The low-end market is better and worse than ever.
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By John Hedtke
The accounting software market for the small-to-midsized business is getting worse and better at the same time. It's getting worse because the number of lower-end products continues to shrink, but it's getting better because the quality of the products available continues to improve and the prices are staying level.
Consolidation also means fewer companies own the existing products. Best Software's parent, Sage, now owns the OneWrite, DacEasy, Peachtree, and Simply Accounting lines in the United States (and its sister, Simple Comptable, in Canada), along with the Pastel small business product that is marketed internationally through its acquisitions over the last year.
There is the potential for one new product from a heavyweight--Microsoft and its rumored low-end product that is code-named Magellan. But who knows when that product will sail? We all remember the fate of the explorer and Microsoft's luck to date in the low-end accounting market: Financial Analyst Pak (which made it to market as Small Business Financial Manager but was rolled into Microsoft Office), Profit, Finance Manager, and Small Business Manager. That's four bodies and one walking wounded-- at least the explorer only died once. But Microsoft is Microsoft, and with $29 billion in the bank, it will probably be a force to be reckoned with at retail.
Although Microsoft's latest effort didn't hit the market in time for this review, this year we have a lot of time-honored products from companies with success in this market.
Given the line-up of usual suspects, what should you look for in an accounting product?
Accounting software for small-to-midsized businesses should be able to do GL, AR, AP, and PR, and optionally do inventory, job costing, and time and billing. You should be able to generate and print quotes, sales orders, purchase orders, checks of all kinds, and have a wide range of customizable, professional-looking reports. Both printed and online documentation should be complete. In addition, there should be an Internet user forum that lets you ask questions and discuss problems with other users. The product must also support multiple users with varying security levels, import and export accounting data in several formats, provide customer address books and to-do lists, and let you update tax tables and transmit data over the Internet. Depending on the nature of your business, you may also want the ability to make direct deposits and B2B payments or to set up a Web store using your company's inventory.
This article reviews five accounting packages for Windows. QuickBooks Premier 2004 and Peachtree Premium Accounting 2004 are tied for first place with a wide range of features, scalability, and good documentation. Simply Accounting Pro 2004 and MYOB Plus 2004 are both good choices for smaller businesses that may not need the complete range of features offered by QuickBooks and Peachtree. The latest version of DacEasy shows many improvements, but will be of greatest interest to users of previous DacEasy versions.
Evaluating the Products
Each product was evaluated using the following criteria:
Overall ease of use. Is the product easy to install and configure? Did the product feel easy to use? Was it necessary to pick up the manuals or go to the online help? Did each step in the new company setup make sense? Was it easy to add invoices and pay bills?
Product features. How complete is the feature set? How many sample charts of accounts are there? Are there add-on features such as Web store creation, fixed asset management, or integration with other programs?
Documentation. Was the online documentation well indexed, useful, and clean? Were the manuals complete and easy to read? Could I find information quickly?
Trial versions and money-back guarantees. Finding the right accounting package is a challenge. It's a little easier to determine which package is right for you by trying before you buy.
Reporting and exporting options. Is there a good range of reports? Are there filtering and sorting options? Can you easily export report info and financial data to other formats?
DacEasy v. 13, the latest in a long line of product releases, does a good job of integrating the strengths of the previous versions, while really beginning to take advantage of the Windows interface. While it may be of limited interest to companies just getting into accounting software, it should make users of previous versions of DacEasy happy.
Installing the software is fairly easy, although not as smooth as some other products. DacEasy uses add-on modules for payroll, order entry, and point-of-sale. New company setup only provides 10 charts of accounts and feels a little more technical than it needs to.
DacEasy uses a minimalist Business Center as the entry point to the various modules. While the Business Center can occupy the whole screen, it can be minimized to an unassuming toolbar so you can keep it out of the way, but accessible at all times. One of the new features in this version of DacEasy is that you can customize the Business Center toolbar to better suit your needs. This version also provides a task scheduler, enhanced backup and restore features, recurring POs, minimum finance charges, and many other features.
There are 34 reports in accounting and 10 to 20 reports in each of the additional modules. You can create additional reports using the optional Crystal Reports module. The online and printed documentation are good. There are also very helpful "How do I?" buttons on the screens to show you the steps for doing various accounting tasks. The error messages, while a little unfriendly or even alarming, nevertheless come with a help button that gives you a clear explanation of what probably went wrong and how to fix the problem.
There are few shortcomings to the product. Although DacEasy's features are adequate for general accounting, it feels a bit dated. The screens are somewhat severe and colorless and there are few navigational tools. There is also a fairly "techie" feel to the company setup and error messages, doubtless a holdover from DacEasy's venerable DOS background. None of these are shortcomings in the product's ability to do accounting (which it does well); merely in how easy it is to use the software. This lack of handholding could be confusing to inexperienced users of accounting software.
DacEasy's price is high compared to the other products in this review. The single-user main accounting and payroll modules cost $299.99 each, with OE and POS modules costing $399.99 each. Network versions with a five-user license cost about twice as much per module.
DacEasy has shown extensive improvement since the first Windows version a few years ago. While DacEasy's price and rather stark appearance will probably not appeal strongly to new users of Windows accounting products, this version continues to provide quality accounting to the many existing DacEasy users.
MYOB Plus 2004
MYOB Plus 2004 from MYOB US continues to build on the strengths of the previous version while adding a wide range of enhancements that will please both new and existing users.
Price: $299.99 each (single-user and payroll modules); $399.99 each
(for OE and POS modules).
MYOB Plus 2004
Simply Accounting Pro 2004
Peachtree Premium Accounting 2004
QuickBooks Premier 2004
MYOB supports all basic accounting functions--payroll, inventory, job costing, and time and billing. There are 194 reports (the most of any product in this review) that can be previewed, customized, and saved to disk in multiple formats. It has a good card file for capturing customer, vendor, and employee information.
Although MYOB has a small, friendly feel to it, it has features that will let it support larger companies, including multiple currencies and sales tax codes, good importing and exporting features, and a strong inventory system. While the type in the latest version of the printed manual is still too small to read easily, the online help system has been enhanced with a number of features, including a natural language search feature. You can also access online manuals and the latest product information and updates via the Internet.