off computer games and engaging with them in amazingly creative ways. It was a pattern we continued through the whole of the summer holidays.
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Portal+, £349, Portal from Facebook
For my mum and dad, it was a time to read stories. All four downloaded The Diary of Anne Frank and took it in turns to read chapters via the Facebook Portal – some days my sons followed as my parents read, other days they sketched as they listened. An hour and a half each day spent reading, chatting, discussing and sharing opinions was precious time a normal holiday would never have allowed.
It helped grandparents connect with their grandchildren
When they fancied a change they got creative. They even took part in a virtual bake-off. Mum picked cheese scones as a challenge so I ordered the ingredients and the four of them were entertained in the kitchen for an entire afternoon. We won’t discuss the state of the kitchen – but the scones at least, were delicious!
The kids and grandparents even had a bake-off via the tech!
In Portsmouth, the other grandparents (now also proud owners of a Portal) turned to quizzes and games – the cackles of laughter from catching each other out on personal specialist subjects, and the screams of ‘Bingo!’ I overheard during endless work video calls were testament to the fact that this was not stilted, unnatural distanced interaction. This was real life fun.
Portal TV, £149, Portal from Facebook
From time to time I’d thank the children for entertaining Granny and Grandpa, who hadn’t seen another face for months at this point. But the kids replied every time that they enjoyed it as much as the grandparents did. And without a doubt their relationships deepened as the weeks went by.
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Throughout school term we’ve stuck to weekend calls via the Facebook Portal, with every holiday, half term or forced isolation period reverting to daily grandparent calls. The boys have put the system’s audio to the test performing virtual piano and trombone concerts, and on Easter Sunday last year we sat the parents at one end of our lunch table while we ate at the other.
Not only did our lunches miraculously become ready at exactly the same time, we finished our meals without having raised our voices once. We had almost forgotten we weren’t genuinely sitting there together. Sadly, as Christmas approaches this year, we're still unable to see my parents, but at least they'll be there with us for Christmas dinner, and thanks to the Portal Go, they can come and play Charades in the sitting room with us when we retire from the dining table.
We even enjoyed Easter lunch last year all together - via the Portal
And while I’m desperate to leave most things that the pandemic has brought for us in the dim and distant past as soon as we can, finding time to connect weekly with our parents on the Portal is one thing I’m determined we’ll keep. The Portal Go just makes this great alternative to real life interaction, feel even more natural.
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