Facebook is taking another step into hardware: It's just announced Portal and Portal+, two devices mixing tablet and speaker with video calling as their key feature. If you think they're similar to the Amazon Echo Show, you're spot on – they even come with Amazon's Alexa digital assistant built in.

Essentially, you get a device very similar to the Echo Show, with more of an emphasis on Facebook Messenger. It's Facebook's own messaging service that takes on the job of placing calls and connecting you with friends, but rather than you having to fire up a phone app or open your laptop, it can all be done hands-free.

Your friends don't necessarily need a Portal device to use the service – the smart units are able to place calls to (and take calls from) Facebook Messenger on a phone or tablet. Calls of up to seven people at once are supported.

The standard Portal features a 10-inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display, while the Portal+ ups this to a 15-inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display, which can also pivot around on its stand, following you or the kids as you make video calls to family and friends (Facebook calls it "Smart Camera" and says it's based on the wonders of artificial intelligence). The standard Portal can zoom in on the action, but can't rotate to follow it.

Another AI-powered feature here is Smart Sound, available on both Portal speakers, which "minimizes background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is talking, no matter where they move" according to Facebook.

Perhaps recognizing that it doesn't have the best of reputations when it comes to data privacy, Facebook insists it won't be recording any of the calls these Portal speakers make. You can delete your search activity at any time too, and there's a button and a cover for disabling the camera and microphone on board the Portals.

As well as making video and audio calls, and responding to Alexa commands just like an Amazon Echo would do (think everything from weather reporting to cab ordering), the Facebook Portal speakers can also let you view video and listen to music as a group rather than individuals, all through the magic of Portal.

For the time being app support seems limited though – Spotify Premium is one of the music choices, and Facebook Watch one of the video options.

Finally, Facebook is also promising some interesting augmented reality effects as part of the Portal experience, though for the time being this seems to be restricted to cartoon stories for the kids, starring whoever happens to be stood in front of one of the Portal cameras at the time.

With Google expected to unveil a similar device at its Pixel event tomorrow, it's an increasingly crowded market – and that means all the more choice for consumers. Pre-orders are open now, with shipping in November: US$199 for the standard Portal and $349 for the Portal+.

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