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Quicken 7 Arrives

Over the last several years, Intuit has provided a major update to Quicken, their personal finance package, on a yearly basis. This year’s upgrade includes many refinements, along with some major new features. (For an overview of the basic Quicken feature set, please refer to the detailed review of Quicken 6 in TidBITS-299.)

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As with Quicken 6 (Q6), two versions of the program are available: Quicken and Quicken Deluxe. Both versions include account tracking, reports and graphics, and features for tracking investments, budgets, and loans, as well as online banking and bill payment features. In addition, Quicken Deluxe (available only on CD-ROM) features planners for retirement and debt reduction, plus home inventory management, a free 30-day introduction to Investor Insight, and a Mutual Fund Finder database.

At First Glance — With the first launch of Quicken 7 (Q7), you’ll be presented with a radically new user interface. This is in large part a result of Intuit incorporating a runtime version of WestCode’s excellent OneClick Shortcut Technology. In place of Q6’s horizontal Icon Bar, you’ll see a toolbar of large buttons across the top of the screen. A collapsible vertical column at the left displays large icons for five different categories of activities (Intuit calls them activity areas): Banking, Investing, Assets/Debt, Planning, and Reporting. Clicking an activity area icon changes the horizontal toolbar to a set of related buttons. Quicken is supposed to remember the windows you keep open in each activity area, but it sometimes gets confused about which activity area is active.

Though the overall concept is functional and attractive, I find the implementation not fully satisfactory. The toolbars can be turned on and off, but the default size for the buttons is too large and – in this release – not customizable. The amount of screen real estate occupied by these buttons makes it difficult to work with open windows, which can be especially exasperating for people with small monitors or PowerBooks.

In addition to the preassigned buttons on the toolbars, Q7 provides a nice library with several dozen additional buttons, including one that provides a pop-up menu of all open windows. Though buttons can be Option-dragged to new locations, it’s frustrating to have their large size restrict the number of buttons that fit on a toolbar. As an aside, even though OneClick doesn’t conflict with Quicken, OneClick users should avoid the temptation to use the OneClick Editor to resize toolbar buttons; when you relaunch Quicken the buttons will return to their original size.

Should you tire of your normal desktop pattern, Quicken’s preferences now allow you to chose from a list of new backgrounds that appear when the program launches. Also, Quicken’s menus have been reorganized, providing for a fairly simple interface that understates the power of the program.

Quicken makes good use of color when displaying its attractive graphs, but inexplicably fails to utilize color to enhance other areas, such as its security registers and Portfolio window. For instance, when a Portfolio register contains several securities, the ability to apply a different color to each security would greatly ease tracking transactions related to that security.

Overall, the new interface is attractive, but needs some refinements to realize its full potential.

Register Perfection — Quicken began life as a program that tracked checking and bank accounts through a series of onscreen registers. Over the years, Intuit has fine tuned Quicken’s registers to the point that they have become truly powerful tools, while accumulating an impressive list of easy-to-use features. Among the useful new features Q7 adds to the registers are a live display of the check number as you use the scroll bar; pop-up menus for assigning categories to transactions and sorting by date or check number; and additional options for quickly manipulating data entry in transactions involving splits.

Quicken’s registers are a delight, and carrying out their functions with a minimum of time and effort on the part of the user, though I’d like to see a border separating all displayed transactions from each other (not just the fields in the active transaction) to provide an easy visual reference when scanning the registers.

Investments Grow — Many of the significant new features in Q7 involve the Investment Module. For starters, Quicken now provides built-in support for handling lots! As has often been the case with Quicken, this new feature is impressively well thought-out. When selling a security, a pop-up menu allows you to choose criteria for the transaction, such as minimizing or maximizing capital gain. Quicken then automatically selects the lots that meet your criteria – very nice! I’d like to see a future version add a preview window that displays the results of your choices before you accept them.

The Detail View has been expanded to include a tabbed window which quickly enables you to customize the Detail View’s graph, as well as view other data related to your securities such as a price history and a transaction history. When downloading either a price history or news stories – using the optional Investor Insight (Deluxe version only) – the information automatically updates your records and can be displayed in the Detail View. Immediately after the download, a window appears showing the change in value for the downloaded positions since the last price update. You can also set high and low price alerts. These are nice features, although I’d like to see them expanded to include P/E ratios and customizable relative performance graphs.

Quicken’s already impressive list of reports and report filters has been further enhanced in Q7. Also, several new graphs have been added, again, with an improved list of filters to work with. I particularly like the new asset allocation graph, and the ability to "memorize" custom filter configurations for graphs and reports. The asset allocation graph helps you manage the risk your investments are exposed to by giving insight into the diversification of those investments by asset class. One tip: an Equity Mutual Fund, for example, may also contain bonds and cash. Quicken can assist in understanding the asset allocation of your investments, but you must do your homework in order to give Quicken accurate data and to understand the limitations of that data.

Unfortunately, Quicken still does not calculate the yield on a security, and it still lacks a way to time stamp a report or print a list of filters that were applied to a report. On the plus side, Q7 offers significant enhancements to its printing capabilities, including Print Preview and Print-To-Fit options.

Online Banking Enhancements — Intuit continues to increase Quicken’s online banking features. Though I have not tested these, Intuit says bill payments can be made online with any U.S. checking account, single-call access to bank statements, money transfers and bill payments, and automatic archiving of historical bank statement data.

Performance — Testing Quicken 7 on my 6100/66 with System 7.5.1, I was pleased the new capabilities did not adversely affect performance; in fact, I found Q7 to be noticeably faster than Q6 when running reports and bringing up the Portfolio Window. Overall, the program feels snappy.

However, in the context of reliability, I found Quicken 7 disappointing. There are too many bugs for a program that can have a significant impact on a user’s financial well-being. In addition to the anomalous information displayed in the Portfolio window (described in TidBITS-353), the overall effect of the problems I found undermines the confidence I need to have in a financial management program.

Especially for new users, the numerous errors and problems in Q7 can be confusing. In the past, Intuit put considerable effort into providing sophisticated built-in Help options. However, even though the Quicken Guide utilizes many of Apple Guide’s best features, I found it frequently became out of synch with the application’s windows. Also, the indexing is weak and the organization of Help Topics is confusing. (Intuit explained that the Topics list is based on the expected frequency of use, rather than alphabetically.) The Balloon Help, on the other hand, is quite effective.

I should point out that though the Investment Module and Help system need some work, I’ve found the Banking area to be rock solid, and a joy to use.

Conclusions — There is a real need for a good, full-featured Mac program that can track and analyze personal finances. Admirably, Quicken has been moving in this direction, and it’s no small accomplishment to maintain good ease-of-use in the basic feature set while expanding into this area. Still, much more needs to be done in both reliability and features for Quicken’s Investment Module to be truly effective for managing the diverse activities today’s complex financial marketplace presents users.

If I seem ambivalent about Quicken 7, it’s for good reason. Fundamentally, it is a solid and impressive program: its feature set is enormous, and, considering its power, easy to use. On the other hand, some features are poorly implemented, it has many major and minor bugs, and it still needs some essential features to be truly capable of effectively managing and analyzing activities in mainstream financial markets.

In fairness to Intuit, the program does offer incredible bang for the buck, even if it does misfire on occasion. Above average documentation is included in the price of the program, a full, printed manual comes with the Deluxe CD-ROM version of Quicken, and so far Intuit has resisted an industry trend to charge for telephone support (although it’s still a toll call). Perhaps because so many elements of Quicken are outstanding, its weaknesses stand out more sharply – it’s still a best-of-class program. I would just prefer to waste less time dealing with bugs and have some important enhancements incorporated more quickly – I’d even be willing to pay a little more (if that’s what it takes).

If you don’t use Q7’s Investment Module, many of my concerns about Quicken will not affect you. If you do use that part of the program, the next Quicken update should fix some of the most serious bugs. I think most users will find Quicken 7 to be a useful addition to their Macs, and with Intuit’s money-back satisfaction guarantee, trying Q7 to be a good decision.

Quicken 7 requires a 68030 processor or better, System 7 or higher, 6 to 8 MB of RAM, 9 to 18 MB of hard disk space, and a 640 by 480 monitor capable of displaying at least 256 colors.

Intuit, Inc. — 800/624-8742 — 415/944-6000

[Steve Becker has been a BMUG member since purchasing his first Mac and runs a Mac consulting business, MacEase, in Berkeley, California.]

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