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Looking for accounting software for your business? Now you’ve got more choice than ever. While traditionally only two major accounting programs receive annual makeovers, this year brings revisions to three different applications: Intuit’s QuickBooks Pro 2006, MYOB’s AccountEdge 2006, and, for the first time in four years, MYOB’s FirstEdge 2.0.

Both QuickBooks and AccountEdge are aimed at larger businesses that need to keep records on a variety of information, including inventory items, time tracking and billing, purchase orders, and partial shipments from vendors. MYOB FirstEdge, a slimmed-down version of AccountEdge, is targeted toward smaller businesses that need a full-featured accounting application but don’t require advanced accounting tools.

QuickBooks Pro 2006

At first glance, QuickBooks Pro 2006 seems nearly perfect. It features a simple, checkbook-ledger-style interface, and it’s packed with great features. But as you dig deeper, you’ll find that QuickBooks Pro is also missing some key features.

One of the biggest changes from QuickBooks Pro 2005 (   ; June 2005 ) is the addition of a new, integrated payroll application that ties in directly with the online payroll service, PayCycle. (Earlier versions of QuickBooks shipped with Aatrix Payroll, a standalone third-party application.) PayCycle is a fee-based payroll service that you can run directly from within QuickBooks. You can set it up to print checks, as well as handle employee direct deposits, distributions for 401K programs, and state and federal tax payments. Once you process your payroll on PayCycle’s site, QuickBooks properly enters the data into your company file.

QuickBooks 2006 also includes several small but useful new features to help ease data entry. For instance, using OS X’s Sync services, QuickBooks can store company, customer, and vendor information in Address Book. That means that if you add new customers within QuickBooks, their information will automatically appear in a special Address Book group; you can then access those contacts from Sync-savvy applications and devices such as certain cell phones or PDAs. Also, as with previous versions of the program, QuickBooks can use iCal for scheduling as well as back up data files straight to iDisk, provided you have a .Mac account.

Unfortunately, QuickBooks Pro 2006 falls short in the one area you’d expect it to shine: electronic banking. Intuit continues to omit the ability to process credit-card payments—a feature that’s present even in MYOB’s basic application, FirstEdge, and one that many Mac-based businesses can’t live without. (Intuit says that it excluded this feature because it doesn’t think Mac users want it.)

More egregious is the fact that you have to enter your bank statements manually if your financial institution doesn’t support QuickBooks’ .qbo or .iif banking file formats. Meanwhile, the application is unable to import the more-common .qif-formatted files (which, ironically, is the format that Intuit encouraged most banks to support several years ago). Intuit says the reason for the omission is that .qbo is a better data format and less prone to errors, but to ignore a banking data format that Intuit essentially pioneered is problematic. By contrast, both AccountEdge and FirstEdge handle .qbo and .qif file formats with ease.

QuickBooks users who need a better payroll service—and whose financial institution supports QuickBooks’ file formats—should find this new version to be a compelling upgrade. Other existing users may be underwhelmed.

MYOB AccountEdge 2006

AccountEdge 2006 is a feature-rich application that provides both basic accounting tools and numerous enhancements. These include the ability to track inventory, create purchase orders, and provide for multiple users over a network via its Network Edition.

One major upgrade from last year’s version (   ; June 2005 ) is an improved electronic timesheet that allows you to easily enter time and billing information for employees who get paid on an hourly basis as well as jobs that you bill hourly. The Time Billing portion of the program makes it a cinch to bill clients according to a number of criteria, from employee-specific rates to the rate that you bill a particular type of job. When you’re ready to charge your customers, you can print an invoice that details the total amount, the hourly rate, and how much time you spent on each specific project.

For years AccountEdge has been able to keep track of inventory, including the ability to associate varying currency values with different inventory items. However, in the past it was difficult to receive partial shipments of inventory items or to receive inventory at more than one location; the program now handles all of that with ease. AccountEdge also includes improved budgeting tools and the ability to track up to seven years of transaction history. All of these features combined make AccountEdge an excellent upgrade for existing users.

MYOB FirstEdge 2.0

MYOB FirstEdge 2.0 is designed to handle business-accounting basics such as income, expense, asset, and liability accounts, as well as sales, quotes, invoices, basic reporting, and company analysis. It’s a good, inexpensive way to go if you don’t need higher-end accounting features, such as multi-user capabilities or inventory and time tracking/billing.

Major upgrades from the previous version of four years ago (   ; July 2002 ) include integrated payroll via MYOB’s SurePay service and the ability to process customer credit-card payments or pay vendors electronically from directly within the application. (All services require additional fees.)

The latest release also contains dozens of enhancements, including pop-up calculators and calendars in numeric and date fields, as well as support for scroll wheels on input devices. Also, since it shares a similar data file format with its more-sophisticated sibling AccountEdge, FirstEdge provides an easy upgrade path should your business accounting needs grow.

After a four-year drought, FirstEdge 2.0 is an excellent update. The combination of new features and minor tweaks make it a worthwhile upgrade.

Problematic interface

Unfortunately, AccountEdge suffers from what can be an intimidating setup process. Whereas QuickBooks uses a minimal amount of accounting jargon when walking you through its setup, AccountEdge will at times throw around some head-scratching terminology. For example, during the setup process, it asked me to create “linked accounts” for specialized income, expense, and asset accounts. While I was able to link accounts, I wasn’t 100-percent positive that I did this properly, and the program provided little guidance as to what items should link to which accounts. (FirstEdge, reviewed below, is not as detailed as AccountEdge, so it doesn’t suffer from the same terminology problem—although it’s still not as easy to set up as QuickBooks.)

Also, while AccountEdge and FirstEdge both sport improved form-customization tools, they’re not exactly simple. True, it’s now easier to create customized reports, forms, and invoices. But compared to the type of drawing and layout tools that Mac users are accustomed to, MYOB’s form tools are downright awkward to use. For example, there’s no simple way to create a drop shadow beneath a graphic or text box, which should be relatively simple given OS X’s graphics architecture.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you’re looking for ease of use, Intuit’s QuickBooks Pro 2006 is the least-intimidating Mac accounting application on the market. Plus, its compatibility with Address Book and iCal, as well as its integrated payroll tools, are quite useful. But if you can adjust to a more-complicated interface, MYOB’s AccountEdge 2006 and FirstEdge 2.0 far outclass QuickBooks in terms of features. Both programs can process credit cards, both feature built-in payroll tools, and both can easily handle the majority of Web banking file formats. That makes MYOB a winner in my books.

[ Jeffery Battersby is a small-business owner who regularly uses and reviews Mac accounting applications. ]

QuickBooks’ familiar checkbook-ledger-like interface remains intuitive and easy to use.MYOB AccountEdge has excellent new features for managing time billing and invoicing.Both AccountEdge and FirstEdge feature better forms customization than in prior versions, but they still lack the ease you’d expect from a Mac application.
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