For the past several years, Intuit has released annual updates to Quicken, a popular personal finance software package. This year in Quicken 98, Intuit has further refined its impressive capabilities and added several useful features, including new Web-related options.
Appearances Are Helpful -- In its early releases, Quicken gained popularity by computerizing checkbook functions in a small, quick, easy-to-learn program. It has slowly evolved into a comprehensive personal finance package while maintaining a commendably user-friendly interface. Some credit for Quicken 98's (Q98) simplicity goes to its use of a runtime version of WestCode's excellent OneClick Shortcut Technology (reviewed in TidBITS-350).
First used with Quicken 7, WestCode's technology provides Quicken with a customizable, task-driven interface. The left side of the interface sports a retractable vertical palette (thankfully, reduced in size for Q98) with buttons representing Quicken's five major activity areas: Banking, Investing, Assets/Debt, Planning, and Reporting. Clicking one of these buttons causes the task bar beneath the menubar to display a corresponding set of related buttons that I find still too large.
New for Q98 is a Register Account Bar that appears at the bottom of the screen, offering quick access to the five most recently used Quicken registers, although a bug can prevent this palette from appearing if the commercial version of OneClick is installed.
Another much appreciated feature of Q98's task-oriented design is that it saves separate window layouts for each activity area. When returning to any area, Quicken displays the previous window layout for that area, which greatly reduces clutter.
Register Improvements -- Quicken's account registers have always been an impressive part of the program, and Intuit has added more refinements in Quicken 98. My favorite additions include a Splits window which auto-sizes to reduce manual scrolling, and a Shortcuts pop-up menu that provides direct access to reports based on the payee or category for the displayed transaction, among other things. Unfortunately, these convenient reports display only information for the current calendar year; I would find them more useful if they either covered the full date range of the register (with a subtotal by year) or enabled me to set the default date range.
Some people might appreciate the tweaks applied to the revised Reconcile window, although I found Quicken 7's version quite satisfactory. Within this window you can verify that the balance displayed in a Quicken register agrees with the balance on your bank statement: if there is a discrepancy in these numbers, you can access any register transaction from the Reconcile window and make an adjusting entry. If you cannot locate the source of the discrepancy, Quicken enables you to create an "adjustment transaction." Intuit also added a thoughtful new option to display step-by-step help directly in the Reconcile window; this may particularly appeal to first-time users.
Investments Mature -- Quicken continues to improve its handling of investments. For instance, the graph in the Security Detail view now offers a basic comparative analysis option for selected securities, and if you track other things (such as various indexes), you can compare their performance to any security you choose. Although this is a useful addition to Quicken, its implementation is quite basic. The Security Detail window also now displays the total number of shares held for each security.
Quicken still cannot track bond yields and handle other fundamental investment analyses. If you're interested in advanced technical analysis of the markets and your portfolio, I suggest you look at ProTA, from BeeSoft.
Both the Portfolio window and the Accounts list draw noticeably faster than in previous versions, and overall, the Investment Module feels more solid and refined.
Reports Improve -- Quicken's highly customizable Reports have always been one of its outstanding features, and Q98 improves upon them significantly. The window where you select a report now shows a sample report, thus enabling you to understand quickly how the report will be organized. When teaching people to use Quicken, I've found many users have difficulty visualizing how a given report will appear - I expect users will find these snapshots helpful. Even so, I would like to see Intuit expand this feature so users can select major filters for a report and see corresponding changes to the sample.
New tax laws complicate tracking and reporting capital gains income; fortunately, Q98's Capital Gains report adds the capability to subtotal capital gains according to the new guidelines.
Another nice addition is the capability to modify a report significantly from within the report. Once you've created a report, pop-up menus enable you to change filters such as the account, category, date range, and headers (including fonts and point size). There are also six buttons for printing the report, opening the Print Preview window, adding page breaks, collapsing the header, editing columns, and going to the Report Customization window. Extremely slick! However, Quicken still doesn't provide a way to timestamp a report or print a list of filters that were applied to it.
Conversion Caution -- If you used a previous version of Quicken, you must convert your data files to use them with Quicken 98. The conversion process is fast and trouble free for most users; however, for what Intuit says is a small percentage of users, converting from an earlier version of Quicken can corrupt your data file. The problem primarily appears to affect a small number of data files that contain Memorized Reports and QuickFill transactions. Intuit advises that the corruption will appear as fragmented or missing information in the QuickFill and Memorized Report lists.
Intuit has released Quicken 98 R2, which is supposed to fix this and other problems. Anyone upgrading should follow Intuit's advice on backing up data files before converting. After upgrading check to be certain that data has converted correctly; for instance, you might check the Account balances in the Accounts List as well as return on investment and investment income information. In addition, Intuit plans to release an R3 update at the end of January to improve Quicken's online banking performance.
Quicken Deluxe -- Quicken Deluxe supplements all the previously mentioned features (marketed as "Quicken Basic") with additional goodies. A Mutual Fund Finder database (updated from the version supplied with Quicken 7) enables you to locate mutual funds that meet your criteria. Although the Mutual Fund Finder uses a large database, bear in mind that the database is by its nature somewhat dated and doesn't encompass the entire universe of mutual funds.
Quicken Deluxe also includes the new QuickEntry application, which is only available for the Mac. This small application launches quickly and can stay open in the background without devouring a lot of RAM (800K). Transactions entered into QuickEntry's registers automatically transfer to Q98 when it next launches. In theory, this is a fine idea; in practice, I'm curious how many users find QuickEntry's few benefits sufficient justification for keeping it around.
Another module in the Deluxe package is an Emergency Records Organizer, which helps you track important personal data (such as legal, financial, and medical information). There's also a Tax Deduction Finder. After you respond to a series of questions, the program provides information on tax deductions for which you may qualify and assists in setting up tax deductible categories in your data file.
All these features and additional modules come at a price in terms of disk space. Intuit recommends you have 45 MB of free disk space to install Quicken Deluxe and 40 MB free to host the installed program; the standard install of Quicken Deluxe takes up over 49 MB on my hard disk. Of course, after installing, you can delete optional components that you don't want.
Finally, a button on the task bar in the Deluxe version displays a pop-up menu of Intuit's Web services; choosing a service launches your Web browser (you must set a browser preference in Quicken's Preferences window) and brings up the appropriate Web page.
The Web Grows -- Intuit is venturing into personal finance management via the Internet and has begun to assemble a wide array of financial management and assistance services. Currently, these include a loan analyzer that helps you evaluate mortgage and refinancing options; a list of mortgage rates offered by banks participating in Intuit's program; an auto and life insurance page; and an investment page that offers quotes, mutual fund information, and the capability to set up portfolios to track both actual and potential investments.
Both Quicken Basic and Deluxe offer several options for downloading stock quotes and other investment information to a Quicken database. Though Quicken Deluxe also provides convenient access to your browser for the other Web based services, currently it doesn't allow you to download data from these sites to Quicken.
[If you set up an account with a participating financial institution, Quicken can download bank account and credit card information via the Internet, incorporating the information into Quicken's database. The Windows version of Quicken 98 Deluxe can also connect to selected brokerage firms to gather investment information. Both the Mac and Windows versions of Quicken transfer information via HTTP connections using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), the same technology Web browsers often use for secure online transactions. -Geoff]
It appears that Intuit has committed considerable resources to expanding its presence on the Internet and integrating Quicken with this emerging technology. Only time will tell how effective this transition will be, but the possibilities are exciting to contemplate. For now, we get a free ride into part of this new territory, but we need to be aware of the security and privacy issues involved when sending personal financial data via the Internet and having it reside on someone else's computer. Also, unless Intuit can sign up a large number of institutions, choices for mortgages and other services might be too limited to assure the best possible value.
By the way, many of Intuit's Web-based services can be accessed directly with a browser, without the need to have Quicken installed.
Bits and Pieces -- Additional thoughtful enhancements include a total value for all accounts displayed at the bottom of the Accounts list, and an option to select a month for the start of your fiscal year. Also, reports now display negative amounts in red.
Selecting the "Show Tip at startup" preference in the General preferences screen displays a tip when you launch Quicken directly, but not if you launch it by opening a data file. Intuit still has not fixed a QuickReport bug present since Quicken 5 that can freeze your computer when using the Memo filter.
Intuit claims to have increased the stability of the Quicken database for Q98. Combined with new automatic backup options in the Preferences window, this should provide more security, though you may find these changes a mixed blessing if you are low on disk space. To provide space for more characters in the category, account name, and description fields, Intuit modified the data file structure. As a result, Q98's data files are considerably larger than their Quicken 7 counterparts (my 622K file ballooned to 1 MB). If you keep many backup copies of these files, which I recommend, this can add up to a considerable amount of disk space. One way to conserve disk space is to use a product like Aladdin's FlashBack, which stores only the differences between your original file and subsequent versions (see TidBITS-362).
Bottom Line -- Though it's easy to identify areas of Quicken that need improvement, there's no question that Quicken is useful and elegant. In the past, I've had serious problems with the stability and reliability of Quicken's Investment Module. So far, the versions of Q98 I have tested have worked well.
Quicken combines a broad feature set with impressive ease-of-use, a good manual, and unlimited, free technical support (except for toll charges). At a street price of about $39 for Quicken Basic and $59 for Quicken Deluxe (if you upgrade, you receive a rebate for $10 on Quicken Basic and $20 on Quicken Deluxe), the program is a bargain. In the battle for best personal finance software, Quicken still takes first prize.
Quicken 98 requires a 68030 or better processor (including PowerPCs) and System 7.1 or later. Quicken Basic requires 8 MB of RAM, at least a 640 by 400 grayscale display, and 16 MB of disk space. Quicken Deluxe requires 12 MB of RAM; a 640 by 480, 256-color monitor; 45 MB of disk space; and a CD-ROM drive.
DealBITS -- TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost is offering Quicken Deluxe 98 to TidBITS readers for $57.95 (a $2 discount); their sponsorship text at the top of the issue provides details.