The Intuit-Microsoft battle for supremacy in the personal-finance software market is as long-running as some sports rivalries -- except that few users seem to care all that much about the outcome of this contest.
They shouldn't. As this fall's new 2005 editions of Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money show, the programs offer similar features, options and even names and prices. Both have evolved to include extensive financial, tax and retirement-planning tools and have split into three versions of increasing capability: Intuit's Quicken Basic, Deluxe and Premier (Win 98 or newer, $30, $60, $80), and Microsoft Money Standard, Deluxe and Premium versions (Win 98 SE or newer, $30, $60, $80). Intuit also offers a Mac version of Quicken 2005 (Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, $70).
Quicken's 2005 update represents less of a change than Microsoft's release. It focuses on refining existing features and providing new ways to interpret and analyze your financial data. For instance, a revised "Bills and Scheduled Transactions" report provides an easily grasped summary of where your bank account will stand at the end of the month, while its Cash Flow center details all your income and all the expenses and transactions that make it disappear.
Quicken's interface looks a bit more cluttered than Money's, but its basic work flow is simple enough: Your accounts and your current net worth show up on the left, details of the current account appear in the center and any links to Internet updates of your transactions and portfolio value go on the right.
Quicken 2005's support for downloading account data from financial institutions (see www.intuit.com/banking/filist.html for a list of compatible firms) features more detailed instructions and a smoother overall flow than Money's. But 2005 no longer reads the old .qif file format. Most financial institutions these days offer account downloads in a newer standard, OFX. If yours doesn't, Quicken 2005 will force you to go back to typing in every entry yourself. Annoying, huh?
Quicken 2005 for Mac, meanwhile, continues to limit its users to the far smaller set of financial institutions that offer downloads in a separate, Mac-only format.
Compared with Quicken 2005's incremental changes, Microsoft Money 2005 is a lot easier to tell apart from its predecessor. It sports a simplified, Web page-esque layout, with fewer panes and less navigation required. Menus to the left and top offer access to various capabilities and resources and change to reflect what part of Money you're using at the time.
Money 2005 also upgrades its support for Web-enabled banking, account downloads, and online bill payment, almost matching Intuit in these areas. (Compatible institutions are listed at www.microsoft.com/money/bankonline.aspx.) Unfortunately, Money continues the needless, unwise practice of making users get a Passport account (a wide-ranging sign-on system that works across all of Microsoft's sites) to do many online transactions or exploit a powerful option to make their data accessible over the Web.
Complete beginners to this category of software may find Money's Web-style interface more comfortable; this program is less demanding than Quicken when it comes to tracking your basic financial health. But if you need in-depth financial management, Quicken is the leader by a narrowing margin -- it keeps all of your account histories one or two clicks away and offers better planning tools. Put it this way: Money's view of your finances starts at 10,000 feet up, while Quicken's only goes 5,000 feet up.
Users of older Quicken releases can sit out Intuit's 2005 release in most cases; it just doesn't add enough value to justify its price. Money 2005's cleaned-up interface, however, makes trading up a sound option for Money users.
Thinking of switching from Intuit to Microsoft or vice versa? No halfway contented user of either program need bother -- the effort needed to learn a new program will outweigh any benefits you might see.