All posts in “Microsoft”

Best laptop and tablet deals this week: Save on Apple iPads, plus laptops from HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Apple, and more

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.
Save on laptops and tablets this week.
Save on laptops and tablets this week.

Image: Mashable Photo Composite

It’s Monday, which means it’s back to the grind for everyone. Whether you’re locked in the office or running from class to class, it’s going to be another busy week. It’ll be even longer if you don’t have a laptop or tablet to help handle your work load. Thankfully, there are plenty of deals this week courtesy of Walmart, Amazon, and beyond.

If you prefer 2-in-1 laptops, take your pick from the Microsoft Surfaces available, like the Microsoft Surface Book for $1430 or Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for $1910.

There’s the Lenovo Ideapad 320 for $289 if you’re concerned about price and need something simple and reliable. On the other end, there’s the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon for $1895.71 if you need a powerhouse that can handle it all. Then there are models in between, like the Lenovo ThinkPad 15.6-inch E580 for $545.49 or Lenovo IdeaPad 15 Y700 for $779.99 that can be tailored to whatever your needs may be.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on sales this week. There are plenty of deals for laptops from Dell, HP, Acer, and more to choose from, plus lots of great tablets on sale too.

Here are some of the best deals of the week:

Tablets on sale

Get an iPad on sale from Amazon.

Get an iPad on sale from Amazon.

Image: Apple

Laptops $499 and below

Image: Lenovo

Laptops $500 and $999

Image: Google

Laptops for $1000 and beyond

Image: Dell

Best weekend laptop and tablet deals: Save on MacBook Pro, Dell, iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tabs, and more

Just to let you know, if you buy something featured here, Mashable might earn an affiliate commission.
Get the 2017 MacBook Pro for $400 off? (Plus a $150 gift card?) Um, yes please.
Get the 2017 MacBook Pro for $400 off? (Plus a $150 gift card?) Um, yes please.

Image: Lili Sams / Mashable

It’s official: Fall has arrived. It’s time to watch the leaves change and start breaking out all the wool clothes you own. But if you’re looking for something else to keep you warm — like a new laptop or tablet in your lap — don’t worry, there are plenty of sales to jump on thanks to Amazon, Walmart, and beyond.

Die hard Apple fan? Save a whopping $400 on the 2017 MacBook Pro at the PC Mag shop (plus get a gift card worth $150 to spend at the shop) with code SAVE5. (This is not a drill.)

For the Android fans out there, you’ll find plenty of deals on Samsung tablets from both outlets. On the smaller end, the Samsung Galaxy Tab E Lite 7-inch 8GB Tablet is currently available for $77.99. But if you’d prefer something a little bigger and more powerful, there’s the Samsung Galaxy Tab-A, Black, 10.1-inch for $209.93.

Of course Dell would have plenty to offer as well. First, you have the Dell Business Laptop PC for $399.30, perfect for the professionals out there who need something simple and reliable for the office. Or there’s the Dell XPS 13 9360 for $849, which is a nice discount on one of Dell’s flagship models. And for the more gaming inclined, there’s the Alienware 15 Gaming Laptop for $1049.99. Alienware has served as Dell’s gaming arm for years, and is easily one of the most recognized names in the space.

If flexibility is what you need, there are plenty of 2-in-1 options to pick from this weekend, too. The Acer Chromebook R 13 Convertible is $329.99 and offers the full benefits of a Chromebook with the design flexibility some jobs might require. On the other end of the spectrum is Microsoft’s Surface line. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is $1910 this weekend and backs up the 2-in-1 design with more than enough power to handle any and all demands.

And those are just a handful of the deals available this weekend. Check out the best of the rest below:

Tablets on sale

Image: Samsung

Image: Apple

Laptops for $499 and below

Image: Acer

Laptops for $500 to $999

Image: Dell

Laptops for $1000 and beyond

Save $400 on the 2017 MacBook Pro — yes, the one with the Touch Bar.

Save $400 on the 2017 MacBook Pro — yes, the one with the Touch Bar.

Image: Lili Sams / Mashable

How Magic Leap compares to Microsoft HoloLens

I first tried out Microsoft HoloLens a few years ago, a few months before its launch as a developer tool, and came away with similar impressions that many tech journalists had at the time: the tech was intriguing and impressive in some ways, but its limited field of view diminished the experience considerably.

I’ve used HoloLens a few times since then at demos and events, and although there have been improvements, they haven’t changed fundamental experience — or its limitations.

Magic Leap, which launched its developer hardware in August, provoked similar reactions. Although the product is different from HoloLens in many ways — it’s more steampunk goggles than futuristic visor, and you need to carry around a small hockey-puck computer to make it work — most people who had hands-on time with the device had similar observations: Here was a very promising augmented-reality experience that also suffers from field-of-view limitations and a lack of compelling software (although the latter criticism may have changed on Wednesday, with the release of a Magic Leap version of Angry Birds).

But if you were to conclude from those general impressions that the two devices provide near-identical experiences, you’d be mistaken. There are clear differences between the two, rooted in each company’s approach to augmented reality, the specific problems they’re trying to solve, and even the respective company cultures. Magic Leap also had the benefit of being able to act after HoloLens, learning from early criticisms of that device.

I recently got a chance not just to try out Magic Leap and HoloLens, but to do so back to back — a rare treat for expensive developer hardware made by competing companies. Thanks to a gathering of virtual- and augmented-reality storytellers arranged by StoryUp, a startup that helps produce immersive content, and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, I was able to use both products extensively. The exposure to both headsets in the same time and place gave me strong impressions of what each product is — and isn’t — good at.

Leaps and Lenses

This was my first exposure to the Magic Leap One. Most AR/VR headsets require a certain amount of precision when putting them on, but that goes double for Magic Leap since it requires that you carry around the tiny computer, called a Lightpack, that powers the experience. That means you have to remember to sling it around your shoulder before donning the goggles. You also need to make sure the supports in back are more on the top of your head than lower on your skull, which is a bit counterintuitive.

Magic Leap is more of a chore to put on than HoloLens, but it's slightly more comfortable to actually wear.

Magic Leap is more of a chore to put on than HoloLens, but it’s slightly more comfortable to actually wear.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

HoloLens isn’t much better in this department, but it’s better. Microsoft’s headset is a single, standalone unit, so there’s no purse computer. However, it’s also a bit weird in how it fits on your head: The visor connects to a headband via a hinge, and you’re often left wondering if you’ve put it on right once you’ve slipped it on and raised the visor back up. Still, I prefer Microsoft’s crank for tightening the headset on your head to Magic Leap’s traditional straps, but will admit the crank might feel weird for novice users.

Where Magic Leap surprised me the most was its field of view. Yes, it’s limited — the virtual images are confined to a rectangular zone right in front of you – but it’s not nearly as limited as HoloLens. There’s no official spec for field of view, but some have pegged the vertical FoV at almost double that of HoloLens. 

Smart hardware and software choices help, too. My first experience with Magic Leap was a demo “world,” where various patterns that resemble marine life appeared all around me, changing seemingly at random. When I reached out to touch the images, they’d react in different ways: seaweed-like tendrils would bend to my hand movements, and a jellyfish-like ball would rapidly spin and implode when I tried to grab it.

Magic Leap was more effective at immersing you with virtual objects than HoloLens, thanks mainly to its better field of view.

Magic Leap was more effective at immersing you with virtual objects than HoloLens, thanks mainly to its better field of view.

Image: Sarah Hill/Mashable

Magic Leap’s goggles do appear to cut off more peripheral vision than HoloLens. While that sounds bad, it also means the ratio of non-augmented space to augmented space in your gaze goes up, so naturally it feels more immersive. Whatever the reason, I was not immediately struck, and subsequently frustrated, by how limited the “magic” window was on Magic Leap.

By contrast, HoloLens keeps reminding you of what you’re missing. After putting on the $3,000 headset, I took a look around the kitchen I was standing in and saw it was populated with several holograms, including very precise renderings of ballerinas, weightlifters, and breakdancers. But as I moved my head to check them out, parts of the holograms would get cut off as they moved out of the holographic part of the display.

This is the most annoying thing about HoloLens. When something interests you visually, you have a natural inclination to move closer so you can see it better. But instead of rewarding you, HoloLens’ limited field of view will cut off parts of the object you’re looking at, preventing you from taking it in fully. The closer you get, the more it takes you out of the experience.

A winner materializes

I didn’t experience the same level of frustration with Magic Leap. The software is a big part of this; most of the virtual objects I interacted with weren’t particularly large, so there was less chance of them being cut off.

The objects also tended to have a more ethereal quality to them, which does a lot to manage expectations: it’s less weird to see something ghostly start to disappear. By contrast, Microsoft’s very solid-looking holograms always looked strange when heads, feet, or arms were cut off.

That said, I have to concede realistic holograms are more of a point for Microsoft than against. The goal of HoloLens is to mix virtual objects with the real world, but in a way where the viewer sees and treats those objects as if they were real. And it succeeds: The holograms are almost always crisp and clear to the eye. I tried a couple of different apps on Magic Leap, but the virtual objects never felt quite as present.

So yes, HoloLens has a certain rigidity that the Magic Leap didn’t match, but it wasn’t always an advantage. The hand gestures that you use to manipulate the holograms need to be very precise, and those interactions often call up icons and menus in 3D space. In general, it feels like the experience was designed by engineers — it seems Microsoft can’t help but be Microsoft, even when it’s innovating.

I found using Magic Leap to be a much more natural experience. The only menu I really used was the main one that you call up with the remote. Otherwise I mostly just used my hands to goof around with things, walking through virtual environments, like a volcano-ravaged Guatemalan village in an AR experience created by The New York Times. At one point the headset got confused when it couldn’t figure out exactly where I went in the room when I moved from an open area to a tight space, but mostly it did a better job of creating an AR-enhanced environment than HoloLens.

Back in HoloLens

Back in HoloLens

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

If you’re getting the sense there’s a winner here, you’re right. Again, Magic Leap had the advantage of taking its time — thanks in part to an absurd amount of venture funding — and addressing early concerns of AR, so it’s not an even playing field. But there are also some some fundamental differences in approach that help, too.

With its traditional dialog boxes, desktop-like iconography, and need for precise gestures, HoloLens feels much more like a developer tool. Microsoft has told a confusing story around HoloLens — at various points in its lifetime it’s been touted as a consumer, gaming, and enterprise device – which has led to some paralysis in the experience. Without a software experience to walk you through things, it’s not intuitive to use.

Magic Leap, on the other hand, feels like a level up. The graphics don’t look better, but, using it immediately after HoloLens, I felt like an artist who’d just been given a slightly bigger canvas and a much better paintbrush. Both platforms still need a killer app to make them worthwhile, but at least with Magic Leap you’re thinking more about what you can see and do than what you can’t.

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Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, Javascript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”