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Thanks to my 5 favorite AI tools, I'm working smarter now

I've tested a lot of AI tools. These are the five I use almost every day to enhance my efficiency at work.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
tools for work illustration
Getty Images/Yurii Karvatskyi

The generative AI boom might have started with the launch of ChatGPT, but the technology has now been integrated into all kinds of productivity platforms designed to make our everyday workflow easier.

A hesitation many people have when they hear about "AI In the workplace" is that the technology will replace them. However, the tools I'm talking about here won't do the work for you -- rather they can increase your work productivity.

These AI tools can help you complete small yet necessary daily tasks that -- in the long run -- add up to lots of saved time. The result: You spend less time on admin and more time doing things you enjoy or that are more beneficial to your work.

Even before the current AI boom, I'd been covering and testing a variety of AI tools for ZDNET. After seeing what certain tools were capable of, I found it hard to stop using them. As a result, I've incorporated several of these tools into different aspects of my daily workflow. 

So, here are my favorite AI tools that I find myself using most every day. Interestingly, only one of these life-hack technologies is an AI chatbot.

1. Bing Chat 

The new AI-powered Bing on a screen
Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Let's start with the most-hyped type of AI tool -- the chatbot. I've tested most AI chatbots on the market, and Bing Chat remains my favorite. Here's why.

Bing Chat enables me to tap into many different capabilities in one place, including AI image generation and web-informed answers -- without costing me a penny! These free perks are primarily what separates Bing Chat from other subscription-based competitors on the market, including ChatGPT, which requires a Plus subscription to access the internet and real-time information. 

Also: ChatGPT vs Bing Chat vs Google Bard: Which is the best AI chatbot

The primary way I use the tool in my workflow is as a more conversational search engine. If I have a question about anything at all, I turn to Bing Chat rather than Google. Instead of having to filter through hundreds of results like I would following a Google query, I get one simple, conversational answer that addresses my question directly. 

Even better: Bing Chat's answer will include sources from which the chatbot obtained its response, which leaves me the option to verify the information provided and to learn more about the topic. 

Even if I don't have a question, I prefer to ask Bing Chat for more information on the topic I need because, unlike Google, it will narrow down the best sources, making it easier for me to find what I am looking for. 

For example, I can ask Bing Chat, "Help me find recent research on the effects of caffeine on sleep," and Bing Chat will highlight specific studies and research within the text response, and add additional sources in the footnotes. By contrast, Google will populate thousands of results that can be difficult to parse. 

If you are a Google enthusiast, you could also turn to Google Bard instead of Bing Chat. But from my testing, Bing Chat wins in quality, likely because it is powered by GPT-4, OpenAI's most advanced large language model. Bing Chat also offers the option to pick from three conversation styles and to generate images right within the chatbot -- options that Google Bard doesn't offer.  

Although I don't use these features in my own work, Bing Chat can also help with proofreading grammar, rewriting text when you can't get the exact wording just right, and even writing messages, proposals, or other types of content from scratch.

2. Canva Pro 

Create a design in Canva screenshot
Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Canva has nearly every AI tool you can imagine for graphic design, including its own AI image generator. However, if  -- like me -- you create visual content every day, you won't necessarily need the stylized output produced by an AI image generator. Instead, you need tools that make it easier and faster to create social media posts, invitations, flyers, and presentations easier -- and that's where Canva Pro shines. 

Before October, Canva Pro was already packed with an impressive array of tools for graphic design, including Magic Edit, Magic Design, Magic Eraser, Background Remover, and more -- and was therefore already a staple in my everyday visual design toolkit. However, its offerings got even more impressive with the launch of its AI-infused Magic Studio

AlsoHow to turn any photo into a professional headshot with Canva's AI tools

The suite of tools in Magic Studio includes Magic Switch, Magic Media, Magic Design, Brand Voice, Magic Morph, Magic Grab, Magic Expand, and more, which all complete a robust range of tasks, automating nearly all of your visual design needs. 

My personal favorite tool, and the one that I use every day, is Canva's AI Background Remover. Sound basic? Sure, but if you've ever had to isolate an item in a photo, you know how tedious the process can be using a tool like Photoshop, or how badly some automated tools can botch this task.

With Canva, all it takes is the touch of a button to isolate an image -- and the AI produces accurate results every time. I use this feature regularly to create hero images for my articles, product images for ZDNET "best lists", and even Instagram posts

A Canva Pro individual account costs $120 per year and includes a free trial.

3. Otter.ai

Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

If you've ever transcribed a conversation by hand, you'll know it's a time-consuming and tedious task. 

The great news is AI is here to help. Whether you're a student who records their lectures, a professional who needs to create meeting notes and highlights, or someone who records interviews on a daily basis, Otter.ai is a serious time-saver. 

With Otter.ai, you can import a voice recording and have it fully transcribe the conversation in minutes. The AI assistant includes speaker designations, time stamps, and a reasonably accurate transcription. 

As a reporter, I conduct a lot of interviews as part of my daily workflow. It can be extremely time-consuming to review the audio recordings of these interviews -- which can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour and a half -- and then either write down the conversations word for word or just jot down time stamps of sections that stood out to me. With  Otter.ai, I can simply upload the audio file and have the transcription done in seconds. 

I have used other transcription services in the past, but Otter.ai shines in terms of accuracy and efficiency. 

Otter.ai offers a free plan, but you're limited to 300 monthly transcription minutes at 30 minutes per conversation for all conversations recorded on the platform itself, and you only get three lifetime imports with a free account. Therefore, if you record the conversations that need transcribing elsewhere, the free plan might not be for you. 

If you are like me and need unlimited imports and advanced search, Otter.ai offers a subscription cost of $8.33 per month. Since time is money -- and considering all the time that Otter.ai saves me, I consider it a worthwhile investment. 

4. ChatPDF 

ChatPDF homepage
Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

This completely free tool  -- so simple, yet so useful -- is the quintessential example of how AI can optimize your workflow instead of doing the work for you. ChatPDF would have changed my life for the better when I was at college, but I also take advantage of ChatPDF as a working professional. 

PDFs often contain lots of information that can be difficult to digest; reading scientific journals and research papers can be especially time-intensive because of all the jargon. 

AlsoThis AI chatbot can sum up any PDF and answer any question you have about it

ChatPDF takes a few seconds to scan a PDF and is then ready to answer any questions you have, and to provide a detailed summary. This is particularly useful to further your understanding of any PDF and provide clarity on topics or pages that you may still be confused about. 

As a reporter who covers the rapidly evolving topic of artificial intelligence, I often have to read new research on the topic that includes many academic journal articles. Here's my favorite way to leverage ChatPDF: After I've read the entirety of a study, I'll use ChatPDF's summary to confirm my own findings and to inquire further on points I was still cloudy on. 

I also like to use ChatPDF to confirm that my initial impressions --  after reading through the research -- are accurate. For example, I will ask something like, "Is this statement true: According to the study, consuming caffeine before bed will negatively impact the longevity of REM sleep?" 

Then ChatPDF will verify that this is, in fact, correct -- and provide the page that supports my conclusion. Or, the AI will say something along the lines of "not exactly" and provide its conclusion, while also providing page numbers. 

5. Grammarly 

GrammarlyGo logo

Grammarly has been around for quite a while, and AI has been an integral part of its services. The platform is known for its ability to check for spelling, grammar, conciseness, and more in your everyday writing for good reason -- it's good at it and helpful. 

My favorite way to use the tool is by having the Grammarly for Chrome extension turned on so that the AI can work in the background to catch any mistakes I've missed.   

I went to school for journalism, and as a result, I'm fairly confident in my ability to avoid most grammatical errors, but sometimes when writing a quick email or message, I miss little details -- and that's where Grammarly can work its polish. 

In addition to basic grammar assistance, the tool can offer other more advanced assistance thanks to its integration of generative AI, which added features and shortcuts that can provide shortcuts to your day-to-day tasks. 

For example, you can use Grammarly to create or rewrite text, provide ideas, identify gaps in your writing, change the tone of your text, generate quick replies, make outlines, and more. You can even select a voice, which includes options for formality and tone, to help compose messages for different platforms, such as LinkedIn or email. 

Although I don't use the write or rewrite features in my own workflow, I can see the value of implementing it into other people's everyday writing processes. 

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