First look at Quicken 2005

Intuit has released its annual update of Quicken, bringing some welcome renovations to the market-leading personal finance package. But the changes are primarily small usability improvements that enhance existing features, so users of other versions of Quicken may not see a need to run out and buy the new model.

Choice of models

Quicken comes in the same four versions as last year, although this isn't clear from Intuit's Web site. It doesn't mention of the cheapest edition, the US$30 Quicken Basic, which basically provides tools for managing your checkbook and tracking expenses. Intuit says this has been true for several years because its online store doesn't sell Basic.

The US$60 Quicken Deluxe adds a host of planning tools for everything from retirement to saving for a big purchase and paying down debt. Premiere adds sophisticated features for serious investors. The US$90 Premier Home and Business is designed for people who want to manage their small business as well as their personal finance within Quicken. All but Basic come with US$20 mail-in rebate coupons.

Newcomers to personal finance won't be disappointed by Quicken. Its easy setup lets you get going in a matter of minutes (although you get the most out of the product by taking a bit longer to set up all your accounts). And with so many institutions offering electronic downloads and online bill paying, using Quicken to track your finances has never been simpler.

Hands on

I tried out a shipping version of the US$80 Quicken Premier 2005. The major innovation is on the home page, where the list of upcoming bills now includes scheduled deposits and a running balance meant to show you if you'll have enough money to pay your bills. This isn't a bad idea, but its usefulness is limited by its failure to incorporate non-bill expenditures (such as cash withdrawals), thereby rendering balance estimates inaccurate for most of us.

Quicken can now memorize rules to turn the sometimes cryptic payee names in downloaded transaction records into ordinary English (for example, E BAUER*51590045 becomes Eddie Bauer) -- a feature I'm enjoying in last year's version of Microsoft Money.

Another potentially useful change: If you shop at stores where you frequently buy products in different categories, Quicken's category drop-down list now starts out with the most recently used categories for that payee. This can be a time-saver if you patronize Costco, Target, or other establishments that stock everything from lingerie to Lego kits, and want to avoid scrolling through long category lists. However this feature helps only if you generally buy only in one category per visit (that is, if you don't buy clothing and cantaloupe at the same time). To simplify expenditure category tracking for that scenario, Quicken would have to memorize typical splits -- and it doesn't.

But speaking of trying to avoid scrolling through lengthy category lists, Quicken now lets you conceal the ones you don't use so you don't have to scroll through as many. If at a later date you want to restore a category, you can do so through the category list.

Quicken 2005 also includes improved tools for filtering and locating transactions. Among other things, you can now assign colored flags to transactions. You can also select multiple transactions in order to re-categorize, delete, or otherwise edit the entire group at once.

Now, we'll have to wait to see how arch-rival Microsoft responds to this year's challenge with its forthcoming update of Money, always a strong competitor.

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