Business Accounting Packages
Depending on the kind of business you have, your accounting requirements may run the gamut from extraordinarily simple to unbearably complex. But at the end of the day, you want a package that tracks income and expenses, and that gives you some insight into the past, current, and future state of your business -- all with a minimum of hassle.
I looked at five accounting packages: CheckMark Software's MultiLedger 6.0.7, Cognito Software's MoneyWorks Gold 4.0.9, Intuit's QuickBooks Pro 6.0, MYOB's AccountEdge 2004, and Space-Time Associates' TinyBooks 1.1.4. All of them feature an array of accounting tools suitable for a variety of business needs, from basic income and expense tracking to payroll management. And they all offer text or graphical reports. Two of the usual suspects, AccountEdge and QuickBooks, as well as MoneyWorks, are excellent solutions for users with demanding accounting needs, while the inexpensive and aptly named TinyBooks provides good tools for tracking basic income and expenses.
QuickBooks Pro 6.0
When I reviewed Intuit's business accounting package QuickBooks Pro 5.0 last year ( ; April 2003), the program was not much different from the product Intuit had dropped from production in 1997, and it was significantly less impressive than its Windows counterpart. Unfortunately, one year later, not much has changed. Version 6.0 sports only a few new features and minor improvements. While these are welcome and necessary, I wish it offered more. QuickBooks remains intuitive and easy to use, making business accounting as easy as entering checks in the register of your personal checkbook. QuickBooks is now much better at sharing data files with QuickBooks for Windows (QBW). In fact, its most significant new feature is its ability to open QBW data files, so users can finally transfer data both ways. Getting data files to a QBW user still isn't as easy as giving the person your Mac data file -- the procedure with AccountEdge, MultiLedger, and MoneyWorks -- although Intuit has made the process clearer by adding a Create A File For QuickBooks For Windows option to the File menu. This option requires that the recipient on the Windows side treat the Mac data file as a QBW backup file and "restore" the data.
QuickBooks' other new features include one-click export of reports to Excel spreadsheets (another boon for cross-platform file sharers), better customization of the program's toolbars, automatic file backups, and the ability to check for software updates from within the program. None of these features will make you stand up and shout, but they are significant improvements over version 5.
MYOB AccountEdge 2004
If you've used previous versions of MYOB's AccountEdge, you won't notice many differences in this version's functionality or interface. But several new features will enhance the way you do business with customers and vendors, and will make it easier to process employee payroll. AccountEdge's updates facilitate the processing of electronic banking transactions. A new MYOB Merchant Account Service allows you to process credit card transactions from within AccountEdge. Once you've set up your customers to use a credit card, AccountEdge retains their information, so processing future transactions is easy. AccountEdge also includes a new integrated direct-deposit feature that allows you to make electronic funds transfers (EFTs) to vendors and process payroll without having to write, print, or sign any checks. Both features require that you pay monthly and transactional fees to MYOB. These are roughly analogous to the fees that businesses routinely pay financial institutions for electronic transfers and credit card transactions.
Earlier versions of AccountEdge allowed you to create groups of users according to job classifications such as accounting or sales; the new version does that and lets you create individual users. In the past, the program implemented user access poorly, making it difficult to restrict individual users to specific information. MYOB has made significant changes to AccountEdge's security features. You can now create users to whom you assign individual passwords, and then you can customize their access to the program on a feature-by-feature or even a screen-by-screen basis. MYOB has also significantly improved AccountEdge's form-customization capabilities, which now let you insert a variety of image formats and add new fields to any of the program's forms. You can also customize field location, size, and fonts.
Minor tweaks to other aspects of the program give users greater report customization, better security in a multiuser setting, and a vastly improved user manual. However, a change in the way MYOB expects you to register the application may alienate some people. MYOB says that it now requires AccountEdge users to authenticate the program on a yearly basis, to prove they are legitimate owners. While it's reasonable for MYOB to make sure no one is pirating its product, the company actually forces users to authenticate each company file they create with the program, not to simply authenticate the application itself.
The actual authentication process is simple enough. After one year, AccountEdge prompts you to verify your company information. If you don't authenticate during the 30-day grace period, you will not be able to update information in your company file until you complete the process. (You can still view and print all your information.) In addition, MYOB is now limiting the number of company files you can actively use. If you have more than five active company files, you are required to notify MYOB and pay a $10 fee for each new file you create. This requirement is overbearing and unnecessary.
Because Space-Time's TinyBooks costs a mere $49, you may not expect much from this business accounting package. But despite its relatively low price, TinyBooks works quite well if all you want to do is track your business's income and expenses. It also lets you collect income and expense data and provides minimal reports based on that information.
TinyBooks has a simple interface: the main window displays a list of the current month's transactions, and a small box at the bottom displays a running total of the current month's income, expenses, and profits. Seven buttons at the bottom of the window allow you to create, delete, or modify transactions; navigate between months; and save or print the transaction list. The only thing that's missing is information on your year-to-date profit.
The program includes extremely limited reporting features. It lets you print either income or expense reports that you can filter by date, expense account, or keyword. You can print, save, or export all of the reports as tab-delimited files, and then import them into a spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel, for further manipulation. However, TinyBooks lacks features for billing customers, printing bills, tracking outstanding customer balances, printing checks, and completing any of the myriad tasks that all the high-end accounting packages can handle. This is fine for businesses that don't require any of these features, but if you plan to expand your company, you may want to consider MYOB FirstEdge (; July 2002) instead. For a mere $50 more, you'll own a significantly more functional accounting package that's upgradable to MYOB AccountEdge 2004.
The first image that comes to mind when you launch CheckMark's MultiLedger is the Hollywood stereotype of a crusty accountant. The program's incredibly austere interface seems the perfect solution for those sour-faced men who sharpen pencils and scowl over pale-green ledger books all day. Unfortunately, MultiLedger's dour-looking front end is only the beginning of its problems: the program's frustrating setup process will leave you feeling miserable before you've entered a single transaction.
MultiLedger's main navigation window consists of 36 buttons organized in three columns of 12 buttons each. Unlike any other major program I reviewed, MultiLedger doesn't provide any sort of basic setup wizard to help you create a set of accounts. Instead, its 36 buttons, disabled and completely useless, stare straight back at you, without giving you a clue as to what to do next. Selecting New Company from the File menu gives you the option of creating a new company with a set of basic income and expense accounts. The program includes a very limited selection of business-specific accounts, such as Graphic Artist, Restaurant, and Retail Corporation.
When you create a new company, MultiLedger prompts you to save your file. Once you save it, the Company Information button lights up. After you enter some basic information and close the window -- which doesn't offer a Save command -- the rest of the buttons light up, ready for use.
But if you attempt to enter a sales transaction, for example, you'll see an alert box telling you to "set up applicable Interface Accounts" before you can continue. Surprises like this pop up regularly, making the whole process very frustrating. You'll need the manual nearby at all times.
Once you complete the setup, you can easily create new transactions, print or graph reports, and create customized invoices. The program also includes excellent inventory-management tools and can track income and expenses by specific jobs. But the setup process is so painful that it's likely to frustrate most users before they realize the program's benefits.
MoneyWorks Gold 4.0.9
Cognito's MoneyWorks Gold is an excellent, easy-to-use accounting package. You can set it up in a flash, and it's versatile enough to handle anything from an inventory-based business to a rental-management company. The program's only quirk is that, since its developer is based in New Zealand, some of its terminology can seem a bit strange to Americans. Just for example, the account-settings window contains a note stating that the accounts have been created for businesses in New Zealand. This means you'll encounter a few unusually spelled words or have to spend a few minutes editing the account names to reflect American English and terminology. For instance, New Zealanders refer to the sales tax as the general services tax (GST), so you'll want to edit any GST accounts to reflect the U.S. term.
This issue has no bearing, however, on how the program handles your business finances. Like MultiLedger, MoneyWorks has a limited number of predefined account settings, but the lapse is more forgivable in this program because it takes you smoothly through the setup process: you can begin using MoneyWorks in less than 10 minutes.
MoneyWorks has a flowchart interface similar to MYOB AccountEdge's. A button bar at the top of the program's main Navigator window allows you to switch easily between MoneyWorks' program modules, such as Sales, Expenses, Inventory, Banking, and Customers & Suppliers. In each module, context-sensitive options appear in the window's lower portion. For example, if you're in the Customers & Suppliers module, the window displays buttons for creating new customers and vendors, evaluating customer sales, and printing customer statements and shipping labels.
MoneyWorks also includes an excellent collection of reports -- more than 70 in all -- that give you a firm grasp on your company's financial health. This feature puts the program in the same league as QuickBooks and AccountEdge. The program's drawbacks are its considerable expense and that the company handles all program support via e-mail from New Zealand. While you're likely to get a reply to your query in 12 to 24 hours, this is less optimal than simply calling for tech support.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The number and quality of accounting applications available for the Mac have continued to grow since the introduction of Mac OS X. Many are so well designed and so feature rich that it's difficult to nail down any one as the only application you should use to run your business. MoneyWorks Gold 4.0.9, AccountEdge 2004, and QuickBooks Pro 6.0 are all standout packages. These applications make business accounting easy, for new users and professional bean counters alike. TinyBooks 1.1.4 is limited in scope -- but it's inexpensive, and it may work well for niche businesses. While MultiLedger 6.0.7 is certainly a capable accounting application, the program's setup process and user interface are so poorly designed and difficult to master that it pales in comparison with all of the other programs.
Choose the Right Accounting Software for Your Business
Choosing an accounting application affects critical aspects of your enterprise -- from how much time you spend entering bills and creating invoices to how much time you spend with your accountant during tax season. To select the best application for your business, create a checklist of the way your business handles transactions such as creating estimates, billing clients for time, accepting credit cards, and maintaining inventory. Once it's down on paper, organize your list according to importance. When you're done, compare your list against the list of features available in the applications you're considering.
For example, if you bill customers for time your employees spend on a job, both QuickBooks Pro 6.0 and AccountEdge 2004 have time-billing capabilities that allow you to enter employee time in a classic time-sheet format. MoneyWorks Gold 4.0.9 doesn't. Instead, you must use a convoluted method that treats time as an inventory item. In effect, you're "selling" your customer an employee's hours. Will this work? Absolutely. But it's sloppy, and if a large portion of your work is billed on an hourly basis, you're better off considering the other two applications.
Having trouble finding applications for your specific trade? Check out industry publications, contact your trade association, or search Apple's Made4Mac Web site ( http://guide.apple.com/index.lasso ). Fortunately, most applications have a free demo period, so you can kick the tires and take the program for a spin before you plunk down any money for it.