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December 1996 Reviews This Month

12/96 Reviews What's Hot: Personal Finance Software

Quicken Gets the Edge in Personal Finance

By Joel T. Patz

Money and Quicken are running neck and neck once again in the race to attract personal finance users. As usual, however, Intuit is ahead by a nose when it comes to understanding how you really manage your money. Quicken offers better new features and a more refined interface.

Neither product is overloaded with new features, a blessing since most software packages are already far too complex for the casual user. Both make the software easier to use. Intuit, however, attempts to stop problems before they occur.

If you seem confused, or if there is a better way to do a certain task, Quicken intercepts you. Funds transfer is one of the most confusing transactions to create. With version 6, you need only type the word transfer in the payee field of the check register. Intuit notes what you're attempting and suggests the correct way to do it.

If you mistakenly click on the check mark field in your register when you start to reconcile your account, Quicken suggests you use the reconcile feature instead. Intuit has also wisely added a Reconcile button to the register screen.

Other Help options are plentiful enough to aid even the most inexperienced user. A right-mouse click brings up context-sensitive help. There are also plenty of pop-up warnings, such as one that appears when your credit card spending approaches your credit limit. Quicken also adds audio instructions that play when you begin a new activity, and Show Me videos explain the hows and whys of key features. Help now includes numbered, step-by-step instructions displayed on screen, and there's a new pull-down "How Do I?" list to provide help with common tasks such as budgeting or managing your portfolio.

Intuit also updated the program's register. Buttons have been moved up to the register line so they're closer at hand. You can sort the register by date, amount or check number, or you can simply maintain the order in which you recorded the checks.

Intuit is also giving clearer names to options based on features. For example, when you enter a check, there's a pull-down option that offers to record the Next Check Number. This is an area that Microsoft Money should look at more closely.

Ironically, Intuit completely missed the boat on some simple, traditional user interface elements. Quicken has no File/Save As option, and when you use the Copy function, there is no browse button to help you find the correct directory name.

Quicken's new Security Detail View puts all the information on each of your investments on a single screen, from a historical price chart to your transaction history.

You also get a summary of your current holdings for that security (shares held, market value and cost basis, and return on investment). Most common actions (such as buying and selling) are available from the pull-down Easy Actions list.

The menu also includes an Advanced option for handling less frequently needed adjustments for corporate acquisitions and margin account interest expenses. New reports include an asset allocation graph to see how your portfolio is balanced across types of assets and a price/volume graph for each investment. There is also a ticker symbol lookup option. Money has likewise improved its investment portfolio, with free quotes via the Internet although mutual funds are not included.

Both Money and Quicken offer one-step navigation, and their improved main screens put commonly used features at your fingertips. Quicken adds a new set of tabs on the right side of your screen, which reflect the last activities you worked on. As you move about the program, those tabs change to dynamically reflect your most recent actions.

The Activity Bar sits below the main screen and provides icons for the main feature areas: My Accounts (the register), Bills (to pay or schedule future payments), Planning (budgeting), Investments (portfolio management), Home and Car (loans), Online (Quicken Live, Intuit's online site) and Reports.

Neither product has forgotten the Web. You access Quicken's Web site, Quicken Live, using the customized Netscape Navigator 3.0 that comes bundled with the application, though it wasn't working in the beta I tested. Quicken Live provides access to a financial news and articles collection, stock and mutual fund prices for your portfolio, and downloadable updates to Quicken, all at no charge.

Also on the Quicken CD-ROM I tested were Investor Insight (online tracking of investment portfolios), Home Inventory (for insurance purposes) and a Mutual Fund Finder which suggests investments that match the level of risk you're willing to assume. New in version 6 is a Debt Reduction Planner that examines your debt payments and, after learning about the interest rates you pay, will suggest ways you can reduce your total debt. This feature fails to go the extra step to automatically schedule these payments.

The package includes a free credit report, with tips for addressing any problems reported. Also in Quicken 6 is a new Tax Deduction Finder that examines your expenses, and with a few simple questions, helps you find and track deductible expenses.

Online banking hasn't gone unattended either. Both products let you take care of online banking and bill payment with a single phone call, and support multiple online accounts. Quicken's features weren't ready in my test version, and my local bank didn't support Money's service. I didn't wish to sign up with Visa ePay, a bill-payment service that, like Checkfree, is bank-neutral.

With both programs, you can apply for online banking privileges at participating banks online. With Money, you enter your bank's routing and transit number (from the bottom of your check) and Money will tell you which online services are available for that bank, and how to get set up. Quicken provides a drop-down list of institutions and requests your account number, an approach I'm more comfortable with.

While I couldn't test the online bill-paying of Money or Quicken, I did examine each application's interface and feature set. Money's less cluttered user interface has a slight edge.

With Money you can add an account to a Favorites list. Account Detail shows a running balance, and now lets you mark an account as closed. Money has caught up to Quicken by filling in an often-used payee's name after you enter a letter or two.

Money's memory is slightly better than Quicken's-it remembers the last five transactions to a payee, and lets you pick from any of them. However, recurring entries are frequently for the same amount, making such memory of dubious value.

Much more useful is Money's new Payroll Wizard. You can specify that you are noting a paycheck deposit in the register, and Money helps you create the split transactions to record taxes and deductions, including those to your savings and 401(k) accounts. It's very slick.

I also like the new Balance Forecaster graph on Money's Payment Calendar screen; it shows when you should pay bills to avoid overdraft charges. The calendar screen displays each scheduled payment, so you can choose which to pay. Money gives you the running balance as you pay each bill, so you can play what-if and find the right combination of payments to avoid overdrawing your account.

Money's Planning Wizard helps you get ready for retirement, compare mortgages (an excellent tool for side-by-side comparisons) and calculate savings. The retirement function is extremely basic, but you can print out a simple plan to get you started thinking about your golden years.

Money's main screen has been slightly modified. In the center is the Chart of the Day, which daily provides a different snapshot of your current financial status.

Money gets the nod for being more colorful, which counteracts the dullness of dealing with finances. While Microsoft Money misses the boat on naming menu options, other options are more logically named. For example, in the Report and Chart gallery, the program divides reports into "What I Have," "What I Owe" and "Spending Habits," which shows your budget and who gets the largest chunk of your paycheck.

I prefer the report customization options offered by Money. For the charts and reports you're likely to use most often, Money's simple customization options let you view data as a line, bar or pie chart, determine the label text and set the sort order. Quicken's options on basic reports are limited.

Quicken's Advanced Reporting feature, strictly limited to reports (no charting provided), offers far more flexibility, but users wandering into this area will find a cluttered (and dull) interface. There's no doubt if you have complex reporting needs, Quicken is the product for you. If you want basic charts and reports that show cash flow, Money is a better bet. If you're visually oriented, one point is in Quicken's favor: It identifies the topics that have charts and show reports; Money makes you click on each topic until you find a chart.

Both Quicken and Money have taken steps to minimize data-entry chores and make personal finance easy, even fun. They do a fine job of recording payments, scheduling recurring payments and reconciling accounts.

But Quicken's menus and online help are a cut above Money's. Best of all, Quicken can stop mistakes before they occur and suggest the right way to get things done-a big help if you're concerned about inaccuracies.

--Info File--
Quicken 6
Pros: Painless organization of personal finances
Platforms: 3X, 95
800-446-8848, 415-944-6000
WinMag Box Score: 5

Info File
Microsoft Money 97
Pros: Online banking; Payroll Wizard
Cons: Interface
Platforms: 3X, 95, NT
Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400, 206-882-8080
WinMag Box Score: 4.5

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