When Intuit dropped support for the Mac version of QuickBooks in 1997, it was the best-selling accounting software available for the Macintosh. Hailed for its ease of use and powerful accounting capabilities, QuickBooks allowed even neophytes to get a grip on their business finances without having to bone up on double-entry bookkeeping. QuickBooks Pro 5.0 — which marks Intuit’s welcome return to the Mac side of the business market — is, unfortunately, a lackluster release. While the program remains easy to master, this version has a hefty price for what is more OS X makeover than new application. What should have been the triumphant re-entry of a once-stellar application is instead a disappointing return.
Anyone familiar with QuickBooks Pro 4 will be quick to note that there’s little difference, featurewise, between the six-year-old version and this most recent release. QuickBooks Pro 5 is essentially an OS X-native QuickBooks Pro 4 with a splash of Aqua paint and a couple of minor additional features. QuickBooks 5 does retain the familiar register interface it shares with Intuit’s personal-finance program, Quicken. And though it will run in OS 9, it differs so little from version 4 that there’s no compelling reason to switch unless OS X is clearly in your immediate future.
If you’re a new user, QuickBooks 5 runs you through a setup process that, depending on how much financial information you have on your business, should take you roughly 30 minutes to complete. Once you tell QuickBooks what kind of business you run — be it hair salon or auto-body shop — the setup process is customized to suit your specific business needs. For example, if you’re a writer and you sell your own books, QuickBooks will help you set up inventory items, but it will also inform you that writers don’t typically maintain inventory. During this process you’ll enter detailed information about your company, including the type of federal taxes you file, current bank balances, inventory, and specifics about open customer invoices. QuickBooks also provides electronic documentation in the form of a PDF file called QuickBooks and Your Industry, which outlines useful financial information tailored to your type of business.
If you’re upgrading from QuickBooks 4, simply open your data file, and the new version will automatically convert it. But before you upgrade, make sure you’re using QuickBooks Pro 4 revision M12a: QuickBooks 5 will open only data files created with that version (and it will not convert data files from other accounting programs).
Once you complete the setup process, QuickBooks 5 makes entering all of your business transactions easy. A customizable button bar at the top of the screen lets you create estimates, invoices, or purchase orders, as well as gain access to QuickBooks’ other major features, such as reports and lists of your accounts, clients, and vendors. Like Quicken, QuickBooks memorizes every transaction you enter in the program’s register windows. The next time you enter a transaction, you need only type the first few letters of the vendor or customer name into the payee field and press the tab key — QuickBooks will enter all the appropriate information into the proper fields. Also, if you type an m, h, or t — shorthand for MontH and Today — in any date field, the program will automatically enter the date for the beginning of the month, end of the month, or current date, respectively. Surprisingly, QuickBooks lacks the useful pop-up calendar that Quicken includes in its date field.
QuickBooks 5 makes it easy to do payroll using Aatrix Top Pay, a third-party program included in the package and completely integrated with the QuickBooks application. A full-featured payroll program, Top Pay takes care of everything. It can print your payroll checks, handle direct deposit of employees’ paychecks, and issue reports on everything from how much sick time your employees have used to how much you’ve paid in payroll taxes and insurance during the year.
Welcome to the Time Warp
While QuickBooks remained locked in the Intuit deep-freeze, many changes took place in the Mac business-software market. Unfortunately, QuickBooks 5 is living in the Dark Ages when it comes to the cross-platform compatibility that is the current hallmark of Mac business applications. Name your favorite business program — Microsoft Word or Excel, FileMaker Pro, MYOB AccountEdge — and you can bet not only that their file formats are the same in both Mac OS and Windows, but also that the Mac applications have features that equal or exceed those of their Windows counterparts. This is not true of QuickBooks 5.
To share your QuickBooks 5 data with an accountant who’s running QuickBooks Pro 2003 (for Windows), you’ll need to back up your QuickBooks data file and send the backup file to your accountant, who must then restore your data file. Need to get the file back after your accountant has made changes? Forget it. There’s no way to get data created by QuickBooks for Windows back onto your Mac. (By contrast, with MYOB AccountEdge you can simply e-mail your data back and forth to your accountant.) In fact, there’s no parity whatsoever between the Windows and Mac versions of QuickBooks Pro. They’re two distinct programs with completely different features and data formats. That may have been the status quo in 1997, but it’s unacceptable in 2003.
QuickBooks 5 also lacks some key features that many small businesses require. The program is not multiuser capable, so two people can’t use the same data file at the same time; this limits the program’s usefulness in larger groups too, where one person may need to enter time sheets or create invoices while another is processing payroll or paying bills. It’s also impossible to e-mail invoices, estimates, or reports directly from QuickBooks 5; instead, you have to save these documents as PDF files and open your e-mail application separately in order to send them. Both of these features are integral parts of QuickBooks’ main competitor, MYOB AccountEdge, and their absence here seriously limits QuickBooks’ versatility and value.
New Features Found!
QuickBooks 5 does have two new features. The first is a truly useful Report Finder, which you can use to select and display sample reports before you print them. This tool organizes QuickBooks’ financial reports — more than 80 in all, including profit-and-loss statements and inventory price lists — into eight major categories. Any QuickBooks 5 report can be customized to suit your specific needs and then “memorized” so that you can use it in the future. While memorized reports don’t appear in the Report Finder, you can access them from the Reports menu.
The other new OS X-only feature is the ability to save any report, statement, estimate, or invoice as a PDF file. It’s a nice feature, but this capability is already available within any OS X-native application that allows you to print. It’s part of the operating system, which is why it’s not available for OS 9 users; QuickBooks 5 simply provides a convenient button.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you’re still using QuickBooks 4 and have no plans to move to OS X, save your money. Almost nothing in this release justifies the $180 upgrade price. But if QuickBooks is the only reason you haven’t jumped to OS X, now’s the time to make your move. You won’t necessarily be getting a better product or — except for the Report Finder — any major new features, but you’ll be using familiar software and you’ll be running it on the best, stablest OS for handling all your business needs. If you’re looking for your first Mac accounting app, nothing on the market is as easy to master as QuickBooks. But there are other choices that are maturer, compatible across platforms, and better integrated with many of the Mac’s key applications.