Because of incorrect information on Microsoft's Web site, a review of personal finance software in the Aug. 21 Business section listed incorrect system requirements for Microsoft Money. The program requires Windows 98 Second Edition or a newer version of Windows. (Published 8/27/05)
If it's August, it must be time for new versions of Money and Quicken. As sure as the Washington humidity, new versions of the two leading personal finance programs will show up to entice you in the hope of upgrading the earnings of Microsoft and Intuit.
And once again, neither update is an overwhelming necessity. If you upgraded or started using one of these tools last year and don't require the new release's few improvements or added features, save your money. If, however, your software is two or more years old -- or you find that you can't download transactions automatically from your bank because your version is no longer supported -- read on.
The most interesting upgrade bait this year comes from Microsoft, which allows anybody in the United States to download Money Deluxe -- not the cut-down "basic" version preloaded on most new PCs, but the intermediate program, complete with online access and planning and investment tools -- to use free for three months or until the year's end.
Quicken users, who constitute some 70 percent of the personal-finance-software user base, will thus have a no-cost opportunity to check out the competition. What they'll find is a program little changed after a design refresh last year. The key changes trumpeted by Microsoft are a Spending Tracker, the ability to pay multiple bills from multiple accounts at once, automatic download of investment prices and the ability to track exchange-traded funds -- none a major breakthrough and only the latter an instance of Money trumping Quicken.
Money does, however, continue to offer a dramatic difference in presentation styles. Money's designers have thoroughly embraced the browser metaphor, making the program easy to navigate and comfortable for new users. Much of the program's content comes on demand from the MSN Web site (a broadband connection greatly helps using Money as well as Quicken).
That dependence on the Web, however, comes with a future liability: Your purchase of Money buys only two years of access to Microsoft's Internet services, after which you must upgrade.
Quicken 2006's unchanged user interface relies heavily on charts, lists and account registers. We could find only two changes in Quicken that, along with Quicken's more sophisticated recordkeeping, argue for upgrading. They're both noteworthy in their own ways.
First, Intuit has finally updated its reporting system, giving that module a new look and much greater flexibility, including the ability to get one-click views of spending by category and quickly compare current and average expenditures.
Second, Intuit now lets you download check images from your bank or scan in receipts or other records, then attach them to transactions or accounts. This can save you from having to pay your bank to retrieve this documentation later on and can also ease the record-gathering pain associated with filing expense reports and preparing your taxes. This image storage remains somewhat clumsy, but look for it to improve in future years.
Like Microsoft, Intuit enforces mandatory retirement on older versions, but its "sunset" policy allows three years of use, not two, before you lose access to online services and account downloads.
Comparing different versions of Money and Quicken is somewhat easier than in prior years, thanks to some convergence of editions and prices. Both Microsoft and Intuit offer a basic version (Microsoft Money 2006 Standard, $30 before a $5 mail-in rebate; Quicken Basic, $30), a "deluxe" version (Money, $60 before a $20 rebate; Quicken, $60 before a $20 rebate) and a premium version (Money Premium, $80 before a $30 rebate; Quicken Premier, $80 before a $20 rebate). The deluxe versions should be all that most users need; the basic releases offer little beyond checkbook-balancing tools, while the premium offerings are geared more to serious investors.
Quicken runs on Windows 98 or newer, against Money's requirement of Windows 2000 or XP, and Intuit also offers a Mac version.
But Quicken 2006 for Mac (OS X 10.2 or newer, $70 before a $20 rebate) is a thoroughly unremarkable update. It adds some convenient scheduling options for recurring payments and transfers, remembers how you rename downloaded transactions (for instance, condensing "GIANT FOOD INC #743 ARLINGTON VA" to plain old "Giant"), and can automatically back up an encrypted copy of your data file to Apple's .Mac online service.
But it lacks the one feature Mac users have been demanding for years: the ability to download account data from the same institutions as the Windows version, instead of a smaller subset of firms that offer downloads in a separate, Mac-specific format.
Mac owners -- as well as Windows and Linux users -- can also consider Moneydance, which we profiled in our April look at personal finance alternatives. This $30 program from Richmond-based Reilly Technologies has been slightly updated since; it will do all the basic tasks that the two giants will, though with fewer high-end features and less ability to customize.