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Microsoft Teams review: A no-brainer for Microsoft shops

Existing Office 365 subscribers will love this - others, not so much

Microsoft Teams
  • Bundled with Office 365 Business Premium and Business Essentials; Competitively priced; Wide range of features and extensions
  • Slightly clunky interface

Microsoft Teams is a relative newcomer to the world of online business communications, but although the client interface is all-new, the underlying protocols and technology are really the latest evolution in Microsoft's long legacy of communication suites.

It's likely because of this that Teams provides far more comprehensive VoIP telephony support than most business chat clients. It even has internationally available direct phone number support: a feature that's vanishingly rare among its rivals. Calling plans and integration options with a limited range of local VoIP telephony hardware and systems are available, but there are typically extra costs involved.

Teams is the replacement to Skype for Business, which itself replaced Lync in 2015. Existing Office 365 customers are being gradually moved from Skype for Business to Teams, with staggered automatic transitions having begun in 2018. Skype for Business Server 2019 will continue in parallel as Microsoft's on-premises communications solution.

This surprisingly short life cycle of Microsoft's unified communications products is actually one of the strongest points against using them: at this point it's hard to be sure that you won't have to retrain your users on yet another new system in three years' time. However, it's a core Microsoft Office product, which means that, if you already use Office 365, it won't cost you anything extra.

Microsoft Teams review: Pricing and features

In the UK, you can sign up to Teams and create a workspace using its standalone free service, but its paid-for tiers are only available as part of a Microsoft Office 365 Business Premium, Business Essentials or enterprise E3 subscription. The positive side of this is that an entire Office 365 suite - and especially the service-only Essentials subscription - costs less per user than a Slack subscription and puts up reasonable competition against Google's G Suite and its Hangouts communication service.

Office 365 Business Essentials costs 3.80 per user, per month (exc VAT) and provides Microsoft's core online services - Exchange, OneDrive, SharePoint and Teams - for businesses that don't need a subscription to its Office software suite. Office 365 Business Premium adds desktop licences for Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access on top of that service package and costs 9.40 per user, per month (exc VAT). Both of these are charged monthly with annual subscription commitment.

Free users get 2GB of file storage per user and 10GB shared, unlimited message history searching, screen sharing, one-to-one and up to 250-person group video calling, and up to 300 members. Upgrading to Office 365 from the free version of Teams gets you extra administration features including the ability to add more admins, 1TB of storage per user, scheduling and recording of video meetings, extra security features including multi-factor authentication, integration with Microsoft's VoIP telephony calling plans if you subscribe to them, and one year's free domain hosting.

If you upgrade to a paid tier, you'll never again be able to downgrade. You also can't merge Teams free into an existing Office 365 paid subscription, and you can't have any free users in your paid-for organisation.

Both free and paid versions store your data in your local region, so UK businesses' data will not be stored in the US.

Microsoft Teams review: Clients

Teams clients are available for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS and web browsers. Unlike rivals Slack, Google Hangouts, and Mattermost, Teams does not have a Linux desktop client. While that's unlikely to concern most businesses, those in some development and industrial sectors may want to look elsewhere.

Web browser support is also limited. In contrast to its rivals, Teams' web interface doesn't work very well in Firefox. There's no support for Meetings - group video, audio or screensharing sessions - and font and whitespace rendering is unflattering and a little difficult to view.

Its appearance in Edge and Chrome - as well as the desktop clients - is significantly better. We particularly appreciated the inclusion of dark and high-contrast modes, which Slack has yet to implement on web and desktop platforms.

The general layout of Teams is rather Slack-inspired, with a large message and content pane on the right that by default loads your team's general group chat and a narrow left-hand pane with tabs that let you view your files, teams, private messages and notifications.

Between them is an index pane that lists your teams, files, message contacts or notifications, depending on which tab you're in. This felt a little too broad on our 1,920 x 1,080 display, both at full screen and windowed modes. While the client interface feels like it could do with more polish and extra features such as topic hashtags, it does everything it's supposed to - as long as you stick to fully supported browsers.

We're fans of the ability to open up an advanced composition field that lets you add subject headers, use enter for carriage returns, add HTML formatting and insert code, lists, tables and other custom text features in a manner that's reminiscent of Microsoft OneNote.

In this context, the decision to give each chat message its own box in the main pane, rather than have contiguous IRC-style discussions, suddenly makes sense. You can also share animated GIFs via Giphy and use a limited set of custom Microsoft emoji and stickers including a rather old-school DIY meme creator, because that's absolutely what modern business users require from their communications tools. (These options can be disabled in the paid versions.)

Microsoft Teams review: Configuration

For both free and paid-for versions of Teams, you'll have to create an organisation for your users to join. However, you'll use different administration interfaces to configure them.

The free version of Teams has extremely limited management capabilities, accessible from the Manage org option in the pulldown that appears when you click on your own profile as the workspace's sole administrator. You can see all your members, remove them if you want to and control whether or not they're allowed to invite others. That's it: you can't even add an extra admin.

For that, and much more, you'll have to upgrade to Office 365 Business Premium or Business Essentials. All your users will need a paid-for Office 365 email address and sign-in profile, but your existing data and conversation archives will be ported across seamlessly.

If you're starting from an Office 365 subscription, you'll similarly have to create a team for members of your organisation to join, and you can easily add individuals, groups or every member of your organisation to your team. Larger companies can have dedicated teams for every department.

Administration is carried out via the new dedicated Teams admin portal, although legacy settings for both Teams and Skype for Business can still be found via the main Office 365 admin pages. If you're familiar with Office 365, Microsoft Server or Microsoft Azure interfaces, you'll feel right at home with the Teams admin interface. For everyone else, it may take a bit of getting used to.

In stark contrast to the free tier, there are huge numbers of highly granular options here, allowing you to create policies controlling which features and apps users and teams can have access to, how meetings are handled down to email invitations and QoS traffic shaping for video, call handling for Microsoft Phone System integration, analytics and device management for webcams and IP phones registered to your users.

For both free and paying users, there's a surprisingly wide range of extensions available in the Teams Store, allowing you to integrate third party services including GitHub, Trello, Google Analytics, Zendesk and Zoom. As you'd expect, there's also an API that you can use to develop bespoke extensions for internal use.

Microsoft Teams review: Verdict

Teams is obviously going to be widely used, simply because it's what you get bundled with Office 365 and provides an easy way to connect everyone in your organisation for instant group and one-to-one communication.

It does what it's supposed to and shares the familiar user interface styling of other Office products. It has better telephony support than its rivals, stores data in your local region, includes some genuinely innovative message formatting tools and provides very useful meeting recording features.

The fact that its overall interface lacks polish is rather secondary to all that. It's not the nicest or most comfortable business communications tool to use, but its interface does the job well enough and will hopefully be given the opportunity to improve to meet its full potential in the coming years.

If you subscribe to Office 365, Teams is the best and most obvious communications choice for your business. If you don't need any of Microsoft's other services, however, Teams isn't worth getting into the Office 365 ecosystem for in its own right unless you specifically need a cloud-based, archiving communications system with UK data centres.

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