Thursday, November 30, 2017

Huawei Nova 2s Launching on December 7th with FullView Display & Four Cameras

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In May this year, Huawei launched the Nova 2 and Nova 2 Plus smartphones in China. Both these devices are the successors to last year’s Nova and Nova Plus. A couple of months back, the company also the Huawei Nova 2i smartphone in few south-east Asian countries. The Nova 2i is the same Honor 9i launched in the Indian market with dual front and rear cameras. Now, the company is getting ready to launch a new Nova smartphone called Nova 2s in China. Unlike the Nova 2i, the Nova 2s comes with high-end specifications.

The company has confirmed to launch this new smartphone on December 7th in China. On the same day, Xiaomi is going to unveil the Redmi 5 and Redmi 5 Plus smartphones. Talking about the Nova 2s, the device comes with glass back body. From the front, it looks similar to the recently launched Honor V10 smartphone. There is also a physical home button with an integrated fingerprint sensor on the front. Unlike the Honor V10, the Huawei Nova 2s comes with a dual camera setup on the front.

It sports a 6-inch FullView display with 18:9 aspect ratio. As seen with the other Huawei and Honor smartphones, we expect the device to offer Full HD+ (2160 x 1080 pixels) resolution. Under the hood, the device comes powered by last-gen Kirin 960 octa-core processor coupled with Mali-G71 MP8‎ GPU. It includes 6GB of RAM and might come in 64GB and 128GB storage variants. There should also be a MicroSD card slot for storage expansion.

It runs on the latest Android 8.0 Oreo-based EMUI 8.0 out of the box. Talking about the cameras, there is a 20MP + 16MP dual camera setup on the rear with f/1.8 aperture and LED flash. For selfies, there is also a 20MP dual camera setup on the front with a soft LED flash. While there is no information about the secondary front-facing camera, we expect it to be a 2MP sensor. Apart from the fingerprint sensor, the device also includes Face unlock feature.

The Nova 2s feature dedicated audio chip for Hi-Fi audio output and NFC chip for making mobile payments via Huawei Pay. We will get to know the complete details along with the pricing on the launch day. Stay tuned on PhoneRadar for more details!

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Samsung’s New Graphene Ball Speeds Up Smartphone Charging by 5 Times

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While the processors and cameras used in the smartphones are seeing technological advancements, we haven’t seen major changes in smartphone batteries. However, the smartphone manufacturers are providing fast charging technologies to quickly recharge the batteries. After the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, the manufacturers are also making the smartphone batteries even more secure. However, the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) is said to have developed a new battery material called “Graphene Ball.”

Compared to the standard lithium-ion batteries, the new graphene ball material will increase the capacity by 45% and it can also charge 5 times faster. While this new technology is not coming to the smartphones anytime soon, it gives us an idea of the future of smartphone industry. SAIT has also filed two patent applications for the graphene ball technology in the US and Korea. The press release also mentioned that the electric vehicles can be benefitted from the graphene balls powered batteries.

The standard lithium-ion batteries with fast charging support take at least one hour for a complete 100% recharge. With the graphene balls based batteries, the device can be completely charged in just 12 minutes and will also maintain a highly stable 60-degree Celsius temperature. Once this new technology hits the mainstream market, Samsung SDI should have an edge over the other battery suppliers. Samsung SDI also supplies batteries for the car manufacturers like BMW and smartphone manufacturers like Apple.

We still have heard from the company about its plans for integrating this new technology in the consumer devices. Apart from smartphones and electric vehicles, the lithium-ion batteries are also used in drones, smartwatches, and other smart products. With the iPhone 8 and iPhone X devices, Apple also started offering fast charging support for its support. Samsung currently offers adaptive fast charging which isn’t as fast as OnePlus’s Dash Charge or Huawei’s SuperCharge. Just like the Samsung’s AMOLED panels, the graphene ball powered batteries will also be used on third-party devices.

Source

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Best Upcoming Smartphones of December 2017 – Expected Specs & Features

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In the past few months, we have seen the flagship launches from the major smartphones brands. In the month of December, we will be seeing some exciting launches in the budget segment. A few of the smartphones which are already launched in other markets will be going on sale in India. Below is the list of upcoming smartphones along with the leaked details and exclusive information.

• Honor 7X

Honor 7X will be latest mid-range smartphone from the Huawei’s sub-brand. The device will be the successor to Honor 6X and comes with the new FullView display with 18:9 aspect ratio. It will be officially launched on December 5th via Amazon India. The Honor 7X sports a 5.93-inch Full HD+ display and is powered by Kirin 659 octa-core processor. It comes with 4GB of RAM and 32GB/64GB of internal storage. In the camera department, the Honor 7X sports a 16MP + 2MP dual rear cameras and an 8MP single front camera. It runs on Android 7.0 Nougat with the customized EMUI 5.1 skin on top. The device is backed by a 3,340mAh battery and offers regular standard connectivity options.

• Honor 9 Pro

Alongside the mid-range Honor 7X, the company will also launch the flagship Honor 9 Pro smartphone in December. The China exclusive Honor V10 smartphone is rumored to be launched as Honor 9 Pro for the international markets. The device comes with a 5.99-inch FullView display with Full HD+ resolution. Under the hood, the smartphone will come powered by Kirin 970 octa-core processor coupled with 4GB/6GB of RAM and 64GB/128GB internal storage. Unlike the Honor 7X, the Honor 9 Pro will be running on Android 8.0 Oreo-based EMUI 8.0 out of the box. The device offers 20MP + 16MP dual rear cameras with f/1.8 aperture and a 13MP selfie camera with f/2.0 aperture. It is backed by a 3,750mAh battery and supports 22.5W Honor SuperCharge fast charging technology.

• Xiaomi Redmi 5

After launching the Redmi 5A in India, Xiaomi is all set to launch the Redmi-series smartphones with 18:9 displays. The company will be launching the Redmi 5 and Redmi 5 Plus smartphones on December 7th in China. Both the devices are mentioned to feature 18:9 displays, selfie flash, and bigger batteries. According to the leaks, it sports a 5.7-inch display with HD+ (1440 x 720 pixels) resolution and 18:9 aspect ratio. The smartphone will come powered by Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor. It might launch in 3GB and 4GB RAM variants with 32GB and 64GB storage options. The Redmi 5 will be offering a 12MP rear camera and a 5MP front camera. Though it is mentioned to higher capacity batteries, the Redmi 5 batteries will be still smaller than 4,100mAh battery on the Redmi 4.

• OPPO F5 Youth

After launching the OPPO F5 and OPPO F5 6GB smartphones in November, OPPO India has confirmed to launch the OPPO F5 Youth smartphone in December. The device shares same design and internals as the other OPPO F5 smartphones. However, the Youth version offers 3GB of RAM and 32GB of expandable storage. In the camera department, the OPPO F5 Youth sports a 13MP rear camera with f/2.0 aperture and a 16MP front camera with f/2.0 aperture. The device comes with a 6-inch Full HD+ display with 18:9 aspect ratio. Connectivity options include 4G VoLTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, 3.5mm audio jack, and a MicroUSB 2.0 port. Along with the fingerprint sensor, the OPPO F5 Youth also includes Face Unlock feature.

• LG V30

Last week, we have exclusively reported about the availability and pricing of the LG V30 smartphone in India. The device will be launched in the next few days and the base variant is expected to cost Rs. 47,990. As of now, there is no information about the Indian pricing of the LG V30+. The LG V30 comes with a 6-inch Quad HD+ (2880 x 1440 pixels) FullVision OLED display and is powered by 10nm Snapdragon 835 octa-core processor. It comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. We expect the device to run on Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box. In the camera department, the smartphone comes with 16MP + 13MP dual rear cameras and a 5MP single front camera. The smartphone is also IP68 certified for waterproofing and MIL-STD-810G certified for military-grade durability.

• Meizu M6 Note

Back in August this year, Meizu launched a new mid-range smartphone called as Meizu M6 Note in China. From the last few weeks, the company is teasing about its launch in the Indian market. The smartphone packs decent specifications and might launch as Amazon exclusive smartphone in India. It comes with a metal unibody design with a 5.5-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) display on the front. In China, the company is rumored to launch an upgraded variant of the M6 Note with an 18:9 display. Talking about the M6 Note, it packs Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor, 3GB/4GB of RAM, and 32GB/64GB of internal storage. In the camera department, the device offers a 12MP + 5MP dual camera setup on the rear and a 16MP selfie camera on the front. It is backed by a 4,000mAh non-removable battery and measures 8.35mm thick.

• Canvas Infinity Pro

Earlier this month, Micromax launched the Canvas Infinity smartphone with an 18:9 display. In the next couple of weeks, the company will be unveiling its successor called as Canvas Infinity Pro. As seen with the Canvas Infinity, the new Canvas Infinity Pro also features a 5.7″ FullVision HD+ display. It will be powered by an unspecified octa-core processor coupled with 4GB RAM and 64GB of internal storage. The USP of the device is its dual selfie cameras featuring 20MP & 8MP sensors. On the rear, the Canvas Infinity Pro offers a 16MP sensor. It might still run on Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box. It will be backed by a 3000mAh non-removable battery. While the Canvas Infinity is launched at Rs. 9,999, the upcoming Canvas Infinity Pro will come with an MRP of Rs. 17,999.

Stay tuned on Phoneradar for the official details and pricing of the above mentioned smartphones.

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HTC U11 Life review

HTC isn’t a company afraid to try new things. In the last few years several of these haven’t panned out too well, like the HTC U Ultra’s second touchscreen, but the HTC U11 Life is a phone with a concept we can appreciate immediately.

It’s a mid-range phone with an accessible price that uses Google’s new Android One program. This means you get an almost untouched version of Android, with the aim of getting much faster updates than other mobiles. That is, unless you're in the US, in which case you get HTC's Sense skin on top.

There are notable shortfalls to match the cut-down price tag, like poor low light photo quality, relatively weak speakers and a body made of plastic. But it’s a solid choice for those on a mid-size budget.

HTC U11 Life price and availability

The HTC U11 Life costs $349/£349 (around AU$460), half the price of top-end alternatives and a lot less than the full-fat HTC U11.

It sees it rub shoulders with the likes of the Honor 9, Moto X4, Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact and Samsung Galaxy A5. These are some seriously strong mid-range contenders which ensure the U11 Life won't have an easy ride.

Key features

  • Pressure-sensitive sides help it stand out
  • Smart compromises other than the battery

There are two main ways to view the HTC U11 Life. It’s a much cheaper alternative to the original HTC U11 that gets you a roughly similar experience, with some parts cut down to lower costs.

It’s also an Android One phone in most regions, meaning it uses the standard Android interface, making it a little like a Google Pixel phone not made by Google.

Core elements it inherits from its bigger, more expensive brother include a shiny, curved rear and pressure-sensitive sides that enable gestures not seen in other phones.

This is HTC’s attempt to stand out. It may not change how you use a phone, but HTC has made it customizable enough to let you dig deep and make the feature your own.

Cost compromises are, for the most part, not too glaring. The screen is 1080p rather than ultra-high resolution, and the HTC U11 Life’s chipset is a mid-range Snapdragon 630 rather than a top-tier chipset. Major improvement in the graphics chip means it performs well in real life, though.

As is common among mid-range phones, the camera can’t quite compete with the best in all situations. Great photo processing makes day-lit photos often look fantastic, but it falters at night and fine detail isn’t as sharp or clear as that of a higher-quality, lower-resolution sensor.

The build isn’t quite on-par with the HTC U11 either. That phone has a glass back, the U11 Life an acrylic/plastic one. The biggest difference in feel is that while glass is cold to the touch when there’s the slightest chill in the air, plastic isn’t.

You’ll have to decide whether that matters to you or not.

After using the phone for a while the only compromise that we think might annoy some is battery life. While not flat-out poor, the Moto X4 and Honor 9 last longer between charges. The HTC U11 Life’s 2,600mAh battery is just not all that big.

Design

  • Smooth plastic/acrylic back
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • Squeezable pressure-sensitive sides

From arm’s length the HTC U11 Life looks a lot like the normal U11, which is a more expensive phone. The back is curved and shiny, reacting to light as if the stuff gets it excited.

However, the HTC U11 Life’s back is made of “acrylic glass” rather than actual glass. And what’s acrylic glass? Plastic.

There’s none of the cool hardness that comes with metal or glass, and as a result the HTC U11 Life does not feel particularly expensive. The Moto G5S Plus, Moto X4 and Honor 9 all feel more impressive.

The HTC U11 Life’s build is pleasant enough, though. HTC has made sure there are no hard, flat surfaces. Everything is smooth and curvy, while the ultra-accessible 5.2-inch screen welcomes hands of all sizes.

This is not, however, one of the new breed of phones with an ultra-narrow screen surround. There are a couple of blank millimeters to each side, and about an inch above and below the screen.

It seems petty to make too much of an issue of this right now, though, when the trend is only developing, not quite the norm yet. Let your eyes decide whether you’re bothered or not.

Other parts of the HTC U11 Life hardware are sound too. The phone has IP67 water resistance, meaning it can take being submerged, and there’s a good fingerprint scanner on the front.

Some versions of the HTC U11 Life have an excellent 64GB storage too. Ours has “just” 32GB, but buy from HTC and you get 64GB. Ours is the European model, where the US and UK get the 4GB RAM/64GB edition.

The hardware feature that sets the HTC U11 Life apart, though, is Edge Sense. This uses pressure sensors on the sides of the phone to enable gestures when those sides are squeezed. As standard, a quick squeeze launches the camera and a long one fires-up the Google digital assistant.

However, Edge Sense can be customized too. It can zoom in Google Maps or Google Photos, snooze alarms, or answer calls. These are sensibly disabled as standard because HTC doesn’t want you to accidentally fire off these features and start thinking your phone is haunted.

You can even create your own macros by going into an app and “recording” commands. We doubt whether many HTC U11 Life buyers will put the effort in, but HTC is clearly trying hard to squeeze the most out of Edge Sense.

HTC introduced Edge Sense with the U11: it’s not an old feature.

One omission may kill the appeal of the HTC U11 Life for some of you, though. It doesn’t have a headphone jack, just a USB-C port. A reasonable pair of USB-C earphones is included, but there’s no 3.5mm adaptor.

Screen

  • 5.2-inch Full HD LCD screen
  • Good image quality

The HTC U11 Life has a smaller, lower-resolution screen than the U11. However, it’s a punchy display that, in most conditions, doesn’t look much worse than any phone out there.

It’s a 5.2-inch 1080 x 1920 Super LCD. There’s not too much brightness loss at an angle, and color is well-saturated without looking overdone. The image also appears very close to the top surface, a sign of an advanced super-thin screen architecture.

You have to take the HTC U11 Life into a more extreme environment to see its limits. We’re not talking Bear Grylls fodder, just that you’ll see very slightly raised blacks in a darkened room, and the brightness is bright but not quite the 1000 nits of the brightest. That said, we took the phone out on a fairly bright day and the screen was still clearly visible.

HTC’s website claims there’s a feature that lets you customize the display color profile, but it’s not in the software of our model.

Battery life

  • Mediocre stamina in this class
  • 2,600mAh cell
  • USB-C Charging

The HTC U11 Life has a 2,600mAh battery, smaller than those of the Moto G5S Plus, the Honor 9 or the Moto X4.

Thanks to the energy improvements of the Snapdragon 630 chipset, stamina is just about acceptable. However, on busier phone days when we’ve streamed a few hours of podcasts over 4G, the HTC U11 Life needed a top up hours before bed time.

If you want a phone that lasts through a day (almost) no matter what you subject it to, the HTC U11 Life isn’t the best choice.

Results in our usual battery benchmark were poor too. A 90-minute video played at maximum brightness takes 35% off the battery level. The Moto X4 lost just 10%.

Camera

  • Excellent HDR processing
  • Fine detail often looks soft close-up
  • Poor low light image quality

The HTC U11 Life is one of the best arguments for computational photography you’ll find. In certain conditions the results it can pull out of what appears to be a somewhat unremarkable sensor are, well, remarkable.

Its dynamic range optimization is at times staggeringly good, with shadow detail when shooting right into the sun similar to what you might see in shots taken with an APS-C camera. For the non photography nerds out there, this is kind of sensor used by compact system and DSLR cameras that cost up to $1000/£1000.

This is down to a merging of several exposures with just about every shot you take. For sunset photos and nature shots where the sun is peeking out behind a tree, this is a fantastic benefit. Dynamic range is often comparable with that of the best phone cameras available right now. It’s Instagram-tastic.

Look a little closer and you can see some of the limitations of the hardware, though. The HTC U11 Life has a 16MP sensor, and while HTC hasn’t announced the exact sensor used, it’s almost certainly one with smaller sensor pixels.

Up close, fine details have much less integrity than those of the best 12MP sensors. At pixel level images look simultaneously soft and a little noisy, even in daylight.

So while the resolution is high, lower-res cameras can actually reproduce much better, cleaner detail. Like other cameras struggling against the limits of the hardware, the HTC U11 Life tends to struggle with very vivid red tones as well.

Night photo quality is also poor. There’s no optical image stabilization to allow slower exposures, and consequently fine detail disappears completely. This is a great camera for tricky daylight conditions (as long as you don’t zoom in), but a poor one at night.

The HTC U11 Life also lacks a background blur portrait mode, which is usually, but not always, restricted to phones with dual rear cameras. You do get a Pro mode, which saves DNG (RAW) files instead of JPGs, but such a mode shines with a camera with a more versatile sensor and stabilized lens.

On the front, the 8MP selfie camera is nothing special either. Again, fine detail looks soft.

Video capture goes up to 4K resolution for the rear camera, though, and there’s a 120fps slow motion mode.

Interface and reliability

  • Android 8.0 in a mostly pure form
  • Likely to receive prompt updates
  • HTC’s alterations are minimal and subtle

The HTC U11 Life runs Android 8.0 and is one of the first phones to be part of the Android One program. This means it uses the standard Android interface rather than HTC Sense, the custom look seen in the original HTC U11 and most other HTC phones.

Or at least, it does in most of the world. However, US buyers will get the usual HTC overlay.

Android One is no bad thing. Google’s interface is clean, attractive and intuitive. For example, you simply flick up anywhere on the home screen to bring up the vertical apps menu. It responds to the speed of the gesture too, giving it a more fluid feel than most rival interfaces.

There are still the familiar Android soft keys too. Little light-up Back and Recent Apps icons appear to each side of the fingerprint scanner whenever the HTC U11 Life is in use.

If you’ve not used Android 8.0 yet, you’ll also notice the little dots by some of the icons. This means there are notifications pending for that app, and you can see them by long-pressing the icon, as well as dragging down the notification bar.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Great gaming performance
  • No headphone jack
  • Rivals have better speakers

There are no extra apps to get on your nerves in the HTC U11 Life. Even extra features like Edge Sense are built into the Settings menu rather than cluttering up your apps menu.

This leaves you with Play Music for tunes and Play Movies for video. These are great apps that let you play your own files as well as streaming or purchasing titles from Google’s library. Naturally, Google would rather you do the latter and this plays out in their layouts.

It’s the hardware side that comes to define, and limit, the HTC U11 Life’s media cred. First, there’s no headphone jack. This means you (probably) can’t plug-in your favorite headphones without an adaptor and can’t charge the battery and use headphones at the same time. Again, unless you have a special adaptor.

The earphones that come in the box are on-par with a decent budget pair of in-ears, and will do the job if you’re not too picky about sound quality. They can also be custom-tuned to your hearing and have noise cancellation. Both of these use a mic inside the earphones.

This tuning makes the sound more lively but also a bit more aggressive, highlighting the lack of finesse of the drivers. The noise cancelling is nowhere near as effective as almost any pair of active noise cancellation earphones either.

Testing them out on the road, they do appear to reduce the rustle of cable noise a little, but do not significantly reduce traffic noise.

Don’t get too excited about the bundled earphones.

The HTC U11 Life’s speaker isn’t best-in-class either. Max volume is lower than that of the Moto G5S Plus or Honor 9, and there’s a little less power to the lower frequencies.

It’s still a useful little speaker, though, with sound quality good enough for podcasts and the odd emergency music duty. It sits on the bottom edge, so there’s no stereo effect when you play a game.

General gaming performance is very good, particularly given the HTC U11 Life uses a mid-range CPU. Frame rates in high-end games like Real Racing 3, Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2 are all very smooth, closer to the performance we expect from a true top-end phone.

Performance and benchmarks

  • Mid-range CPU does a great job
  • Snapdragon 630 CPU
  • Newly-upgraded graphics chipset

The HTC U11 Life has a Snapdragon 630 chipset. In Geekbench 4, its scores are very similar to those of its predecessor, the Snapdragon 625, with 4,125 points in this case. However, there are some notable improvements.

First, and this explains the great gaming performance, Qualcomm has significantly improved the graphics chipset. The Adreno 508 is clocked at 850MHz, up from 650MHz in the Snapdragon 625.

It also has a faster 4G modem, and approaches its processor cores differently. Like the other 6-series Snapdragon CPUs, all the cores are Cortex-A53s (a classic “budget” core), but Qualcomm has moved to using four lower-clocked ones and four faster performance ones. Rather than eight at the same speed.

The aim is to improve battery life without compromising performance.

Verdict

The HTC U11 Life is a great phone in many respects. Screen, software, and day-to-day performance are all grumble-free, and while the squeezable sides may not be a revelation they are almost radically customizable. And therefore about as useful as is currently imaginable.

Battery life is just okay, and, like quite a lot of mid-range phones, the camera is not great at night. However, the HTC U11 Life is enjoyable to use and represents good, if not truly disruptive, value.

As the price of top-end phones spirals around, and above, $1000/£1000, our appreciation for phones at prices normal people can stomach only grows.

Who's this for?

The HTC U11 Life is for those who want a phone with a touch of design glamour without the cost of a top-end model.

It’s also a good choice for people tired of custom Android interfaces, because (outside the US) Android One provides Google’s software as its engineers intended, with HTC’s extras laid on top like a pretty belt, braces and bangles that can be removed if you like.

Should you buy it?

The HTC U11 Life’s biggest problem, if you don’t mind the missing headphone jack, is competition. There are a lot of great alternatives, many of which have metal or glass frames for a more expensive feel. The Moto X4, Moto G5S Plus, Honor 9 are the obvious alternatives.

Does it matter? That’s up to you. The Moto X4 and Honor 9 also have more consistent, more versatile cameras, although neither has quite the HDR chops of the HTC U11 Life.

With better build and battery life, we’re leaning slightly towards the Moto and Honor options. However, as all three are good value phones most will enjoy, you’ll have to decide whether the intrigue of the HTC U11 Life’s squeezy sides is enough to tilt you the other way.

First reviewed: November 2017

Lumo Run

Runners who want to run faster often focus first on metrics such as pace, distance and heart rate in training. 

They look at how well the engine is performing and try to improve that, developing more pace, power and performance through specific training runs or gym sessions.

However, there’s a whole lot more to being a better (and faster) runner than building your fitness, as form plays a pivotal role too. That’s where Lumo Run comes in.

This portable, personal running coach clips onto your shorts and analyzes your running form. It then uses this information to give you real time feedback and help iron out the kinks in your technique that keep you from scoring that personal best.

This small lozenge has a range of on-board sensors delivering lab-grade biomechanic measurements and real time tips, via your headphones, to help you improve on a range of vital running form metrics, including cadence, braking, bounce, pelvic rotation and pelvic drop. It sounds advanced, but it's accessible to a great many runners.

Each time you run, Lumo suggests an area you need to work on, along with advice on how to improve on your past performance. Post-run it also delivers video drills to help correct the aspects of your form that were most in need, all based on the run you just completed, and all for $99.99/£89.99 (around AU$130).

Design

  • Light and unobtrusive on the run
  • Simple USB charging, no bespoke dock

There’s not a huge amount to say about the Lumo Run’s design, as it’s really quite a simple device.

The 50 x 28.5mm lozenge sensor – which looks a lot like the shoe pods Garmin and Polar used to sell – slots into a soft silicone holder and clips to the belt of your shorts or leggings at the back.

Alternatively, you can invest in shorts and running leggings designed to house Lumo, but in our test we used the clip-on alone.

Weighing just 25g it’s barely noticeable while you’re on the move, even to the point we’d argue it could be quite easy to lose or chuck through the wash. 

The clip does fix tightly to your clothing, but because it’s so unobtrusive you find yourself checking it’s still there every so often.

There’s one LED light that tells you if there’s enough charge in the Lumo for the run you’re about to do. We’re big fans of the fact that it charges via micro USB plugged directly into the sensor, so there’s no bespoke dock to worry about here.

You simply remove a small cover at one end of the sensor and plug in any USB cable. If we had to find fault it’s that the USB cover itself feels like it could easily break off, though it didn’t in our test.

The sensor is also sweat and water resistant, so if you get a particularly sweaty back or you have to run in the rain, you’re covered. Though you won’t want to be accidentally going for a swim or popping this on a 40-degree wash.

Set up, sync and sharing

  • Slick and simple set up
  • Ready to go instantly for every run
  • Only syncs with Strava

Set up is extremely simple and can be done using your smartphone, there's no need for a laptop. We’d love to have seen the Lumo Run come charged out of the box, ready to use, but unfortunately you’ll need to charge it before you run.

Beyond that it’s a question of a quick app download and - provided your Bluetooth is switched on - the sensor and app should sync automatically, without the need to meddle in the Bluetooth settings, which is always a bonus.

Once you’ve paired the Lumo Run once it automatically connects next time you want to run, again making it brilliantly fuss-free.

During set up Lumo will ask for your basic height, weight, age and gender information so that it can tailor its insights more effectively to you. You can also manually adjust the audio settings, to tell Lumo which in-run updates you’d like, choosing from Pace, Distance, Time, Run Goal and Posture Reminders.

You can also connect Strava to Lumo so that your route, pace and distance data is synced seamlessly to your Lumo app. The bonus for Strava-using GPS watch owners is that you can actually run phone-free.

With the likes of the Polar M430, Garmin Forerunner 235 and many others now syncing automatically to Strava, you can use your GPS watch to track your run and the data will flow into Lumo via Strava, though you still won’t get the Lumo’s real time coaching without carrying your phone and firing up the app.

Also, sadly Strava is the only third-party platform the Lumo app plays nicely with and it’s one-way sync. Data you gather from Lumo runs where you have your phone won’t feed back into Strava. 

We’d like to see Lumo play nice with more watches so we could see our current stats on the wrist, but that’s not currently the case.

Tracking and coaching skills

  • Great range of running dynamics tracked
  • Excellent coaching videos
  • Training plans would be an improvement

While Lumo Run provides distance, pace, duration, splits and a route map, the truth is this running wearable is different from many of the run trackers out there that help you with a race specific running goal.

Instead of focusing on schedules, distance, pace or heart rate, the Lumo coaching approach is all about improving technique, ironing out the kinks in your form that are costing you in running efficiency and even potentially causing you to get injured.

The range of metrics, or running dynamics, it tracks is as broad as any tracker on the market. It includes cadence (foot strikes per minute), bounce (vertical oscillation), braking (change in forward velocity), pelvic rotation and pelvic drop (side to side drop of the pelvis).

Lumo uses an algorithm to crunch the numbers from your previous run and recommends a metric for you to work on during your next outing, though you can override this and choose your own if you’re curious or you know there’s an area that needs specific work.

The great thing about the goals Lumo suggests is that you can incorporate these targeted goals into your usual training runs. For example, you can work on your cadence during your long Sunday run or your pelvic drop during an interval session.

Before you head out, you also get pre-run tips based on your data from previous runs. Because these appear on the New Run screen it’s great for focusing your mind on key improvements for your upcoming session.

They also go beyond most virtual coaches, with a good description of why you’re being given this goal and a short video of the technique you’re aiming to mimic, making it simple to follow.

During your run, Lumo’s coach issues guidance in the form of voice reminders and vibrations. We much preferred the former, though you can easily change the audio settings from the pause screen. Even during a run this wasn’t a chore, which is great if at any point you decide you want more or less information over the ear.

What really makes Lumo stand out though is the quality of the coaching advice. It goes beyond telling you your cadence is too low and offers form fixes to help you get back on target. This includes things like “get your chin up and face forward” or “roll your shoulders back," and it's great that this is real-time feedback.

App and compatibility

  • Very in depth
  • Nicely presented and easy to use
  • Only works with iPhone

The Lumo Run app is clean, crisp and easy to use, with useful and easy to understand explanations throughout that mean you don’t need a degree in sports science to be able to delve into your data.

The coaching area in the app is one of Lumo’s killer unique selling points. A repository for a range of video drills all designed to help you improve your running form and efficiency, along with tips to help you improve and explanations of all of the key metrics Lumo tracks, this is a brilliantly executed guide to how to become a better runner.

From here you can select drills to work on (though these will also be recommended at the end of your run sessions) and the app will also tell you when you last worked on your high knees, legs taps or front skips.

You can also track trends over time for all of the key running dynamics as well as the more common stats such as distance and pace.

Finally, there’s a Personal Records section that logs all of your fastest runs over a mile, 1k, 5k,10k, half marathon and full marathon. You can also see your best performance for each of the running dynamics and your longest overall run distance.

Post-run stats are nicely comprehensive and well presented with route map, pace and distance splits, and the ability to add some subjective information such as mood and effort. You also get your performance against the running goal for that session and recommended exercises ahead of the next session.

For every run there are also detailed results for all of the form metrics and you can delve into these deeper with metric splits too. 

This is great for things like seeing how your form changes during the latter part of runs where you might be more tired, or perhaps during the early part of a run where you may not be warmed up.

There's one big downside to the Lumo Run app though, namely that it's only available on iOS and requires an iPhone 5S or newer, which means the Lumo Run isn't much use if you have an Android phone.

Battery life

  • Lasts around a week
  • Charges quickly

According to Lumo’s official claims you get 20 hours of in-run time and 7 days on standby from the sensor. 

In our tests we easily got a week of usage, including a 2-3 hour long run and four daily hour-long sessions, before we needed to recharge.

We also love the fact we could get enough charge for a run in around half an hour, so even if we did find it was out of juice we could load it up in the time it took to stop procrastinating about whether to actually go and run.

Verdict

The Lumo Run is an excellent training tool and you don’t have to be marathon mad to benefit from the insights it delivers.

Whether you’re just starting out running or you’ve gone ultra, this wallet-friendly wearable takes some quite complicated coaching advice and makes it easy to understand and simple to apply. It would be a welcome addition to any runner’s kit.

Who's this for?

If you’re a casual runner logging miles for general fitness, the Lumo is probably more tracker than you need.

If, on the other hand, you’re a serious miler chasing personal bests or training more seriously for a half, full marathon or ultra then there are real benefits the Lumo Run can offer that most watches and apps don’t, and for a low price.

Should you buy it?

If you're serious about improving your running form then absolutely. The Lumo Run is packed full of genuinely useful features, sensors and advice.

For those just starting out it's probably surplus to requirements, and the lack of a smartwatch app, Android support and GPS is a shame, but otherwise this is a good buy.

There are other trackers that are worth considering, such as the following options:

Oakley Radar Pace Prizm

A voice-activated coaching system in the shape of a pair of classic Oakley sunglasses with detachable in-ear headphones, Radar Pace provides real time feedback on your running metrics including distance, pace, climb, average pace, calories and cadence.

But if you want to unlock extra metrics such as heart rate, you have to bring your own third-party Bluetooth or ANT+ sensors. Lack of optical heart rate feels like a missed opportunity, but the voice controls are about as responsive as we’ve tested.

Stryd

A little more than just a form-fixing tracker, Stryd’s shoe-worn pod tracks a whole range of metrics to help improve your running. 

The impressive array of stats include power, form, leg spring, stiffness, ground time, vertical oscillation, cadence, pace, distance and a run stress score.

It converts all of this data into one single number to quantify your performance and progress and unlike Lumo it’ll sync with a range of watches including Suunto, Garmin, Apple Watch and lots of training platforms, such as TrainingPeaks and Zwift, but sadly no Strava yet.

Garmin Running Dynamics Pod

Smaller and lighter than the Lumo Run, the Garmin Running Dynamics Pod follows the waistband clip design that Lumo launched with first. It tracks largely the same running dynamics though, including: cadence, stride length, ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio.

There’s no real time coaching or videos, but it does play nice with the Garmin Forerunner 935, Garmin Forerunner 735XT and Garmin Fenix 5, as well as the Garmin Quatix 5 and Descent watches, putting your stats where you can see them on your wrist.

First reviewed: November 2017

Polar M200

One for the more budget-conscious runner, the Polar M200 is aimed at the budget end of the market and can be picked up for $149.95/£129.50/AU$199.

Primarily a running watch, the M200 offers integrated GPS, along with optical heart rate monitoring, smartphone connectivity and 24/7 activity tracking, as well as the ability to follow structured training programs.

The key question is whether it's the right watch for you at the price point, especially when it's competing with other budget wearables such as the Fitbit Charge 2 and Garmin Vivosmart HR+.

Design

  • Light, secure and comfortable
  • Plain, cheap-looking design
  • Basic, dated screen

Aesthetically, the Polar M200 is quite simple, with a silicone strap encircling the watch’s face.

The strap feels durable and sits comfortably on your wrist when worn for prolonged periods. In fact, with the M200 weighing in at just 40g, it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re wearing it.

However, the combination of the basic strap design and the watch’s weight raises a few questions in terms of quality. The M200 doesn’t scream quality, especially compared to pricier options like the Garmin Forerunner 235, but sitting at the budget end of the market, does it need to?

It's arguably no worse looking than something like the Garmin Vivosmart HR, for example.

Following the theme of simplicity, two buttons on either side of the display offer all the functionality needed to operate the M200’s array of features. 

The left button is used to go back through the menu options, pause/stop a workout, sync with the smartphone app or operate the backlight.

A quick press of the right button is used to cycle through the menu screens, while a longer press allows you to select the option you want. Having multiple functions with only two buttons is a little fiddly at first, but after a week or so of regular use you soon get to grips with it.

The Polar M200’s charging port sits on the base of the watch. The port is well hidden but can be easily accessed by simply pushing the watch unit from the strap. The watch is then charged via a USB cable that comes included in the box.

It's perhaps a bit annoying having to remove the unit from the strap, especially as newer models like the Polar M430 are 'all-in-one' and easily charged.

The strap itself is fastened using a metal clasp which feels secure, and there are plenty of holes to fit varying wrist sizes.

Polar offer five different color straps – black, red, yellow, blue or white – and the ease of changing the strap makes it simple to mix and match depending on your mood, assuming you fancy paying for extra straps.

The screen on the Polar M200 is quite small, with a large proportion of the circular interface taken up by a bezel. The edges of the screen are designed to allow the user to easily track and monitor their activity level at a glance throughout the day – more on this later.

The display itself is basic, with no touchscreen, color or detailed graphics. Instead, the M200 sports an LED dot matrix display, which gives the watch a slightly outdated feel.

If you want a fancier screen you may want to consider something like the Polar M600, but you'll have to be prepared to pay more.

Polar have kept things simple but functional with the design of the M200. While the overall feeling of the watch isn’t of great quality, at a budget price point you don’t expect much more. 

However, what the M200 lacks in style, it more than makes up for with its array of features at the price point.

Specs, performance and fitness

  • GPS is accurate but slow to lock on
  • Heart rate monitor works well
  • Works better for running than other sports

We found the integrated GPS in the Polar M200, for the most part, very accurate at tracking any outdoor activities. The M200 will also detect any stops, automatically pausing the activity for you and restarting once you set off again.

There were, however, two or three occasions throughout testing when the GPS signal dropped out in the middle of a run. It wasn’t just for a few seconds either, on one run the GPS dropped out for two minutes. This meant that part of the run was not tracked and the post-activity run data was somewhat skewed.

The other frustration we found when testing the M200 was the length of time it took to lock onto GPS before starting an activity. The watch prompts you to ‘stand still to find GPS’, which can take several minutes even when in clear view of the sky.

This meant we were often playing catch up with any training partners as they got bored standing in the cold waiting for the GPS to lock on. You can start the activity before locking onto GPS, but your distance won’t be tracked.

Still, at this end of the market having GPS at all isn't guaranteed. The popular Fitbit Charge 2 for example lacks it, although it is becoming more prevalent.

And we found no such problems with the Polar M200’s optical heart rate monitor. The heart rate is easily picked up when the watch is tightly fastened to your wrist and is constant throughout any activity.

In comparison to a chest-strap heart rate monitor the optical sensor in the M200 performs well. It is only really when performing shorter intervals that the optical sensor struggles slightly to keep up with rapid fluctuations in heart rate.

The M200 is easy to use and provides good, clear live data during an activity. It is possible to rotate through different screens when exercising to give information on distance, current pace, duration, heart rate and many more useful metrics.

You can also personalize these screen options on the Polar Flow website, allowing you to select which metrics you want to track during an activity. There's also an auto-lap function, again customizable, but defaulted to lapping every kilometer during a run.

The only slight issue we found when using the M200 was the screen size. Although generally the screen is clear to read, it was sometimes difficult to read information when moving at a quicker pace. 

For example, when glancing at the auto-lap reading it can be hard to decipher between a 4:01 split and a 4:06. Not a big issue, but certainly noticeable.

One of the best features on the Polar M200 is the ability to follow structured training programs and workouts. You are able to set a goal on the Polar Flow website, be it 5k or a marathon, put in the date of the event and Polar will schedule a series of workouts onto a calendar.

You can then download this schedule onto the watch and app and then it’s over to you to follow this on a day to day basis. This is a great feature for those looking to start training for a specific event or goal, but who are unsure how to best structure their training.

We found the majority of the features available on the Polar M200 aligned to running as opposed to any other sport. Although there are multiple sport options available, the M200 doesn’t perform as a true multi-sport watch as it is not possible to change between two or three disciplines within the same activity.

For example, if taking part in a triathlon you would have to stop each activity before starting the next. The range of data fields available to track some sports on the watch isn’t as well developed as the running mode either. For example, although the watch is waterproof and can be taken swimming, it won’t track distance in the pool.

The Polar M200 also acts as a fitness tracker, counting your steps towards a specific goal that you can determine during initial set up of the watch. This is where the big bezel of the watch comes into play.

As you progress towards your daily step goal, small dots appear around the outside of the screen, indicating the percentage of your activity goal for that day you have achieved.

You can also wear the watch when you go to bed in order to track your sleep. When synced with the app in the morning, you can see data such as how long you’ve slept for and the quality of your sleep, and Polar provides some nice details too - it's among our favorite sleep tracking apps.

It’s also possible to use the Polar M200 as an alarm. Simply set your desired wake up time, sync the watch with the app before you sleep and it will vibrate on your wrist when it’s time to get up.

The Polar M200 syncs with the Polar Flow app on your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. It is easy to sync the two by simply holding the left button on the watch for a few seconds. Once synced, the app offers a wealth of information.

The main screen on the app shows a clock face that summarizes your movement for the day, giving times of rest, standing, walking and exercise.

There is also the option to tap on any recorded activity to see more information such as kilometer splits, heart rate charts and zones, a map of where your activity took you, and much more.

Battery life

  • Battery lasts up to a week
  • Quick and easy to charge

The battery life on the Polar M200 is excellent. Polar claim the M200 will last six days on a single charge when used for fitness tracking and with one hour’s GPS activity tracking per day. 

In reality, we managed to use the watch for a full week of running, as well as general day-to-day use, before needing to recharge.

And when the battery is running low you get a helpful notification on the smartphone app to let you know you need to recharge.

As previously noted, the recharging of the Polar M200 is pain-free, with the watch featuring a simple charging port. A USB cable provided in the box is all that’s needed. 

In terms of juicing speed, we found the watch was fully recharged from empty within a couple of hours, which was acceptable if you remembered in good time...

Verdict

The Polar M200 is a decent entry-level running watch and, although a little basic in appearance, it packs in a lot of features for the price.

With GPS, heart rate monitoring, water resistance and a whole lot more there's something here for almost everyone.

But it doesn't excel in all areas, and is more suited to some kinds of exercise than others.

Who's this for?

The smartphone connectivity and ability to follow structured training programs makes the M200 a great companion for the athlete looking to start taking their training more seriously.

But despite offering multi-sport tracking it's clearly focused mostly on runners, so if you primarily want, say, a swimming watch, there are better options.

Should you buy it?

The only major drawback to the M200 is the slightly erratic GPS, which we can’t help but feel slightly frustrated with. If you are looking for a watch to start your training journey, there aren’t many that can rival the M200 at this sort of price.

It’s not perfect, but at the budget end of the market the Polar M200 sits head and shoulders above most of the rest in terms of its features. But for other options, check out our guide to the best budget running watches.

Fossil Q Venture

The Fossil Q Venture offers up a more style focused, and smaller smartwatch experience to its larger, more rugged sibling, the Q Explorist.

[Update: We're working on our full Fossil Q Venture review, but in the meantime we've updated this review with more information and the latest availability.]

The duo are Fossil’s third generation of Android Wear devices, as the company continues to be one of the few persevering with Google's wearable platform.

With a thinner 18mm strap and smaller display the Q Venture is suited to smaller wrists, although it won’t look out of place on larger forearms either.

Fossil Q Venture price and availability

The Fossil Q Venture price starts at $255 (£259), and rises to $275 (£279) if you opt for the gold or rose gold model, making it the same price as the Explorist.

It’s currently available from Fossil’s website as well as a number of retailers. The price means it finds itself in the mix with the Samsung Gear S3 and Apple Watch Series 1.

Design and display

The Fossil Q Venture has a 42mm diameter metal case which is 11.5mm thick, giving it a slender, stylish look that won’t swamp smaller wrists.

It’s a simple design, with a single crown button, which unfortunately doesn’t rotate – so you’ll have to use your finger on-screen to scroll lists.

It’s a shame, especially given the smaller screen on the Q Venture, as because the crown doesn’t rotate we found our fingers blocked a decent proportion of the display when moving through lists.

There's no heart rate monitor on the back (or GPS inside), which reduces its effectiveness as a fitness watch - but it can still track your steps.

You can also wear the Q Venture in the bath or shower, as with its IP67 rating it'll withstand being submerged for up to 30 minutes to a depth of 1 meter in fresh water.

The Q Venture boasts Fossil's first fully round display on a smartwatch, giving it a marked improvement over its predecessor, the Q Wander, as it's ditched the flat-tire screen that previous Fossil watches have had.

The OLED display is bright and clear, and while its smaller size (compared to the Explorist) means icons and text isn't as large here – it's still pretty easy to see what's going on.

Fossil also offers over 30 exclusive watch faces for its smartwatches, giving you a range of choice not available to Android Wear watches from other manufacturers.

The 18mm watch band can easily be swapped out for another option, allowing you to mix up the look by adding a material, rubber, leather or metal strap to the Q Venture. It's worth noting that the color of the watch's body won't change, so make sure you select a band that compliments its color.

Performance and interface

In terms of power the Fossil Q Venture has the common Snapdragon 2100 chipset which we've seen in a number of rival smartwatches, along with 512MB of RAM.

It's more than enough to run Android Wear 2.0 smoothly on screen, with apps opening in good time and the interface easy to navigate - and a big improvement over the version 1.0.

There's 4GB of storage inside too, allowing you to save songs on the watch, pair it with a Bluetooth headset and leave the house without your phone while still enjoying your tunes.

The storage also comes in handy for downloading apps and games, which thanks to Android Wear 2.0 can all be downloaded directly from the watch thanks to its built in Wi-Fi connection.

Fossil claims the Q Venture offers 24 hours of battery life from a single charge, but that will depend on your usage and whether you opt to employ the always-on display.

In short though, a nightly charge will more than likely be needed, but with a wireless magnet connection it should at least be easy to top up.

We'd have liked to of seen NFC included inside the Q Venture so we could use it for contactless payments, but unfortunately this feature didn't make the cut.

It will with any phone running Android 4.3 or higher, but also with iPhones that are on iOS 9 or above (as long as you've got an iPhone 5 or newer).

Early verdict

For those looking for a smartwatch which won't take over their wrist the Fossil Q Venture is a stylish proposition which gets the basics right.

It does miss some of the more advanced features, such as GPS, NFC and a heart rate monitor, but for a basic smartwatch experience it's a strong contender.

Google Home Max

The Google Home Max turns the Google Assistant into your very own personal DJ. Well, the same can be said about the Google Home and the Google Home Mini, but the Max is the only one suited to rock the house thanks to its impressive hardware.

But of course, this is Google we're dealing with, so you'll also find a hearty dose of artificial intelligence smarts built into the Max. This, in a way, plays just as crucial a role in delivering your music in a crisp, room-filling manner.

It's tough to convey the worthiness of an audio product, especially one that claims to take things to the "Max" as this one does. But as someone who has reviewed many headphones and Bluetooth speakers, I can confidently say that there's something special here.

We didn't have a chance to test the Max outside of Google's controlled environment, but the demo that showed off what a single Max could do, as well two paired up, left us wanting more.

(Update: The Max may release on December 11, if Best Buy's product page is to be believed. Pointed out by 9To5Google, the US retailer appears to have jumped the gun ahead of Google's own announcement of its speaker's release. If true, eager listeners won't have to wait long, that is, unless they reside outside of the US, as Google hasn't specified if or when the Google Home Max will arrive.)

Google Home Max price and release date

The Max debuts in December for $399 (around £300 / AU$510) and unfortunately for our friends outside of the US, it's not making its way outside of North America just yet.

It was a similar story when the original Google Home was first announced. Like the Max, the speaker was originally exclusive to North America, before making its way to other territories after around six months. 

Although a day-in-date release worldwide would be preferable, we hope that people in other territories won't have to wait long to see the Max released. 

Design

The Google Home Max piggy-backs on the look of the other Home models in that it keeps it super simple on the design front. Unlike the others, you'll know this is a speaker right away, but Google has worked in a bit of elegance here to make its hefty 11-pound build work in its favor.

Across the front is a mesh fabric that hides the drivers. On the Max's top, you'll see a small line that indicates the location of the speakers touch-friendly sensor that's used for adjusting volume controls and skipping throughout your favorite album, that is, unless you'd rather do it with your voice.

The speaker's rear plays host to a few features. There's an on/off switch right in the middle, but near the corner is where the included power supply plugs in. Next to it, there's a 3.5mm jack to output to your preferred device, as well as a USB-C port, which I'm told is used for piping in an ethernet connection. Google didn't state if it was including one in the box.

One of Max's more interesting features is that it doesn't feature permanent rubber feet. It can stand either horizontally or vertically without scuffing the table (or the Max itself) thanks to its magnetic rubber platform that can easily be taken off and relocated to shift its orientation.

Performance

Equipped with two custom 0.7-inch tweeters and two 4.5-inch dual-excursion woofers, the Max impresses right out of the gate. As we mentioned, the Max was demonstrated in a controlled environment, so we're really looking forward to testing this out in a bunch of different environments.

Needless to say, an 11 pound speaker is capable of so much more than the other Google Homes, but we were really impressed with just how loud the speaker got, all without showing any signs of reaching a threshold. 

To that end, each and every slice of the music profile sounded crisp, clear and without compromise in the sound delivery – and this was just with an MP3. We'd love to try this out with a vinyl record.

Google's Smart Sound technology utilizes artificial intelligence to dynamically shift the delivery of your tunes. This can be based on room size, obstacles in the room, time of day, and where the Max is located in the room. Much like the Apple HomePod, Google is really touting the smarts in this speaker as being just as central to the experience as the hardware is.

Early verdict

With the Max, there's now a Google Home suited for all sorts of living quarters – from the bedroom, the kitchen and the garage. This one just so happens to be about rocking louder and being smarter than the others.

Coming in at $399, this isn't as easy to plunk down on as the other Home models – especially when stacked up against the $49 Google Home Mini – but doing so means treating yourself to deeper, louder and smarter experience. 

VPN One Click

VPN One Click is a popular provider which delivers a basic VPN service for a budget price.

Experts may not be impressed by the technical specs. There's no support for the configurable and secure OpenVPN protocol, for instance – instead you're left with L2TP/IPSec, IKEv2 and the horribly insecure PPTP.

There's better news in VPN One Click's network, which now covers 52 countries. The company supports a wide range of platforms, too, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, Amazon Kindle, assorted consoles and more.

The website is a little disappointing with few low-level details on the service. Instead it seems more of a marketing exercise aimed at novice users, and it's not particularly successful even at that level.

The low prices may seem appealing, at least initially. Windows Mobile and tablet devices get access for $1.99 (£1.60) a month or $1.67 (£1.35) a month over a year. Android and iOS devices are charged $2.99 (£2.40) a month or $1.25 (£1) over a year. Windows and Mac devices must pay $4.99 (£4) a month or $2.08 (£1.65) over a year.

This sounds great, until you realize that you're charged separately for each device. $1.25 a month for an Android device alone (on a yearly subscription) could be a real bargain, but add a single PC and that jumps to $3.33. For comparison, Private Internet Access charges only $3.25 to support up to five devices, and it doesn't care what they are or how you mix them up.

The VPN One Click website claims to offer a free version which restricts you to servers in Europe only, and is free for a "limited time" (the site neglects to mention how long that might be).

We tried the Windows and Android clients and weren't offered a limited free version on either, but there is a free trial. You must hand over your payment details first (app store or PayPal, there’s no direct card option), but you won't be charged if you cancel within the first seven days.

Privacy

We're always interested to see what a VPN provider says about its logging policy, but this proved unusually difficult with VPN One Click, as the company hardly says anything at all.

The front page of the website claims the company "keeps no connection logs", and the same statement is repeated elsewhere, but with no further explanation or details, that doesn't really tell us anything useful.

The privacy policy is no better. It's ridiculously short, has barely any definitions, doesn't explicitly cover the core VPN service, and includes enough loopholes to make it meaningless anyway ("no user information is ever collected except when redeemed [sic] necessary").

The only tiny extra detail we could find is in VPN One Click's ‘How to choose the best VPN’ article, where the company says it doesn't "keep any user info." That would be "except where redeemed necessary", right?

What's frustrating here is that VPN One Click does have some interesting privacy-related points to make. You don't have to register with the company to sign up, for instance, or directly hand over your email address – you can simply pay from the client. Interesting, and just the type of detail that should be explained in the privacy policy, if VPN One Click is looking to win over more skeptical users.

Performance

Getting started with VPN One Click is as easy as downloading the client for your desktop or mobile device. There are no less than six clients on offer – Windows desktop, Windows Mobile, Mac, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire HD – and a quick check of the various app stores showed decent ratings of around 3.6 to 4 stars.

We grabbed the appropriate client for our Windows 10 system, and the installer set it up in a few seconds with no issues or complications at all.

The client has a good-looking interface, with a world map, lists of servers organized by continents and a clear status pane displaying details on current location, IP address and subscription status.

For all the client's visual style, it doesn't have much substance.

The map doesn't show the server locations, for example. It's not clickable, and can't be zoomed or scrolled.

The nested server list keeps every location at least two clicks away, so for instance you must click Americas > United States to see the American servers.

Each location is displayed as an IP address rather than as a city. European users might prefer to connect to New York rather than going cross-country to California, for instance, but all they'll see are options like 165.227.9.19 and 107.170.216.7. Some of the clients are a little better – the Android offering labels servers as United States West or United States East – but that's still less detail than you'll get with most providers.

The client doesn't give you any ping times or server load data on individual locations, and there's no favorites system to help you save locations for speedy access later.

We tapped the Buy button and a browser window opened at an anonymous-looking apis.bizx.com site, before quickly redirecting to PayPal and asking us to pay our subscription to Bravotelco Limited.

We suspect customers would much prefer to be taken to a shopping cart on the official VPN One Click site, just as reassurance that their money is going to the right place. Many would like the opportunity to pay by card. And despite the website claiming that you can pay via Bitcoin, that's not an option provided by the client.

After handing over our payment a website message explained that the new account would be activated within five minutes, but in reality it only took a few seconds. We returned to the client, clicked 'Refresh Account Info' on the menu and our subscription instantly updated from 'Expired' to 'VIP'.

Subscription paid, we were now able to connect to any location by clicking it in the list. Unfortunately, the client didn't give us any audio or desktop notification to warn when it connected or disconnected. That's a problem, as it could lead to a situation where you think the VPN is active and protecting you, when in reality the connection has dropped. (The service uses IKEv2 which should automatically reconnect you anyway, but we would still expect the client to keep users informed.)

It got worse when we closed the client window and found it didn't minimize to the system tray, but instead shut down the application while leaving any active connection open. This means you can still be connected to the VPN with having any visual indication of that, and it also suggests the client is making zero effort to monitor or manage the connection (most clients will close active connections if you shut them down).

We relaunched the client and found it didn't even recognize we were still connected. This is a big, big problem, as it shows you can't trust the client to accurately tell you when you're protected by the VPN, and when you're not.

With the app unable to deliver even the most basic features, you won't be surprised to hear that there's nothing more advanced. No protocol or port options, no kill switch, no DNS controls, no 'launch with Windows' option or ability to reconnect to the last-used server. The client doesn't even have a Settings box.

Our regular privacy tests revealed further issues, with both doileak.com and dnsleaktest.com reporting that our connections had DNS leaks.

Doileak.com was also able to spot that we were using a VPN-like connection involving multiple hops. That's not a direct privacy leak, but could mean that geo-blocked websites will continue not to trust you. Perhaps as a result, we found that BBC iPlayer blocked us when we tried to access it from a UK server.

For all our problems with the Windows client, we've no complaints about performance. Our tests* showed we could achieve up to 70Mbps download speeds on a 75Mbps fibre connection via our nearest UK server. Near European countries reached 60-70Mbps, UK-US connections ranged from 28-40Mbps, and Asian servers were variable but with some highlights (5Mbps to Hong Kong, 10Mbps to Japan, over 30Mbps to India).

These figures aren't directly comparable with our regular tests and most other VPNs as they're using a different protocol (IPSec and IKEv2 as opposed to OpenVPN), but overall they're still very good results. VPN One Click is disappointing in many areas, but speed isn't one of them.

Final verdict

VPN One Click is fast, and could be a cheap way for undemanding novice users to protect a single mobile device. But if you're looking for features, or privacy, or power, or you need to protect desktops or multiple devices, you'll be much better off somewhere else.

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we've reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

Microsoft Office 365

[Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest developments and features Microsoft has added to Office 365 since this review was last updated.]

November 2017

  • It’s worth noting that Office Android apps have arrived for Chromebooks which are capable of running software from Google’s Play store.
  • Resume Assistant was announced for Microsoft Word, a feature which helps Office 365 users put together a sparkling resume/CV with personalized insights drawn from LinkedIn.
  • Three new apps arrived for Office 365 Business Premium, as well as Microsoft 365 Business, namely: Microsoft Connections, Microsoft Listings and Microsoft Invoicing.
  • Microsoft 365 Business – which comprises of Office 365, Windows 10 plus various security and MDM features – moved out of testing this month, and into general availability, 

October 2017

  • Microsoft powered up Word’s translation tools, allowing for the translation of entire documents across some 60 languages.
  • Microsoft brought premium Outlook.com features to Office 365 Home and Personal subscribers, including an inbox storage capacity of 50GB, and no more adverts.
  • Microsoft announced that Office 365 now has 28 million consumer subscribers (up from 24 million this time last year), and 120 million commercial users (up from 85 million).
  • Microsoft To-Do, the company’s task management app, began rolling out across the Office 365 user base.
  • Outlook for iOS and Android got some smart new features including the ability to sync shared calendars to your phone, and added capabilities for managing events.
  • Microsoft ended support for Office 2007 and Outlook 2007, meaning no more security patches, with the company pushing for users to upgrade to either to Office 365 or 2016.

September 2017

  • Microsoft revealed that Office 2019 will be out next year, so the company will continue to cater for those who don’t want (or aren’t ready) to move to the cloud with Office 365.
  • Skype for Business has reached the end of the road, with Microsoft set to roll the service into Microsoft Teams – with audio conferencing capabilities already in preview.
  • The Office.com website has been redesigned, and Office 365 app launcher simplified to help users open the apps they need swiftly, and to easily switch between them.
  • Microsoft kicked off a new program called ‘Windows Insider Lab for Enterprise’ which allows IT pros to try out Office 365 and other services for free, with a view to upgrading.
  • Microsoft Teams was improved by the rollout of guest access for Office 365 commercial and education subscribers, allowing guests to join a team and subsequent meetings.

August 2017

  • Microsoft brought co-authoring to Excel, along with an auto-save function for Word, Excel or PowerPoint files being worked on in OneDrive or SharePoint Online.
  • Security firm Barracuda has warned about an ongoing series of phishing attacks aiming to steal the login credentials of Office 365 users. As ever, be cautious about links in emails.
  • Microsoft released a new preview of Office for Windows PCs introducing in-line chat functionality to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, along with new ink effects.
  • A redesigned Outlook.com began rolling out in beta this month, with a number of touches to make your inbox smarter, and the webmail service more responsive in general.
  • Microsoft added new features for Office 365 users to the OneDrive app for iOS, including the ability to take folders offline for access, and scan multiple pages into a single PDF.

July 2017

  • With its latest quarterly financial results, Microsoft announced that Office 365 revenue surpassed traditional Office licenses for the first time ever.
  • The Outlook apps for iOS and Android have benefited from a redesigned navigation and conversation experience, and new intelligent search capabilities are promised soon.
  • Three new apps are coming to Office 365 Business Premium: Microsoft Connections (email marketing), Microsoft Listings (managing online listings) and Microsoft Invoicing.
  • Microsoft 365 was revealed, a new offering which combines Office 365 and Windows 10 in a single streamlined package, with additional security and management features.
  • Microsoft launched Workplace Analytics as an add-on for Office 365 enterprise customers, a system which uses behavioural metrics in an attempt to boost employee productivity.

June 2017

  • Microsoft Teams got new classroom experiences, allowing Office 365 for Education customers to benefit from virtual classroom environments with rich chat capabilities.
  • Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection received improved reporting on malicious emails which have been blocked, and a new Safe Links policy was introduced.
  • Microsoft Forms, a web tool for creating surveys, is rolling out for commercial customers, entering public preview for these users (previously it was only available to education customers).
  • Microsoft Stream was introduced for Office 365 commercial customers, an intelligent video service which allows users to share videos and benefit from speech-to-text transcription.
  • Microsoft pushed out iOS and Android apps for Microsoft Planner, allowing Office 365 users to update their plans while they’re on the move.

May 2017

April 2017

  • Microsoft used another tactic to push folks towards Office 365, announcing that those with a standalone version of Office will eventually lose access to OneDrive and Skype for Business.
  • It was confirmed that Windows will have twice-yearly major updates to align with Office 365 ProPlus’ update schedule, with said upgrades coming in September and March.
  • Outlook Customer Manager, which is designed to make it easy for SMBs to track and manage customer relationships, is now rolling out worldwide.
  • The PowerPoint app for iPad was improved with the introduction of Designer, which gives you quick and easy ideas for designing and laying out slides.
  • Microsoft revealed that Wunderlist – which is available as an add-on to Office 365 subscribers using Outlook 2013/2016, and on the web – will be replaced by To-Do.

March 2017

February 2017

  • Microsoft has updated Visio Pro for Office 365 with a database reverse engineering tool that allows you to easily create a visual representation directly from source data.
  • Office 365 benefited from the introduction of a security analytics tool which rates your current security configuration, and makes suggestions on possible improvements.
  • The Office team announced that the OneNote REST API now supports application-level permissions.
  • Excel got new features based on Power Query technology, including support for the percentage data type, along with a new OLE DB connector.
  • Microsoft released Office Training Roadmaps which help businesses keep track of training programmes for the various productivity apps.

January 2017

  • Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection got several new features for tighter email security, namely URL Detonation and Dynamic Delivery.
  • Microsoft graced Office 365 with a new Setup section on the navigation menu, which provides convenient and easy access to all setup-related settings in one location.
  • Office 365 was crowned king of all productivity apps by Okta, outdoing second-place Salesforce.com by a factor of 1.3 to 1 as 2016 came to a close.
  • Microsoft brought in a raft of new courses from LinkedIn Learning to the Office Training Centre, with over 20 offerings on working with Word and PowerPoint.
  • StaffHub, a nifty new app which allows for the management of shifts for deskless workers, became available for Office 365 users with a K1, E1, E3 or E5 plan.

December 2016

  • A new OneDrive for Business admin centre began rolling out to release customers, with general availability promised for early 2017.
  • Microsoft laid out its grand vision of how the firm intends to integrate Teams (its Slack rival) with Microsoft Planner so working across the two is a seamless affair.
  • Microsoft made the Accessibility Checker more easily found across all Office 365 apps, and introduced automated alternate text descriptions in Word and PowerPoint.
  • An official guide on the ‘preferred deployment practices’ for Office 365 ProPlus was released, including advice on preparing the ground, and maintenance afterwards.
  • New statistics emerged from data protection firm Bitglass showing that Office 365 is twice as popular as Google’s G Suite.

November 2016

  • Office 365 users got the benefit of real-time co-authoring in PowerPoint, as well as in the Word app.
  • Office Lens received a couple of new features, including the full integration of Immersive Reader, and a new tool called Frame Guide to help the visually impaired.
  • Outlook Customer Manager arrived in Office 365, enabling businesses to track and manage – and hopefully grow – their customer relationships.
  • Microsoft reintroduced Access, its heavyweight database software, to Office 365 Business and Business Premium customers.
  • Microsoft officially took the wraps off Teams, the firm’s Slack rival that leverages the whole gamut of Office 365’s apps and services.

October 2016

  • Excel 2016 got new features based on Power Query tech, including an improved web connector and enhanced Query Editor, as well as Query Parameters support.
  • Microsoft introduced the ability to create (and collaborate on) Office documents from within a Yammer group.
  • In an earnings report, Microsoft announced Office 365 user numbers: 85 million active commercial users, and 24 million consumers.
  • A batch of new apps were revealed for Office, including an app for invoicing, and tracking expenses, along with one for keeping tabs on your business’ web presence.

September 2016

If you want to see older news and developments pertaining to Office 365, then check out the Archives page at the end of this review.

Otherwise, now move on to Page 2 for our full review and detailed look at what Office 365 offers, and how it can help you become more productive.

Darren Allan contributed to this article

It's been a long time since Office just meant Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint (plus Access - remember that?). In fact, there's a confusingly wide range of tools and services under the Office umbrella.

In the last few years, Office 365 has established itself as the definitive business cloud service bringing together those familiar productivity services, plus an ongoing range of new features.

Apps

There are personal and business versions of Office 365 – home users get the latest version of the Office desktop and mobile applications plus email with Outlook.com and extra cloud storage with OneDrive, along with free Skype minutes every month. If you want to edit documents in Office on your iPad, or using the mobile Office apps on a Windows 10 PC, you need an Office 365 subscription.

Office 365 Personal is for a single user and allows one download of Office. Office 365 Home Premium costs $99.99 per year (£79.99, AU$119.99) for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher.

That's good value if you share it with the family; up to five people in the same household can have their own installations of Office on their PC or Mac at the same time (for the Office programs that run on a Mac).

When the next version of Office comes out, you'll get it on the same subscription, and you'll get new features as they become available. If you're at college or university (or you teach at one) you're eligible for Office 365 University on a four-year subscription for $79.99 (£60, AU$99) that you can use on up to two PCs or Macs.

Office 365 for business

Microsoft offers three tiers for businesses with less than 300 seats. Office 365 Business Essentials allows you to use online Office apps only (no desktop applications) plus 1TB of online storage per user and a 50GB Outlook inbox with email, calendar and contacts for £3.10 ($5, AU$5.50) per month per user on an annual contract.

Licence

Office 365 Business offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, Publisher and Lync, with a subscription licence for each user to run them on up to five PCs or Macs at once. You still get the online storage but no email services. Office 365 Business Premium combines Office 365 Business and Business Essentials; all the applications, plus email and storage.

Download Office

Enterprise business users get a full collaboration service with Exchange email, SharePoint document storage, Skype for Business unified communications, OneDrive for Business storage sync and sharing, Yammer enterprise social networking, Delve for tracking what your colleagues are working on, and Groups for ad hoc collaboration.

All that, alongside an increasing list of new services like GigJam (for sharing just parts of documents so you can have the right information available in a meeting) and Planner (a simple planning tool for groups), plus a subscription to the Office 2016 desktop and mobile applications, which includes early access to new features.

Delve

There are several different plans, depending on what mix of services you need. The E5 plan, for example, includes rights management services for encrypting documents and choosing who can see them and how long they're available for, Delve Analytics for tracking how people are spending their time, Power BI for graphical data analysis and business intelligence, and the Office 365 video portal for publishing video inside your company.

In the year since Office 2016 was released, Microsoft has continued to add new features to both the Office 365 service (which you expect in a cloud service) and the Office 2016 applications (which you might not), as well as the mobile versions of the apps for iOS, Android and Windows, new apps like Sway for 'digital storytelling' (that's somewhere between making a mobile app and designing a website), and the Office Online web apps.

That includes new admin features like the new look portal, customising sign-in pages, improved encryption controls, self-service password reset, plus a deal to use Wix to build websites after SharePoint public websites were removed.

New features arriving

The Office Online apps get regular updates, including new features plus integration with other cloud services like Skype and Dropbox – Word and PowerPoint now have the Format Painter for transferring formatting from one section to another, and Excel Online has more number formats, more features in Pivot tables and a high contrast view for accessibility.

Office Online updates

The mobile apps keep adding features like Find and Morph transitions in PowerPoint, or ink annotations in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can record audio in OneNote for iOS and on the web; that's better than OneNote on Windows 10 Mobile where audio recordings cut off after a minute.

Because Office 365 is a subscription service, the familiar desktop applications get new features. Word is about to get a spelling and grammar checker that uses machine learning to understand your writing, and a Researcher tool for easier searching for facts and quotes.

PowerPoint has gained several new transitions, a Designer tool that comes up with new looks for your presentation (very much like Sway) and a way to summarise your presentation with Zoom. Excel has new functions and charts and shape recognition when you draw on-screen, plus many more connectors for getting data into Power Query, while Outlook lets you '@ mention' people in email the way you would on Facebook or Twitter.

Office Online

But the changes also include removing some useful features. Changing the Save As options in Office 2016 has been particularly painful, and Office 365 no longer allows you to temporarily stream Office 2016 to a PC that you want to work on, if the Office Online versions don't have the features you need. Desktop Outlook is going to get the Focused Inbox that's so popular in Outlook for iOS and Android – but it will replace the Clutter feature in Exchange Online that files emails you're not likely to be interested in. Clutter worked in every client that you can read Exchange email in, including on older devices (especially Windows Phone 8.1), whereas Focused Inbox will only work in the latest versions of Outlook.

The enterprise Office 365 service is also where Microsoft tries out new features that will appear in the on-premise server products, like the new SharePoint 2016. Exchange Server 2016 is based on the latest version of Exchange Online, which has been available on Office 365 for some time (and you can buy some Exchange Online features to use with your own Exchange Server, like Exchange Online Protection spam and malware filtering).

Service health

SharePoint 2016 catches up with existing Office 365 features like chatting while you're collaborating on documents stored in OneDrive for Business, and will get newer features gradually. Improvements like the new document library experience, and the suggestions in the new iOS SharePoint app of what sites you should look at, are already showing up in SharePoint Online and will appear on premises once they've been tested in the cloud.

In the past, Skype for Business hasn't had the full unified communications features of the on-premise version because PABX integration is harder in the cloud, but Microsoft has been signing up partners like BT to offer voice services for Office 365, as well as creating cloud-only features like Skype for Business broadcast meetings for very large numbers of users (which will soon include real-time live translation and captions).

As you'd expect, you manage Office 365 mainly through the browser (although you can use PowerShell commands if you need to change settings in bulk). The admin portal is getting a major redesign that will soon become the standard way to manage the service.

Admin Centre

The previous interface had a minimalist, low-contrast, 'Metro' style that wasn't particularly efficient, with key tools relegated to a list of links at the side of the page and a dashboard that always showed the setup features even when you'd been running the service for years.

Extras

Now there's an expanding menu on the left with ten sections for managing and monitoring the Office 365 service, each of which expands to let you click straight into the specific area you need. This also makes room for features like Groups that have been added to the service over the years, which show up in their logical place (along with the traditional role-based groups).

As you navigate through the different sections, the tools are also grouped logically, and when you click on the details for a user or a group, all the information pops up in a window, with the most common commands (like resetting a password or deleting the user) at the top.

Dashboard

The home screen that replaces the former dashboard is far more useful – and you can even customise it. There are 'cards' for common tasks, from managing users to downloading the Office clients, and you can rearrange them, delete any you don't need quick access to, and add others.

Edit admin centre

The admin interfaces for Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Skype for Business and Yammer are now much easier to find as well; they have their own section on the menu, which also links to the new Security and Compliance centre, and to Azure Active Directory (even if you don't buy any of the premium AAD services, using Office 365 automatically creates an Azure AD for your business, but in the past it hasn't been obvious how to get to it in order to carry out any management).

You'd expect Azure AD to open as a separate site, because it's a separate service. It's slightly more confusing that the Security and Compliance centre opens in its own browser tab, but has the same design as the Office 365 admin centre.

Security and compliance

This new portal brings together all the security tools for the service, from assigning permissions to admin users, to managing devices, setting up alerts for user and admin behaviour and choosing how spam and malware in email are handled. All that sits alongside the tools for setting retention policies, running ediscovery searches and archiving content, and details of how Microsoft secures the different Office 365 services.

And it's downright annoying that all the admin portals for the Office 365 services still open in different tabs. Plus they still have the white-space-heavy, hard to navigate interfaces that are basic rather than simple, in which it can be hard to find the tools you need quickly (and Yammer has its own design again). We'd like to see them move to the new portal design too; the current mix of interfaces feels fragmented and confusing.

Yammer

It might even make sense for more of the settings to move to themed admin portals the way the security and compliance options have, rather than matching the admin options for the separate on-premise Office servers. Key settings from the Exchange, Skype for Business and SharePoint services are already duplicated in the new admin portal; if they're all you need, you'll never need to use the full service portals at all.

Rooms and equipment

Getting started

Setting up Office 365 is fast – provisioning an E3 or E5 tenant takes only a few minutes – and it's straightforward for a small company, especially if you're migrating from Exchange Online. You can start the wizard to walk you through setup – including connecting to the domain you're using for email addresses, or buying one if you don't already have one – straight from the purchase screen, or you can come back and work through the individual steps later.

You can set up users by connecting to your on-premise Active Directory by importing details (from a CSV file, for example) or by creating users one at a time (that's most suited to a small business); and when you create individual users you can assign licences as you go. If you want to pick and choose who gets which features, you can allocate licences individually for Office 2016, Office Web Apps, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Exchange and any other services.

There are other settings that you can change if you want, but not so many that things get confusing. You can customise the Office 365 theme, set the password expiry policy, choose whether you get new features when they're generally released or try them as soon as they're in preview (and that can apply to all users or just the more advanced users that you pick individually), turn on multi-factor authentication, set the policies for Azure Rights Management if your plan includes this document encryption service, and choose whether users can search Office 365 content using Cortana, or use Office Online to work with files in other cloud storage services like Box.

Groups

There's more work to do if you have email accounts on other services that you need to import data from (there's an import option where you can upload data or even ship drives to Microsoft if that would take too long), and if you're a large business that needs to mix on-premise servers with Office 365 you'll need to plan which users have accounts where and how you sync between your AD and the cloud service. But you don't have to be an expert to get a small business online with Office 365.

Ever since Exchange 2013, the web version of Outlook has had the same features and interface as the Outlook client – it's also what the Exchange Online admin centre is built on, and you can just mark a user as an administrator. This removes the need for an Exchange mailbox to administer Exchange, so you don't have to waste a mail licence and storage quota on a shared mail admin account. You can also give different administrators limited permissions; if someone only needs to use the compliance or discovery tools, they won't get access to mail flow and user settings.

The admin centre is crammed with features, organised into around a dozen categories. Previously complex tasks, like setting up a federation trust to make free/busy times in user calendars visible or setting up shared mailboxes for call centres, are far simpler and you are guided through important steps (like giving users the right permissions to access the shared mailbox).

Exchange admin

Public folders are still available, by popular demand. Like everything else in the new Exchange Online, they're simple to set up with helpful error messages that make clear what you've done wrong and how to fix it.

There's also a helpful balance between enforcing policy and users getting work done. The data loss prevention tools in the Enterprise version of Exchange Online let you set up rules to stop people emailing personal information like credit card numbers (with a smart check that employs the same algorithm used to issue credit card numbers, rather than just looking for any 16 numbers in a row).

But users can also override most of these policy warnings by filling in an explanation and confirming they know the message will be logged. The information can be encrypted to keep it safe until the manager approves the explanation.

The tips reminding users of the policy show up in Outlook clients, and Outlook webmail. But if you send a message from your smartphone that breaks a policy, the rule can forward the message to your manager or mail you to confirm that you meant to break the policy.

Malware report

But while the ultra-minimalist, white-space design is well organised, and will be familiar to Exchange Server admins, it doesn't match the style of the new Office 365 portal. There is also quite a lot of overlap – many tools from the Exchange Online portal also show up as links in the main portal to the auditing, mail flow and information protection tools (spam and malware protection and data leakage policies that block or warn users who are trying to send details like credit card numbers in email). These open the tools in either the Exchange Online or Security and Compliance portals.

Spam report

There are also some settings you might expect to find in Exchange that are in the main Office 365 portal, like choosing whether users can share their calendars with people outside your organisation.

Like Exchange Server, you can use Exchange Online for mobile device management by setting policies that will apply to any smartphone, like forcing the user to turn on encryption and set a PIN, and even setting how often they have to re-enter it.

Office 365 also includes Microsoft's Intune MDM service which adds extra features like detecting whether devices are jailbroken, and letting you mark emails and documents that can only be opened in approved mobile apps, like Office, and only saved in specific locations. You can also selectively wipe devices, removing business data but not personal photos and information.

MDM

The Exchange tools for managing mobile device access are still in the Exchange Online admin portal, which is where admins who are used to Exchange Server will expect to find them. The Intune MDM features are in the Security and Compliance centre – and yet again, that opens a new browser tab, because it has its own interface.

OAW for device admin

This is the kind of duplication we expect Microsoft to clean up as it continues to improve the Office 365 admin UI, and the disparate interfaces shouldn't distract from the fact that you're getting a powerful mail system with all the options you need. And if you don't need to delve into those options, you can be up and running quickly with a rock solid mail system. Exchange Online remains one of the crown jewels of Office 365.

If you've used Office 365 before, you'll remember the admin portal for the unified communications service formerly known as Lync was distinctly minimal, with very few settings you could change. As Skype for Business gains more features, there are correspondingly more options and controls, but it's a far cry from the complexity of the on-premise version; this is one of the services where being in the cloud makes unified communications dramatically simpler.

Now that Skype for Business can connect to Skype, you can control that integration, as well as allowing or blocking calls and chats with Skype for Business users outside your company, and choosing whether the Skype Broadcast service is available for creating large public online meetings. Again, the controls for external connections are duplicated in the main Office 365 admin portal – for many businesses, they're the only settings you might want to change, so you might never need the full admin centre.

Manage skype

You can also set the defaults for notifications and privacy mode and add your own boilerplate to meeting invitations. You can include your company logo, links to support, any legal terms and conditions that apply to meetings, or a few lines of text you wish to be included in all invitations.

Skype for business custom

You can use Skype for Business for dial-in conferencing, with or without toll-free numbers, so your users can phone in rather than using the Skype for Business client – that's included in the E5 Office 365 plan, or you can buy it as an add-on. You can also use PSTN Calling to call standard phone numbers and receive calls from anyone, not just other Skype for Business users (again, that's included in some plans but not in others – confusingly, there's a version of the E5 plan that has it, and another that doesn't).

Skype IM

You can even use Skype for Business as your PBX – as well as making and receiving calls, you get PBX features like transferring calls, having several phones ring when a call arrives, putting your phone on 'do not disturb' except for a few key contacts, playing hold music and handling voicemail. Again, you need the right licences.

The admin centre also includes a handy list of tools for troubleshooting, and a very minimal set of reports.

Lync Online was already an impressive HD videoconferencing system with excellent tools for online meetings. The Skype integration makes it a great choice for letting your customers and partners reach you without the cost of a phone call, and if you add the dial-in conferencing, PSTN calling and PBX tools, it's close to being a cloud service that offers a full unified communications system. But buying all those options as separate add-ons, some from third-party communications providers, does make everything more complicated than we'd like.

For a while, SharePoint Online was the red-headed stepchild of Office 365. The name didn't even appear in the list of apps – users just saw links to OneDrive and Sites – and the ribbon-based interface felt dated and out of step with the rest of Office 365.

But cloud competition like Box and Dropbox hasn't killed off SharePoint, and even though the personal cloud storage of OneDrive for Business is still part of Office 365, Microsoft has just given SharePoint itself a major refresh that updates the key features for document sharing and collaboration, and adds far better mobile support.

SharePoint Online also connects to the new services Microsoft has been adding to Office 365 like Groups and Planner, making the collaboration options feel more coherent.

SharePoint new

Sites for personal and shared team use and document libraries are still at the heart of SharePoint – document collections can now be as large as 25TB, and there's a new document library experience that looks much more like OneDrive, or a blog.

Team Site

Team sites automatically show popular documents and details of who in the team has been working on what, and there are new tools for creating pages on the site as if you were writing and publishing a blog – so you don't need to create HTML or use a separate publishing tool any more. Just pick web parts – images, events, links, videos, Yammer feeds – and drag them into place.

SharePoint Team Sites

Some Office 365 plans include the SharePoint Video service, for uploading and streaming videos. This is going to be replaced by the Azure Streams video service, though not until the new service has all the same features as the existing one.

Office video formats

All the existing options for customising SharePoint are still available. You can include language translation services for sites and documents, and for structured tasks you can add workflows designed in Visual Studio and have them hosted on Azure, or you can create a Flow or a PowerApp on Azure that lets you configure workflows that connect other services – like Salesforce or Dynamics – to SharePoint.

If you need the same kind of full-trust managed .NET code that lets you customise SharePoint on your own server, you can put that on Azure. As a multi-tenant cloud service, SharePoint Online has to protect users from each other's potentially performance-hogging code, so this is a sensible approach. But many of the features you'd once have built that way are available as apps written in HTML and CSS that run on SharePoint: you can get blogging tools, mapping tools, address checking tools and more – and admins can choose which apps are available in the SharePoint Store and who is allowed to buy more.

Plus SharePoint 2016 adds a new extension framework based on common JavaScript frameworks like React and Angular, where the code runs on the client device, not on the server. That's still in development, but it brings SharePoint up to date with the latest web development technologies.

SharePoint Home

SharePoint also has a new way of controlling access. Admins can still grant and block access to SharePoint sites, but team sites work with the new, self-service Groups feature in Office 365. Anyone can create a group of colleagues and the group automatically gets a team site with a document library, a shared calendar and inbox, a Skype for Business chat room that you can also get as email, along with a OneNote notebook, an always-on Skype conversation you can drop in and out of, and the new Planner task management tool.

It works the other way round, as well; make a team site or add colleagues to Planner and you create a group.

Planner is like a simple version of Trello – you create a card for each task, assign it to someone and save it into different 'buckets' that you use to organise your plan. It doesn't have much in the way of notifications yet, but Microsoft is adding features quickly.

Groups 2

Groups also have the kind of connectors you might have seen in Slack. You can connect a Twitter feed or a variety of services like GitHub, Trello and ZenDesk to a group to get alerts – so you could follow the hashtag for the product your team works on, or see customer support issues in the group.

You can search across all the sites you have access to and when you find a useful document, you can follow it as if it was a friend on Facebook. Results include automatic recommendations based on what the people you're connected to are working on, and your previous behaviour. That's based on the Delve feature, which analyses what documents your colleagues are working on that are relevant to you – you can see that in the Delve service but the information will now show up in SharePoint too.

Search is smart: search for 'marketing deck' and results will include PowerPoint presentations (that don't have the word 'deck' anywhere in the contents), with particularly relevant slides highlighted in the results.

The SharePoint newsfeed is still available if you want to use that to keep track of what's going on. This looks very much like Facebook or Twitter – you can follow people, sites, projects, hashtags, documents and events, and you'll see in the activity stream when someone does something new or makes a change (you can filter the stream to make it more manageable). You can also preview documents and videos straight from the Newsfeed, or turn any item into an action that becomes part of your task list.

Customise SharePoint portal

You use Twitter-style @ names to mention people and you can see when other people have mentioned you (you get an email as well as seeing it on the Newsfeed, so you don't have to update feverishly to stay on top of work). Also, you can post your own updates to everyone or just the team you're working with.

Customise SharePoint portal 2

But now that the Yammer social network service is available to all Office 365 customers, you can switch to using that instead. It's a much more powerful tool for collaboration that's getting regular updates – and again, it's going to integrate with Groups soon, so a team can choose to collaborate through Yammer or the other Groups tools.

Yammer design

You can view and edit documents in the Office Online web apps, and you can preview file types you can't edit, like Visio. Sharing documents – with colleagues or up to 10,000 external partners and customers who don't need to have SharePoint themselves – is also much simpler. Click on the sharing icon and type in names or email addresses, choose whether they can view or edit – or copy an obfuscated URL you can send in an instant message or put in a blog post.

Shared documents are marked by an icon you can click to see who you're sharing with (and you can stop sharing a document when you're done collaborating). Many Office 365 plans include Azure Rights Management Services, so you can control not just who can see a document but what they can do with it, turning off the printing and copying functions for confidential information.

SharePoint started out as a way to share document libraries and create workflows. It's now a flexible collaboration tool for ad hoc groups as well as a formal, centralised information store, with mobile apps as well as simple web publishing.

The SharePoint Online admin centre reflects that. There's a long list of settings that lets you control apps, connections, rights management, collaboration and whether users get new features and the new OneDrive for Business interface.

For many smaller businesses, that's all you need and you can hide the other controls. But if you need them, there's a full set of configuration options for everything from InfoPath to the taxonomy for how documents are indexed, in an interface that SharePoint Server administrators will find familiar (although it's going to confuse anyone starting with the new Office 365 admin centre).

OneDrive and OneDrive for Business

Microsoft uses the same name for its business and consumer cloud storage services: OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are now more similar than they used to be – in particular they use the same sync client, which fixes a lot of problems with OneDrive for Business – but they're still different services.

OneDrive is Microsoft's consumer cloud storage service, which gives users 5GB of free storage with the option to purchase 50GB for $1.99 a month (£1.99, AU$2), plus Office Web Apps. If you buy Office 365 Home, Personal, or University, you get 1TB of OneDrive space.

OneDrive for Business is the cloud storage service that's part of the business Office 365 plans (and also available as part of on-premise SharePoint Server), with either 1TB or 5TB of storage per user, depending on which plan you choose.

Office 365 tenants also get SharePoint Online, which includes 10GB of secure cloud storage with an extra 500MB per user, and the option of paying for up to 25TB of storage in total. You can choose how the SharePoint space storage is allocated between users and control how they use it, like limiting who they can share documents with or forcing them to encrypt confidential documents using rights management software.

OneDrive for Business, which is confusingly labelled OneDrive in the Office 365 portal to fit on the ribbon, lets users store their own working documents privately. If you're familiar with SharePoint, you can think of it as like the storage in My Site – and documents can still have workflows or be checked in and out.

OneDrive in office 2016

Users can also share documents with specific people – inside or outside the company – by clicking the three dots next to the file name and choosing Share, or from the properties and preview pane for the file. This interface has been updated a couple of times but it's still easy to share documents and see who has access.

Users can choose whether each person they invite can edit or just view the document and whether or not they need to sign in (it's possible to choose whether to enforce sign in globally). It's very clear if a document is shared and with whom, and you can stop sharing a document at any point. OneDrive for Business storage is part of SharePoint and you can apply policies to it in the same way.

OneDrive share

If you want to share a document in OneDrive for Business with everyone (including those to whom you give the URL of your OneDrive for Business), you can move it into the Shared with Everyone folder by default.

If you want to make it available only to a specific group of people, you can put a document into the library for a Team Site instead. That uses the SharePoint tenant storage and you can get those files onto a PC by opening them from SharePoint Online, opening the document library in Explorer (from the ribbon on the SharePoint site) or syncing the document library as a list in Outlook. Team mailboxes also save information into the SharePoint library.

Although the range of storage and sharing options in Office 365 sound confusing, in practice they make a lot of sense. Users get the option to stick to SharePoint shared document libraries or use something that looks like popular free cloud storage services – but which gives you control and security.

Sharing documents is simple and users can easily collaborate (they can even edit the same document simultaneously, in the Office desktop applications or the Office Web Apps) but again, you have tools to control this.

When it first came out, Office 2016 had excellent integration with OneDrive, on both Mac and Windows, letting you browse your online folders and see the folders you'd used recently right on the Backstage menu. A recent update stripped that out on Office 2016 for Windows, replacing it with a very slow dialog that doesn't show any recent folders at all – and doesn't even show you what the file name will be. It's a definite step backwards.

All apps

What else is in Office 365?

Depending on which Office 365 plan you choose, you'll get a range of new apps and services. All the plans include Sway, a new authoring tool that uses machine learning to do a lot of the layout work for you, creating responsive layouts that work on smartphones as well as desktop web browsers.

Business plans include the Planner service, as well as GigJam, a collaboration service that lets you share specific pages inside a document – you can just cross out pages and paragraphs you don't want colleagues to see. It's an interesting idea that needs a lot more work to be really useful.

Delve Analytics

The E5 plan includes the Power BI cloud service that lets you visualise information in charts and dashboards, and an extra tool in Delve called Analytics that analyses your working habits to tell you how much time you spend in meetings and email compared to your colleagues, to help you make the most of your time.

There are also related Office services you can add to Office 365, like Project Online, which is a full-fledged portfolio project management system.

Office recent changes

Expect Microsoft to keep adding new services to Office 365 – like the ones it plans to create from LinkedIn.

Office 365 is hands-down the best way to buy Office, whether you're a consumer user wanting the Office desktop apps with all the latest features, or a business that needs email and collaboration tools without the hassle of running your own servers. Yes, you pay a monthly fee, but you keep getting new features as well as useful cloud services.

We liked

The new Office 365 admin centre is a real improvement, making it easy to find features that used to be tucked away inside specific services

Exchange Online is one of the best business email systems around, and no-one knows how to run it better than Microsoft. Skype for Business has gone from VoIP meetings in the cloud to something that can be a full unified communications service – if you're prepared to pay for all the conferencing and telephony services you need to make it work. And SharePoint is getting a much needed refresh, plus the formerly infuriating OneDrive for Business is now both usable and reliable, and Groups give teams a simple way of working together on projects.

We disliked

Overall, the Office 365 admin interface remains disparate and disjointed; Microsoft needs to do more work here. In part, that's due to the overlapping tools, from the formal systems that replicate the server options larger businesses want – especially if they're migrating to the cloud – to the simpler, ad hoc tools based on Groups that are more approachable but also sometimes lack features. Whatever you need, you can probably do it with Office 365 – if you can find out where and how.

If you want the latest features and improvements, you need to opt-in to try previews – but that can mean losing useful options as well, like the confusing changes that make the Save As dialog slow and unwieldy in Office 2016. If you don't get features in preview, it can still take a long time for them to reach all the Office 365 tenants once they're supposed to be available.

Final verdict

Office 365 is a reliable service that integrates email, document sharing and conferencing almost seamlessly with the latest desktop versions of the Office software – which now get regular updates and extra features – and is evolving new cloud tools and services like Sway and Planner.

It's simple enough for small businesses and also has powerful options for larger companies, who will find that the savings from putting commodity IT in the cloud, while still being able to integrate with on-premise servers through Active Directory and hybrid Exchange deployments, make the combined subscriptions for server and desktop products very attractive.

You do need to pick the right plan though – there's a confusing number of them, all with slightly different features. This means you don't have to pay for services you don't need, but it also makes it hard to point at Office 365 and know exactly what you'll get.

Microsoft has officially released Office 2016 for Windows and it is available for consumer customers (Office 365 Home and Personal) immediately for download. Mac users have already been able to download Office 2016 for a few weeks already.

Office 365 will likely keep its name and could be joined by Windows 365 as Microsoft will apparently add a subscription option to Windows 10, and it has trademarked that name. Amongst the flurry of features added to Office 365 in recent times, the ones worth highlighting are:

Microsoft acquired Sunrise, a popular calendaring app for touch devices, which is likely to be incorporated into Office 365. Calendaring has been one of the areas where Microsoft hasn't devoted as much resources as many would have expected especially with the rise of mobility.

Microsoft also bought Acompli (which it almost immediately turned to Outlook), LiveLoop for to prep ip PowerPoint and 6Wunderkinder for its popular to-do-list application.

The company also announced that it was giving away 100GB of free storage for a year to existing Dropbox users to lure them away from the popular cloud storage provider – which incidentally is a close Microsoft ally.

That bonus is on top of a 100GB giveaway of OneDrive storage for two years if you subscribe to its Bing Rewards scheme. Your files will be read only after the subscription ends unless you buy a top-up and if you want to get a cheap one, Ebay seems to be the place to go with plenty of deals available for Microsoft Office 365 Personal available for less than £40.

Okay, let's move on to the most recent developments over the past couple of months. Microsoft recently announced that it has updated Office 365 for Exchange Online, so that users will no longer have their emails automatically deleted after a period of 30 days. Previously, deleted items were shifted into the Deleted folder before disappearing from there after 30 days, but the new update allows the system admin to change this period to a different length, or simply to set all emails to be kept indefinitely.

Also on the email front, Microsoft has just updated Office 365 to allow users to send email attachments which are far, far bigger than was previously possible. In fact, attachments can now be six times as large, with the new size limit being 150MB (whereas Office 365 users were limited to 25MB before – that said, note that the 25MB limit will remain in place unless the administrator actually changes things).

Video content is an arena Redmond is moving to cover with its subscription Office suite, as well, with the creation of the Office 365 Video portal that allows businesses to distribute videos internally. This is a free additional service which is currently in the process of rolling out globally for Office 365 enterprise users, in order to provide a fully integrated solution for video sharing within an organisation with security in mind. Office 365 Video employs an HTML5 player so it can work across all devices from mobiles to desktop computers, although Microsoft is also producing an app for iPhone users.

Furthermore, Redmond has bolstered Office 365 with the addition of mobile device management (MDM) again free of charge, at least for those on commercial plans. System admins will be able to use these features to manage access to data over a range of devices and platforms, from smartphones upwards and on Windows Phone, Android and iOS.

This will put in place measures such as the detection of jailbroken devices, and will allow for security policies to be set up to ensure that certain business emails or documents can only be accessed on approved devices. A selective wipe feature will strip corporate data off a device running Office 365, without touching any personal data on said piece of hardware.

Another major move on the security front which has only just happened is Microsoft and Samsung's announcement of an agreement, following settling their legal arguments over Android, whereby a version of the Office 365 suite will come to Samsung's Knox. In other words, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and OneDrive for Business will be included wrapped up in the Knox container.

Redmond has also just changed things with Office 365 so that documents can now be exported in the Open Document Format (ODF), to bring the suite in line with UK government guidelines on document sharing.

OneDrive

Recent news

The following is a list of updates to the Office 365 suite going back from August to the beginning of 2016:

August 2016

  • Microsoft is going to more tightly integrate Office 365 and Windows 10 by implementing an 'Office Hub'that offers easy access to your documents from within Windows.
  • Office 365 saw the introduction of a Service Assurance Dashboard which provides a range of details on privacy, security and compliance controls, including third-party auditing.
  • Microsoft said that the rollout of the overhaul of Outlook.com, which brings fresh Office 365 features to users of the webmail service, has been further delayed.
  • Office 365 Education introduced a raft of new features including Microsoft Classroom, School Data Sync, Microsoft Forms, and Learning Tools.
  • Microsoft brought some new ink effects to OneNote, and also the ability for the app not just to convert a handwritten equation to text, but also to teach you how to solve it.
  • Two new Visio apps popped up: Visio Online Preview which allows users to view and share Visio diagrams with only a browser, and the Visio for iPad app.
  • Various accessibility updates were applied across Office 365, including tweaks to make Narrator (the screen reader) a better experience in Word, Outlook and SharePoint.

July 2016

  • Microsoft highlighted two major new features coming to Word – Editor and Researcher, which help with proofing/editing, and citing sources respectively.
  • A new service arrived in the form of Microsoft Bookings, which gives Office 365 business users a hub web page that allows customers to schedule appointments.
  • Microsoft announced that Office 365 now has 23.1 million subscribers.
  • The free preview version of Microsoft Stream was launched, a YouTube-style service for businesses which will eventually become the de facto video experience in Office 365.
  • The Secure Productive Enterprise offering was revealed, bundling Office 365, Windows 10 Enterprise (in its new E3/E5 cloud-based form) and Enterprise Mobility + Security suite.
  • Redmond released a free videoconferencing tool for SMBs, noting that Office 365 business subscribers get similar facilities on a much grander scale via Skype for Business.
  • Microsoft revealed that later in 2016, Office 365 users will get a preview of an automatic live translation caption service for Skype Meeting Broadcast supporting 40 languages.

June 2016

  • Microsoft Planner was rolled out to Office 365 users worldwide, an app which lets you tackle project management in a fresh and user-friendly fashion.
  • Microsoft made a number of tweaks to Sway, its 'digital storytelling' app, including upping content limits so you can use more photos, videos and so forth in your Sways.
  • Outlook received some new features to help users better manage their travel plans and track the status of package deliveries.
  • Excel got a new set of Power Query features designed to make working with and getting the most out of your data easier.
  • A new Office 365 admin app was pushed out with a more slickly designed interface that makes important information easy to spot at a glance.
  • A new SharePoint mobile app was also launched for iOS offering quick and easy access to your company's portals, sites and resources when you're on the go.
  • The preview version of GigJam – a collaboration app inbound for Office 365 that allows users to easily share all manner of content – was made available to all comers.
  • Office 365 was struck by a major ransomware attack that exposed some 57% of its 18.2 million subscribers to phishing attempts.

May 2016

  • Office 365 Business was enhanced to allow co-editors to chat in real-time when collaborating on documents stored in OneDrive for Business or SharePoint Online.
  • Accessibility improvements, including a new high contrast theme, were applied to Office 365 to make it easier for the visually impaired to work with the apps.
  • Microsoft tweaked security for Office 365, with Exchange Online Protection getting safety tips that give warnings about suspicious emails.

April 2016

  • Office 365 received a front-end facelift with a new welcome page designed to be more helpful and intuitive.
  • Redmond bolstered the capabilities of Microsoft Graph, meaning that going forward developers can build better and smarter apps powered by data drawn from Office 365.

March 2016

  • A new admin centre arrived on Office 365 boasting powerful search functionality and enabling easy access to in-depth reports.
  • Office 365 Connectors were introduced, allowing apps and services to be hooked up to Office 365 Groups, so notifications from said apps automatically get sent to the Groups shared inbox.
  • Office 365 became the only non-Apple accessory offered to those purchasing iPads online.
  • Google expanded its Identity Platform, which is made up of a number of solutions including Google Sign-In, to cover Office 365.
  • And as March ended, we discovered that according to one study, Office 365 is the king of all business web apps.

February 2016

  • A ton of improvements were applied to Excel including new functions to make building common calculations an easier process, and deeper integration with Power BI.
  • Outlook also got some attention with a new system that lets users easily archive messages, and a new Groups section was added to the ribbon.
  • We saw a leaked pilot web page that indicated Redmond's incoming premium email service, Outlook.com Premium, will be free for Office 365 users.

January 2016

  • Microsoft extended its Office Insider preview program, which allows the curious to test early builds, to include Mac users.
  • Redmond introduced new inking features for the Office for iPad apps, allowing for scribbling on documents with a stylus or your finger.

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