Snap brings its AR lenses to Chrome through an extension

Back when we were all stuck at home in 2020 and had to stay on video calls all day, some companies tried to liven things up with augmented reality filters and background replacements. Maybe they caused someone, somewhere to smile once or twice. Although it's hard to argue that they lifted most people out of the doom and gloom of the pandemic, the filters by and large stuck around. 

That's not entirely true in Snap's case. The company used to have a desktop camera app that included AR folders, but it killed that last year. Now Snap is bringing its AR lenses to the desktop in a different way — via a Google Chrome extension.

Snapchat Camera for Chrome can enable AR lenses directly on your webcam. You can then use them for video calls, livestreams, video recordings and so on. Unlike the previous desktop app, you will need to sign in with a Snapchat account to use the lenses. You'll be able to employ any custom lenses you create too. 

Bringing the lenses to Chrome will give you a bit more flexibility, but they didn't appear from the desktop entirely. Microsoft Teams started using the filters last year.

AR lenses have long been ingrained in Snapchat's identity. They're one of the major features that helped the app stand out alongside the early selling point of ephemeral visual messages. So it makes sense for Snap to make use of them in as many areas as possible. While the lenses might liven things up a bit when you're on a Discord call with friends, it's hard to imagine anyone having a shooting star effect or a virtual frog headpiece in place during a serious conference call.

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Anker power banks are up to half off ahead of Memorial Day weekend

Many people will be traveling this Memorial Day weekend as the summer unofficially gets underway. It’s important to keep smartphone, tablet and laptop batteries topped up, but you can’t always rely on finding an outlet as you're on the move. So it’s always useful to have a power bank on hand. As luck would have it, Anker’s power banks are on sale for up to 50 percent off. The Anker MagGo Power Bank 10K, for instance, has dropped to $70. That's $20 off the usual price.

This is our pick for the best MagSafe power bank so if you have an iPhone 12 or later, it’s definitely worth considering. It's Qi2 certified, so it can wirelessly charge other supported devices as well, albeit at a slower rate than the 15W speed you'll get on a MagSafe-ready iPhone.

Anker claims the MagGo Power Bank can wirelessly charge an iPhone 15 from zero to 50 percent capacity in 44 minutes. With a 10,000mAh capacity, it can charge an iPhone 15 Pro up to 1.8 times over. It has a built-in stand, so you can prop up your phone to watch videos on a train or plane as it charges. There's also a smart display that'll show you the battery level and remaining usage time of the power bank.

Elsewhere, you can snap up the Anker Prime Power Bank for a record low of $125. That’s $55 less than the usual price. This model has a far larger capacity than the MagSafe offering at 27,650mAh — that's enough to charge a 13-inch, M2-powered MacBook Air 1.28 times or an iPhone 14 around 4.67 times, Anker says.

The power bank has fast charging support for multiple devices at the same time via its dual USB-C and single USB-A port array. Anker claims it can charge a 16-inch M2 Pro MacBook Pro to 50 percent in 28 minutes.

In addition, the Anker Magnetic Power Bank 5K is 50 percent off in this sale, having tumbled to $35. This has a smaller capacity of 5,000mAh (which is good for 0.8 full charges of an iPhone 13) and it doesn't have a screen like the other two models mentioned above. But it's a handy way to keep your phone's battery topped up while you're on the move. It has a built-in kickstand and you can recharge while using it via a USB-C cable.

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A Super Mario 64 mod may be as close as we ever get to Mario Maker 3D

Super Mario Maker and its sequel are terrific games that let fans create and share their own Mario levels with ease. But it was a bit of a disappointment that Nintendo only factored in the 2D Mario games. None of the plumber's 3D incarnations have made it to a Mario Maker title to date. So thank goodness for modders.

A pair of modders named Arthurtilly and Rovertronic have released an open-source Super Mario 64 mod that aims to make it a cinch for players to create and share their own levels. You'll need your own (legally obtained) Mario 64 game file and a separate piece of software to infuse the mod into it. It's even possible to use Mario Builder 64 on a Nintendo 64 if you have a supported flashcart.

You'll have more than 100 parts to build your levels with. The creation tool includes some custom parts from a previous mod, so you have extras like permanent powerups at your disposal. To share your creations and find those made by others, the recommended places to look are a website for Mario level modders and Rovertronic's Discord server.

It'll be interesting to see if ridiculous 3D kaizo-style levels start popping up, while the mod could allow speedrunners to create custom training grounds where they can practice strategies. Personally, I'm hoping for creators to build levels that rely on half-A presses to beat.

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Disney is laying off around 175 Pixar workers as it pulls back on original streaming shows

Pixar is losing around 175 of its workers amid a Disney cost-cutting drive. It was reported as far back as January that layoffs were planned for the digital animation pioneer and the studio's headcount is being reduced by around 14 percent.

According to The Guardian, the downsizing is part of moves to scale back on development of original shows and movies for Disney+ as the company tries to make its streaming division more profitable. As such, Pixar is expected to once again focus entirely on making theatrical feature films.

Although it was once an ultra-reliable hit factory, Pixar has had a rough go of things over the last few years. Disney has suggested it was a mistake to have "trained" viewers to expect that Pixar movies will eventually come to Disney+ (where it debuted Soul, Luca and Turning Red after Covid-19 prompted theater closures). That may have played a role in Toy Story spin-off Lightyear failing to meet box office expectations. While last year’s Elemental became a word-of-mouth hit after a slow start, it ultimately earned far less than many of previous Pixar smashes.

Pixar will be hoping it can start to turn the corner next month when it releases Inside Out 2, the sequel to one of its very best films. Disney’s animated division as a whole is focusing more on franchises — Toy Story, Frozen, Zootopia and Moana sequels are all set to arrive over the next few years.

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Comcast’s bundle of Netflix, Apple TV+ and Peacock Premium costs $15 per month

Comcast didn't wait too long to reveal how much its bundle of Netflix, Apple TV+ and Peacock Premium will cost or when Xfinity users can sign up for it. The StreamSaver bundle, which was announced a week ago, will run you $15 per month and it will be available next week.

You won't quite get the best version of all the services, though. The bundle includes Netflix Basic and Peacock Premium, both of which include ads. That Netflix tier also only supports HD streaming rather than 4K. There's only one tier of Apple TV+ available, and that includes 4K streams.

In any case, the bundle will save you $10 per month compared with signing up for those services separately, given that Peacock Premium will increase by $2 to $8 per month in July. Netflix Basic with ads is $7 per month, while Apple TV+ is $10.

If you're interested in signing up for Now TV (which includes more than 60 linear streaming channels such as AMC and the History Channel), you can also add that to StreamSaver. The cable-esque Now StreamSaver bundle is $30 per month. Now TV alone typically costs $20 per month, though it includes Peacock Premium.

This is the latest instance of streaming rivals coming together to offer their services at a lower price, but Comcast is beating a previously announced bundle of Max, Disney+ and Hulu to the punch. That bundle is set to arrive this summer.

Meanwhile, a package combining sports streaming services from Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery will arrive later this year. The name of the joint venture was recently revealed as Venu Sports.

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Apple is battling a $2 billion EU fine over App Store practices

Apple has formally challenged a €1.8 billion ($1.95 billion) antitrust fine issued by the European Union, according to a report. The bloc handed down the penalty in March after determining that Apple had constrained competing music streaming services on the App Store following a 2019 complaint from Spotify.

At the time, Apple pledged to appeal the decision, arguing that the EU failed to "uncover any credible evidence of consumer harm." Bloomberg reports that Apple has now filed a suit in an attempt to overturn the ruling.

Along with the fine, the EU instructed Apple to stop blocking rival music-streaming platforms from telling users that they could sign up for their services at a lower cost away from the App Store. Spotify claimed it had to increase subscription prices to cover costs related to how Apple runs the App Store. That's despite Spotify not making it possible to upgrade to Premium directly through its iOS app — doing so would mean having to fork over a commission to Apple. For its part, Apple maintains that Spotify doesn't pay it anything, even though the latter taps into its APIs, beta testing tools and more.

Spotify's complaint predated the Digital Markets Act coming into force. That law stops defined gatekeepers — including Apple and Play Store operator Google — banning developers from telling users about cheaper ways to pay for their products outside of their app marketplaces. The EU is currently investigating both companies over their compliance with that aspect of the law.

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The 10th-gen iPad drops to its lowest price ever

Some fancy new iPads have just hit store shelves and while we reckon the latest iPad Air is the best option for most folks, there’s an entry-level Apple tablet that will check a lot of people’s boxes. And best of all, the 10th-gen iPad is cheaper than ever. The tablet has dropped to $329 for the blue model with 64GB of storage, bringing it to its lowest price to date. Apple gave the 10th-gen iPad a permanent $100 price cut to $349 earlier this month. The latest sale takes another $20 off.

This model is our pick for the best budget iPad. Although it's nearly two years old at this point, the combination of price and functionality makes it an attractive option.

The 10.9-inch tablet will run for up to 10 hours on a single charge and it has a USB-C port and Touch ID sensor. The selfie camera is along the horizontal edge, which makes video chats a little less awkward for those who prefer a landscape orientation.

There are, of course, some trade offs compared with higher-end iPads. The latest iPad Air and iPad Pro are far more powerful than this model. They have nicer displays too. Furthermore, the 10th-gen iPad doesn't support the new Apple Pencil Pro or Wi-Fi 6E — just the first-gen and USB-C Pencils and the notably slower Wi-Fi 6.

But if all you’re looking for is a relatively inexpensive tablet for basic tasks like browsing the web, answering emails, watching TV shows and playing some games, the base iPad will capably fit the bill.

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Microsoft Surface and Copilot Event: Everything announced including new Surface laptops, Copilot+ PC and more

Microsoft just couldn't wait until its Build developer conference properly starts tomorrow to drop some knowledge bombs. The company held a pre-Build event on Monday that wasn't livestreamed for the public, but it made some major announcements on the AI and Surface fronts.

Its vision for so-called AI PCs is taking shape with Copilot+ PCs, which are designed to run many generative AI processes locally instead of in the cloud. Along with its own Surface systems that will adopt this format, several other manufacturers are making Copilot+ PCs too. Microsoft also detailed some of the upcoming AI features for Windows 11.

The big news coming out of this event is Microsoft's vision for AI-centric PCs. Microsoft's take on this is the Copilot+ PC. 

To qualify as a Copilot+ PC, a system will need to have neural processing unit (NPU) performance of at least 40 TOPs (trillions of operations per second) and have 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage at minimum. This is so the PC can run generative AI processes locally rather than via the cloud. That's a strategy we've seen in some recent flagship smartphones, such as Google Pixel devices.

Microsoft says it has completely reimagined the Windows PC to run on a new infrastructure that combines the CPU, GPU and NPU. It's working with several partners to make this happen, including chipmakers AMD, Intel and Qualcomm as well as laptop manufacturers.

The company claims Copilot+ PCs are 58 percent faster than the M3-powered MacBook Air. The systems will be able to run dozens of multi-modal small language models locally, which will power features like a new standalone Copilot app. 

Microsoft unveiled new business-focused Surface devices a couple of months ago and now the latest consumer models are just about here. Of course, these are among the first Copilot+ PCs.

The new Surface Laptop has thinner bezels and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite chipset. It comes in 13.8-inch and 15-inch sizes. Microsoft says it's over 86 percent faster than the last-gen Surface Laptop 5 and comes with up to 32GB of RAM and up to 1TB of SSD storage. 

The switch to Arm architecture should help make the laptop more power efficient. Microsoft claims the 15-inch model will run for up to 22 hours on a single charge while playing videos locally and up to 15 hours while actively browsing the web. The Surface Laptop starts at $999 and will ship on June 18.

Meanwhile, the Surface Pro will have a snazzy OLED display option for the first time. It's said to be 90 percent faster than the previous generation and you seemingly get up to 14 hours of local video playback on a single charge. Sadly, the only ports you'll get are two USB-C ones.

A version with an LCD screen starts at $1,000 and it comes with a Snapdragon X Plus chip, 256GB of storage and 16GB of RAM. If you want the OLED display, pricing starts at $1,500. Bear in mind that if you want a physical keyboard, you'll need to buy that separately. The new Flex Keyboard costs $350, or $450 if you want to bundle in a Surface Pen.

We've had some brief hands-on time with the Surface Pro as well.

Third-party OEMs are joining the Copilot+ party. Samsung, ASUS, Lenovo, Acer and Dell are among those who've already revealed their first models.

HP has a couple too in the form of the Omnibook X and the Elitebook Ultra, and we've already had the chance to go hands-on with the former. The company is also taking the opportunity to rebrand its systems under a single label called Omni, so say goodbye to Spectre, Pavilion and Envy.

While some of the snazzy new Windows 11 features (which we'll get to in a moment) weren't available to check out in our initial time with it, we felt like HP had taken a small step backward in terms of design aesthetics. Although it has a headphone jack, the dual USB-C and single USB-A port setup may not be enough for your needs. Meanwhile, the Omnibook X runs on a Snapdragon X Elite and HP claims it can run for up to 26 hours on a single charge while playing local video. 

The Omnibook X starts at $1,200 for a model with 1TB of storage. The Elitebook Ultra will run you at least $1,700. Both will ship on June 18.

Since Qualcomm's chips use the Arm architecture, that of course means Microsoft is doubling down on Arm-based Windows 11. The advantages of Qualcomm's chips are clear — they by and large offer improvements in terms of efficiency, cost and battery life. 

But Microsoft's previous attempts at getting Arm-based Windows to thrive haven't panned out. We had major concerns about the Arm-powered Surface Pro 9 back in 2022, so much so that we couldn't in good conscience recommend it. Microsoft has had a couple of years since then, so maybe it has finally figured out how to make the most of Arm.

To that end, Microsoft has redesigned Windows 11 with AI and Arm in mind. AI APIs are now built directly into the operating system. Windows 11 is getting a new kernel and compiler, as well as an emulator called Prism to run x86 and x64 apps. Prism is said to be 20 percent faster than Microsoft's previous emulator. 

As for apps that'll run natively on Arm-based Windows 11 after Copilot+ PCs start shipping next month, of course all of Microsoft's core software is included. Third-party apps including Chrome, Spotify, Zoom, WhatsApp, Blender, Affinity Suite, DaVinci Resolve and many of Adobe's will run natively on Arm too.

Sample of Microsoft’s Recall feature, showing a timeline of recent activity on a PC.

So, with all that said, what exactly can you do with these fancy new machines?

A tentpole feature of Copilot+ PCs is called Recall, which is a bit like a supercharged version of Timeline from Windows 10. The idea is to help you find something you've engaged with on your PC at some point in the past using natural language prompts. So, if you can't remember many details about a nifty patterned sweater you saw on the web months ago and now wonder if you might want to buy it, you can describe the item using text inputs or your voice and Recall can hunt for it. 

The tool can also tap into your emails, documents and chat threads to find the information you're looking for. Microsoft says the data Recall looks at will stay on your device and not be used to train its AI models. 

Microsoft is jazzing up Copilot too with a redesigned app that you can leave as a sidebar, turn into a standalone window or view fullscreen. You'll be able to drag items into it from elsewhere in Windows, so if you want to ask it about something you read in a Word doc, you can simply plop that in. 

Cocreator has been around for a while in a limited capacity, but now Microsoft is infusing that feature into Microsoft Paint for everyone. The image generation tool is getting some new options too, including a grimace-inducing creativity slider, because we all know that's how the creative process works. Sigh. Anyway, this will let you determine just how much you want AI to adjust your original work. 

Elsewhere, it's claimed that Live Captions will be able to translate dozens of languages into English in real-time, no matter whether the video is live or pre-recorded. Restoring old images in Windows Photos may be a cinch thanks to an option called Super Resolution. 

Lastly for now, (because there will surely be more Copilot+ features on the way), Microsoft has revealed its own upscaling tech for games. As with similar solutions like NVIDIA's DLSS, Auto Super Resolution taps into AI and aims to upscaled graphics and boost refresh rates without diminishing performance.

Catch up on all the news from Microsoft's Copilot AI and Surface event today!

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Microsoft unveils Copilot+ PCs with generative AI capabilities baked in

We’ve been hearing rumblings for months now that Microsoft was working on so-called “AI PCs.” At a pre-Build event, the company spelled out its vision.

Microsoft is calling its version Copilot+ PCs, which CEO Satya Nadella described as a "new class of Windows PCs." These contain hardware designed to handle more generative AI Copilot processes locally, rather than relying on the cloud. Doing so requires a chipset with a neural processing unit (NPU), and manufacturers such as Qualcomm have been laying the groundwork with chips like the Snapdragon X Elite

Microsoft is taking a partner-first approach to making Copilot+ PCs. Along with chipmakers like AMD, Intel and Qualcomm, major OEMs including Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP and Lenovo are on board. The first Copilot+ laptops are available to preorder today and they'll ship on June 18. Prices start at $999.

Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft EVP and Consumer Chief Marketing Officer, said during the event that the company has completely reimagined what a Windows PC is. He claimed that Copilot+ PCs are the most powerful PCs ever (we'll need to see if that assertion holds up in real-world testing). Despite that, Mehdi said, the first generation of laptops are "unbelievably thin, light and beautiful." 

Other AI PCs on the market deliver 10 TOPs (tera operations per second). To be dubbed a Copilot+ PC, a system will need to deliver at least 40 TOPs of NPU performance and have at least 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Qualcomm claims the Snapdragon X Elite delivers up to 75 TOPs overall. But the pure specs matter less than what Microsoft is able to actually do with the hardware.

Mehdi also suggested Copilot+ PCs are 58 percent faster than M3-powered MacBook Airs (though it's worth noting Apple has more powerful M3 chips in its laptops already and M4 chips on the way very soon). The company suggested that Copilot+ laptops will offer up to 22 hours of battery life while playing videos locally and up to 15 hours while browsing the web.

To help make all of this happen, the Windows Copilot Runtime has more than 40 AI models that are part of a new Windows 11 layer. They're said to be deeply integrated into Windows to help them more efficiently access hardware and to power more robust privacy and security options. The models can work across any app, Microsoft says.

As far as the Windows features go, one aspect of Copilot+ PCs is something that's been rumored for a while. It’s called Recall, and you can think of it as a more advanced version of the Timeline feature from Windows 10. You'll be able to use natural language prompts to get your PC to resurface information based on what you remember about it. You'll be able to scroll through apps, documents and messages on an explorable timeline.

According to Mehdi, Microsoft built Recall with responsible AI standards in mind. Data from it will stay on your PC and it won't be used to train Microsoft's AI models.

Additionally, you'll be able to restore old snaps in Windows Photos using a tool called Super Resolution. In addition, the app will offer an option to tell a story based on your photos with the help of an AI narrator. Live Captions, meanwhile, will offer real-time captioning and translations into English from more than 40 languages (with more to come) from both live and pre-recorded video.

Microsoft now has its own upscaling tech (akin to NVIDIA's DLSS) for games too. It's called Auto Super Resolution and it's said to use AI to upscale the resolution of graphics and improve refresh rates in real-time without impacting performance.

There’s also a new Copilot app that you can use as a standalone window, sidebar or in full screen. You’ll be able to drag and drop elements into Copilot from elsewhere in Windows. Thanks to the new Copilot key on keyboards, you’ll be able to fire up the app with the touch of a physical button. Copilot will eventually be able to let you adjust Windows settings too.

Given that Qualcomm uses Arm architecture, it's perhaps little surprise that Microsoft has rebuilt Windows 11 for Arm-based chips. Microsoft has been trying to make Arm-based Windows PCs a thing for some time, with mixed results. We had major reservations about the Arm-powered Surface Pro 9 a couple of years ago. But perhaps the company has finally cracked that nut this time around. 

To help with that, Microsoft has developed an emulator called Prism that is said to be as efficient as Apple's Rosetta 2. The aim is to help users run legacy x86/x64 apps without a hitch. Major apps such as Zoom, Chrome, Spotify and Photoshop will run natively on Arm-based Windows.

The Copilot+ PC is the natural progression of something we've seen in flagship Android phones over the last couple of years. The most recent Google Pixel devices, for instance, handle many generative AI processes on-device by tapping into the power of the company's Tensor chips.

Meanwhile, Apple is largely expected to move into the generative AI space in a major way at its Worldwide Developers Conference next month. The M4 chip that recently debuted in the new iPad Pro is said to be capable of powering GAI experiences and that chipset should be coming to Macs later this year. Apple's also said to be working on a deal with OpenAI, perhaps to bring its generative AI tech to Siri.

Catch up on all the news from the Microsoft Surface and AI event right here!

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RIP ChatGPT’s knockoff Scarlett Johansson voice [2023 — 2024]

When OpenAI showed off GPT-4o's seemingly more-human like voice mode last week, observers were quick to point out that one of ChatGPT's voices sounds like Scarlett Johansson, particularly her character in Her. The company says the similarity between the flirty AI voice Sky (which it actually rolled out in September) and Johansson was unintentional. However, it's "working to pause the use of Sky" while it addresses some questions about the voice.

"We believe that AI voices should not deliberately mimic a celebrity's distinctive voice — Sky’s voice is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her own natural speaking voice," OpenAI wrote in a blog post detailing how it picked ChatGPT's five voices. "To protect their privacy, we cannot share the names of our voice talents." It added that each of the performers is paid "above top-of-market rates, and this will continue for as long as their voices are used in our products."

For what it's worth, shortly after OpenAI demoed the upgraded version of Sky, CEO Sam Altman posted the word "her" on X. But it's definitely "not an imitation." 

Johansson's performance in Her is one of the more famous depictions of a virtual voice assistant in cinema. The film predated the conversational AI craze by around a decade, so it's not too much of a surprise that Johansson's portrayal of a breezy, warm chatbot is effectively a template for current voice assistants. The actor previously took legal action against a developer that was said to have used an AI-generated version of her voice and likeness in an ad.

It's unclear why exactly OpenAI removed Sky for the time being or what changes (if any) it plans to make before restoring the voice in ChatGPT. Engadget has asked the company for comment.

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