All posts by adams

Salesforce Essentials review: Stripped-back CRM wins on functionality


K.G. Orphanides

11 Jun, 2019

The SMB edition of one of the world's most popular sales tools dials down both cost and complexity

Price 
£24/£240 exc VAT

Salesforce is one of the industry leaders in online customer relationship management (CRM) software, with a key focus on enabling businesses to keep track of clients, potential clients, sales and support issues.

While its higher-tier Professional, Enterprise and Unlimited subscriptions are both expensive and complex due to the sheer number of advanced features they pack in, Salesforce Essentials is cheaper, at £24 per user, per month or £240 per user billed annually. You can have a maximum of 10 users and a minimum of one, which helps to keep costs down compared to its other tiers, which start at £720 per user, per year for Salesforce Lightning Professional.

While the Classic edition of Salesforce is still available to both new and existing customers, we’ve focused on its latest Lightning Experience, which presents a more polished and modern user interface but doesn’t have the traditional layout that longtime users will be familiar with. Although Salesforce hasn’t indicated when Classic will be retired, Lightning will ultimately supersede it.

Essentials also limits the number of extra features it includes. Although you get access to third-party extensions, it lacks advanced forecasting and lead automation tools. A 14-day free trial gives you enough time to work out if this is the CRM solution for you.

Salesforce keeps all user data in the US, with data protection covered by the EU-US Privacy Shield.

Salesforce Essentials review: Getting started

Salesforce Essentials’ Sales home screen opens with a healthy array of dummy data for you to play with and a genuinely helpful guided setup box, which takes users through basic tasks. These include connecting a Google or Office 365 account to easily track customer communications, as well as introducing you to the sales funnel classification system for prospective customers in a variety of industries, You can customise the information you store about contacts, import existing customer data, add your colleagues – if your budget extends to that – and, once you’ve learned your way around and tried a few things out, delete all the trial data so you can start using Salesforce for real.

The first time you log in, you’re asked what you want to get from Salesforce, such as keeping your contacts organised, closer collaboration with colleagues or closing more deals – to help it present you with a set of appropriate guided tours around the service’s features.

Essentials is much more approachable and far lighter on the business buzzwords than its sibling, Salesforce Professional, which makes it a far better choice for anyone who isn’t already fully initiated into the deeper secrets of specialist sales and CRM systems and terminology.

SalesForce’s key advantage is that it replaces the databases, contacts books and spreadsheets a business might use in concert to keep track of clients and sales, and instead provides a unified environment where tracking the status of bids and opportunities is as simple as dragging them from one column to the next, with detailed profiles for you and your colleagues to annotate, so you know exactly where you stand with every customer and project.

The guided tours are rigid and not terribly interactive, but they provide a useful introduction to the service’s terminology and systems. Other tutorials open Salesforce’s integrated help and documentation system, while extensive tutorials are available on Salesforce’s dedicated Trailhead site.

Very early on, you’re pointed towards material showing you how to use features like Leads to record and look up details about potential customers that you’ve not yet contacted or done business with. Although by default only the most recent data you’ve worked with is shown in each category, you can pin a number of different views to be shown by default. We particularly like being given a list of all our active leads and contacts.

Everyone who works with a lead can add notes to their entry so your entire business’s knowledge about and dealings with each client can be assembled in a single, easy-to-find location. Once you’re ready to take your business relationship to the next step and send them quotes and proposals – or at least regard them as someone likely to make a purchase – you can convert that lead into an Opportunity at the click of a button. This process already creates a contact and a customer account for their business.

Once you’ve got an existing relationship with a customer, Salesforce becomes home to your complete archive of data on that company and your contacts there, complete with tools to help remind you to check in and manage recurring business and customer support needs.

Everything’s searchable via a bar at the top of the screen and a powerful setup interface allows you to customise the appearance and behaviour of Essentials’ various modules.

Salesforce Essentials review: Apps, extensions and integrations

The Essentials app launcher is, once again, far less bewilderingly cluttered than that of Salesforce’s higher-cost tiers, limiting itself to three core web app interfaces for sales, customer support tickets and your sales and support usage metrics.

There are also shortcuts to useful tools such as a calendar for keeping track of appointments and targets, which you can configure to sync with Office 365 or Google Calendar; your master list of leads; note-taking tools and a social-media style Chatter tool to help communicate with your colleagues and keep track of their activities. Once open, each of these tools is given its own tab within the Salesforce web app interface, making it easy to navigate between them.

As well as lead tracking and conversion, the Sales interface allows you to assign tasks to yourself and your colleagues, see past and future tasks and client communication events on a calendar, upload and share files and generate reports.

We’re great fans of the Service Console, which lets you log, track and respond to customer service and support requests. You can forward email addresses and link Twitter and Facebook accounts so that all messages and mentions they receive are automatically added to your Salesforce Service Cloud queue for attention, making it incredibly easy to manage your customer support and communication channels.

You can email customers from within the console if you’ve linked a G Suite or Office 365 email address, view both the active ticket and your business’s full history with that customer, upload files, add notes and even link your corporate or staff Twitter profile to pull in social media posts by your customer.

There is, of course, a mobile app to help you do business on the move. Thankfully, rather than simply trying to cram the web browser experience into an app, it’s a genuinely optimised piece of design, opening by default on your business’ Chatter feed to keep you abreast of your colleagues and providing easy access to your organisation’s contacts, support cases, leads, opportunities and more via an expanding list at the right of the screen.

A number of third-party integrations are available, although Salesforce Essentials isn’t as well supported as higher subscription tiers – for example, the QuickBooks integration listed on Salesforce’s small business solutions site doesn’t work with it. However, integrations are available for services including DocuSign digital signing for contracts, Slack for office communication, MailChimp for external announcements, and Dropbox and G Suite for storage, among others.

Salesforce Essentials review: Verdict

Salesforce Essentials is powerful, but accessible enough not to be entirely overwhelming for small business users and its Service Console support ticketing system for customer support is outstanding. It’s also a good introduction to the Salesforce ecosystem for those who’d rather not jump straight into the significantly more complex Professional tier.

However, this is also among the most expensive CRM solutions for small enterprises. Those that just need basic sales tracking and relationship management may be better off with a more inexpensive rival, such as Zoho CRM, which is free for businesses with up to three users and costs just £10 per user, per month after that.

Linksys LAPAC2600C review: Easy cloud networking for small businesses


Dave Mitchell

31 May, 2019

An affordable Wave 2 AP that’s strong on performance and features

Price 
£183 exc VAT

Small businesses that want to move from standalone wireless networks to fully cloud-managed ones will love Linksys’ LAPAC2600C as it doesn’t get any easier. This Wave 2 wireless AP takes everything we like about the standard LAPAC2600 model and teams it up with Linksys’ Cloud Manager web portal. Its price even includes a 5-year subscription.

Signing up for a Cloud Manager account is easy: provide an email address for the designated owner, add a password, choose a domain name and create networks for each geographical location. Adding APs is equally swift. You provide their MAC address and serial number, which are found on the box, under the AP and, if you login to its local web interface, can be copied and pasted from its system status page.

Before going further, we recommend visiting the portal’s main settings page and changing the default local admin password for all managed APs. Most AP settings aren’t available locally, but you can still login and disable cloud management or change the AP’s LAN configuration.

Each AP takes 10 seconds to link up with Cloud Manager and you can change their names to more meaningful ones. The portal’s overview page for the selected network provides a real-time graph of upload and download traffic for all clients or the number of connections and can be swapped to the last hour, day or week.

You can see the busiest clients and APs, wireless channel usage and a Google map showing the AP’s physical location. You can create an unlimited number of SSID profiles and up to eight can be assigned to each AP as ‘slots’.

Along with enabling encryption and SSID masking, you can decide which APs will broadcast the SSID and apply a single limit in Mbits/sec to overall upstream and downstream bandwidth usage. Client isolation stops users on the same SSID from seeing each other, you can restrict the number of clients that can associate and enable 802.1lk for fast roaming as users move around.

Zero-touch provisioning is achieved by creating a new network for the remote site, entering the AP’s details from the box, pre-assigning SSIDs to it and sending it to the remote location. All the user needs do is unbox the AP, connect it to power and the internet and it’ll do the rest.

The LAPAC2600C is a good performer, with real world file copies using a 5GHz 11ac connection on a Windows 10 Pro desktop averaging 56MB/sec at close range dropping to 53MB/sec at 10 metres. Coverage is also good as the SweetSpots app on our iPad only registered a loss of signal after we got 44 metres down the main building corridor.

Each network in your account can have additional members added and allowed to manage all settings or merely view them. There are no options to permit access to specific functions but the account owner can add more users and grant them full portal access to all networks.

Guest wireless networks are swiftly created by enabling a captive portal (or ‘splash page’) on selected SSIDs, which is presented to users when they load a browser after associating. The page can be customised with a small company logo and AUP (acceptable use policy) of up to 1,024 characters, set to request a global password and used to redirect guests to a landing web page – possibly with a promotional message.

The LAPAC2600C delivers good wireless performance and features at a very reasonable price. Linksys’ cloud portal is basic but its extreme ease of use makes it ideal for small businesses that want hassle-free cloud managed wireless networks.

Microsoft Teams review: A no-brainer for Microsoft shops


K.G. Orphanides

23 May, 2019

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

Price 
Free/£3.80/£9.40 per user per month (exc VAT)

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.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Drag and drop, straight to the top


Dave Mitchell

16 Apr, 2019

Protecting your virtual machines doesn’t get easier than this

Price 
£445 exc VAT

There may be a wealth of backup solutions aimed at securing virtualized environments but many offer this as an additional feature, so SMEs may find themselves paying through the nose for excess baggage. Not so with Altaro VM Backup: this software product is designed from the ground up to protect VMware and Hyper-V VMs (virtual machines).

Another bonus is its pricing structure, because unlike many products that use the number of sockets or CPUs, Altaro bases costs purely on the number of hosts. The Standard edition starts at a mere £445 per host and this allows you to schedule backups for up to five VMs per host.

The Unlimited edition begins at £545 and, unsurprisingly, supports unlimited VMs per host but also enables high-efficiency inline deduplication, cluster support, GFS (grandfather, father, son) archiving and Exchange item-level restore. Moving up to a still very affordable £685 per host, the Unlimited Plus edition brings Altaro’s cloud management console into play and adds WAN-optimised replication, CDP (continuous data protection) and support for offsite backups to Microsoft Azure.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Deployment

Altaro claims it’ll take you 15 minutes to install the software and get your first backup running and it’s not wrong. It took us 5 minutes to install it on a Windows Server 2016 host after which we declared our first Hyper-V host, added a Qnap NAS appliance network share as our primary backup location, picked a VM from the list presented and manually ran the job.

The console is very easy to use and we also declared the lab’s VMware ESXi host and another Hyper-V host running our Exchange 2013 and SQL Server 2014 services. Along with NAS appliance shares, Altaro supports a good choice of destinations including local storage, iSCSI targets, USB and eSATA external devices, UNC share paths and RDX cartridges.

For secondary off-site locations, you can copy data to Altaro’s free Offsite Server (AOS) app which supports Windows Server 2012 upwards. The OS and AOS app can also be hosted in the cloud using a range of providers including Microsoft Azure.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: User interface

Creating VM backup strategies doesn’t get any easier as most operations are drag and drop. We viewed all VMs presented by our Hyper-V and VMware hosts and simply dragged them across and dropped them on our primary backup location.

At this stage, you can run them manually with a single click, but applying a schedule is just another drag and drop procedure. Altaro provides two predefined schedules and we could create our own with custom start times plus weekly and monthly recurrences.

A set of default data retention policies are provided and you can easily create new ones for on-site and off-site backup locations. Choose how many versions you want to keep, decide whether older ones are deleted or archived and then just drop VMs onto them to apply the policy.

You can add off-site copies to a schedule at any time by – you’ve guessed it – dragging and dropping VMs onto the secondary backup location icon. CDP can be enabled on selected VMs and scheduled to run as often as every 5 minutes, while application consistent backups can be applied to VMs running VSS-aware apps such as Exchange and SQL Server.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Replication and restoration

Selected VMs can be replicated to the remote AOS host where CDP defaults to updating them every 5 minutes, or less frequently if you want. Depending on which type of VMs are being replicated, AOS requires access to local Hyper-V and VMware hosts, where it manages VM creation and handles all power up and shutdown commands.

Both the Altaro primary and AOS hosts must be running identical OSes and for the latter, we defined iSCSI storage for off-site copies and declared local Hyper-V and VMware hosts to provide VM replication. Initial off-site copies can be sped up as Altaro provides an option to copy the data to a removable device for seeding the remote vault.

General recovery features are excellent: you can restore a virtual hard disk, clone a VM or boot one straight from a backup to its original host or to another one. We tested the Boot from Backup feature and Altaro provisioned a SQL Server 2014 VM from its latest backup on a new Hyper-V host and had it running and waiting at the Windows login screen in one minute.

Altaro’s Sandbox feature takes the worry out of recovery by verifying the integrity of selected backups. Along with checking the data stored in backups, it clones VM backups to the same host to make sure they will boot when needed – and it does this all in the background.

GRT (granular recovery technology) restores are provided for recovering files, folders and Exchange items. Exchange GRT is undemanding; we selected this for our Exchange 2013 VM, chose a backup and its virtual hard disk, browsed for the EDB file and viewed our users and mailboxes plus items such as individual emails, contacts and calendars. The console creates a PST file containing the recovered items and we used the Exchange Admin Center web app to grab the file and import its contents into the relevant user’s mailbox.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Verdict

During testing, we were very impressed with Altaro VM Backup’s fast deployment and extreme ease of use. The clever console design makes it easy to create backup strategies for VMs plus it offers a wealth of valuable recovery and replication features. Protecting your Hyper-V and VMware virtualized environments really doesn’t get any easier or more affordable, making Altaro VM Backup a top choice for SMEs.

Google G Suite review: Suite like chocolate


James Morris

20 Mar, 2019

If you can make the leap to a cloud-centric usage model, G Suite provides seamless real-time document collaboration.

Price 
£3.30/£6.60/20 per user per month

Google has been a “disruptive” company on many levels since its inception. Gmail changed the way we used email by providing an inbox size that kept growing ahead of user needs. When the company began also offering competent office software via the browser, for free, it seemed like Microsoft Office had a real challenge on its hands.

Now, around a fifth of businesses use G Suite, which is less than a third of those that use Office 365. But this is still a significant figure, making G Suite the second most popular office suite, and the obvious one to consider instead of Microsoft’s. So to accompany our review of Microsoft Office 365, here we look at what G Suite has to offer in comparison.

Google G Suite review: Options

Everyone with a Google account can access Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drive (including 15GB of free storage), and numerous other Web-based Google applications. But if you want more cloud storage and a professional email address that doesn’t end in gmail.com, then you will need one of the paid subscriptions, of which there are currently three. Unlike Microsoft’s subscriptions, these are true monthly prices that you don’t have to pay for annually upfront, and the number of users you can have on any of them is unlimited.

The Basic subscription costs £3.30 per user per month and increases the online storage to 30GB across mail and files. It also gives your company control over employee accounts, which you won’t have if they all use their own Gmail accounts. This means you can change their passwords when they leave, and take away access to their Google Drive storage at the same time. You can also restrict collaboration access to within your organisation, and create group email addresses, as well as have multiple email versions that end up in the same mailbox.

The Business edition of G Suite costs twice as much at £6.60 per user per month, but has significantly upgraded features. For fewer than five users, each one gets 1TB of cloud storage, but for five or more users the capacity is unlimited, which is a distinct advantage over Microsoft’s alternatives. There is also an easy environment for creating Web apps for your organisation, and much more sophisticated search, security and e-discovery features compared to the Basic version. Above this, there’s the Enterprise edition for £20 per user per month, which further enhances security management features and e-discovery.

However, it’s worth noting that in April 2019, Google plans to increase the prices of the Basic and Business accounts by $1 and $2 respectively, although the company hadn’t announced what this will translate to in the UK at the time of writing. There are also separate versions of G Suite for Education or Government clients.

Google G Suite review: Office Applications

One very clear distinction between G Suite and Microsoft Office 365 is that there are no installable desktop versions of the G Suite applications. However, a G Suite administrator can enable offline file and app access for their users within the Chrome browser. Similarly, Chromebooks already work in this way, so you can load locally stored documents into Docs, Sheets and Slides within the Web browser, whether or not you have a working Internet connection. Your edits will then synchronise back out to cloud storage when connectivity is available again.

For general document creation and editing, Google’s offering is very serviceable, and there are clear advantages from the native online nature of G Suite. The various applications also have the ability to import and save back to Office file formats, amongst others – although not always faultlessly, with the formatting compatibility of the Slides to PowerPoint translation being particularly suspect in some cases. In the last year or so, G Suite’s version control facilities were enhanced so that different versions can have different names. This also enabled the ability to suggest changes from the smartphone versions.

Gmail is the granddaddy of G Suite applications, and its biggest strength is its Google-powered search, which is as fast and capable as you would expect. A lot of extra features can be added with third-party augmentations. However, by default you can’t sort email or group it, which may lead users to turn to a standalone email client such as Thunderbird or (perish the thought) Microsoft Outlook, particularly if they need to access email offline.

The Google Docs word processor is perfectly capable at the core functions of document creation and formatting, but lacks special capabilities such as Word’s SmartArt insertion. Some people might prefer the cleaner, simpler interface compared to Word, although this is in large part thanks to having fewer features. There are also more subtle deficiencies that put it behind Microsoft Word. For example, whilst you can easily call up a word and character count, the rolling count in Word’s bottom left corner is more streamlined as it doesn’t require a menu click.

However, you can extend the capabilities of all the Google Apps via Add-ons, many of which are free. For example, Docs doesn’t come with a table of contents facility as standard, but you can add one via an Add-on. There are numerous free Add-ons for bibliographies and citations, which again aren’t included as standard. The sophisticated mail merge capabilities of Word don’t seem to be replicated, however, although there are Add-on options that will mail merge with an address database held in Sheets.

Whilst word processors reached the point years ago where few people cared which one they were using for basic writing, Google Sheets poses a viable challenge to Excel. It includes capable PivotTable features and lots of functions that parallel those in the Microsoft competitor, although not always with the same name, which will be a bit confusing if you’re already an Excel function whizz. The extremely useful VLOOKUP works in a very similar way, however. You can create a similar range of charts, including some of the recent Office additions like waterfall visualisations.

Sheets gains extra power thanks to being hosted online. You can connect other applications to a Google Sheet and draw data from it via an API to use elsewhere. Equally powerful is the ability to set up a Google Form that feeds straight into a Sheet, so you can get users to enter data and have it automatically appear in a handy spreadsheet format. This can allow Sheets to form the hub of a database-driven survey app that outputs dynamically to a web page, for example.

Google Slides is perhaps the weakest of the G Suite apps. It has all the basic needs and again has some benefits from its online nature with the ability to search YouTube directly and insert videos into your presentation. However, the theme and animation options are considerably more pedestrian than PowerPoint’s and Apple Keynote’s. However, it is now possible for third parties to add custom templates, which improve the design capabilities.

Google G Suite review: Cloud Services and Smartphone Apps

Google was obviously a search company to start with, and the enterprise iterations of G Suite include a Custom Search that places an Explore button at the bottom of application interfaces that provides useful tips but also searches across related documents in your Drive and the Web, allowing you to drag elements into the document you are working on.

There are site-building tools such as My Business that allow you to quickly create a web presence for your company. The Google App Maker, available with Business and Enterprise Editions, takes this further, letting you develop software to automate business processes. Again, Add-ons and extra apps integrate with the main software to provide extra functionality. For example, you can plug in Apogee Leave Management to stitch this conveniently into the Calendar, so any leave booked shows up automatically.

Google’s mobile apps provide easy options for working on documents offline and on the move. You will have to tag the files you want to work on offline, so they can be downloaded and stored locally, but after that you can work on them with your smartphone or tablet when there’s no Internet connection. The changes will be synchronised back to the cloud next time you have a connection. Like Microsoft’s smartphone apps, the features are reduced over the Web-based apps.

Google G Suite review: Verdict

The choice of Google G Suite really depends on how your organisation can work with the need to be online most of the time, and also how much you will need authentic Office-format documents. Switching to a model focused around the cloud is a big cultural change, which could be uncomfortable if your staff tends to work away from reliable network connections.

For some businesses, however, the online aspect has a bonus — your software is entirely managed, and your technical support needs thereby dramatically reduced. You can get a similar experience with the Business Essentials version of Office 365, which only provides the Web-based software, not desktop. With G Suite, however, all your users need is a working computer running any operating system with an Internet connection and a browser, (which can even be Internet Explorer 6) so there’s no software to install. This has made G Suite particularly attractive for education, where the low cost of entry of Chromebooks is an added bonus.

The live collaboration aspects of G Suite are mature and seamless, too. It’s very easy to set up a document and have umpteen users work on it together, with their changes reflected in real time as they work. This is something that won’t be anywhere near as easy to accomplish with the desktop editions of Microsoft Office applications, despite the recent cloud editing enhancements. However, not all companies need or want to work this way, and the majority are likely used to operating in a more standalone fashion, as they will have done for decades.

In summary, whilst Microsoft Office applications are unquestionably more powerful and fully featured than their G Suite equivalents, the Google alternative has the edge when it comes to uncomplicated cloud-based collaboration. So it’s really a matter of “horses for courses” as to which is best for your company. More traditional businesses pumping out Office-format documents regularly will want to stick with the Microsoft choice. But if your employees regularly work together on documents, and particularly if you have a lot of remote workers, G Suite makes this simple to achieve.

Xero review: Xero to (almost) hero


K.G. Orphanides

15 Mar, 2019

Comprehensive cloud accounting that's particularly well suited to sales-based businesses

Price 
£8.33/£18.33/£22.92 per month (exc VAT)

New Zealand-based cloud accounting specialist Xero is geared up to support HMRC’s new Making Tax Digital VAT payment scheme – which becomes mandatory for all UK businesses with turnover above the £85,000 VAT registration threshold from the 1 April 2019.

Xero is among the more expensive SaaS accounting suites around, with three tiers targeting businesses of various sizes. Xero Starter costs £10 per month as standard but severely limits the number of transactions you can process every month: you can send just 5 invoices, enter 5 bills and reconcile 20 bank transactions. This means that it’s only suitable for the very smallest of businesses.

Priced at £22 per month, Xero Standard removes those limits, while for £27.50 per month, Xero Premium adds multicurrency support for SMEs that do business overseas. New subscriber discounts are frequently available for all tiers.

Unlike some of Xero’s rivals, all three tiers support online VAT submission to HMRC. Bolt-on features are also available at levels, including Payroll at £1 per employee per month, Projects at £5 per user per month and Expenses at £2.50 a month for each user. Note that your accountant will have to be added to Xero, and any bolt-on service you want them to have access to, as an additional user.

Xero review: Getting started

When you sign up to Xero, you’re prompted to add a few details about your company and then taken to the main dashboard, where a guided setup wizard awaits you.

You’re asked a few simple questions to configure your financial year, whether you want to stick with Xero’s default chart of accounts categories or import your own from a previous accounting suite, and are invited to connect your bank to directly import transactions.

The Add Bank Accounts screen – also available via the Bank accounts screen in Xero’s Accounting menu – allows you to connect accounts from a large number of financial institutions that do business in the UK, including PayPal and both business and personal services from the usual high street banks.

However, although a number of online-only banks such as Revolut, TransferWise and HSBC’s well-established First Direct are represented, some of the current wave of digital challenger banks don’t appear. ING, Monzo, and Shine are among those currently missing, as are foreign banks.

If your account uses two-factor authentication, you’ll have to generate a login code every time you sync its transactions with Xero. Otherwise, they’ll be synced automatically every day. If your bank doesn’t come up when you search Xero’s list, you can just select “Add it anyway”, enter your sort code and account number, and manually upload your statements in CSV format.

If you have a foreign bank account, you’ll have to extract the account number and sort code from its IBAN to set it up, after which you can just upload statements as for any other non-connected account.

With your accounts added, you’re next prompted to enter your balances as they were on the date that you want Xero to work from – the beginning of the current month by default. For foreign currency accounts, you’ll have to – slightly obtusely – double-click on the balance field and then add both the balance and confirm the exchange rate you wish to use.

Once you’ve imported some bank transactions, Xero’s tutorial wizard sends you to reconcile them: match them up to your expenses and invoice payments. Unlike some rivals, such as QuickBooks, Xero doesn’t try to automatically classify transactions based on their description or the company involved, which means that your first reconciliation could be quite time-consuming.

Xero review: Invoicing

The next stop on the guided set-up process is particularly useful: adding unpaid invoices and bills to pay. This is an important step when moving your business to any new accounting suite, but it’s nice to have it made explicit. To complete the invoices, you’ll also need to enter your organisation’s contact details as prompted.

You can either enter all your outstanding invoices manually or download a CSV template to help you upload them en mass. To help balance your books, you should also add any invoices that have been paid within the period covered by the bank transactions you imported earlier.

Note that, when using the template, you have to enter a unit number and amount for each invoice rather than simply entering the total in order for the import to complete. While you can conveniently opt to save imported client details when doing a bulk invoice import, if you’re going to create your initial invoices manually, you should set up your Contacts and invoice template – in your Organisation settings – before.

Helpfully, Xero also provides a free portal that your customers can use to view and even pay their invoices immediately via PayPal.

Xero review: Staff, payroll and tax

If you have employees, you’ll be prompted to add them and set up your payroll accounts towards the end of the guided account configuration process – Xero Payroll costs £1 per employee with a minimum fee of £5 per month.

Once you’ve entered each staff member’s basic data – name, date of birth, address and binary gender – you’re prompted to fill out a standard range of information, from employee number, start date, NI number and national holiday group before you can go about setting up their tax and pension data.

Xero can help you calculate and submit PAYE tax, national insurance contributions and pension filings in the process of managing and paying your staff. There’s a full range of human resources options here, including a request system for time off, complete with support for statutory shared parental leave.

When it comes to VAT, Xero will automatically put together your return based on your month’s transactions and, at the click of a button, file it with HMRC.

Xero review: Time, inventory and expenses

Once you’ve created a payroll calendar for your employees, they can submit timesheets that can be used to calculate pay and integrated into optional project management systems. Xero also supports inventory tracking; you can monitor stock levels of items you buy and sell automatically as you enter bills for your purchases and invoice customers for your sales.

There’s a full expenses system – a bolt-on feature charged at £2.50 per user per month – which allows your staff to easily submit claims. You can set it up to use Xero’s receipt analysis, where staff take photos of receipts for their expenses and these are sent back to Xero for automatic analysis. Alternatively, if you’d rather not have the processing done on Xero’s end, you and your staff can enter the information manually.

As with most online services, there’s an app marketplace, featuring a range of free and paid-for tools to help you connect to third party services, including payment providers, CRM, timesheet and project management tools. You can also connect other Xero services, notably Projects and WorkFlowMax for project management.

Xero review: Interface

While Xero’s main dashboard and menus are clear, as are some of its overview pages such as the Payroll interface, many of its configuration pages look a little outdated due to tiny fonts and text entry areas. They’re not particularly comfortable to work with on a standard 1080p monitor, let alone higher-resolution displays.

Elsewhere, we found visible raw HTML code visible in an inventory tracking sheet. Another problem is the service’s use of Flash – long depreciated and disabled by default in most browsers – to produce graphs and charts for its sales summary reports.

By comparison, the Xero mobile app looks great and is really easy to use. It doesn’t give you access all the features of the web app, but provides you with key tools to monitor your business’s financial health, add contacts, record bills and receipts and create quotes and invoices on the move.

Xero also runs free webinar tutorial sessions that you can sign up for, covering everything from linking your bank accounts to HMRC’s new Making Tax Digital scheme and how it works with the software.

Xero review: Verdict

Xero is a solid and reliable accounting tool – if not always a particularly attractive one, largely due to inconsistent formatting that sometimes looks a little poor on modern displays. We liked the attention to detail in the guided setup process, as well as the integrated inventory system, although Payroll is a bolt-on extra.

Xero among the more expensive accounting tools you could subscribe to: it costs more than Sage and includes fewer quality-of-life flourishes than comparably-priced rival Quickbooks. The Starter plan is particularly limited by an improbably low allowance of monthly invoices.

Xero’s good at what it does, and is particularly well tailored to sales-oriented businesses that need basic stock management built in, but it’s not our favourite cloud-based accounting solution.

Zoho Books review: Everything but the kitchen sink


K.G. Orphanides

11 Mar, 2019

A relatively low-cost accounting suite with a huge range of features at all tiers, but lacking integrated payroll

Price 
$9 (£6.83)/$19 (£14.42)/$29 (£22.02) per month

Indian Software-as-a-Service giant Zoho is among the cloud-based accounting software firms working with HMRC to ensure that VAT registered companies are all set to use the new Making Tax Digital reporting process from the beginning of April 2019.

Zoho has European data centres in the Netherlands, rather than the US, so doesn’t have to rely on the sometimes controversial EU-US Privacy Shield data protection framework. Zoho’s European data centres are covered by the UK’s decision to regard all EEA member states as meeting adequate data protection requirements, even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Priced in dollars, no matter where you are in the world, Zoho Books is a very competitive option across its subscription tiers. There are three, scaled to fit micro, small and medium businesses respectively.

Priced at $9 (£6.83), Zoho Books Basic supports one user, with an extra account for inviting your accountant, with up to 50 contacts and five automated workflows. Workflows allow you to automate some features, for example sending email instructions to the relevant shipping and packing department when a sale is made, automatically applying discounts to large orders, or webhooks to send text messages to clients or suppliers when bills are paid.

It has a standard but useful set of core features: bank reconciliation, custom invoices, expense tracking, projects and timesheets – which are rare to find in entry-level accounting suites – plus recurring transactions and sale approval so staff sales can be double-checked if needed.

For $19 (£14.42), you get Zoho Books Standard, with support for 500 contacts, two users plus your accountant, and 10 automated workflows or modules. Extra features include the ability to log bills, issue vendor credits, use reporting tags, require purchase approval and receive SMS notifications.

The top Professional tier, which costs $29 (£22.02), has unlimited contacts,10 user seats, purchase and sales orders, an inventory for basic stock control and support for a custom domain name.

Unusually, all three support multiple currencies. You can also connect a variety of other Zoho cloud-based business tools for project management, analytics, CRM and more.

Zoho Books review: Setup and configuration

Once you’ve signed up for Zoho Books, you’re prompted to give your client portal a unique name, set your opening balances, edit the default Chart of Accounts or import your own, configure direct feed links to your bank accounts and invite staff and your accountant to access your books. This simple to-do list is clearly described and helps you transition your accounts into Zoho with a minimum of fuss.

Zoho has a particularly detailed set of fields for opening balances, which allow you to track specific expenses, assets, liabilities and equity, as well as the overall status of your accounts receivable and payable.

If you have a lot of invoices due when you set your starting balances, Zoho warns you that your total debits and credits don’t balance – this isn’t actually a problem for the software, although the exclamation-mark emblazoned alert pop-up makes it look like one. It is important to make sure that your opening balances are correct, though, and Zoho helpfully takes you through a confirmation screen to ensure this, while providing information on how to correct any errors in future.

Similarly, we appreciated being prompted to check over Zoho’s default Chart of Accounts. It’s simple by design, with just a few standard categories common to every business, but it’s easy to add more – for example, you may wish to create separate entries for the sale of goods and sale of services.

The final suggestions direct you to set up a bank feed and give others access to your accounts if they need it, and there’s where the Getting Started section leaves you to it. Users new to cloud-based accounting software would probably welcome a bit more hand-holding when it comes to configuring features like invoices, bills and time tracking for projects.

Zoho Books review: Banking

Like most cloud-based accounting suites, Zoho Books can link directly to your online banking service to import transactions. This worked smoothly, although to complete some bank connection we had to search for our bank, sign in, and then search again to be taken to a screen that allowed us to choose which of our accounts we wished to connect.

A wide range of British high street, business and international banks are supported, as well as PayPal. However, support for recent digital challenger banks is very thin on the ground, with no sign of TransferWise, Shine, ING or Revolut, among others.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to add banks and upload statements manually, whether that’s because your bank isn’t featured or because you simply prefer not to give your accounting suite read access to your bank accounts.

Just select Add bank or credit card from the Banking screen, then hit the big blue ‘Enter your account manually’ button. You’ll be prompted to give the account a name, select its currency and details such as account number or IBAN. You’re then prompted to upload a statement in CSV, TSV, OFX, QIF or CAMT.053 format.

With that done, you can reconcile your transactions, assigning them to clients, suppliers and expenses and matching them against bills and invoices – once you’ve created them. Small and micro business owners, in particular, will appreciate clearly defined categories for drawings, which not all accounting suits make so visible.

Zoho Books review: Invoicing, customers and bills

Although it’s not highlighted in the getting started guide to the extent that we’d expect, it’s hard to fault Zoho’s invoicing workflow. When you create an invoice for the first time, you’re asked to configure how you handle discounts. When you set an invoice number, a pop-up immediately asks you how you’d like to handle future invoice numbering – for example by continuing from a specific number.

And when you enter a customer name, a window pops up so you can add them as a contact, including details on the currency and payment terms for the specific customer. There are fields for their social media details, and you can even enable an online portal that customers can use to access and pay their invoices. A wide range of online payment providers, including PayPal, Stripe and Worldpay, are supported.

You can save invoices as drafts, although they’ll have to have at least one named item in them before you can do so. Quick invoice creation, along with fast add options for customers, vendors, bills, expenses, inventory, owner drawings and more, is instantly available via a small blue plus button at the top of the screen.

Bills and expenses work in much the same way, complete with support for attached images of receipts, and there are sample CSV and XLS forms to help you bulk upload invoice and bill data, which is helpful if you’re moving across from another accounting suite.

Zoho Books review: VAT returns and other tax support

Zoho Books fully supports HMRC’s electronic Making Tax Digital system, and also provides tools for tracking VAT MOSS for European sales.

For MTD, you’re taken through the process of connecting your HMRC account, after which a VAT Filing module will be available in the main left-hand navigation bar. From there, you’ll be able to generate VAT returns at the click of a button, check them over, make any necessary adjustments and submit them to HMRC.

Unfortunately, payroll support – and all related tax and deduction handling – is conspicuous by its absence. Zoho Payroll isn’t currently available outside the US and while the company is looking into integration with third-party payroll services, it can’t specify when this feature will be available. For now, you’ll have to use another service to handle payslips, PAYE and pensions and simply log those outgoings in Zoho Books.

Zoho Books review: Inventory, time tracking and integrations

Zoho Books is packed with features and also integrates with other Zoho cloud-based business tools, such as Expense, Subscriptions, Inventory and Checkout and CRM, plus document autoscanning that can automatically transcribe 50 items of paperwork a month. However, these cost extra.

But plenty more is built into the standard subscription and ready to go. For Professional subscribers, the Zoho Books Items tool can handle complex, illustrated price lists and inventory tracking, providing simple and effective stock management for sales-oriented businesses. Using its Time Tracking tools, available at all tiers, you can bill by staff, project or task hours and add multiple Zoho Books users to projects in order to track their time.

This is made easy by the Zoho Books mobile apps which, as well as real-time and post-dated time logging for users, provide handy shortcuts for adding expenses, invoices and contacts on the move, and a near-complete replica of the desktop browser features, from banking and reconciliation to reports, with the exception of VAT filing.

Zoho Books review: Interface

Zoho Books looks nice, is easy to read and presents all its information clearly, but it lacks the generous guidance and help of many other online accounting suites. We found that it took a little longer to learn our way around than in rival products from Xero, Sage and Quickbooks.

Its sidebar behaviour is also sometimes inconsistent. Click on Dashboard, Contacts, Banking or Reports, and a new screen opens with options or data to view. However, the Items, Sales, Purchases, Time Tracking and Accountant tabs all open up further sub-menus rather than an overview screen.

Fortunately, once you’ve learned the ropes, everything becomes second nature, even though we’d have appreciated an integrated help interface rather than being redirected to a separate support portal to search for answers.

Zoho Books review: Verdict

Zoho Books provides an excellent set of tools for managing your business’s incomings, outgoings and VAT. Its top tier is great for sales-oriented businesses that need inventory tracking. Small businesses with international clients will be pleased to note that multicurrency support, time tracking and integrated VAT returns are supported at all tiers. The only major downside is that it doesn’t have any kind of payroll facility.

However, a wealth of features at even lower subscription tiers, along with the current strength of the pound relative to Zoho’s US dollar pricing, makes this a very worthwhile choice for a small business on a budget, particularly if you already use an external payroll service.

Sage Accounting review: A capable but imperfect accounts package


K.G. Orphanides

7 Mar, 2019

Sage’s self-service accounting software is a good all-rounder, but leaves something to be desired

Price 
£22/£10

Sage is among the accounting software providers that’s been working with HMRC to ensure that it’s all set up for the introduction of the government’s new Making Tax Digital at the beginning of April.

While most of Sage’s rivals in the world of cloud-based SMB accounting suites have three or more tiers for businesses of different sizes and requirements, Sage keeps it simple with just two core subscription options, both of which allow you give your accountant full access free of charge.

Priced at £10 per month, Sage Accounting Start is designed to handle invoicing, track payments and file VAT returns. It’s a bit of a jump to the full £22 Sage Accounting suite, but for that extra money you get the ability to create quotes and estimates for your customers, record purchase invoices to make it easier to monitor your outgoings and reclaim VAT, and keep on top of your books with a cashflow statement to show what money you have incoming and outgoing.

It’s worth noting that many of these features come as standard in all tiers of some rival accounting suites, such as QuickBooks and Xero, although these have other limitations on their entry-level tiers. In this review, we’ll focus on the full Sage Accounting suite, rather than its cut-down sibling for microbusinesses.

This also includes support for multiple currencies, more than one company, remittance notes and statement overviews for customers. If you need payroll features, including support for pensions and PAYE tax filing, you’ll have to subscribe to Sage Payroll, starting at £6 a month for companies that pay up to 5 employees. A variety of introductory offers and Accounting/Payroll bundles are available.

It’s also worth noting that Sage hosts all UK and European users’ data at Amazon’s Dublin datacentre in Ireland. This is covered by the UK’s decision to regard all EEA member states as meeting adequate data protection requirements, even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Sage Accounting review: Setup and configuration

When you sign up, Sage asks you for some basic information about your business, including your contact details, VAT registration status, and whether you’re a sole trader, a partnership, or a limited company.

When you’ve finished creating your account, you’re presented with not just a guided setup wizard, but a whole Getting Started tab, with multiple categories that take you through setting up customers and suppliers, connecting bank accounts and customising the default Chart of Accounts, as well as a number of optional features that depend on your business’s specific needs.

Sage’s first guided setup suggestion is that you create or import some customer profiles – a CSV template is supplied to help you bulk add existing clients. The customer creation tool helpfully allows you to assign a default sales category on your chart of accounts to each customer. We’d have liked more than two address lines available for UK-based clients, though.

The Customers section of Sage also provides an overview of how much each of your clients owes you, and a statement run button to generate payment reminders summarising all invoices currently due from each customer. Rather than importing full details of every existing invoice when you migrate to Sage, you can set opening balances for customers who’re due to pay you.

The guided setup process also advises you to create and set balances for suppliers, view Aged Creditors and Aged Debtors reports to see how much you owe and are owed, add your bank accounts and review the default Chart of Accounts.

An Optional extras section lists a few things that might be helpful to some, but not all, businesses, such as invoice customisation, enabling foreign currency support and creating a list of products or services with fixed charges. Other Summary tabs provide an at-a-glance look at your sales, purchases and cashflow, complete with illustrative graphs – whichever one you last viewed will be open by default next you visit the page.

Sage Accounting review: Banking and reconciliation

The Banking page provides an excellent overview of your finances. Bank accounts can be added manually or via Sage’s searchable online banking connection tool, which supports most of the major UK high street and business banks, but few digital challenger banks – Transferwise, ING and Shine are conspicuous by their absence.

We were pleased by how easy it was to add a bank account manually using either sort code and account number or IBAN and BIC. Although you’re then prompted to connect to it online, you can opt out of that and upload statements instead. If you don’t feel comfortable giving your accounting suite read access to your bank accounts, Sage is definitely a good choice.

Unfortunately, bank accounts in currencies other than GBP are not supported, even though Sage has a multicurrency mode and supports foreign currency transactions using either its own exchange rate or one that you’ve defined yourself based on your financial service provider’s rate and charges.

The banking interface also allows you to reconcile the transactions to your invoices, bills and inter-account transfers. You can create new customer and supplier references as you go, use the Match feature associate them with paperwork that you’ve already logged, and create rules for easier reconciliation in future.

Once you’ve assigned each to your satisfaction, you have to click the Create button to the right of each transaction to complete the process. If you accidentally double-import any transactions, a cross on the left lets you discard them. If you use Sage Payroll, you’ll also need to manually discard staff payment transactions to avoid logging them twice.

Sage Accounting review: Inventory, tax and payroll

Sage includes basic inventory tracking via its Products & Services interface. Here you can create entries for services and items you provide, classified as either Stock, Non-stock or Service. If you want to track quantities of something, class it as Stock and Safe will automatically track how many of the item you have in stock based on your purchase receipts and sales invoices.

The software also helps you calculate and submit your VAT returns to HMRC under the new Making Tax Digital scheme. In the VAT returns section of the Reports menu, you’ll be able to create and automatically calculate your returns based on your invoices filed during the present reporting period. After checking them over, submitting your return is a simple, one-click operation.

Like most accounting packages, Sage charges extra if you need payroll features. Sage Payroll is priced at £6 per month for one to five employees, with other deals to cover more staff. Once you’ve subscribed, you can easily switch between Accounting and Payroll via a pull-down menu at the very top of the screen.

It’s simple to use and clearly documented. Payroll handles PAYE income tax, pension auto-enrolment and deductions such as student loan payments, child support and broader categories that can be used for benefits such as company season ticket loans. It supports multiple weekly and monthly paydays, and includes a relatively painless process for entering the details of existing employees if you’re transferring from existing payroll software. Note that this version of Sage Payroll, aimed at smaller businesses, doesn’t support timesheets.

Sage Accounting review: Payments, apps, and integrations

Sage supports Stripe for on-invoice credit card payments and can also integrate with Sage Pay. Unlike many rivals, there’s no integrated support for PayPal, but if you use the service, it’s easy to add PayPal to your bank feed and simply put a payment link in your invoices and emails.

As you’d expect, there’s a smartphone app for Android and iOS. It looks great and makes it easy to quickly generate quotes, invoices, payments and receipts (complete with a photo), and log bank transfers on the move. You can also add and access contacts and get an at-a-glance view of the current status of your invoices, outgoings and bank accounts.

Unlike like some rival accounting suites, or indeed Sage 50cloud, Sage Accounting doesn’t have a library of modules or extensions to help you connect it to other software you might use. You can link a Google account to automatic export backup copies of invoices and quotes to Google Drive, but that’s about the total extent of Sage Accounting’s integration with non-Sage products.

Sage Accounting review: Interface

Sage has a powerful range of features, and its menu layout and settings are generally clear. However, font sizes on some pages are small, which can be a problem on higher resolution displays.

Almost all pages display a navigation toolbar to move around the Sage interface and a plus sign at the right of the screen makes it easy to rapidly create invoices, enter receipts, create customers and more. But this vanishes in a couple of places. For example, when you finish matching your incoming bank transactions, the only buttons on offer are Import, to bring in more transactions, or Connect Bank. We had to use the Accounting link in the top bar to get back to the Summary page.

We also noticed occasionally inconsistent support for the browser’s back button, which will sometimes send you back multiple pages, rather than to the last screen you were on.

Sage Accounting review: Verdict

Sage has been a dominant force in business accounting for years and, despite some minor user interface quirks, Sage Accounting is very capable. As well as guiding you through everything from invoicing and transaction reconciliation to VAT returns, it has plenty of customisation options for both service and sales-oriented businesses, including basic stock tracking.

Sage Accounting and Payroll lacks a number of features, such as timesheets and project management tools, that we’d either expect to find built-in or available to connect via other services. The lack of support for non-GBP denominated bank accounts is also disappointing.

However, it covers the bases for the majority of businesses, making it a solid choice, if less flexible than rival Quickbooks.

RingCentral Office review: Calling the shots


Dave Mitchell

18 Feb, 2019

A cloud VoIP service that sets the standard for ease of use, features, flexibility and affordability

Price 
From £7.99 per month exc VAT

It’s easy to see why RingCentral Office is one of the most popular cloud-hosted VoIP services as it delivers an incredible range of call handling features and an extensive choice of call plans, allowing it to be easily customised to your needs.

Customers can pay monthly while yearly contracts offer a 38% price reduction, and SMEs that want all the bells and whistles will find the Standard plan a good starting point. For a monthly fee of £14.99 per user (paid yearly), you get free monthly outbound calls of 750 minutes per user, 250 minutes of calls to freephone numbers assigned to your account plus call analytics, reporting and RingCentral’s slick multi-level IVR (interactive voice response) feature.

All plans, including the basic Entry version, provide plenty of standard features. These include sending voice messages to email, call recording and RingCentral’s free Glip Windows app for messaging, file sharing, video chat and integration with apps such as Dropbox.

You also get the standard Auto-Receptionist service which was already set up for us and linked to our account’s main number. We could assign it to one extension so callers press ‘0’ to be put through to this, they could enter another extension if known or wait for a list to be presented.

Custom greeting messages are created using the web portal’s recording feature which allows you to use a phone, your PC’s microphone or uploaded WAV and MP3 files. The default message worked fine as RingCentral had already inserted our account company name into the audio message for us.

IVR takes this to the next level, providing a visual editor tool for creating multi-level call handling menus. This allows you to present a highly professional front desk and RingCentral offer plenty of help along with sample XML files to get you started.

Creating users doesn’t get any easier as you can do it manually or import them from Active Directory. If you’ve already created extensions, these can be assigned to new users who receive an email message with a secure link to an express setup web page.

This requires them to enter a strong password and voicemail PIN after which they can customise options such as regional settings and their registered location for emergency calls. From their personal web portal, users can create their own greetings and set up call handling rules for transferring calls to other extensions, a mobile or voicemail.

The wizard also presents a page where users can download free softphones for Windows, Macs, iOS and Android, and RingCentral’s Windows softphone is simply the best. Along with a standard dial-pad, it links up with your voicemail, allows you to send text or faxes and even has a HUD (heads-up display) that shows the status of other users and provides quick contact links.

During user and extension creation you can order Cisco, Polycom and Yealink desk phones from RingCentral or use your own. Our Yealink T23G phones required manual configuration but this didn’t take long as the online help showed their web interface and where SIP account details had to be entered.

Reporting is top-notch: the portal’s analytics page displays graphs of total calls, average call time, inbound and outbound calls plus a breakdown of calls by user. Historical reports are included and the portal even shows call quality and MOS (mean opinion score) graphs and pie charts.

SMEs that want the best cloud VoIP services won’t find a better alternative to RingCentral Office. It’s easy to deploy and manage, call handling features are outstanding and it all comes at a very competitive price.

3CX Phone System 15.5 review: Making all the right calls


Dave Mitchell

14 Feb, 2019

3CX’s affordable Phone System is the IP PBX host with the most and a great choice for SMEs

Price 
£536 exc VAT

SMEs that want to host their own IP PBX will love 3CX’s Phone System, as it offers every feature they could possibly need. Furthermore, pricing is based on the number of simultaneous calls and not physical extensions, making it even easier to choose the right license.

3CX also offers a free 16SC version which supports 16 simultaneous calls and includes maintenance for the first year. If you don’t renew the contract after this period, it automatically drops to the 4SC version which includes perpetual updates.

You can host Phone System on a Windows or Linux server, run it on a mini PC, virtualize it on Hyper-V, VMware or KVM hosts or cloud host it with providers such as Amazon Lightsail, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. If you decide to go from on-premises to the cloud, the new PBX Express tool migrates your IP PBX without losing your settings.

For testing, we used an HPE ProLiant DL20 Gen9 rack server equipped with a 3.4GHz Xeon E3-1230 v5 CPU and 16GB of DDR4 – powerful enough to handle 256 simultaneous calls. Software installation is swift and the setup wizard had us up and running in 30 minutes.

We needed to open up SIP and RTP ports on our firewall using port forwarding rules, but 3CX provides detailed online tutorials. On completion, a firewall checker tested all required ports and gave us a green light to continue.

3CX requires an external FQDN (fully qualified domain name) and SSL certificate to ensure remote users can connect securely to the IP PBX. It can provide these services for you and they will still continue to function even if you’re running the free 4SC version.

Just create an extension number for each user; importing them from Active Directory adds details such as email addresses and mobile numbers. 3CX also provides SMTP services and users receive an email with extension details, voice mail access PIN and a download link for the 3CX Windows softphone along with a registration file.

IP phone provisioning is a walk in the park: our Yealink T23G phones appeared in the console as soon as they came online. After assigning them to each user, they were set up automatically and even had their firmware updated to the latest version.

3CX offers a stunning range of call handling features and its smart console provides easy access to them. Inbound rules allowed us to assign our SIP trunk phone number aliases to selected extensions and route them to voicemail or an external number outside of office hours.

Caller ID inbound rules route calls from specific numbers to selected extensions while call queues and ring groups ensure calls are always answered. Outbound rules control all aspects of outgoing calls and for backup, you can assign up to 5 SIP trunks.

A digital receptionist ensures callers go to the correct person by presenting them with custom messages and menu options. Each user can have their calls recorded to the Phone System host as WAV files while hot-desking in the Pro and Enterprise versions allows selected extensions to be shared by multiple users.

Free softphones for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices are provided and we registered our iPad by scanning the QR code in our personal web portal. The portal also provided quick access for running web meetings or conferences and accessing call features, chats, contacts and voice mail.

A great combination of call handling features and deployment options makes 3CX’s Phone System the perfect choice for SMEs that want to host their own IP PBX. It’s easy to install and manage and simply won’t be beaten for value.