Intuit has announced an October 26th release date for the latest Macintosh version of its popular personal finance software. In addition to many enhancements to existing features, the latest version offers some significant new capabilities.
General Overview -- Quicken initially endeared itself to the Mac world by providing a powerful checkbook management program, which combined a strong feature set and a large selection of customizable reports with an intuitive interface and a well-written manual. Each successive release of Quicken has included refinements to the program's initial strengths, plus an increasingly broad feature set including personal investment management, electronic checking, personal budgeting, financial planning, and some basic tax links to Intuit's MacInTax software program. They have also demonstrated creative ways to integrate online help into Quicken, while continuing to provide very good manuals. To Intuit's credit, these additions to the application have been accomplished without losing the ease-of-use in the checkbook portion of the software. However, as you would expect, to fully utilize all the program now has to offer, there is a learning curve to deal with - though this is greatly aided by the well-integrated nature of the program's features and the excellent implementation of the Mac's user-friendly interface.
Basic Features -- One of the problems with a personal finance package is that you have to enter quite a lot of information to take advantage of its more powerful features. For those of you who might be thinking "Sure, it may be a good program, but who has the time to enter historical data?" you can relax. One of the refinements I was referring to above is called QuickFill. When you enter data in your checkbook register once, QuickFill remembers the entry. If it is a recurring expense/deposit, the next time you start to type in the entry, Quicken fills in the rest of the information for you on the fly. Further, Quicken maintains an editable list of all these entries. For instance, if you make a fixed payment each month (say for a loan), QuickFill can be "locked" to always fill in the payment amount along with the category and description information. If the payment varies each month (a utility bill for example), QuickFill can be set to fill in all the fields except for the amount. In practice, this greatly speeds up entering data into the checkbook register. If you hate to type, Quicken lets you double click items in the QuickFill list, or directly drag them to the register.
Quicken asks you to assign a category to each entry in the register. Categories let you organize your entries; you might have categories for automobile expenses, travel, taxes, etc. As with QuickFill, Quicken will maintain an editable category list for you, and to help you get started a list of commonly used categories is provided with the program. The advantage of using categories is that when you create reports, they provide an intuitive way for you to organize, view, and analyze your finances.
Actually, thoughtful and easy-to-use features are the hallmark of this program. For example, when you run a report (Quicken provides a large list of predefined and customizable templates and graphs to chose from), if you double-click the line of data you are interested in, QuickZoom creates a detail report to show you where the data came from. This can be done through successive levels of reports until you reach the register where the underlying data entry was actually made. At this point you can update any data in that entry, and all the reports you just zoomed through will automatically be updated to reflect the modified data.
For us non-accountant types, QuickZoom allows us to correct or update previously entered data with ease and without having to deal with double entry accounting. You may also go directly to a register at any time to update your data. Quicken has a password option for opening files or for changing data entered prior to a specified date. I use this feature to prevent me from accidentally changing an entry to a previous year's data
Although there are far too many features and shortcuts carried forward from previous versions of Quicken to discuss here, I'll list a representative sampling: handling of split entries (allocating an entry such as a credit card payment to multiple categories); a customizable Icon Bar; downloading stock quotes from CompuServe or from the Quicken Quotes Hotline 900 number; creation of custom "Memorized" reports based upon criteria you select from the large list of report filters; automatic scheduling of transactions; creating Transaction Groups; a monthly Calendar which displays transactions that have been performed and are scheduled to be performed; transferring funds between accounts; reconciling accounts; creation and monitoring of Budgets; multiple Personal Finance Planners; printing checks; creation of your own custom Command Key Shortcuts; customization of font styles and sizes used in displaying and printing reports; electronic tracking of your credit card purchases through Intellicharge (if you sign up for the Quicken credit card), and much more.
New Features in Quicken 6 -- The first new feature becomes apparent the first time you launch Quicken 6: a window appears asking if you would like to see an overview of the new features in the program. (If you chose to skip this option, you can bring up the same item from the Help menu at a future date.) This brings us to a major enhancement in Quicken - it now uses Apple Guide technology for its help system. Intuit has included many help screens that guide you through a step-by-step process to accomplish a given task. For users of System 7.0 or 7.1, Intuit includes two extensions that bring support for Apple Guide - Intuit calls it Quicken Guide - to those systems.
Power Macintosh users will appreciate that Quicken 6 is available in a native version. This is a good thing, because the late beta release I tested was disappointingly slow on my 68030-based IIsi. Intuit says this is a known issue with data files which contain a large number of accounts; hopefully, this will be remedied by the time the program is released.
Some new reports have been added to Quicken 6, along with a new tabbed (index card-like) window for selecting and customizing the reports. The good news is that some new filters have been added along with an "Easy Report" set-up window that should be helpful to new users. However, I question whether experienced users will appreciate having to negotiate up to three tabbed windows to accomplish what they had previously been able to do in just one window. Also, the small table that in previous versions listed the filters being applied to a report has been eliminated. A long-standing concern of mine has been that with so many filter options available in the creation of a report, going back to a printed report after even a short period of time can lead to confusion in interpreting the data. Rather than eliminate the little support provided for keeping track of these filters, I would like to see at least an option to print a "filter page" with a report. Also, since Quicken makes it so easy to modify or update the information in its registers, a time-date stamp option for printed reports would be a welcome aid in tracking versions of a report.
A significant improvement to Quicken deals with the Budget feature. Creating a budget is now more flexible - allowing for a great deal of customization in both the content and appearance of a budget - and Quicken 6 supports the creation of multiple budgets. A nifty new feature is a window that uses color-coded bars to indicate how close you are to the budgeted amounts for specific budgeted categories.
Current Quicken users will notice the Portfolio window has been completely revised. Instead of having to open a separate window for each portfolio account, all securities may now be displayed in one window. I say "may" be displayed, because it is now possible to hide individual securities from the window (the data in the registers is not effected by this). Also, users can now choose to display a nice customizable selection of calculated values for their securities right in the Portfolio window. Many of these - like average cost per share - were not available in previous versions of Quicken. To help make the viewing of all this information easier to deal with, the window now has a horizontal scroll bar and the ability to click on a column to select its data as the basis for sorting the display (this method of changing the sort priority is also available in several other lists in the program). Columns may also be dragged to a new location so that you can prioritize which data always appears on the screen; you can even adjust the column field width to further refine your control of how the data appears in the window. My only complaint with the Portfolio window is that with so much information being presented, I would like to see some use of shading or color to make evaluating the data easier on the eyes.
The program's preferences list has been redesigned and refined as well. Users no longer need go to several menus in order to access different preferences; instead, Quicken now offers one main preferences window. In this window, selecting an icon from a scrollable list brings up a group of related preferences.
Over the years, Quicken has added the previously mentioned electronic banking features. The unsuccessful merger with Microsoft does not seem to have interrupted this trend: new for Quicken 6 is what Intuit calls, appropriately enough, "Online Banking." As the manual puts it: "Now you can bank online instead of waiting in line." The online banking features weren't included in the beta version of Quicken I tried, and as of this writing it looks like Intuit will be providing them in a free supplemental software release by the beginning of 1996. Intuit claims the online banking features will include getting up-to-date bank balances, seeing which checks have cleared, and transfering money.
The importance of backing up your data has also been addressed in Quicken 6. A thoughtful new preference tells Quicken to automatically create a backup of your data file when it's closed.
Some General Observations -- Clearly, Intuit has put a lot of effort into making their already fine program even better - there are more new enhancements in Quicken 6 than space available to address them. Although thoughtful features are abundant in Quicken, I feel there are still some weaknesses. For one thing, the handling of security lots is not very sophisticated. The workaround I use is to assign a separate letter designation to each lot in a given security. The printing of selected sections of large reports is awkward because, although Quicken provides visible, adjustable page breaks, scrolling to the needed section of the report while maintaining a count of the passed page breaks is tedious and inefficient. Page numbers should appear onscreen in each page of a report so you can immediately determine the numbers of the pages you need to print. Also, tracking the activity of a given security in the securities register can be quite a strain on your eyes and your patience. The ability to color-code each security/lot in an investment register would greatly aid in tracking these transactions in the register view. Additionally, though the new version of Quicken provides for more ways to analyze your investments than previous versions, there is still no calculation for the yield on bonds and bond funds. People who are more concerned with the cash flow produced by their investments than by the theoretical total return that includes unrealized capital gains and losses would benefit greatly if Quicken would calculate this value for them. Finally, with so many ways to configure investment reports, be careful to understand the meaning of a report's results before acting on it. I have not seen the new manual that will come with Quicken 6, but with previous versions of Quicken, I felt this area was in need of more complete documentation.
The Bottom Line -- When the above concerns are viewed in the context of the overall program, Quicken 6 is an impressive package. With the excellent integration of the program's large feature set and the well-implemented use of the Macintosh user interface, the program is both easy to use and very powerful. For new users, I would suggest just setting up some basic bank accounts to get a feel for the program. Then, at your own pace, explore one or two new areas of the application at a time - I expect you'll quickly find yourself transitioning into some of the program's more powerful features. The Quicken Guide can help you perform some tasks if you get stuck. Also, for the cost of a long distance phone call, Intuit provides better-than-average phone support. Previous users of Quicken will appreciate the program's significant added features and refinements. Intuit also plans to release a Deluxe CD-ROM version, which is expected to include an online manual, some tips, and financial advice. With an expected street price of around $50, Quicken 6 is not only the most complete personal finance software for the Mac, but also an excellent value.
Quicken 6 requires System 7.0 or higher, a machine with 4 MB of RAM (8 MB under System 7.5), and 4 to 8 MB of disk space.
Intuit, Inc. -- 800/781-6999 -- 415/322-0573
800/374-7057 (fax) -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>
[Steve Becker is the owner of MacEase, a Macintosh training and consulting business in Berkeley, California, and regularly contributes to the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group Newsletter.]