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

Admin Centre

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

Extras

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

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

Dashboard

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

Edit admin centre

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

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

Security and compliance

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

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

Yammer

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

Rooms and equipment

Getting started

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

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

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

Groups

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