Time for the annual grudge match between the two leading personal finance programs: Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft Money. Both companies have recently released the 2002 versions of their software.
Quicken is the perennial champion in this category. And there's little chance its enormous lead in market share will be overtaken by Microsoft anytime soon.
But it's still worth taking a peek at what these software giants have featured in their latest offerings -- if only because tracking finances is one of the most important uses of a personal computer.
Both Quicken and Money offer basic versions that handle simple tasks, but most people favor the full-featured "deluxe" versions. These can cost as much as $70, but discounts and rebates are frequently available.
Despite the hype over which is better, Quicken and Money are actually more alike than they are different. Through the years, neither has been shy about swiping the competition's best ideas for its own programs.
Both are especially good at keeping track of where your money goes. Quicken and Money are also strong in helping users plan for long-range goals, such as buying a house, financing a college education or preparing for retirement.
Microsoft Money has long held an edge in appearance, and this year is no different. The MS Money interface generally remains bright, well-organized and easy to navigate. Quicken, though, has made some progress in its scramble to polish its looks and increase its flexibility.
Now for the bad news. At this late stage of their evolution, both Quicken and Money still come up short as tools for tracking your investments.
To be sure, the programs do the simple things well. You buy a mutual fund or a stock, the software tells you what it's worth as prices change. But anything more complicated -- such as stock splits, stock options, corporate spinoffs and mergers -- remains a potential morass.
It's not that the software can't handle sophisticated transactions. But neither program does much to help users enter the information correctly. That's a key failing for programs whose primary function is to make money management easier.
Another annoying aspect of the investment section is the way both programs try to herd users into uploading their financial information to the Quicken.com or Microsoft Network's MoneyCentral.
It's certainly convenient to be able to download stock and mutual-fund prices via the Internet. Going online for the news and analysis on your investment portfolio also helps ensure you get the latest information available.
But these software programs are now much too tightly connected to their respective Websites. And it's easy to see why. Intuit and Microsoft use their personal-finance software to drive people to their Websites, where they can make money by showing advertising and selling other products.
Yet many people buy financial software so they can keep their data private and safe on their home PC. Why should they be pushed into uploading it onto the Internet, regardless of promised safeguards?
Nevertheless, Quicken and Money are valuable and well worth the asking price. If you own a PC, you owe it to yourself to try one or the other. With the pace of improvements slowing down, existing customers should consider upgrading every second or third year, rather than annually.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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