How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products

It can feel like photography is a money vortex and unless you have an unlimited amount, many types and styles of photography may seem out of reach. We’re here to tell you that you can create your own tabletop photography setup on a budget and still create some amazing food and product photography.

tabletop photography setup
The white paper in this setup is used to help bounce light back ono the products as the window (the main light source) is at camera left.

All you need is a trip to your local dollar store and craft store, and you’ll have a set up ready to go that won’t break the bank. It will also let you create the images your clients will love.

What is a tabletop photography setup?

A tabletop photography setup is generally used to photograph products and food for commercial or marketing services.

tabletop photography setup
1/20 sec; f/3.2; ISO 1600 using a 50mm lens. The product is the coffee mug and to get this shot I used a table I already had, a bright window to camera right, and notebooks to give it more height.

In recent years, tabletop photography setups have moved away from the Lightbox and toward more authentic setups thanks to social media.

The basic tabletop photography setup is a table, backgrounds, tabletop backgrounds, and nice light source that you can use to light your products and food.

What you need for a basic setup

A tabletop photography setup doesn’t have to be complex or involve a lot of materials. You can have a simple setup that offers you a variety of backgrounds, looks, and setups all in the same spot, at the same table.

tabletop photography setups
There is a big window to camera left and here we can see the basic setup with kraft paper and white paper taped to the wall.

You’ll need:

  • a table or any stable surface to place items onto of
  • a few backgrounds like a white paper, kraft paper, black paper, foam boards, different types of fabric and textures
  • depending on your products/food you’ll need some stands, dishes, and plates, or other styling items
  • tape
  • a large window for window light
  • clips or clamps to hold things down
  • a tripod for max aperture and depth of field to avoid camera shake.
tabletop photography setup
1/10 sec; f/14; ISO 400 using a 50mm lens.

This basic setup will help you to create your tabletop photography setup without the need to be in a big space or rent a studio. It will also keep costs down.

Get creative with backgrounds

While a table, solid plain wall and a good light source are the basic set up, it can often get boring. As you get more clients, you’ll want to have different setups to help you get more interesting photos.

tabletop photography setup
These were just a few of the backgrounds and items we had for styling. We didn’t use all of them but get creative with what you already have in your home.

A quick trip to the dollar store can help keep costs down. You can get items that can give your tabletop the right look and style for the product that you’re photographing.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
1/15 sec; f/11; ISO 400 using a 50mm lens. You can see the window in the reflection of the watch.
How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
Here is a behind the scenes shot of the watch. Using a lace dress for the background made for a moodier photo.

Choose different patterns for backgrounds, like this shower curtain I used to give the tabletop photography setup more of a marble texture and style. The watch stands out against the colors and pattern and creates a more interesting effect.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
1/10 sec; f/14; ISO 400 using a 50mm lens. I took photo using a shower curtain and big sliding glass doors as the main light source. Both watch photos were taken minutes apart at the same table and distance from the window.

Different placemats work really well as backgrounds and tabletops for food photography as well as product photography. Letting you change the tabletop photography setup without having to directly paint or change your table.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
Here we used a placemat and bowl from the dollar store and a kitchen towel already owned.

Posterboard can be really useful in creating a faux cyclorama wall for products giving the illusion of a seamless background. Taping fabric to the wall also works to help keep the backgrounds in place and creates seamless backgrounds.

Placemats of various textures and prints can also be perfect for food photography and work in many different settings for products as well.

tabletop photography setup
1/20 sec; f/8; ISO 400

Kitchen towels can also serve as props for your food styling as well as backgrounds.

Find the light

The biggest concern is getting enough light and that is what a big window is for.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
1/200 sec; f/2.2; ISO 200. For this image, I used an external flash (580EXII) pointed at the ceiling for added light. If you have a flash, you can use it off-camera to create images with more pop.

If you don’t get lots of light in your home, go outside! Take your tabletop setup out onto your patio or yard. Find some good indirect shaded light to work in.

tabletop photography setup
1/20 sec; f/5.6; ISO 400. Using a plastic dollar store plate and the wood textured placemat as a background, this photo has a different feel. We even get a little reflection on the plate. The light source is a big window at camera left.

The idea is to create an evenly-lit tabletop setup so that you’re able to set your camera to the correct settings and get the look you want.

Having enough light to work with, lets you take away light with flags or create shadows with different items. You’re also able to get different exposures to your products or food.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
Both of these images are shot at different times of the day with the window at opposite sides of the camera. The photo on the left has the window to camera-right, and was shot later in the day with twinkling Christmas lights behind. The photo on the right was shot with the window at camera-left during the morning.

Different times of day can give different types of lighting for your tabletop photography setup too. Take advantage of the lighting changes and experiment to see what light is best for the items you’re photographing.

tabletop photography setup
This photo was created a bit darker on purpose to create a more cozy effect and to capture the twinkle lights. Taken in the same location as the bowl photo above with the window to camera left. Settings are 1/20 sec; f/6.3; ISO 400.

Using available ambient light can really help keep costs down while doing tabletop photography and can offer lots of different types of lighting.

Don’t limit yourself to a table

With a lifestyle component, you can take your tabletop photography setup on the go. Take your backgrounds, fabrics, and styling items to different locations to get different types of photographs.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
Taken outside under a covered area with bright sunlight behind the camera. I used a found bark branch to style the product. Settings are 1/400 sec; f/3.5; ISO 400.

You can photograph in a park, trail, cafe, or in front of an interesting wall in your neighborhood.

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
Taken on my sofa with settings as 1/500 sec; f1.8; ISO 400. The window is at camera-right.

Using your creative eye, you can photograph food and product photography just about anywhere that will save you money, while also giving you amazing results.

In conclusion

How to Create a Budget Tabletop Photography Setup for Shooting Food and Products
I created this on location at the restaurant where the food was photographed. It used ambient light ,which was a combination of window light and overhead daylight lamps. I adjusted the white balance to suit. f/160 sec; f2.0; ISO 400.

As you can see, creating a tabletop photography setup doesn’t have to mean spending loads on lighting, space, styling equipment or backgrounds. With a trip to your local dollar store and craft store, you can create stunning product and food photography for a fraction of the price.

tabletop photography setup
Aluminum foil and other kitchen supplies can work great to create a background that is interesting and fun. Settings are 1/20 sec; f/5.6; ISO 400 with window to camera left.

Your clients will love their photos and you will have a setup that you can use anywhere!

Do you have any other tips for creating a tabletop photography setup? Share with us in the comments section.

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Security lapse exposed Republican voter firm’s internal app code – TechCrunch

A voter contact and canvassing company, used exclusively by Republican political campaigns, mistakenly left an unprotected copy of its app’s code on its website for anyone to find.

The company, Campaign Sidekick, helps Republican campaigns canvas its districts using iOS and Android apps, which pull in names and addresses from voter registration rolls. Campaign Sidekick says it has helped campaigns in Arizona, Montana, and Ohio and contributed to the Brian Kemp campaign, which saw him narrowly win against Democratic rival Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

For the past two decades, political campaigns have ramped up their use of data to identify swing voters. This growing political data business has opened up a whole economy of startups and tech companies using data to help campaigns better understand their electorate. But that has led to voter records spilling out of unprotected servers and other privacy-related controversies — like the case of Cambridge Analytica obtaining private data from social media sites.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, said he found the cache of Campaign Sidekick’s code by chance.

In his review of the code, Vickery found several instances of credentials and other app-related secrets, he said in a blog post on Monday, which he shared exclusively with TechCrunch. These secrets, such as keys and tokens, can typically be used to gain access to systems or data without a username or password. But Vickery did not test the password as doing so would be unlawful. Vickery also found a sampling of personally identifiable information, he said, amounting to dozens of spreadsheets packed with voter names and addresses.

Fearing the exposed credentials could be abused if accessed by a malicious actor, Vickery informed the company of the issue in mid-February. Campaign Sidekick quickly pulled the exposed cache of code offline.

One of the Campaign Sidekick mockups, using dummy data, collates a voter’s data in one place. (Image: supplied)

One of the screenshots provided by Vickery showed a mockup of a voter profile compiled by the app, containing basic information about the voter and their past voting and donor history, which can be obtained from public and voter records. The mockup also lists the voter’s “friends.”

Vickery told TechCrunch he found “clear evidence” that the app’s code was designed to pull in data from its now-defunct Facebook app, which allowed users to sign-in and pull their list of friends — a feature that was supported by Facebook at the time until limits were put on third-party developers’ access to friends’ data.

“There is clear evidence that Campaign Sidekick and related entities had and have used access to Facebook user data and APIs to query that data,” Vickery said.

Drew Ryun, founder of Campaign Sidekick, told TechCrunch that its Facebook project was from eight years prior, that Facebook had since deprecated access to developers, and that the screenshot was a “digital artifact of a mockup.” (TechCrunch confirmed that the data in the mockup did not match public records.)

Ryun said after he learned of the exposed data the company “immediately changed sensitive credentials for our current systems,” but that the credentials in the exposed code could have been used to access its databases storing user and voter data.

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Zoom to iPhone users: We’re no longer sending your data to Facebook

The iOS version of popular remote-working video app Zoom has been updated to remove the code that was sending user data to Facebook. 

The update comes in response to a Motherboard analysis that found the Zoom iOS app was sending some analytics data to Facebook’s Graph application programming interface (API), even from Zoom users who don’t have a Facebook account. The video-conferencing company also failed to mention this type of data transfer in its privacy policy. 


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Zoom on Friday released an updated version of its iOS app after removing the Facebook software development kit (SDK) it had used to implement the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature that was transferring device data to Facebook’s Graph API. 

Data that was being transferred included the operating system type and version, IP address, the iOS Advertiser ID, the device time zone and language, the device model and carrier, screen size, processor cores, and disk space. 

SEE: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

However, it did not include information about meetings, such as names of participants or notes, according to Zoom. 

“Our customers’ privacy is incredibly important to us, and therefore we decided to remove the Facebook SDK in our iOS client and have reconfigured the feature so that users will still be able to log in with Facebook via their browser,” wrote Zoom founder Eric Yuan in a blogpost.

He said the SDK was “collecting device information unnecessary for us to provide our services.”

“We sincerely apologize for the concern this has caused, and remain firmly committed to the protection of our users’ privacy. We are reviewing our process and protocols for implementing these features in the future to ensure this does not happen again,” he added. 

The company was called out last year over security issues caused by the way it implemented a bypass to Apple Safari restrictions on Macs. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Zoom has become a popular tool for millions of people working from home amid the global coronavirus pandemic

The company last week issued guidance for users who want to prevent strangers gate-crashing Zoom events. Some users weren’t aware that publicly sharing a meeting link online allows anyone else with the link to join the event.  

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Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post – TechCrunch

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

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Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post – TechCrunch

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

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Los Angeles-based challenger bank HMBradley officially opens its virtual doors – TechCrunch

The Los Angeles-based digital challenger bank, HMBradley, opened its virtual doors to the public today, allowing the thousands of waitlisted would-be users to set up direct deposits and collect their sign-up bonuses.

The company is offering banking customers an up to 3% return on their savings based on the percentage they save of their quarterly deposits.

HMBradley also set up a new feature which allows users to save towards specific goals.

Backed by PayPal founder Max Levchin’s HVF Labs, along with Walkabout Ventures, Mucker Capital, Index Ventures, and Accomplice, to the tune of $3.5 million, HMBradley was designed to benefit savers, the company said.

Account holders with balances up to $100,000 can receive up to 3% annual percentage yields on their accounts. These account holders qualify by receiving one direct deposit and saving at least 5% of the total amount deposited in an account monthly.

HMBradley accounts are held through Hatch Bank, which is FDIC insured.

To qualify for the 3 percent rate, customers need to save over 20 percent of their income, account holders who save between 15 percent and 20 percent receive 2 percent of their cash per year, and those saving less than 15 percent but more than ten percent receive a 1 percent APY.

“We want to empower and protect every consumer financially to show them that a bank can be on their side, regardless of how much money they make,” said Zach Bruhnke, co-founder and CEO of HMBradley, in a statement.

Account holders have access to 55,000 fee-free ATMs around the country, mobile check deposit and around-the-clock support, the company said.

The company’s MasterCard comes with all of the standard features including zero liability protection and an ability to set up travel, fraud alerts, and cancel cards all through an online portal, the company said.

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Despite pandemic, gaming is well-positioned to withstand recession – TechCrunch

Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have led to a global economic downturn, but the gaming industry is booming.

With hundreds of millions of people sequestered in their homes, game usage has spiked. And while the economic repercussions will persist after people cease physical distancing, gaming is positioned to fare well during a recession.

Video game usage increased 75% during peak hours

Video game usage during peak hours increased 75% in the first week many Americans began staying home, according to Verizon data. Game distribution platform Steam set a record for peak concurrent users (more than 20 million) on March 16 without any notable new releases driving demand. Gaming chat platform Discord saw its servers go down briefly last week even after the company increased capacity by more than 20% to handle surging usage.

According to Siamc Kamalie, manager of hedge fund Skycatcher, “average time spent per user on mobile games grew 41% during Chinese New Year in 2020 versus 2019, and was up 18% versus the week prior to Chinese New Year in 2020.” (Chinese New Year is when widespread stay-at-home orders began in China.)

All of the gaming industry professionals I’ve spoken to over the last week noted increased popularity of their games, though most were wary of sharing their strong performance publicly, given the unfortunate circumstances.

People don’t just turn to games for entertainment; especially when in-person interactions are restricted and most of the most popular games are multiplayer in one form or another — games also serve as social hangout spots.

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Loupedeck Launches Loupedeck Profile Creator for Creative Professionals

Loupedeck Launches Loupedeck Profile Creator for Creative Professionals

The Loupedeck Creative Tool is designed to do one thing:

Make your software workflow easier and faster than ever before.

The Loupedeck CT is a console-type tool, one that allows you to program different actions into its many buttons and dials. While it can technically be used to enhance any application, you’ll be especially impressed by its integration with photo editing software.

For instance, when working in Photoshop, you can use the Loupedeck CT wheel to zoom in and out of images, one button to activate the lasso tool, and another button to create a mask. You can use a small dial to change brush size, a button to select the color picker tool, and yet another button to select the brush.

With the Loupedeck CT in hand, editing speed will advance to a whole new level, as you fluidly edit one image after another by tapping buttons, adjusting dials, and spinning the main wheel. No longer do you have to hunt for keyboard shortcuts or waste time searching for menu options.

loupedeck creative tool

Instead, the Loupedeck CT will get the job done.

But Loupedeck has taken their Creative Tool a step further.

As of last week, you can now use the Loupedeck Profile Creator to generate Custom Profiles for different software applications.

Loupedeck explains in their press release:

The new Loupedeck Profile Creator will enable users…to program custom actions and adjustments using shortcuts, keys, delays, macros, text, links, run application, and mouse movements.

Even better, the Profile Creator is easy to use and can be grasped by an absolute beginner.

In other words, you can create Loupedeck “presets” for different editing applications. You might create one Custom Profile for Lightroom and another for Photoshop.

That way, as soon as you open up your editing program, you know exactly what to do, and you can customize the Loupedeck CT to fit your particular workflow.

Now, while casual photo editors might not find the Loupedeck CT appealing, this tool is ideal for anyone who does frequent editing. It’ll allow you to streamline your photography workflow so that you can cut down on editing time and focus on doing what you love:

Taking pictures.

You can purchase the Loupedeck Creative Tool for $549 USD.

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Microsoft brings Teams to consumers and launches Microsoft 365 personal and family plans – TechCrunch

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people) at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. They are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50 gigabytes of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products for businesses with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three months of free access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

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Go Google free: We pick privacy-friendly alternatives to every Google service

Over the past two years, I’ve been switching between a succession of iPhones and a series of Android devices, using each for an extended amount of time. Spending months with each mobile platform has been a tremendously useful exercise, helping me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two dominant smartphone options.

But every time I pick up one of those Android devices, a nagging question pops up in the back of my mind. It’s the same one I hear from friends, family members, and readers every time the topic turns to smartphone platforms: “Aren’t you worried about your privacy when you run Google’s software?”

It’s a legitimate question, and there’s no easy answer.

Google, like Facebook, has a business model that’s built on surveillance. The company’s stated mission of “organizing the world’s information” also includes capturing as much as possible of your information. That information is the base layer of some undeniably useful services, which in turn fuel the advertising that makes up the overwhelming majority of Google’s revenue.

In 2019, Google took in just over $75 billion in revenue. Roughly 84% of that revenue, about $134.8 billion, came directly from the advertising platform made possible by data collected from a few billion people, including you and me.

To be fair, Google provides ample privacy controls, including options to delete saved data. They also count on most people being too busy, distracted, or unconcerned to actually use those controls. And even if you meticulously delete your activity history. there’s not much you can do about the profile that Google and its subsidiary DoubleClick (and the advertising ecosystem that’s grown up around them) create based on those activities in real time.

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Going through Google’s default privacy controls is an exhausting task.

We won’t even talk about the antitrust investigations in the United States, where Google is reportedly “in serious trouble,” and another antitrust probe in the European Union, which has already fined Google multiple times for anticompetitive behavior.

Unlike the other giant of online advertising, Facebook, the option to delete your Google account isn’t very practical. It’s hard to imagine a world without Google’s outsized influence, but it is possible to rebuild your personal online environment around an alternate set of services and experiences.

There are plenty of options from smaller third parties, but for the most part the replacements for the Google services you know come from Apple and Microsoft. Those two tech giants have the requisite scale, but their business models don’t rely disproportionately on data collection and advertising. When your revenue comes mostly from high-margin hardware (in Apple’s case) and business-focused productivity services (in Microsoft’s case), it’s easier to place greater value on personal privacy, and there’s less incentive to design products and services that explicitly turn data into revenue.

So how do you reduce the role of Google in your tech life? I took a look at my own experience to see where you’ll find the most interesting alternatives. Note that some of these options require paid subscriptions, in contrast to Google’s ad- and data-supported services.

Say adios to Android

There are two and only two mobile device platforms that matter: Android and iOS. As a result, ditching Google means learning to love Apple hardware and software. Because of the way Google licenses Android, it’s almost impossible to find a device that isn’t loaded with Google services. And although you can tweak and tune privacy settings and replace default apps, you can’t easily get rid of the Google Play services and store.

Switching to an iPhone isn’t exactly painful (except perhaps for the pricetag). You get world class hardware, and you also avoid one of Android’s worst flaws: unpredictable updates.

Apple devices get fully supported updates for years, and you are not at the mercy of a carrier to get the latest version. That support lasts a long time, too. The iPhone 6S, for example, which debuted more than four years ago, runs the brand-new iOS 13 and will be supported for another year. You can’t say that about any Android phones released in 2015.

In fact, even new devices often have to wait, sometimes forever, for upgrades. I have three Android phones on my desk right now, from Motorola, Samsung, and Google. All three devices were released in 2018, but each one is running a different Android version (8, 9, and 10). I have no idea if or when those two phones running out-of-date Android versions will get the latest features.

And I have to say I trust Apple’s biometric support more than I trust the same features on Android devices. A pair of snafus involving biometric technology in late 2019, on the latest premium devices from Samsung and Google, make me even more comfortable with switching platforms.

Choose an alternate default web browser

If your objective is to cut ties with Google, you’ll need to choose a different web browser than Google Chrome, naturally. The logical alternatives are Mozilla Firefox and Opera; on MacOS and iOS, you can also choose Safari.

Several people in the comments section have recommended the Brave browser, a relatively recent addition to the category, led by Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich and focused relentlessly on privacy. I tried Brave when it first came out and will take another look. It’s a strong contender. 

The dark horse in this field is Microsoft’s new cross-platform Edge browser, based on the open-source Chromium engine. (I do not recommend the legacy Edge browser, available only in Windows 10, which is deprecated and will be replaced with the new Edge within a year.)

The most relevant feature is tracking protection, which offers this simple but easy-to-understand interface in the new Edge Settings pane on the desktop.

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This Edge setting blocks trackers without requiring third-party software.

How effective is it? Click that Blocked Trackers link to see a running count. On this browser, the number-one source of trackers is Google, which accounts for more than 20% of the blocks on my production PC. 

After a lengthy beta test cycle, the new Edge browser was officially released in January 2020; in addition to running on Windows, it also runs on MacOS and has versions for iOS and Android. It allows you to install extensions directly from the Chrome Web Store, and pages you visit look like they’re running in Chrome.

Pick a privacy-focused search engine

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The Bing brand is an easy punchline for anyone trying to get some cheap tech-oriented laughs, but the underlying data is no joke. In its just-concluded 2019 fiscal year, Microsoft brought in more than $7.6 billion in revenue from search advertising. That’s a fraction (less than 10%) of what Google makes, but it’s still a very big business on its own; that revenue makes it the fifth biggest division at Microsoft, one of the only companies big enough to compete with Google on this playing field.

But you don’t have to insert yourself into Bing’s advertising ecosystem, either. The privacy-focused DuckDuckGo (“the search engine that doesn’t track you”) returns results using Microsoft’s data along with a few hundred other primary sources,

For desktop use, you can also get the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials extension for Chrome (which works in the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge as well).

In the comments, several readers have recommended Startpage.com, a Dutch company that uses Google search results repackaged in a privacy-focused format that eliminates tracking.

Replace Google Voice

I’ve always been reluctant to use Google Voice for any serious business-related purpose, because it seemed like yet another free service that Google would eventually kill off. One plausible theory I’ve heard is that Google Voice is so widely used by Google execs that discontinuing it is not an option.

Google Voice has the twin benefits of being device-independent and supporting SMS messages. That means you can use a virtual number other than your regular mobile phone number for security-related tasks, like two-factor authentication. That makes SIM-swapping scams dramatically less effective.

Google Voice also runs on multiple devices, which is handy for someone who switches devices regularly. Not having to reconfigure 2FA when you switch to a new device is liberating.

I can’t find a free alternative to Google Voice that I can comfortably recommend, but the venerable Line2 service, at $10 per month (or $99 a year, billed annually) fills the bill. YouMail, a call-blocking and voicemail service, includes a second line with SMS support as a standard feature on its $10.99 per month YouMail Professional products. I’ve used it for several years and recommend it.

Use something other than Gmail as your default email client

I’m old enough to remember when Gmail was a closed beta and you had to have an invitation to get your own account. In retrospect, we should have gotten a clue that something was amiss when the Gmail beta launched, officially, on April Fool’s Day, 2004. (Not a joke. DuckDuckGo it.)

Back in 2017, Google stopped its controversial practice of scanning the content of free Gmail accounts for the purpose of targeting ads, and the company says any processing it does of message content (to generate reply suggestions, for example) is done by machines. And, of course, paid GSuite business accounts have always been disconnected from Google’s ad infrastructure.

The main reason I don’t use Gmail, though, has nothing to do with privacy. It’s just that I really really don’t like the browser-based interface on the desktop, where I do most of my serious email work. Alas, that’s how Google wants its customers to use Gmail on PCs, and Gmail developers don’t seem to care that their service doesn’t play well with other clients.

For business accounts, I use Office 365, and most of my personal accounts are on Outlook.com. If your employer uses Gmail, you’re not free to switch, but for personal mail it’s easy to set up a new default address, forward messages from Gmail, and hardly skip a beat.

For paid business email, there are third-party alternatives if you’d rather avoid working with Microsoft directly. I recommend Intermedia, which offers hosted Exchange and Office 365 with a much less intimidating interface. Many hosting providers offer email options to go with your custom domain; for example, you can get Office 365 subscriptions from GoDaddy, with or without a hosting package. It pays to check with your current hosting provider.

There’s certainly no reason to delete your Gmail account, but switching to a new default email service doesn’t have to be painful. Back in 2013, I made the case against Gmail and wrote detailed instructions for switching from Gmail to Outlook.com. The basic principles haven’t changed in all that time.

Get off of Google’s cloud

Some of Google’s stickiest services are its cloud-based storage and collaboration tools: GSuite (Docs, Sheets, Slides), Google Drive, and Google Photos.

Office 365, which includes a terabyte or more of OneDrive storage with every subscription, is the logical alternative to GSuite and Google Drive. Earlier this year, I did a comprehensive comparison of the two services, “Office 365 vs G Suite: Which productivity suite is best for your business?” Read that for a quick refresher on what makes Office 365 different from GSuite.

You can also choose from a wealth of independent cloud storage providers, including well-known services like Dropbox and Box and others that are less well known but technically superior, like Intermedia’s SecuriSync, which is available bundled with email and Office or as a standalone product.

Google Photos is a harder service to replace. For the basic task of backing up and organizing your digital photos, both Apple (iCloud) and Microsoft (OneDrive) offer options to upload photos from the default camera roll on your mobile device to their respective services. OneDrive is the clear choice if you also want those photos to be accessible on a Windows 10 PC.

But no one quite does the AI-powered magic that Google does with Photos. Just be aware that all that magic also feeds Google’s insatiable appetite for data.

Consider Apple’s Maps app

In its early days, Apple’s Maps product was clearly inferior to Google Maps. That’s no longer true, and Maps now plays the same counterweight-to-Google role on iPhone that Bing plays to Google Search. Location tracking is one of the key privacy concerns of our time, so it’s worth at least trying to make the switch.

For those who decide Apple Maps is not good enough, though, you have no credible alternatives to Google.

How do you solve a problem like YouTube?

If you’re a YouTube fan, there’s virtually no way to avoid having your activities tracked by Google, with the inevitable algorithmic recommendations not far behind.

And there’s nothing quite like YouTube on the planet. You can avoid some tracking by using your browser’s private/incognito mode, but that’s at best a partial fix.

Do you see any options I missed? Use the contact form to send me your thoughts via email, or share other alternatives in the comments section below.

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