By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 7, 2010; G02
About a week ago, Intuit announced that it had fulfilled one of its customers' oldest requests: It had shipped a new Mac version of its Quicken personal-finance program that didn't look and run like a 1998-vintage relic.
The Mountain View, Calif., company's been getting pounded for its troubles ever since. In press reviews, customer ratings and blog comments, people have taken a whack at its new Quicken Essentials for Mac for being too little, too late and too lame.
From the perspective of long-suffering users of Intuit's ill-maintained Mac software, that's a fair verdict. But in the context of the stagnant, shrinking market for desktop personal-finance software -- last year, Microsoft quit selling its Money program -- the $69.99 Quicken Essentials contains some smart ideas that could help keep disk-based programs competitive against such Web-only alternatives as Mint.com, a startup Intuit bought last year.
Quicken Essentials' best accomplishment is implementing the idea that you should never have to type in something you can download instead.
Where older Mac releases could only fetch account data from some of the financial institutions supported by Quicken for Windows, Essentials approaches parity. It matched the Windows-only Quicken 2010 in connecting to three bank accounts, three credit cards, two 401(k) funds and one mutual fund, failing only to link to a credit union.
That performance alone shut down Quicken 2007 as well as a competing, Mac-only program I tried, IGG Software's $59.99 iBank. Essentials also beat Quicken 2010 at tracking a mortgage: Where its Windows counterpart asks you to enter the particulars of a loan in a multiple-part interview, Essentials only needed the login information for my account.
Like Quicken 2010 and Mint.com -- but unlike the 2007 Mac release and iBank -- Essentials tries to categorize your expenses automatically ("groceries," "travel," "auto" and so on) to ease your record-keeping. Most of these guesses were correct, although its mislabeling of an American Funds investment as an American Airlines purchase led to a moment of panic.
You can easily tag items for follow-up (for example "rebate expected"), schedule recurring bills and split transactions to show such constituent expenses as the chunks of your pay eaten by taxes and health insurance. Searching through records-- a halting, jerky process in old Quicken Mac releases -- is now a fast, find-as-you-type experience. And simple, interactive pie charts make it obvious where your money is coming and going.
But as a long tech-support note at Intuit's site explains, Essentials also leaves out a few things that most people would consider (ahem) essential in a personal-finance tool.
The worst omission is tracking investments: Essentials displays each holding as a blob of money, with no record of when you bought or sold anything. This will sink a lot of people at tax time -- if Essentials' inability to share data with Intuit's own TurboTax program doesn't. (Note: I'll be reviewing two Web-based tax-prep programs next week.)
Essentials also lacks most planning tools, with only embryonic budgeting features. And it can't pay your bills online, although most people now do so at the Web sites of their banks or such individual payees as utilities and credit card issuers.
Essentials will probably fare worst with the people who have been demanding a real Mac program from Intuit for the longest time -- the victims of its older products. Not only will they find this program missing features they've grudgingly relied upon, they may have trouble bringing over their old data.
Essentials' Quicken File Exchange Utility crashed twice while trying to import a large file created in Quicken 2006 for Mac, though a third attempt (and subsequent tests with a Quicken 2007 Mac file and a Quicken 2010 Windows file) worked. In each case, many details were lost in translation.
They should not slack off on this job. Not only are millions of Americans in dire need of financial-management help, many of them aren't comfortable with using a Web site for this job (even if that's safer than a home computer with an out-of-date browser and anti-virus program).
In the short term, two changes might help Essentials.
One would be a price cut: Selling Essentials for the same price as the still-available and more comprehensive -- but slower and uglier -- Quicken 2007 looks bad.
Another might be changing its name to one that doesn't suggest this program is a sequel to past Quicken releases and better conveys its simpler goals. How about the "Money" moniker Microsoft isn't using anymore?
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