Your choice of new personal finance software is likely to hinge on your three key questions: Do you already track your finances on your computer? How much investment analysis do you want to do? How much do you want to rely on Microsoft?
Here's the best addition to the 2004 versions of Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money: You can set up accounts and begin analyzing your finances without copying every account number and transaction into your computer.
In Intuit's Quicken Premier 2004, you tell the program which online-enabled bank you're using, enter your user name and password, and let the software download your account info and as many recent transactions as the bank will provide. Microsoft's Money 2004 Premium can do the same thing -- but hides this capability within its setup routine.
Both programs stick to their traditional looks; which one is better depends on personal taste. We think Money's Web-page presentation is overwhelming and distracting. Too often, it hides useful data among pitches for Microsoft products and partners.
Quicken is simpler but by default shows more relevant details: your current account balances, net worth, and a link to overview pages that detail your net worth, financial plan and tax status.
Quicken's habit of displaying data on all your accounts all the time also makes more sense to us than Money's approach of providing 10,000-foot views of your overall situation.
For downloading account data, we still prefer Money's system of ongoing updates to Quicken's clunky once-a-day schedule. But the Microsoft capability requires using Microsoft's Passport log-in. (It then lets you log in to an online mirror of your data at the MSN Money site.)
Intuit's improved presentation of investment-portfolio data extends its lead over Money among serious investors. Quicken will set up these accounts from online data, like with bank accounts. The transactions register is simpler, the equity and cash components of an account now appear in one register, and a new screen compares investment performance to standard market indexes.
Both packages have extensive financial-planning tools, but Money's information-gathering interface is more welcoming than Quicken's plain interview screens.
Quicken Premier 2004 sells for $80; a deluxe option, which omits some planning features, goes for $60, and the basic version sells for $30. All run on Win 95 or newer, except Windows NT, and all save the basic release offer $20 mail-in rebates to owners of previous versions. A $10 discount applies to purchases from Intuit's Web site, but then the rebate is not offered.
Quicken 2004 Deluxe for Mac (Mac OS 9.2/Mac OS X 10.1.5 or newer), which we did not test, sells for $70, with the same online discount and upgrade rebate. It falls between Quicken Deluxe and Premier for Windows in capabilities, adding some extras like integration with Apple's iCal calendar software. While more than 2,000 financial institutions can download data to Quicken for Windows, about half that number support the Mac version.
Microsoft Money 2004 Premium is $80, minus a $20 mail-in rebate. A raft of free services, starting with two years of online bill payment and online tax filing through H&R Block, come with the purchase. A deluxe version with fewer freebies and planning tools sells for $60, minus a $20 rebate, and the standard release costs $30, minus a $10 rebate. All run on Windows 98 or newer.
For those just looking to balance checkbooks automatically, the entry-level versions (likely to be bundled with computers next year) will do. But investors should get a deluxe version -- and at that point, why not pay $20 more for Premier or Premium and have it all?
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