The Office Letter
From Volume 5, Number 32
(January 30, 2006)
QuickBooks 2006 Makes Financial and
Customer Management Better than Ever
It’s been two years since we last looked at QuickBooks. The 2005 version didn’t inspire us -- it was a ho-hum upgrade. Things are different this year -- the 2006 version has a host of new features that make it worth serious consideration. The company calls it the most significant release since the product’s launch (way back in 1992). Improved navigation and new “Centers” (that offer overviews of information and speedier access to data) are testimony to that claim.
For new users, set-up time has been reduced by 80 percent, thanks to a smarter series of questions that makes some smart “default” choices (previous versions asked questions on up to 125 screens -- leading to user fatigue before even getting started). Intuit estimates that setup will take about 30 minutes, which we found to be about right.
Once setup is done (or you upgrade from a previous version), there are some very powerful new ways to display information. It starts when you launch the program's new Home page, which offers a graphical overview of the accounting workflow (pay bills, send invoices, and so on), with links to special centers for zooming in on customer, vendor, or employee information. The Home page also shows key account balances (you’ll always know what your checking account balance is, for example).
The centers are well-designed overviews of key information. You can view your customer list, find customers alphabetically or by transaction type (receipts, payments, orders, refunds, etc.), edit customer information, and quickly view all (or selected) transactions for a customer in the Customer Center (see illustration). This “overview with history” is particularly useful at the end of the month, when you can pull up a display of all customers with an open balance and use the telephone number (which is part of basic customer information) to make calls to remind them of their outstanding balance.
There’s a similar Vendor Center; it shows your vendors, transactions, and contact information all on a single screen. Pick the vendor from the list and you’ll instantly see how much is owed and when their invoices are due. If a vendor calls to inquire on a past payment, the information can be pulled up quickly using this interface.
Likewise, the new Employee Center and Payroll Center help you manage employees, including looking up past paychecks, paying payroll liabilities (such as taxes), and processing tax forms. The enhanced interview (a wizard-like series of screens) for setting up payroll features easier-to-understand directions and a clearer explanation of terms. We’ve always found QuickBooks’ payroll feature easier to use than its closest competitor, Peachtree (from Sage Software).
Office users will be pleased with the ease of data transfer to Word 2000 and later (to print invoices, memos, or envelopes, for example), though you can’t save those documents as links within QuickBooks. You can import and export to Excel 2000 and above (including the ability to save options for repeated use). Trading information with Outlook’s contacts is easier, thanks to a new Contact Sync for Outlook (available for download from the Intuit Web site), providing one-click syncing of customer, vendor, and job information.
If you maintain inventory, you’ll like several improvements in this edition. For example, you can now enter a manufacturer’s part number to an inventory item’s definition. Cost-of-goods-sold calculations are improved, from the ability to manage cost increases in consumed parts to better pricing controls (you can round prices to the nearest 49 or 99 cents). Running low on inventory? QuickBooks can help you keep key customers happy by offering a view of pending orders based on projected revenue or customer value so you can select the orders you’ll ship first. (The manufacturing edition, which we didn’t test, offers the ability to put a “lock” on current inventory when you create a sales order.)
An audit trail is fundamental to any accounting package, and in this version, auditing is always on -- a feature your accountant will love, and protection for you that keeps track of who changed what and when. In our tests, we liked seeing a snapshot of the “before” and “after” values for things such as changed check amounts or modified invoice line items. Auditing is an absolute requirement in these days of increasing regulatory compliance requirements, and QuickBooks does a good job of it.
An Entry-Level Option
From generating custom reports to handling payroll (though it requires an additional yearly subscription to their service), from creating a three-year business plan (in the Premier Edition) to turning estimates into invoices, QuickBooks makes accounting easy. If you’re looking for an entry-level accounting program, and you’re not ready for all the power of QuickBooks Pro or Premier, you might want to consider the Simple Start edition.
Simple Start lacks payroll, budgeting (you can’t build this year’s budget from last year’s actuals), forecasting, and sync up with Outlook. There’s no inventory, no multi-user support (which is fine for most small businesses), you can’t track unpaid bills and set due-date reminders, and at $99 it’s priced a bit high. However, when it comes to moving from Excel (or a columnar pad of paper) to an automated system, Simple Start offers a good way to get your feet wet. To get an idea of the simplicity, check out the Home page screen shot in our online edition.
Talk about getting started quickly: all you need to do with Simple Start is enter the company name and address, the legal structure (sole proprietorship, partnership, sub-chapter S corporation, etc.), and choose some customer billing options (is payment due at the time of sale or do you invoice customers, do you create estimates, and do you charge sales tax).
Simple Start also offers the option of using their online edition, so you can access the program (and your data, stored on Intuit’s secure server) anywhere you have a Web browser. The first year is free with the purchase of Simple Start; the service is $9.95 a month thereafter.
The Bottom Line on QuickBooks 2006
I don’t like every change that's been made. For example, it takes far longer to start up QuickBooks; in part, I suspect, because the program connects to the Web and looks for program updates. It’s nice to know I’ll always be using the latest version, but the time lag (about 35 seconds on average on our test systems) is annoying. We don’t spend all day in accounting software -- we like to jump in and out of the program to update bank deposit slips or handle ad hoc customer inquiries. This start-up delay is frustrating.
Intuit offers only 30 days of free support; that seems skimpy, especially since you may need help come quarter end, a period that might not be covered (depending on when you register the product).
If you don’t work with inventory (many Office Letter readers own service businesses), you’ll be fine with QuickBooks Pro ($199.95). If you manage inventory, need stronger forecasting tools (creating a three-year business plan, for example), then stick with the Premier edition ($399.95).
Yes, Microsoft’s been touting its new Small Business Accounting product at a very aggressive price and with a pledge of support we worry it won’t be able to fulfill (we’ll examine SBA for possible review in a later issue). Given Microsoft’s past poor long-term commitment to small business products (especially accounting -- anyone remember Profit?), we recommend sticking with a company that has proven its dedication to the small business accounting market
-- especially when the product is as feature-rich and user-friendly as QuickBooks.
For more information, visit http://www.quickbooks.com.
-- James E. Powell
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