By Yardena Arar
San Francisco - With so many Web sites offering capable—and free—personal finance management tools, why would you pay $30, or significantly more, for a desktop application? To find out, I looked at a shipping copy of Quicken Premier 2010, and was impressed by the improvements I found over previous versions. Even with no serious retail competition in the wake of Microsoft's decision to stop selling Microsoft Money, Intuit continues to refine a product with much to offer those seeking full-featured tracking and planning. But its primary appeal will be to people who are more comfortable keeping their financial information off the Web than using the cloud.
Interestingly, however, Web-based finance apps appear to inform many of the improvements in Intuit's 2010 desktop line. A major interface overhaul begins with a home screen that reflects the simplified design esthetic of sites such as Rudder and Mint (the latter is in the final stages of acquisition by Intuit): You see three stacked modules, starting with a colorful pie chart showing the previous month's spending by major categories along with (in large type) the total spent.
The middle module shows what bills are coming due in the next two weeks, along with Quicken's calculations (based on your input for income) of how much money (again shown in large type) you'll have left in your spending accounts after paying them. And finally, you get bar charts showing how your spending for the current month in key categories (categories you choose) tracks against your budget for those categories.
Overall, the new home screen is attractive and informative, but as with previous versions, you're free to customize it to your preference: Adding, for example, an investment account module by clicking the View button at the top right of the screen was as simple as adding a button to a Windows toolbar.
Like its Web-based brethren, Quicken continues to offer automated downloads of transaction data from financial institutions—but few, if any, can match its breadth of support. Intuit says Quicken 2010 supports some 6700 financial institutions that hold approximately 90 percent of all U.S. deposits. (However, over 10,000 small institutions still aren't supported, so check with yours if this feature is important.) I didn't run into a single problem in setting up automatic data downloads from various checking, credit card, and investment accounts at the Bank of America, Chase, Fidelity, and Charles Schwab. As in previous versions, you can rename transactions (which sometimes download with cryptic abbreviations), and Quicken lets you set up rules so that this is done automatically.
Intuit says that one major improvement drawn from anonymized analysis of Quicken Online usage is improved auto-categorization of downloaded transactions based on payee. It's still not perfect—I had to change roughly 20 percent of its categorization decisions—but the software gets better over time as it learns from your own categorization choices. Since categories can be associated with line items in tax returns, accurate and complete categorization can be a big help at tax time—and is of course vital for useful financial planning.
The Premier edition I tried out has a good selection of tools for tracking investments and minimizing taxes—but you can find many of them online, especially on major brokerage sites. The main benefit of Quicken here is consolidation, for those with accounts at several institutions—for example, your 401k might be at a different site than your IRA or investment accounts.
On a purely housekeeping level, Quicken has finally consolidated all account information into a single file (past versions created several data files for each account). This makes sharing account data easy, but I wasn't able to test the program's ability to migrate significantly older accounts. Quicken 2010 also has a special Microsoft Money conversion utility for those wishing to migrate to Quicken now that Microsoft won't be offering new desktop software.
As usual, Intuit is strong-arming many customers who use older versions of Quicken to upgrade by ending support for transaction downloads for versions predating Quicken 2007. And for people whose finances are fairly straightforward, free Web options should provide all the help they need.
But if you prefer keeping your financial data on your desktop, Quicken 2010 provides polished tools in several packages: The $30 Starter edition provides basic spending and income tracking; the $60 Deluxe edition adds savings plan help; the $90 Premier edition adds investment tracking and tax planning; and the $100 Home and Business edition provides extra features for people who wish to track personal and small business finances in a single package.
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