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Slip Slidin' Away

Do you know how many hours you work? Do you care? I do. I'm a statistic junkie and I like to know how much time I spend on certain tasks. After I find out how much, I often wish I hadn't checked, but that's life. The sort of people who are most in need of tracking their time are independent consultants and other professionals who bill by the hour or even by the minute. I used to do consulting before moving west, and I've had a few requests for information on this program, so I decided to check out Timeslips III 2.0 from Timeslips Corporation.

Timeslips III comes in both Mac and PC versions, and I gather they can share data to a certain extent, although I've only worked with the Macintosh version. The program is split into two basic parts, TSTimer, a small timer that you turn on and off to track when you're working on a project, and TSReport, which brings all of the data together and turns it into a report or a bill. Timeslips works on the time slip concept in which you fill out a slip for every activity that you do. That slip carries with it information on the client (3400 maximum), the project (should you have multiple projects for the same client - up to 128), and the activity (up to 250). You can also have up to 250 users so your colleagues can work on the same projects and have their work merged in at the end. I doubt many people will ever run into these limitations.

TSTimer -- TSTimer comes as a DA for UniFinder users and as an application for MultiFinder users. Both look the same though, and allow you to enter information specific to each slip like user, client, project, activity, date range (entered automatically from the clock) up to 32K of comments (which can be entered as abbreviations and which Timeslips will expand automatically, much like a glossary feature in a word processor), time estimates, and time spent. TSTimer will of course track the time spent automatically when it's turned on, but your activities may not be at the computer. If so, you can enter lots of timeslips in batch mode. You can even specify if a slip is billable, unbillable, or no charge, options that let you narrowly specify which actions generate income. Using TSTimer is simplicity in itself - just create a new slip (which can carry all the client and activity settings from the previous slip), select a user, client, and activity from their respective buttons and click the "Turn on" button. At that point you can switch TSTimer into its Mini View, which is a smaller window that shows you only the client, slip time, and slip value (based on the rate you charge for that activity or client). There are also two buttons, one for switching back to Full View and one for toggling the timer. You'll probably leave TSTimer in Mini View most of the time except when creating and editing slips.

TSReport -- TSReport takes all of the information in the slips and helps you to sort through it and bring it together in a coherent way. It has four basic types of reports, each of which can be customized. If you wish to figure out how long you spend on all your projects and how those times compare to each other internally, the Timeslips reports and charts will help. If you wish to merely get a list of all your users, clients, activities, and projects, the System report will do that. If you want to see detailed information on each client, the Clients reports will provide that function. Finally, but perhaps most important is the Bills report, which allows you to select which clients and activities to bill and to print out a nicely formatted bill to send off. Of course, if you want to export everything to a file and manipulate it with a spreadsheet that is equally possible.

TSReport also manages all the details of the client and project information, so you can enter detailed client and account information in TSReport and have that taken into account when billing. Once you've billed a client, you obviously cannot change the slips that correspond with that bill, and TSReport provides simple mechanisms for backing up all your slips and archiving old ones that you don't need to see any more but which might be useful on occasion.

I think I can safely say that if you want to automate your time and billing procedures Timeslips can do it. There are far more options and settings than anyone is likely to want or need, but the end result is that you can get your bills and reports looking like you want with the information you want on them.

Problems -- This is not to imply that the program is perfect. I find the overabundance of features somewhat confusing, and the terminology is definitely aimed at professionals who understand what to do with options like the ability to modify the next aging date and payments to client funds. I'm sure that these options are extremely necessary for many people, but I would have appreciated Timeslips explaining them in the manual or truly useful online help. I also found it rather difficult when I first started using it to transfer to using Timeslips from the simple billing system I'd set up in HyperCard. That was undoubtedly due to my lack of accounting knowledge, but I don't think you should have to know that much accounting to bill for your time. One place where the accounting detail would help is in conjunction with the Timeslips Accounting Link (TAL), a separate program that makes it easy to export Timeslips data into popular accounting programs and provides additional reporting features as well. I haven't used TAL, though, so I can't comment on it otherwise.

There are a few minor quirks with the program as well. TSTimer is not smart about multiple monitors, so it will never open in the same place I leave it on my second monitor. TSReport allows you to create your own bill layouts in a mediocre MacDraw-style layout editor, but it can never find the layout I created when I start up the program, so I have to manually open that file every time I want to print a bill. You can preview all of the reports on the screen, which is nice, but it's a pain to move between multiple pages of any report - you have to repeatedly hit the Continue button. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these problems stem from the fact that Timeslips is trying to keep the program as close to the PC version as possible, and certain interfaces simply do not translate well. I gather that Timeslips has added to the program based on user requests, so features that are absolutely necessary for one profession may be completely useless for another.

I also found it disappointing that for all its power, Timeslips appears to be designed more for people like doctors and plumbers in that it has no provisions to automatically track what you are doing on the computer at the time. For people who work at non-computer tasks some of the time, Timeslips is great, since it allows you to track what you are doing whether or not you're doing it at the computer and easily enter timeslips for both types of tasks. However, for people who work almost exclusively at the computer, Timeslips won't figure out what you are doing automatically. It's certainly easy enough to turn TSTimer on and off, but quite frankly, it can be a little too easy to forget either way, and then you have to modify your time manually. A small program from ASD Software called WindoWatch claims to provide this sort of functionality, but from a quick look it has few of the powerful features in Timeslips.

Details -- Timeslips has just released version 2.1, which supposedly has 73 new features and 12 new reports. Some of the more interesting features include the ability to have Timeslips create a new slip and turn it on upon startup, find and replace information in slips more effectively, added flexibility in the report layouts, and numerous levels of security. The upgrade is $49.95 for single users and a new copy of Timeslips will run about $195 discount. If you bill for your time, though, the price is well worth it because Timeslips will help you track more of the time you work and let you bill for it. Recommended.

Timeslips Corporation -- 508/768-6100


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