Review: Microsoft Teams tries to do Slack one better

Microsoft is now offering the beta of Teams, its new group communications tool, which promises a new level of productivity for Office.

microsoft teams
Credit: Microsoft

While it's become the standard productivity suite for many businesses, Microsoft Office has lacked a tool specifically built for group communication and collaboration.

Enter Microsoft Teams, a cloud-based, chat-centric app for group communication and collaboration, which lets groups and subgroups create their own channels to work together using text chat, file sharing, calendaring, and voice and video chat. It's targeted squarely at Slack, which has become a well-known option for businesses that want to encourage workplace communication (and is, incidentally, something that Microsoft reportedly considered buying for $8 billion until CEO Satya Nadella nixed the idea).

The first beta of Teams was introduced in early November, and the final version is expected to be released in March 2017. The beta is currently available -- but only for Office 365 customers with a Business Essentials, Premium or Enterprise plan. The cross-platform tool has been released as a web-based app as well as a native app for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android. (Note: In our tests, when we tried to run it in the Ubuntu version of Linux, the web version told us that our browser was unsupported and prompted us to download a desktop version. The link gave us a Windows executable, which wasn't particularly useful.)

Before you can use Teams, an administrator for your organization must first enable it. This only takes a few clicks: Inside the Office Admin center, the option to turn it on is under "Settings > Services & Add Ins > Microsoft Teams." Once enabled, users can access Teams at teams.microsoft.com.

Does Teams deliver on its promise? To find out, we put it through its paces -- and, in fact, used it to work together on this review. Keep in mind that this is a beta version, so that there will probably be changes and/or additional features along the way.

With that in mind, on with the evaluation.

Tabs and conversations

At first look, Teams' interface is daunting -- the opposite of the simple, stripped-down Slack. Teams' features are available via two sets of tabs: one across the top of the screen and one down the left side. The rest of the screen is devoted to chat, meetings, and working on files.

Microsoft Teams

Threaded messaging is at the core of Teams.

The six tabs located on the left have an adjoining column that gives you the associated information, depending on which tab you click on. The topmost tab identifies you, lets you change your status (Available, Busy, Do Not Disturb or Away) and shows your overall activity in the column -- your messages, meetings you've participated in or are scheduled for, chats you've had, and so on.

Just beneath that is the Activity tab, which shows your most recent activities and notifications, including any responses to your conversations, meetings you're scheduled for, and any mentions of you in conversations.

Underneath the Activity tab is the Chat tab, which shows a list of people available for chat, along with any chats you've had or are currently having. (Chats from this tab are for private one-on-one or small group conversations, and are different from the shared team chats, which take place in the channels.)

Below Activity is the Teams tab, which lists all the teams and channels available to you. You can be a member of several teams -- for example, you can be part of a Marketing team and a Publicity team. Each team can create multiple channels -- the Marketing team can, for instance, create a Social Media channel and a Paid Ads channel. Click any Team or Channel to see its activities.

Just under the Teams tabs is Meetings, which lets you create and participate in meetings (more on that later). And at the bottom is Files, which gives you access to files that you create, upload, share and edit.

Across the top of the screen the tabs include: Conversations, which lists the various ongoing conversations and lets you participate in them (as opposed to the aforementioned Chat, which only shows your own chats); Files for access to files; and Notes for creating and sharing notes with the group. You can also add your own customized tabs across the top of the screen, primarily to pin important files for everyone to see.

If all this sounds like a lot, it is. And if it sounds confusing -- that's because it is as well. There are so many features available that we found it very easy to get lost. And unfortunately, there's no way to get a quick, simple overview so you can find out all that's happening with the team, the status of your work and what you need to do.

For example, let's say you want to see what comments other team members have made about a marketing document you uploaded two days ago. You might think clicking the Files tab on the left side of the screen would do that. But it doesn't. That tab lists the file and lets you view and open it, but it doesn't show any of the comments people have made.

Instead, you need to click the Teams tab on the left, click the Files tab on top, and click the file name to view it -- and then you'll see comments about the file on the right side of the screen. The same goes for when you want to make comments to a file -- you'll have to go through the same Byzantine process.

We found it too confusing and cumbersome to bother using. We relied instead on Office's reviewing features and made comments directly in the files themselves, rather than using Teams' comments.

Threaded messages and chat

The core experience of Teams is made up of communication between team members. Teams lets you use different tools for different kinds of communications: Threaded messaging for group conversations; private chats for more focused one-on-ones; and video and voice chat for more intense sharing, including screen-sharing.

It's easy to begin: Click the box at the bottom of most screens and type a message. Since messages are threaded, it's easy to follow individual conversations -- we found the threads especially useful when catching up on conversations after being offline for a while.

In fact, this is one advantage Teams has over Slack, which doesn't thread messages, though it says the option is coming. In Slack, everything is shown in chronological order, so that you have to scroll through an entire chat history to catch up, and things can get messy when multiple conversations are happening at once. With Teams' threading, it is easier to skim through messages and follow relevant conversations.

On the other hand, if you've got a lot of threaded conversations going, it can be tough to keep track of which ones are waiting responses from you. That's where the Activity tab comes in -- it shows you a chronological listing of all your activity in Teams, so you can see if there are any messages that need tending to.

To the right of each message are icons for "liking" a message and for saving it. "Saving" a message is a misnomer, though, because every message is saved. In Teams, saving a message means you can easily find it when you want by clicking the Saved button on the tab that identifies you. Doing that lists all your saved messages.

(By the way, the Teams' "Enterprise" label doesn't mean you're doomed to dull colors and an unintuitive UI for conversations. You can post animated GIFs, stickers, and custom memes -- although they can be disabled if you have a draconian IT administrator).

Microsoft Teams memes

Even though Teams is an enterprise tool, you can still use it to post animated GIFs and custom memes.

Threaded messaging isn't the only way to communicate with people in Teams. If you hover your mouse over someone's name, you'll have access to a bunch of other ways, including email, and video and audio calls. Video and audio calls are done inside Teams, with a built-in client that's simple and straightforward to use. It also lets you do screen sharing.

And while the Conversations area is for all the general Team talks, you can (as mentioned earlier) converse privately or in a small group using the Chat icon, which is on the left side of the screen.

Files and meetings

For a lot of people, work revolves around files -- documents, spreadsheets, presentations, marketing plans, budgets and more. Teams lets people share files --- although awkwardly.

We've touched on the core of the problem already: There are two Files tabs, one on the left side of the screen, and one on top. And they look and work differently. As we'll explain, each of the Files tabs serves a different purpose, and so the interface has a logic to it. But it can be confusing as well.

The Files tab at the top is context-sensitive, and shows you files related to specific things you do in Teams. For example, if you're in the Chat tab, when you click the Files icon at the top, you'll see files uploaded during that chat. Similarly, if you go to the Teams tab and you click one of the teams you're on, you'll only see files that team is working on. We found this very useful, because it means that no matter what you're doing in Teams, the right files are always within easy reach.

When you get to files this way, there's a lot you can do with them, including viewing, downloading, renaming, deleting and copying them; you can also edit them in the online or desktop versions of Word. And, as we explained previously, you can make and see comments as well. You can also upload files.

However, if you click the Files tab on the left, you get a more global view of all your files that are stored in OneDrive and other Office 360 sources, not just those in Teams. 

You can also get a few different views of your Teams files, so you can see only certain files, while filtering out others. Click Recent and you'll see recent files you've uploaded or worked on, but you won't see other Teams files. If you instead click Microsoft Teams after clicking Files, you can see all the files associated with any of your teams. However, you'll only be able to view files, download them, and edit them either in Office online or the desktop version of Office. You can't see or make comments about them, rename them, etc.

The upshot of this? The way you can interact with files will depend on how you get to them. Click Teams > Files and you get one set of options; click Files > Teams, and you get a different set of options. Some people will be confused by this. Others will agree with its logic and find it useful.

Microsoft Teams files top tab

Teams has two different ways to view and work with files. First, you can click the Files tab at the top to see files relevant to the conversation. Right-click any file, and you get these options.

Microsoft Teams files left tab

If you instead click the Files tab at the left, you can view files from all your teams or from your OneDrive folders. 

As for meetings -- that's one thing that Teams got right. Scheduling meetings is a breeze: Click the Meetings icon, click Schedule Meeting, pick the time, and then invite the people. That's all it takes. The meeting is done via video or audio chat, and includes the usual screen-sharing you would expect. It worked for us without a hitch.

Microsoft Teams meeting

It’s extremely simple to set up a new meeting in Teams.

1 2 Page 1
Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon