Tuesday, July 31, 2018

JBL Link 10

Smart speakers are all the rage these days but what if you want a single speaker you can use in the home and on the go? JBL has you covered with its Link line of speakers, which combine both smart and Bluetooth speakers into one product. 

At the low-end of JBL's Link line stands the entry-level JBL Link 10, a speaker that seems capable of doing everything on paper, but in practice has some issues.

For the money, however, the $99 (£150, AU$230) JBL Link 10 offers plenty of bang for its buck: You get Google Assistant, Bluetooth, waterproofing and the ability to use at home and on the go. It can't rise above the competition in terms of battery life, but its convenience and audio performance make it a solid smart speaker and likely a better pick for most people than the original Google Home.

Design

The JBL Link 10 features the company’s iconic cloth housing and cylindrical design. The Link 10 only comes in two colors: black and white, which JBL probably limited the speaker to so that it doesn’t look out of place in the home. However, we wish there were more color options like with their other speakers like the JBL Flip 4

Aesthetically, the Link 10 blends into the background with its almost generic design, which is good of bad depending on your preference.

While you can certainly use your voice to control playback, you’ll find physical controls along the top for volume, Bluetooth pairing, a multimedia playback button, and a dedicated button to activate Google Assistant if you don’t want to say, “Hey, Google.” 

Around the back you’ll find buttons for power and mute for the mic when you want some privacy, alongside a rubber door on the bottom to access the microUSB port which you'll use to charge the Link 10 in between sessions. 

On front of the speaker are four LED lights that pulse when Google Assistant is listening for a command. There’s also a LED wifi signal to let you know when the speaker is connected to your home network. The Bluetooth symbol on top will light up when it’s connected to your smartphone as well. 

The JBL Link 10 is IPX7 rated, which means you can fully submerge the speaker in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. This is great peace of mind when you take the Link 10 outdoors to the beach or to a pool party. Bringing the speaker away from your Wi-Fi network will mean that you can't invoke Google Assistant by shouting "Hey, Google" but you can still use your phone's built-in assistant with a long press of the Play button as long as it's still paired via Bluetooth.

Performance

Since the main draw of the JBL Link 10 is its Google Assistant support, let’s go over how that first. In terms of voice recognition, the Link 10 is decent but it’ll have trouble hearing your voice over loud music. There’s no fancy noise cancellation like you get with the Apple HomePod, but this shouldn’t be surprising considering the price and form factor. If you’re listening to music at soft to moderate volumes, it’ll hear your voice commands just fine. 

One thing that irked us was just how long the speaker took to boot up. It takes an average of about 20 to 30 seconds for the speaker to fire up and for us to start playing our tunes. Contrast this to Bluetooth speakers which fire up instantaneously and it’s a frustrating experience on the go. 

In terms of sound quality, the JBL Link 10 gets impressively loud, though there is some distortion at the upper end of the volume range. Tonally, the JBL Link 10 features a warm sound signature with your typical mid-bass bump. For the size, the Link 10 produces a good amount of bass but can’t compare to its bigger siblings like the Link 20 and Pulse 3. Highs have good extension but not very much detail. 

Battery life is rated at a disappointing 4 hours and our testing resulted in similar numbers. Unfortunately, putting Google Assistant into a portable speaker is definitely a compromise as it uses a lot of power. 

Compared to a purely portable Bluetooth speaker like the JBL Flip 4 which features 12 hours of listening, it’s disappointing that JBL couldn’t optimize Assistant to use less power, or to let users disable it for extended Bluetooth listening time on the go. 

Verdict

If you’re looking for one speaker that works at home and on the go, the JBL Link 10 is a good choice given its affordable price. It sounds better than the aging Google Home and offers a flexible multi-room audio setup if you decide to add more Cast-enabled speakers from JBL or any other company. 

However, JBL has compromised on the battery life and sound quality compared to the competition. The UE Blast comes with Alexa onboard in a similar size but the Blast triples the JBL’s battery life with a total of 12 hours of listening. We also found the UE Blast’s sound quality slightly better as it offers fuller sound with a surprising amount of bass. However, Google Assistant is much better than Alexa at answering questions. That said, if you can afford an extra $50, we think you’re better off buying the JBL Link 20, which features 10 hours battery life and better sound. 

Bitdefender Total Security 2019

Bitdefender Total Security 2019 is a top-of-the-range security suite which includes just about everything you need to protect Windows, Mac, Android and iOS devices.

Installing the Windows build, for instance, gets you antivirus, a firewall, spam filter, malicious website blocking, online banking protection, parental controls, a password manager, file encryption, secure file deletion, PC cleanup and optimization, and more.

Other platforms aren't as powerful, but still deliver all the functionality you might expect. For example, the Android app filters dangerous websites, locks apps, includes privacy tools and anti-theft features, and usage can be monitored and secured remotely via Bitdefender's Parental Controls.

Total Security 2019 also comes with the Hotspot Shield-powered 'Bitdefender VPN'. The free edition only gives you 200MB of data per device per day, making it useless for anything beyond email and very light browsing. Upgrading is good value, though, with the unlimited Premium VPN costing from £29.99 ($39) to cover up to five devices. Buying a one-year Elite license direct from Hotspot Shield costs £71.58 ($94).

New features in this release include Ransomware Remediation, a clever protective layer which detects ransomware activities and backs up targeted files until the malicious processes can be closed. This should avoid the problem you'll sometimes have with other antivirus software, where the ransomware attack might be blocked, but because this took a few seconds, it still managed to encrypt a few hundred files.

Network Threat Prevention is a new technology which aims to prevent malware exploiting vulnerabilities on your device to launch attacks.

Bitdefender's Autopilot system has got smarter, now offering intelligent recommendations on how to optimize protection to match the way you use your device.

A new-look dashboard completes the list of changes, simplifying operations and ensuring the suite is easier to use than ever.

Bitdefender Total Security 2019 is priced to cover multiple devices, and you can get a one-year, five device license for £34.99 ($45) in year one, £69.99 ($91) on renewal.

Adding further devices and years improves the value factor even further, so for example a three-year, 10 device license costs £134.99 ($175) for year one, £179.99 ($234), or £6 ($7.80) per device-year, on renewal.

If you're feeling tempted, then we've good news: Bitdefender Total Security 2019 is available in a 30-day no-strings free trial build.

Setup

Bitdefender asks you to sign up for a free account before you can download the trial of Total Security 2019. This only requires handing over your email address, though, and the account does provide some additional benefits, in the ability to view your device security status from Bitdefender's web console.

We created an account in moments, downloaded Total Security and kicked off the installation process. This involves a lot happening in the background – Total Security scanned our computer during setup to ensure it was clean, then installed the necessary browser extensions – but it all ran very smoothly and with no issues at all.

Launch Total Security for the first time and a simple tour highlights key areas of the interface and explains what they do. Experienced users would probably figure this out on their own, but it's good to have this guidance available for those who need it.

Total Security's nicely designed console gives you speedy access to the functions you'll need most often, with Quick Scans and the VPN just one click away.

A left-hand sidebar organizes Total Security's other tools into Protection, Privacy and Utilities areas, and tapping any of these lists the various functions they contain. Most of these are sensibly named, and if you've ever used another antivirus you'll quickly find your way around, but tooltips are on hand if you need a hint.

If you find a function you like and use regularly – say, maybe the Wi-Fi Security scanner to check the security of your current network – you're able to add this as a shortcut to Total Security's console. You can also replace some of the buttons included by default, so for instance if you're not interested in the VPN, you could swap it with System Scan, or whatever else works for you.

Overall, Total Security offers a polished and professional interface which delivers in just about every area. It's easy and comfortable to use for beginners, but also offers the configurability and control that experts need.

Features

Bitdefender Total Security 2019 supports several scan modes. Quick Scan checks the most commonly infected areas; System Scan examines everything; File Explorer integration enables scanning objects from Explorer's right-click menu, and there's a bootable rescue environment to assist in cleaning the most stubborn threats.

A Manage Scans tool enables creating new scan types to check specific files and folders, as well as configuring how the scan works, and setting it up to run on a schedule, or on-demand only. This doesn't match the expert-level configurability of Avast, but we suspect there's enough power here for most users.

Scanning speeds are decent, with Quick Scans taking around 15-30 seconds on our test computer. Full scans started slowly at 135 minutes to check 335GB of files, but this fell to 43 minutes by the second scan, 30 minutes for the third, and we would expect it to drop further over time.

Total Security comes with a capable spam filter, which automatically added a tab to our Outlook setup. This has only a bare minimum of features, little more than Outlook's own junk filter (blacklists and whitelists, Is Spam and Not Spam options to mark misidentified emails, simple blocking of messages with Asian or Cyrillic characters).

Our brief tests suggested the filter was a little slow at identifying spam, with our email taking three or four seconds longer to arrive (in total, not per message) and be displayed. This probably won't matter a great deal to most people, though, and the filter's accuracy could make it worth the wait.

Of 157 sample emails in our test, 74 of the 77 junk mails (96%) were blocked, while only 1 of the 80 legitimate mails was falsely flagged as spam. This was only a small test, but from what we can see, Bitdefender's spam filter matches the best of the specialist competition.

Bitdefender's firewall works exactly as you would hope, intelligently deciding which apps are safe to allow online, and which really, really aren't. Most people can leave the firewall to do its work, and never have to worry about tweaking a single setting.

But if you're more experienced in the ways of networks, you can take plenty of low-level control, drilling down to the rule level and tweaking settings for protocols, ports, IP addresses and more.

Wallet is Bitdefender's password manager. Along with regular website logins, it's able to store credit card details, wireless network passwords, application logins and license keys, email server credentials and details (server names, ports and so on), and personal details for yourself and anyone else you like (name, date of birth, address, email, phone number(s), and more). Wallet is able to create multiple password databases and sync them across all your Bitdefender-equipped devices.

Total Security automatically installs the Wallet extension on your local browsers (Chrome, Firefox, IE). We found this wasn't as easy to use as top competitors like Dashlane (it didn't add icons to text fields, didn't always capture username and password fields as we entered them, sometimes failed to fill in forms correctly, and couldn't automatically submit forms), but it just about handled the basics, and is a worthwhile addition to the package.

Safepay is another Bitdefender highlight, a secure and isolated browser which protects online banking and other transactions from snoopers – maybe even malware which has somehow installed itself on your system. This worked as advertised for us, preventing screen grabbers and keyloggers from capturing what we were doing, and not leaving any trace of our activities once it was closed.

A Vulnerability Scan checks your system for application updates and critical Windows patches, as well as weak Windows account passwords and simple Wi-Fi network issues. This is a basic tool and couldn't pick anything up on our system beyond a 'weak Wi-Fi security password', but it may be worth running occasionally.

The Vulnerability section also includes a Wi-Fi Security Advisor, but this did little more than list our connected network and tell us more about it (encryption type, authentication type, password strength). Most users won't care about this, and it can't match the network scanning abilities of competitors such as Avast.

A Webcam Protection module gives you control over which applications can access your webcam. This has more options than usual, with settings to block access to all but your chosen applications, block browsers only, or disable the webcam for everything. We tested this with our custom command line capture tool, and Total Security correctly notified us that it was trying to access the webcam, and blocked it when requested.

Bitdefender's Parental Controls feature does a reasonable job of monitoring and controlling your child's digital activities. You're able to block websites by content, restrict application use, block device usage for specified periods (like bedtime) or set a daily limit of screen time which includes both mobile and desktop devices. Android apps enable monitoring who your child contacts by calls and messages, and you can optionally block calls without caller ID.

The parental controls module isn't a substitute for a specialist parental controls application – there's no direct social media monitoring, for instance – but it's better than the usual security suite offering, and covers the basics very well.

Elsewhere, a Utilities section includes a familiar set of PC maintenance tools, including modules to highlight large files, remove disk-hogging junk and optimize the boot process.

Total Security's cleanup options are basic, with CCleaner finding almost twice as much junk on our test PC. The Startup Optimizer is better, with options to enable, disable or delay when individual apps boot, but it's still not a match for the best of breed freeware.

Total Security doesn't have quite as many low-level options and settings as some of the competition, but there are a few welcome touches which are more accessible to the average user.

Bitdefender's Profile system is the best example, where the system can automatically customize its behavior to match what you're doing, perhaps limiting background activity when you're running on battery power, or boosting protection settings when you connect to an unsafe public Wi-Fi network. That works well out of the box, but you can also customize each profile. The power-saving Battery Mode normally kicks in when battery life is lower than 30%, for instance, but you could increase this to 50% or more to gain extra usage time if you wish.

Protection

Bitdefender has a great name for protection, with its products regularly topping the charts with most of the big testing labs.

AV-Comparatives' February to June 2018 Real-World Protection report summarized the results of five individual tests, and as usual, Bitdefender performed very well. The engine blocked 99.8% of threats (that's 1078 out of 1080, to put it in perspective), placing it third out of 18 for overall protection rate, just behind Trend Micro and F-Secure.

AV-Test's Windows 10 tests for April 2018 gave even better detection results, with Bitdefender blocking 100% of test threats.

Our own checks on Bitdefender's malicious website filtering were also very positive, with the company blocking 84% of our test URLs. This is a difficult area to assess reliably, but Bitdefender is certainly better than most.

We completed our review by examining how Total Security would handle a couple of ransomware threats.

The first, a real-world ransomware specimen, was eliminated almost immediately, with Bitdefender Total Security killing the process before it could cause any harm at all.

The second was a custom ransomware simulator of our own. It's about as simple a malware example as you could get, but it's also something Bitdefender would never have seen before, allowing us to see how Total Security would perform when presented with brand new threats.

We ran our test software, and held our breath as it ran for several seconds. We were beginning to think we had defeated Bitdefender's technology, but no – quite suddenly, Bitdefender's engine cut in, and not only killed the test process, but also successfully restored every single file our software had managed to encrypt.

There were some small cleanup issues. The ransomware executable was blocked, but not deleted, and the encrypted versions of our files were left alongside the restored originals (if you started with Important.PDF, you would be left with Important.PDF and Important.Trashed). That's a minor hassle, but not difficult to fix, and on balance we think Total Security 2019 provides capable and effective all-round ransomware protection.

Final verdict

Bitdefender has produced a powerhouse security suite which uses multiple layers of protection to keep you safe from just about anything. If you're looking for a new antivirus, check out the trial build and see for yourself.

ZenMate VPN

Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.  

  • Locations increased to 30+ (June 2018)
  • Refund duration is now 30 days.
  • Changes in pricing. 1-month $9.99, 6-months $8.99 and 1-year $5.99.
  • The service now offers a 7-day free trial.
  • New protocols have been added and also, OpenVPN is now supported.
  • The service introduced Zenmate VPN for business. (July 2018)

ZenMate is a straightforward free VPN designed for non-technical users who want an easier way to protect their online privacy.

This simpler approach is obvious from the moment you look at the website. There's no jargon, no complicated feature lists, just a quick explanation of VPN technology and some example benefits.

One reason ZenMate doesn't spell out its features is probably that it doesn't have very many, and even the core technologies may not be what you expect. Just about every VPN provider supports the speedy and secure OpenVPN protocol, for instance, but ZenMate only uses the far less capable L2TP/IPSec.

Still, IPSec will do the job for many users, who are more likely to be interested in goodies like ZenMate's free Chrome and Firefox extensions. Both of these offer easy site unblocking and relatively anonymous browsing for no cost at all.

The commercial ZenMate Premium plans give you higher speeds and access to the full set of locations across 28 countries. ZenMate offers TechRadar Pro readers exclusive rates – £4.79 ($5.99) per month, £4.39 ($5.49) if billed 6-monthly and £3.33 ($4.16) if billed annually – and a 14-day ‘risk free’ refund policy should give you plenty of time to test the service's abilities.

Privacy

ZenMate's main website is straightforward, but poking around in the darker corners – in particular, the privacy policy and terms of service pages – revealed some of the most brain-numbingly over-complicated legalese we've ever seen.

Just about every element takes longer to describe than it should, and seems written for lawyers rather than regular users. We're told that descriptions on the website are a “mere 'invitation ad offerendum', i.e. a non-binding call to you to issue an offer”, for instance. Uh-huh.

The documents also make little effort to highlight details that might interest VPN users, such as clarifying what sort of logging takes place, or ZenMate's response to legal actions. You're forced to wade through every paragraph to find the information you need.

We went to work anyway, and from what we can tell, ZenMate seems to offer reasonable privacy. There's no routine logging or monitoring of traffic, and the service doesn't permanently log your connection IP address, or even the volume of data used.

The privacy policy does warn that individual servers might record some details depending on the data protection laws in that specific jurisdiction. This only mentions that the source IP address and site request might be "saved temporarily in order to establish a connection", though, and we suspect the clause is more about reporting a technical possibility than highlighting some major privacy flaw.

Performance

ZenMate's signup procedure is quick and easy: pick a plan, enter your email address, and choose to pay by card, PayPal, UnionPay or Qiwi Wallet.

We handed over our cash and the website displayed an invoice, explained what we'd bought and immediately pointed us to download links for the many clients: Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, along with Chrome, Firefox and Opera browser extensions.

It got even easier from that point. The entire Windows installation process looked like this: we clicked a Windows icon on the website, then clicked the download. There was no setup prompt, no folder selection or options to consider, the app set up everything on its own and minimized to our system tray. The only remaining step was to log in using a password sent in ZenMate's welcome email.

The client looks good and is clearly designed for beginners. We just clicked a button to connect or disconnect, selected a flag to choose a location, and clicked an icon to tweak a few settings. Even if you've never seen a VPN, you'll be ready to go in seconds.

The interface is a little basic and lacks some of the functionality you'll often see elsewhere. You can't select locations by city, for instance (it's country-only). There's no information on server load. As we mentioned earlier, you can't change your protocol because only L2TP is supported.

Even some fundamental tasks have their own usability issues. It's important with any VPN that you know when the service connects or disconnects, but the Windows client doesn't have desktop notifications to keep you informed. The only way to see your connection status is to check the system tray icon (if it’s bright that means you’re connected, and if it’s dark, you aren’t), something that might not be convenient or even possible if, say, you're running a full-screen app.

There are some useful features – a kill switch, DNS leak protection – but these have no configuration options. It's just a click to turn them on, another to turn them off.

ZenMate's browser add-ons offer some extra functions you won't see in the native clients. The Chrome extension can automatically set a new location when you access a particular site, which could be a real timesaver. There's also built-in blocking of trackers and known malicious sites, and the extension claims to block "code snippets before they can reach your browser."

We suspect ZenMate's target audience will be more interested in performance, but our tests* found this to be disappointing. UK to UK connections managed around 16-18Mbps, which is usable but around half the speed of the top competition. Reaching out to close European locations – France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden – saw performance fall to a lethargic 5-15Mbps.

Would switching to the US help? Our 8-10Mbps download speeds say not. The only bright spot was the performance of some Asian servers, such as Singapore's regular 10-12Mbps. That's well above average, but a similarly-priced competitor, Private Internet Access, gives you similar results in Asia and far better speeds everywhere else.

Our final privacy tests were a little better, with the client successfully blocking DNS and WebRTC leaks. Even here, there's a lack of advanced features – there’s no IPv6 leak protection, for instance – but most users should have enough to keep them safe.

Final verdict

Beginners will love ZenMate's easy setup, free browser extensions and the low yearly prices. Experienced users will be frustrated by the lack of features, though, and the below-par performance is going to be a problem for everyone. Check the service out, by all means, but try the free version first.

*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.

Hotspot Shield VPN

Editor's Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.  

  • Pricing has changed. There is no lifetime option anymore, but, 2-year and 3-year plans were added.
  • Server locations increased to 25. (June 2018)
  • Extensions for Chrome and Firefox are now available.
  • Kindle isn't supported anymore.
  • The service introduced Hotspot Shield for businesses, called simply Hotspot Shield Business. 
  • Refund duration increased from 30 to 45-days.
  • New pricing changes. Three plans available, 1-month $12.99, 1-year $5.99 per month and 2-years $2.99 per month. (July 2018)

AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield is a very popular VPN service, best known for its free account - it's an easy choice for a place in the rundown of best free VPNs.

Hotspot Shield Elite is the £18.95 ($25, AU$33) per year extended edition (£63.95 lifetime plan – that's $84, AU$112) which drops the ads, supports private browsing, virtual locations, allows "access all content", and supports up to five devices.

The service offers a choice of 20 locations including the US, UK, Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Russia, Turkey and Mexico.

There are clients available for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and, unusually, Kindle.

The Elite account comes with a 7-day trial, but you must enter your credit card details when you sign up. You're charged once the trial is over – however, there's also a 30-day refund option.

Privacy

The official product pages never tell you everything you need to know about a service, so we headed off to the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions pages to uncover the real details. Hotpot Shield doesn't have the shortest of either of these that we've ever seen, but they still do a reasonable job of explaining how the system is run.

There's not just a blanket "no logging" claim, for instance. Instead it's explained that personal details such as email addresses and payment information are stored, but not related to your online activities, and any browsing or connection information which might be recorded is deleted when your VPN session closes.

One unusual clause says that "as part of the Service, AnchorFree may install its own certificate on your Device as a Trusted Publisher" – and "AnchorFree reserves the right to make future installs or updates to such certificates on your Device in connection with providing the Service at any time without any notice..."

That isn't necessarily a problem, but it's certainly more intrusive than most of the competition.

There's also an age clause, warning that you may not "use the Hotspot Shield Software or the Service if you are under the age of 18".

Performance

Hotpot Shield's colourful client is compact and straightforward to use. Just click a button to connect, optionally change your location as required, and the system clearly shows when you're protected.

There are an array of buttons for popular streaming and other sites, including Netflix, YouTube, HBO and Facebook. Clicking any of these immediately opens your default browser at that address.

Hotpot Shield Elite has a very small number of settings. The most important – automatically turning on the product for unsafe Wi-Fi hotspots, and preventing leaks – are turned on by default, so you're not left with much to do.

IPLeak.net showed that the service hid our IP address and avoided DNS leaks. The WebRTC test showed an IP address belonging to an AnchorFree anonymous proxy. This didn't expose our identity in any way, but it may have allowed other sites to detect that we were using a VPN and block us accordingly.

The results from our performance tests* were excellent, with latency showing only a marginal 11% increase compared to our normal connection, and both upload and download speeds were a little faster once connected to the VPN (30% and 4%, respectively).

Final verdict

We'd like more configurability and a wider range of locations, but Hotspot Shield Elite's high speeds and low price give it a lot of appeal, and the 7-day trial makes it easy to test the service for yourself.

30/03/2017: AnchorFree recently updated the Hotspot Shield VPN with its new CATAPULT Hydra technology, a proprietary VPN protocol. The technology development was underway for over two years and has been deployed it to all of its VPN users, across mobile and desktop applications. Additionally, CATAPULT Hydra proprietary data transport system is available to their partners licensing and deploying VPN solutions within their own security and privacy solutions.

*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.

Fitbit Ace

Having conquered the world of adult fitness trackers, Fitbit has now turned its attention to its next target: children. 

The Fitbit Ace is the first product from the company to focus solely on youngsters, a market that has grown significantly over the past few years.

It doesn't compromise on core features – it offers water resistance, activity tracking, decent stamina and robust connectivity with the core Fitbit smartphone app.

Fitbit Ace release date and price

Released around the world in June 2018, the tracker is now ready to buy in the US, UK, Australia and various other countries around the world.

The Fitbit Ace price is set at $99 / £79.99 / AU$129.95, which is on the expensive end of fitness trackers for children with a lot of the competition being a lot cheaper.

Design and comfort

  • Waterproof casing
  • Strap can be changed as your child grows 

While the Fitbit Ace is the first fitness band in the line to be aimed squarely at kids, it's not an all-new product – it's basically the Fitbit Alta HR with a smaller strap. 

While this might seem rather lazy on Fitbit's part, it's actually a stroke of genius when you really think about it; kids are very fashion-conscious and giving them a childish-looking device will only stop them wanting to wear it. 

Because the Fitbit Ace looks like a 'proper' Fitbit wearable, they'll be more inclined to pop it on.

The Ace's similarity to a full-fat Fitbit also means that when your child has outgrown the bundled strap – which can be removed pretty effortlessly – they can upgrade to a larger strap and keep using it, rather than chucking it in a drawer and forgetting about it. 

Our test subject is 10 years old and while the Ace fits well enough at the moment, there's not a massive amount of room (the device is recommended for children ages 8 and up, in case you were wondering).

The ergonomically-shaped main body is comfortable enough, even though it's made out of metal, while the strap itself is a soft rubber-like material that didn't cause any complaints during our testing period. You can get the device with either a blue or purple strap.

Screen

  • 128 x 36 pixel OLED
  • Tap-based interaction, rather than touch-based 

The Ace uses a 128 x 36 pixel resolution OLED screen to display information such as the time, date, total steps for the day and total active time. 

You can select from one of 10 different watch faces but to be honest, there's very little difference between them – after all, there's not a massive amount of real estate to deal with here. 

The screen also handles all of the notifications that relate to various activities, and does a good job of displaying eye-catching animations which give kids a visual reward for hitting their goals. Unlike a lot of OLED-based wearables, the screen is easy to make out in direct sunlight, too. 

The only downside is that because interaction is based around tapping and not touch, it can take some getting used to. 

A firm tap anywhere on the tracker is usually required to wake the screen, and subsequent taps will cycle through the various displays. If you just want the time, tilting your wrist is enough to wake the display.

Features and fitness

  •  Connects with the Fitbit app using a secure family account system
  •  Tracks steps and active minutes, as well as sleeping patterns 

Setting up your Fitbit Ace is initially rather confusing. First, you'll need to have a standard Fitbit account, which won't be an issue with existing users, but might pose a stumbling block for those parents who haven't purchased a tracker for themselves yet. 

Using the standard Fitbit app, you can set up a family account which allows you to add the Fitbit Ace and assign it to your child. Once you've done this, you can either choose to pair the device with your phone or allow your child to pair it with their own smart device. Given that my son doesn't have his own phone yet (I'm a cruel parent, obviously) I chose the former. 

While the Ace does a good job of setting goals – 10,000 steps a day is the default, for example – you can use the app to keep tabs on how your child is doing but also set things like alarms to wake them in the morning. The app also keeps track of all of the badges they've earned, and will send you an email alert when they pass a particular goal. The setup is excellent for parents who want to make sure their child is exercising and remaining relatively active. 

However, it's vital to remember that kids can easily become obsessed with this kind of data, with undesirable results. Thankfully, a child account cannot add other friends like a standard Fitbit account, so you don't have to worry about them being approached by strangers outside of your control. 

Instead, everyone in your family can take part in challenges with other members, which is potentially a safer way of handling the competitive aspect of this device. Of course, that also means you'll all have to go out and purchase a Fitbit, but maybe that's all part of the company's devious plan? 

The little animations which play when your child has reached a daily goal are a surprisingly effective means of getting them engaged with their fitness; the band also vibrates to give additional feedback when a notification comes in. 

Active time – basically anything that is more strenuous than walking – is recorded automatically, and it's pretty accurate, for the most part. 

Sleep tracking is also part of the package, and can be used to check on your offspring's slumber patterns each night. 

However, if you're planning on using the system as a way of making sure they're not staying up late reading or playing video games, forget it – all they have to do is take off the band and the Fitbit app assumes they're fast asleep. There's no heart rate monitor on the Ace so it can't be used to make sure they're not cheating. Bah. 

Battery life 

  • Battery life is rated for around 5 days per charge
  • Ace uses proprietary charging cable, so don't lose it 

Fitbit quote 'up to five days' of battery life from a single charge, and that's a pretty reasonable estimation. Helpfully, you'll get alerts both on the app and via email when the battery level is running low, which is handy as kids aren't the most conscientious when it comes to making sure their devices are topped-up before leaving the house in the morning. 

The bundled charging cable clips onto the back of the watch and charges over a USB connection, so you can use either your computer's USB port or the USB wall charger you get with pretty much very smartphone or tablet on the market these days. It's a proprietary charging cable so make sure your child doesn't lose it. 

 Verdict

Fitbit deserve some credit for creating a fitness tracker aimed at kids which isn't an embarrassment to be seen wearing; in fact, the upgradeable straps make this a solid choice for youngsters who want a tracker that they can grow up with. 

The only stumbling block is that the Ace offers a slightly limited degree of functionality when compared to the 'real' Fitbit range, so they'll out-grow it eventually. 

Still, if you're looking for a wearable for your kids which looks sleek and you already have several Fitbit users in your household, this is the ideal way to get your offspring serious about keeping active. 

Who’s this for?

The term 'My First Fitbit' is very apt here; the Ace is aimed at kids who have never used a fitness tracker before and want some very basic incentive to get on their feet and burn some energy. 

The device is marketed as being for kids aged 8 and up, but the changeable strap means even teenagers will be able to get some use out of it before upgrading to the real deal. 

Should you buy it?

If you're concerned that your child isn't active enough then the Fitbit Ace is a good way of 'gamifying' exercise; however, at £80 it's quite pricey so you'll want to be sure they're not going to just take it off and forget about it.

If you're already tied into the Fitbit ecosystem yourself then the ability to control and monitor their performance via the standard Fitbit app is a boon too.

Competition

Don't think the Fitbit Ace suits your needs? Here are some alternatives you may want to consider instead.

Xiaomi Mi Band 3

While this Chinese fitness tracker isn't officially available in the UK as yet, it's a solid challenger to the Fitbit Ace purely because it costs less than half the price – around £22, to be exact. This isn't specifically designed for children though, it's just a normal tracker.

Moov Now

It may be incredibly basic and lack key features – including any kind of screen – but this is a cheap and accurate tracker which is ideal for fitness newcomers, as it's robust and can take plenty of knocks and bumps. Again, this is just a normal tracker for adults though.

Garmin Vivofit 4

While it's not aimed at children, the Vivofit 4 is cheaper than the Fitbit Ace and offers the same kind of feature set.

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.]

July 2018

  • Microsoft introduced a new Workplace Analytics solution, which draws data from Office 365 and facilitates analysis to identify collaboration patterns and boost productivity among staff.
  • MyAnalytics nudges were introduced to Outlook, giving users intelligent reminders including ones which help balance the time spent in meetings with actual work, so the former doesn’t dominate.
  • Microsoft Teams became available in a free version which supports up to 300 people, and is available globally in 40 different languages. You get 10GB of team file storage.
  • Microsoft announced that its Whiteboard app, a freeform digital canvas allowing for collaboration in real-time, is now generally available for Windows 10 (and will arrive soon on iOS).

June 2018

  • Microsoft announced that Office 365 will get a new updated, simplified ribbon, which will roll out in testing from next month (although the classic 3-line ribbon will remain available).
  • The Search function will become a ‘more important element’ in the productivity suite, Microsoft noted, producing AI-powered recommendations when you simply place the cursor in the search box.
  • Microsoft also intends to spruce up Office 365 with fresh colors and new icons which are built as scalable graphics, rendering crisply and cleanly on a display of any size.
  • Office 365’s threat protection services were bolstered, with improvements made on the detection front, and countermeasures such as more anti-phishing capabilities.
  • Microsoft partnered with Adobe to give folks the ability to create and edit PDFs in Office 365, straight from the toolbar in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and SharePoint.

May 2018

  • Microsoft announced that from next month, it will be blocking the activation of Flash, Shockwave and Silverlight controls within Office 365.
  • It was revealed that Microsoft Training Services will kick off as a pilot scheme in July, a digital learning service to help train staff on Office 365 (and Windows 10).
  • A leaked video showed that Microsoft is apparently bringing Mixed Reality to SharePoint, with SharePoint Spaces allowing the display of documents and data in 3D.
  • Microsoft revealed the Surface Hub 2, the sequel to its original digital whiteboard which runs Windows 10 and Office 365, with the new model boasting a 50.5-inch, 3:2 aspect ratio 4K+ display.
  • Outlook received a nifty bonus this month, with Microsoft integrating payment services (including Stripe) which will allow you to pay bills directly from your inbox.

April 2018

  • Microsoft’s latest financial results revealed that Office 365’s commercial revenue increased by 42% year-on-year, with the suite now having 30.6 million consumer subscribers.
  • Microsoft has brought Sets to the preview version of Office 365, allowing for the use of tabs to keep things better organized in the productivity suite’s apps.
  • Office 365 users are getting real-time link checking in Word, Excel and PowerPoint later this year, which will automatically check links in documents for malicious content.
  • And in a further security move, Office 365 gained the ability to detect ransomware attacks, and help the user restore their files on OneDrive to a time before they were compromised.

March 2018

  • Microsoft introduced new data types for Excel, allowing the spreadsheet program to recognize rich data types beyond numbers and text, starting with stocks and geography.
  • The online version of Excel also got some neat features from the desktop software, including the ability to insert Pivot Tables and images from local storage.
  • A new personalized search experience which provides tailored results based on your work patterns is now being rolled out to all Office 365 subscribers.
  • Microsoft Teams celebrated the anniversary of its launch a year ago, and the software giant revealed that over 200,000 companies worldwide now use the Slack challenger.
  • Microsoft also introduced enterprise-grade calling features in Teams (such as call delegation), and revealed that Cortana integration is planned for the future.

February 2018

  • In the face of GDPR, Microsoft 365 is gaining powers to help protect sensitive data, including a Compliance Manager for Office 365 Business and Enterprise users in public clouds.
  • Resume Assistant arrived in Office 365, allowing Word users to leverage the power of LinkedIn in order to craft a better CV.
  • Microsoft Planner gained some new features including a Schedule View which makes it easier to plan ahead, along with Group and Filter options to help with meeting deadlines.
  • Not strictly Office 365 news, but it emerged that Microsoft is making Office 2019 a Windows 10-only affair – showing the firm is still pushing folks towards its subscription offering.
  • Office 365 Education received a new learning tool, Dictation in Office, which allows students to write using their voice across Word, PowerPoint, Outlook Desktop, OneNote for Windows 10, and Word/OneNote Online.

January 2018

  • Microsoft Teams saw some extensive work, including the ability to use interactive cards pulled from third-party apps directly in conversations as easily as you might drop in a GIF.
  • Microsoft made an important move for iOS and Mac users, with the introduction of seamless co-authoring across Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.
  • Mac for Office 365 subscribers got another new feature: AutoSave in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, facilitating automatic saving for files stored in the cloud (OneDrive and SharePoint).
  • Yammer users benefited from improvements to the mobile app which allow them to post announcements to groups, as well as adding animated GIFs, and more besides.
  • OneDrive for Business users received the ability to easily restore files to any point in the last 30 days, a feature which will hopefully be coming to consumer accounts soon.

December 2017

  • Outlook’s mobile app got smarter with the arrival of Cortana’s ‘time to leave’ feature which lets the user know when to depart for a meeting, taking into account things like traffic jams.
  • Microsoft Word received a new feature which uses machine learning to identify commonly-used acronyms across an organization, and automatically surfaces definitions for them.
  • Excel was bolstered with a preview of Insights in the spreadsheet app, which automatically highlights patterns and trends in data using AI (the firm is currently on a big drive with AI).
  • OneDrive and SharePoint were graced with the ability to automatically pull out searchable text from images (like receipts) for Office 365 commercial subscribers.
  • Microsoft rolled out its Whiteboard Preview app which the company describes as a ‘freeform digital canvas’ where people can collaborate creatively.

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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