Google Maps just made it a lot easier to plan holiday trips with better travel tools

With the holiday season just over the horizon, Google Maps is receiving an update to make planning and traveling around these hectic times more manageable.

The patch consists of three new features. First, the app will gain updated “transit directions” that’ll tell you “the best route to your destination based on key factors”. This includes the overall length of the trip, estimated time of arrival, plus the number of transfers you’ll have to take in order to get there. It’ll even be possible to customize the route using filters telling Google Maps to focus on a specific type of transit, like subways, or if you want one with minimal walking. 

Additionally, the app will tell where you can find the entrances and exits to stations “in over 80 cities around the world,” including Boston, London, New York City, Sydney, and Toronto. It'll point out “what side of the street they're on” as well as if there is a “clear walking route”.

Newfound collaboration

Next, the collaborative list tool will allow invited users to vote on an activity via emoji reactions. You can choose between a heart, a smiley face, a flame, or a flying stack of cash if you’re interested in going. For those who aren’t, a thumbs-down icon will be available.

Speaking of which, people can also react to publicly posted photographs on Google Maps with an emoji. The company states that “in some cases” you’ll be given the opportunity to use mashup reactions via Emoji Kitchen. The emoji mashup selections seem to depend on what the app’s AI sees in an image. For example, if it detects a bagel, the mashup will include the food item, and potentially, the yummy face. These custom-made icons will automatically be generated.

Everything you see here will be rolling out globally to Android and iOS devices starting today. The rest of the announcement consists of the tech giant shouting out certain Google Maps tools that you can use to help “navigate the holidays” like finding nearby charging stations for electric vehicles or purchasing train tickets right on the app.

If you’re interested in what else it can do, check out TechRadar’s list of the 10 things you didn’t know Google Maps could do

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Hate Copilot in Windows 11? Free privacy tools can now get rid of the AI

DoNotSpy11, a free anti-tracking tool that aims to keep your privacy levels tighter in Windows 11 (and 10), just got an update that allows it to deal with Copilot – as did O&O ShutUp10 (we’ll come back to that later).

Tom’s Hardware spotted that the new version of DoNotSpy11 (v1.2.0.0) comes with support for Windows 11 23H2, the freshly unleashed annual update for this year.

The 23H2 update comes with Copilot, as you may be aware, and drops the AI into your taskbar as a default icon. If you don’t want that, DoNotSpy11 now allows you to disable that button – although you can already do this in Windows 11 anyway.

However, beyond that, DoNotSpy11 has an option to entirely ‘Disable Copilot’ which is a new introduction in the app’s raft of measures for maintaining privacy.

There are a lot more privacy options here besides that, including disabling various elements of Windows 11 telemetry (data on usage of the OS sent back to Microsoft), getting rid of lock screen notifications, disabling widgets, and more.

DoNotSpy11 also makes a big effort to tackle a lot of Microsoft’s attempts to sneak adverts into the UI of Windows 11. That includes disabling ads in File Explorer, suggestions in Windows Ink Workspace and the Settings app, as well as Start Menu app suggestions, and more besides.

Another similar offering, O&O ShutUp10 (which supports Windows 11 as well as Windows 10), tackles Windows privacy issues and tweaks settings to evade Microsoft’s telemetry in a similar vein.

That app was recently updated to also disable Copilot, and remove the taskbar button.

You can check out and download DoNotSpy11 here, or O&O ShutUp10 here, both of which are free.

Analysis: Two long-standing options

Both DoNotSpy11 and O&O ShutUp10 have been around for some time (indeed, the former used to be DoNotSpy10 before Windows 11 existed).

We should note that the original version (the initial DoNotSpy10 for Windows 10) allegedly carried an advert-pushing plugin (ironically, for something designed to keep your privacy). This wasn’t malware, but we’re told it was identified by some antivirus apps as a potentially unwanted program (or PUP). At least the free version of DoNotSpy10 had this anyway, when it first launched, but that’s no longer the case (the product description of DoNotSpy11 is clearly marked as ’ad-free’ thankfully).

One advantage of the alternative O&O ShutUp10++ is that it doesn’t have to be installed – it can just be run directly from the download folder, which is useful.

However, in either case, you proceed at your own risk, although that’s true for any piece of third-party software for Windows 11.

Having the ability to ditch Copilot is certainly going to be a tempter for some folks who don’t want the AI on their desktop. While many users are embracing Copilot, and are excited about its potential, there will always be more cautious types who don’t want the AI on their desktop – particularly not now, in its initial stages, when Copilot’s powers to interact with Windows 11 settings are still very limited.

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YouTube reveals powerful new AI tools for content creators – and we’re scared, frankly

YouTube has announced a whole bunch of AI-powered tools (on top of its existing bits and pieces) that are designed to make life easier for content creators on the platform.

As The Verge spotted, at the ‘Made on YouTube’ event which just took place, one of the big AI revelations made was something called ‘Dream Screen’, an image and video generation facility for YouTube Shorts.

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This lets a video creator just type in something that they’d like for a background. Such as, for example, a panda drinking a cup of coffee – given that request, the AI will take the reins and produce such a video background for the clip (or image).

This is how the process will be implemented to begin with – you prompt the AI, and it makes something for you – but eventually, creators will be able to remix content to produce something new, we’re told.

YouTube Studio is also getting an infusion of AI tools that will suggest content that could be made by individual creators, generating topic ideas for videos that might suit them, based on what’s trending with viewers interested in the kind of content that creator normally deals in.

A system of AI-powered music recommendations will also come into play to furnish audio for any given video.

Analysis: Grab the shovel?

Is it us, or does this sound rather scary? Okay, so content creators may find it useful and convenient to be able to drop in AI generated video or image backgrounds really quickly, and have some music layered on top, and so on.

But isn’t this going to just ensure a whole heap of bland – and perhaps homogenous – content flooding onto YouTube? That seems the obvious danger, and maybe one compounded by the broader idea of suggested content that people want to see (according to the great YouTube algorithm) being provided to creators on YouTube.

Is YouTube set to become a video platform groaning under the collective weight of content that gets quickly put together, thanks to AI tools, and shoveled out by the half-ton?

While YouTube seems highly excited about all these new AI utilities and tools, we can’t help but think it’s the beginning of the end for the video site – at least when it comes to meaningful, not generic, content.

We hope we’re wrong, but this whole brave new direction fills us with trepidation more than anything else. A tidal wave of AI-generated this, that, and the other, eclipsing everything else is clearly a prospect that should be heavily guarded against.

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Following Bing AI, Google could bring AI writing tools to Chromebooks

Google is supposedly preparing to introduce an AI-aided feature that will help users write, rewrite and edit text – and it could be coming to Chromebooks.

Google is putting in major efforts in this direction, already having announced Project IDX at its I/O conference earlier this year

Project IDX is a program that is currently in a preview stage that will help developers with all kinds of actions, from code development to previewing their projects on different platforms, and is enhanced with AI. Throughout I/O 2023, Google explained how it was adding artificial intelligence capabilities into its products and services in the near future.

Google's generative AI tools

There are already a range of AI-charged writing features incorporated into Google products. 

In Gmail and Google Docs, you may have seen “Write for me” or “Help me write” which give you ideas and suggestions to help you write for professional purposes. On mobile devices, Google has also added a “Magic Compose” option in Google Messages to revise a reply you’ve written, or to draft a reply based on the context of your ongoing conversation.

Two phone screens drawn in a cartoony style, the space around the phones and screens are covered in messages, drawings of file types and emojis

(Image credit: Google)

Rumblings around Google's new works

As for this latest rumor, 9to5Google suggests that there are five codenames for it at present, including “Orca,” “Mako,” and “Manta.” Apparently, “Orca” will appear in the ChromeOS right-click menu when you are editing a piece of text. After you select the text and click on Orca (whatever it looks like in the version it’s presented in), Orca will prompt the “Mako” UI to appear in a “bubble.” 

The Mako feature will then give you three choices for what it can do with your text, according to inspection of the code. The first is that you can “request rewrites” for the selected text and possibly give you some options of AI-revised versions. The second option will let you choose from a list of “preset text queries,” which 9to5Google proposes will suggest styles to rewrite your text. The final option will let Mako swap your text for a version that it suggests into whatever program, app, or page you’re working in. 

When you ask Orca to open a Mako suggestion bubble, then the Manta UI will send your original text input to Google’s servers, and then receive the generated suggestion to present to you. 

This means that the process of reworking your text doesn’t happen on your local ChromeOS machine. Presumably like the Magic Compose feature, you ‘ll have to provide clear consent to send your writing to the Google servers in this way.

9to5Google found that these mechanisms seem to be embedded into an upcoming version of ChromeOS, assuming it will show up in a future update. This will mean that it might be possible for the Orca UI to show up in nearly any app on your ChromeOS device (such as any of the best Chromebooks). It suggests this new writing assistant might be in the 118 ChromeOS update, due in mid-October. We don’t know this is the case definitely, and if you’re interested, be on the lookout for more intel from Google itself. 

Asus Chromebook

(Image credit: Future)

Possible Chromebook X exclusive?

There are also signs that Orca/Mako/Manta might only be incorporated into Chromebook X devices. Chromebook X is set to be a line of high-end laptops and tablets that was reported earlier this year. As Chromebook X will have higher spec requirements than existing Chromebooks, it could mean that when this feature is rolled out, it may not be available for all existing ChromeOS devices. 

This would be a pity and maybe a missed opportunity, in my opinion, and I hope that this won’t be the case. Microsoft has also recently debuted an AI assistant writing feature for its Bing AI chatbot in the Edge browser, and as far as we know, that won’t require any hardware beyond that which can run the latest versions of Windows 11 and Edge. 

Based on my experience of Bard, it still has a way to go to match ChatGPT (another AI tool, which Microsoft’s Bing AI is based on) in terms of writing (and rewriting) ability. We’ll see how widespread the availability of this AI-assisted tool is, but the more users that have access to it, the more it can improve.

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Microsoft’s new AI shopping tools will create a buying guide just for you

Online shopping can be difficult as you’ll have to sift through a ton of information before finding the right product for you. Microsoft aims to take some of that busy work out by introducing some, naturally, AI-powered shopping tools to Bing and Edge.

In total, there are three. First, you have Buying Guides, which as you can probably guess from the name, has Bing write up a literal buying guide telling you what to look for according to a certain category. The AI will show “specifications of multiple, similar items next to each other” on a table so you can easily compare your options without having to jump around a thousand different websites. It’ll even make some suggestions on what you should purchase. 

Microsoft claims Buying Guides are already available on Bing Chat in the United States, however, when we checked, it wasn't as widespread as we had hoped. It was able to create a guide for college supplies like in the video above, but when we asked the AI to make something for gaming headphones, nothing new came up. It was still the old version of Bing where you have to do a lot of the legwork yourself. It appears the update is releasing in waves.

Later on in the year, Microsoft plans on launching the tool internationally. As for Edge, its rendition of Buying Guides is “starting to roll out worldwide”. Be sure to keep an eye out for the patch when it arrives. 

Price tracking

Next is Review Summaries to help you decide between two products you’re interested in. What it does is grab information from reviews to then “briefly summarize what people are saying about it online” through Bing's chatbot. Microsoft states the tool will “provide a quick look at top insights and popular opinions about [a] product”, all in an effort to save you a ton of time. The feature is currently rolling out to all global regions.

The final tool is Price Match, which will monitor an item’s price tag over time and then help you request a retailer match the new number “if it drops.” To make this helpful tool possible, the company partnered up with US retailers that already have price match policies in place. We don’t know the companies honoring the feature apart from Microsoft itself. Interestingly enough, there are plans to have more retailers honor the policy down the line. 

Microsoft says Price Match will soon launch exclusively in the United States. It’s unknown if there are plans to expand this tool internationally. We reached out to Microsoft for more information regarding a global rollout plus if it can tell us the retailers honoring Price Match. We’ll update this story at a later time.

As good as these shopping tools may seem, be sure to stay vigilant when dealing with generative AIs. They can’t totally be trusted as chatbots are “prone to spewing out misinformation”. We're not saying Bing's Buying Guides tool will lie or make up information, but the chance does exist. Developers like OpenAI are working on ways to stop hallucinations from appearing in their tech. However, sometimes, you just can’t beat the human touch.

Use these tools as a backup to guides written by real people. Speaking of which, check out TechRadar’s recently updated list of the best PCs you can buy for 2023.  

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Google Chrome’s new customization tools make the browser a lot more fun

If you've been finding Google Chrome a gray, uninspiring place to be lately, then the browser's new customization tools make it much easier to give it a much-needed lick of paint.

In the latest version of Chrome on desktop, Google has added a new side panel that lets you try out a bunch of new uplifting colors, themes and settings. While many of these options were previously available in Chrome, these new ones are easier to use and actually let you see the changes you're making in real-time.

If you don't have automatic updates turned on, you can update to the latest version by going to the three dots in the top right-hand corner of the toolbar then going to Help > About Google Chrome.

Once you're updated, how do you find Chrome's customization tools? Open a new tab and you'll see a 'Customize Chrome' icon in the bottom right-hand corner. Click that and it'll open up the new sidebar. The main section to fiddle with is the 'Appearance' section at the top.

A video showing where to find the Google Chrome customization settings

(Image credit: Google)

This lets you change two big things – the overall color scheme of your Chrome browser and the background image, which you can set to change everyday. Click on 'Change theme' and you'll see a range of default background options from a selection of artists, or some more subtle ones like 'geometric shapes' if those are too distracting.

If you can't decide on one, then just toggle the 'refresh daily' option within each collection and Chrome will cycle through them. Alongside these themes, you can also pick a background color for your toolbar and tabs, thanks to the grid further down. 

There are 15 default colors to choose from, though you can go super-granular with the eyedropper tool, which lets you enter your own RGB values (just in case you were wondering, the TechRadar logo is R:47, G:110, B:145).

Bigger changes under the hood

Chrome's revamped customization tools are a nice little quality-of-life upgrade for regular users – even if it isn't quite as dramatic as the new AI-powered Opera One browser, which has a built-in chatbot called Aria.

Google has so far been reticent to take that step, preferring to keep its Google Bard chatbot as a separate “experiment” that you open in a browser window. But Bard will soon start appearing more prominently in Google's products, including Chrome and Pixel phones (where the chatbot is rumored to be getting its own widget). 

A video showing how to change the color of your Chrome browser

(Image credit: Google)

Google is also separately making some big changes underneath Chrome's hood, with its plans to turn off third-party cookies moving forwards at a glacial pace. So while Microsoft Edge is now arguably a better browser than Chrome, Google is slowly reinventing its browser under the hood.

If you're looking to customize and tweak Google Chrome even more to go with your new themes, remember that the best Chrome extensions are also a fine way to add new features like tabs that automatically close when they've inactive – as long as you watch out for malicious extensions that can steal your Gmail messages and more.

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The 5 most exciting AI tools coming to Gmail, Google Docs, Sheets, and more

Google has just announced a huge set of new AI tools that could change the way we use some of its most popular apps, including Gmail, Google Docs and more.

In both an official blog post and video (below) the tech giant revealed several new AI tools that will be coming to its most popular apps. The first ones will initially only come to select group of testers in Gmail and Google Docs, but we've also been given a tantalizing preview of the ones coming to Google Sheets, Google Slides, and Google Meet, too.

The move is most likely to rival competitors in the AI space like Microsoft's ChatGPT-powered Bing and Microsoft 365. Since AI has grown in popularity, Google has been scrambling to match its rivals' moves in the market, going so far as rushing out an announcement of its own Google Bard chatbot, which still isn't open to the public. There was also an underwhelming presentation that even had its own employees rolling their eyes.

Still, the results from what we've seen in this demonstration look far more practical and promising than the AI tools Google has announced so far. They've been integrated into Google Workspace, so users will soon be able to use generative AI in several writing features. For now, only trusted testers will have access to these new tools but after that, they'll be rolled out to all Google users.

So, in no particular order, here are all the best AI tools coming to Google's line of products.

The 5 most useful AI tools coming to Google apps

1. Gmail: instant summaries of long conversations

a screenshot of an AI generated email

(Image credit: Future)

If you've ever opened up your work email only to find an extremely long and confusing email chain, this tool could be for you. This particular AI tool allows you to quickly summarize long email conversations, pulling out the most pertinent information and laying it out in a neat box.

From what we've seen from this demo, it even adds the names of those involved in the conversation, giving the summary even more context and clarity. And it drafts a response based on all the information gathered. Of course, it remains to be seen how accurate this tool will be, as any missing information from said summary could be detrimental to your work.

Most likely, it'll use machine learning to improve its quality of work, which should mean it doesn't skip important information as it's used more often.

2. Gmail and Google Docs: time-saving drafts when you type in a topic

a screenshot of an AI generated summary in google docs

(Image credit: Future)

Out of all the AI tools showcased in Google's presentation, this AI writing and brainstorming feature looks to be the most promising. As demonstrated in the demo, a prompt that states “Help me write” followed by the request “Job post for a regional sales rep” results in an instantly drafted job post.

From there of course the human user would edit and refine the document, but having a draft instantly created saves plenty of time and effort. You can also use the tool to add certain tones to your document depending on the situation, like whimsical or formal.

There's a lot of flexibility in this AI tool, and the fact that it works for both drafting documents and emails should make it even more valuable.

3. Google Slides: AI-generated presentations with imagery

a screenshot of an AI generated images in a presentation

(Image credit: Future)

This is easily the most controversial of the new batch of Google's AI tools. The core of the concept, creating slides for a presentation in Google Slides, is a smart one that could save a lot of time and energy in terms of creating layouts instantly. However, unlike the other tools that use text already written by either you or coworkers, this tool creates images, audio, and video, then inserts it into your presentation.

But where does that media come from? A database gathered by Google's AI of course. But then where does the AI pull the references from to generate this content? That's the problem and something Google will likely need to address.

As it stands, there's been a lot of misuse of this tech to the point of even plagiarism, and it remains to be seen if Google is using a personal database or pulling from the internet to create this content.

4. Google Meet: capture notes through AI

a screenshot of AI generated notes in google meet

(Image credit: Future)

This is another AI feature that could potentially save a lot of time and effort. This tool captures notes from conference calls and other meetings with audio, then takes “notes” of that meeting, summarizing the most important points in an easy-to-parse format.

Judging from the demo, the most impressive part of this note-taking tool is how it organizes the notes, using complex formattings like bullet points, calendar icons to indicate an important date, headings, and more. It not only looks incredibly organized but works at a far faster rate than a human could.

This tool would leave time and energy for everyone to focus on the meeting itself and not need to devote a person to take these notes. Meaning that everyone can participate.

5. Google Sheets: auto-fill data entry with AI

a screenshot of AI generated entries in google sheets

(Image credit: Future)

Data entry can be repetitive and boring at times, or even confusing when dealing with extremely large sets of data. This AI tool would be especially handy in parsing dense amounts of information, then converting that information into data charts.

The demo showed the command “Personalize messages for our client” and then next to each entry created a unique message for each of them, most likely as a mailing list. A task that would take a human a long time to accomplish was done in an instant. 

Of course, a human would have to edit each message to ensure quality, but having the drafts done is an incredibly useful and time-saving first step.

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Zoom expands AI-powered tools for salespeople

As more and more businesses continue to return to offices, Zoom is looking to cement its position as one of the best enterprise apps out there. 

At its recent Work Transformation Summit, the  video conferencing giant unveiled Zoom IQ for Sales, an AI-powered service for salespeople that is able to quickly analyze sales meetings and produce insights. 

Zoom IQ is an add-on for Zoom Meetings and aims to help organisations become more efficient by highlighting important insights that might otherwise be missed. The service is integrated in Zoom (naturally), Salesforce, and other enterprise services. 

A platform for work 

“Zoom is always searching for ways to help our customers elevate their end customers’ experience and Zoom IQ for Sales is the latest development in that journey,” Zoom's Josh Dulberger told TechCrunch

“Zoom IQ for Sales … [can] identify opportunities, assess risks and ultimately enable and improve sales team performance. It uses natural language processing models to process post-meeting transcripts and deal progress data, generating insights for sales reps and managers.”

Zoom IQ for Sales is available now as an add-on for Zoom Meetings customers with the company adding that support for Zoom Phone is also coming soon

While Zoom was an early winner from the pandemic, its fortunes since have been mixed. The company's stock, which rocketed up and to the right in 2020, has come back to earth with a thud. 

After reaching a high of $ 559 in October 2020, Zoom now trades at $ 114, a not unrespectable figure but a far cry from where it has been. 

Efforts like IQ for Sales are Zoom's attempt at expanding its usefulness to organisations beyond purely video calls – and compete with Microsoft Teams.

After being a little slow off the block, Microsoft went into overdrive to build and promote Teams, which seamlessly integrated with the broader Microsoft 365 suite. 

Microsoft's ploy worked: Teams now has over 270 million monthly active users, according to the company, up from around 250 million in July 2021. 

Whether Zoom can catch up remains to be seen, but tools like IQ for Sales are a very good starting point. 

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Windows 11 is getting new Focus tools to boost productivity

Focus Assist has been a tentpole feature in Windows 11, and thanks to a new update, they're improving it further from today (April 5), after Microsoft announcing it at its event, thanks to the introduction of an integrated focus timer.

First introduced in Windows 10, Microsoft’s Focus Assist tools have been a useful ally in the war against notification vying to steal your attention away from work, games, and media.

Working similarly to your phone's alert slider and settings, Focus Assist allows you to filter out some or all of the notifications and alerts that could pop up and steal your attention away from whatever you are meant to be doing, so long as you remember to turn it on in the first place.

Increasing your Focus further

Thankfully that should not be as much of a problem anymore, as Windows 11 will soon be getting an integrated focus timer that is able to schedule dedicated blocks of ‘focus time’ into your schedule based on your calendar and working habits for the week.

Previously this useful Focus tool has only been available to customers of Microsoft’s paid Viva Insights program, which helps users build better working habits, so it is great to see the feature roll out to all users across Windows 11 who want to be more productive.

Currently, users looking to maximize their productivity and get the most out of Focus Assist have had to rely on setting up automatic timers or conditions upon which Focus Assist would activate, such as when a second monitor is connected or when you are playing a game.

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