by Ted Needleman

Entry-level accounting software is for users who need a good basic system, but aren’t ready for the multi-module and higher-priced midrange applications that supply more power and features than many want to pay for.

The products in this segment have been greatly improved in recent years and now share more similarities than differences. All of the packages we looked at have excellent invoicing and check-writing capabilities, and even the least expensive has capabilities that would have been jaw-dropping in mainframe software applications 20 years ago.

The packages differ most in how they implement some features and subsidiary ledgers. Inventory is one area where there’s a wide range of differing capabilities, mostly in the ways to cost inventory. Pay particular attention to this area when recommending a package.

Another sensitive area is payroll - an application that’s come a long way over the last decade. It’s gotten a lot easier to maintain a complex payroll on a PC, as vendors make online payroll services available to their packages.

We reviewed eight packages ranging from well under $100 to well over $500. While there are differences in capabilities and approaches, all are excellent entry-level solutions. All are available at retail, except Accpac’s Discovery Series and Best Software’s DacEasy.

Accpac Advantage Discovery Series

We’ve stretched the description of “entry-level” to include Accpac’s Advantage Discovery Series. After all, with a suggested price of about $500 a module, the Discovery package, which includes a system manager, general ledger, accounts payable and accounts receivable, is going to set your client back at least $2,000 and possibly more. That’s because the Discovery Series is sold only by Accpac’s reseller network, and most of these resellers are not interested in selling the software without other services, like installation and training.

That kind of money could buy a copy of all of the rest of the products reviewed in this roundup, but we do still consider the Discovery Series an entry-level product - just not one for the same kind of client who will be considering Accpac’s other offering, Simply Accounting.

Rather, the Discover Series is an entry-level solution for fast-growth clients who will definitely be outgrowing an accounting system fairly quickly, and need to upgrade substantially within just a few years. These clients may not need all of the more advanced reporting and divisional/departmental features that the Discovery Series offers right at this moment, but they will in a year or so.

Because installation, training, and data conversion can incur tremendous costs, it makes sense for this type of client to make a higher initial investment, which will let them step up almost painlessly to a midrange accounting solution when necessary.

In features, Discovery has some big pluses and minuses. Because of its modular design, it uses a system manager that provides extremely high levels of security. Network capability is built in, though we tested the software in single-user mode.

You can easily upgrade the number of users by installing LanPack licenses, so going from one user to 100 takes just minutes. The real time-consumer is assigning individual user rights, but that can be streamlined by constructing different levels of group rights and then assigning new users to the particular group with the appropriate level of rights.

All Accpac Advantage products, including Discovery, are built around a database engine that allows easy migration into a true client/server environment. That eases upgrades all the way to an enterprise environment.

Our review copy used the Pervasive 2000 database engine, but you can also order the Advantage Discovery software in a version that uses IBM’s DB2 database. Other database options include SQL Server, Oracle and Impress II, so it’s a snap to install Discovery in pretty much any environment. Set-up is no more difficult or time-consuming than with any other full-featured package.

Discovery may be an inappropriate choice if your client requires payroll or inventory. Neither of these are included in the Discovery bundle, but you can buy them separately.

Simply Accounting 2003 Pro

It’s hard not to like and be impressed with Simply Accounting 2003 Pro. Priced at less than $100, it’s a terrific entry-level accounting system. The Pro version makes it easy to use Simply Accounting for a multinational business, as it provides multi-currency capabilities, a surprising feature to find in an under-$100 accounting application.

If you can live without the multi-currency and some of the other higher-end features, such as time & billing (another Pro feature), you can get the Basic Version of Simply Accounting 2003 for $39, making it the most cost-effective and inexpensive entry-level system in this roundup.

For many of your clients, however, the Pro version’s higher price will be money well spent. Its time & billing allows the company to be set up to provide departmental accounting and reporting. We’re not sure how many small businesses actually need this feature, but it does provide some room to grow beyond entry-level, single-department reporting.

Time & billing integrates with payroll, so users can transfer hours entered in T&B to generate checks. The departmental accounting feature is similar to that offered in more expensive packages, and uses an additional account level to provide the department breaks.

Set-up is par for the course. As with most other products, wizards walk you through the process, and there are charts-of-account templates for different types of businesses.

Considering the inexpensive price, Simply Accounting has excellent capabilities. In addition to AR, AP and GL, there’s basic payroll and an inventory system that offers an entry-level bill-of-materials capability. Graphics are excellent, and a business manager screen provides a good overview of important data, including memos, payments due and other hot items.

Simply Accounting’s reports are readable, and there are enough to satisfy an entry-level user. If your client needs more information from their accounting data, Crystal Reports can be used to create custom and ad hoc reports.

Particularly impressive is Simply Accounting’s Simply WebStore - an integrated e-commerce capability that lets you set up a Web store that mirrors the inventory. Accpac will arrange hosting for the store and, as orders come in, you simply approve them, then the system automatically updates the accounting package’s appropriate areas. It’s a great way to get clients computerized and on the Web simultaneously.

DacEasy Accounting for Windows v. 12

DacEasy has had a long, colorful past that began in the early 1980s. Since being acquired by what is now known as Best Software, DacEasy has been improved and repositioned several times. It is now a modular system, and falls under the aegis of Best’s Small Business Division, which also includes Peachtree Software.

That’s an interesting arrangement, as the DacEasy modular system costs the same as Peachtree Complete, and, to some extent, the two compete. You can purchase DacEasy from Best’s resellers or order it online.

DacEasy offers a lot for a modular system at this price point. Included in the package are general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, inventory, purchasing, sales, billing, fixed assets, and a custom report writer.

Missing from the basic $299 package are payroll, order entry, and point of sale. These modules are available as options if your client needs them.

Be careful, though. Adding any of these optional modules bumps the price of the system up considerably. Order entry and point of sale each cost $399 in the single-user version, while payroll adds another $479 to the bottom line. These prices are all for the single-user version of DacEasy. Network versions of all the applications are also available, starting at $599 for the basic DacEasy core system.

DacEasy has an exceptionally capable inventory system for an entry-level application. This subsidiary ledger lets you set up multiple warehouses, and cost inventory using a variety of methods including standard, average, or last price. You can also set up bills of materials and track back orders easily.

Like several of the products reviewed here, DacEasy offers a summary screen that puts many of the important data points of a business in one place. This is a very nice feature.

Many of the new features in v. 12 are simply minor enhancements over the last release. DacEasy still includes a nice custom report writer, but is now also compatible with Crystal Reports. This makes it even easier to generate custom and ad hoc reports.

QuickBooks Premier 2003

The enhancements in this latest version of QuickBooks Premier are not dramatic, but they add truly useful functionality.

Some of the most noticeable are in the inventory, detailed a bit further on. Intuit has not skimped on other areas, though. Budgeting has been improved, and there’s a very nice business plan generator in this year’s edition. With tight economic times, both of these features may be called upon to extend or obtain financing.

Intuit has also improved Premier’s analysis and reporting capabilities. Your clients can now compare their performance with industry data in over 130 different industries. Reports have been freshened and, as in the past, your clients can customize them to a great extent, adding graphic elements and using filters to put just the information they want on a report. Other graphic elements, including shaded boxes and rounded corners, let your clients fine-tune the appearance of the reports, invoices and statements.

Intuit has always tried to separate payroll from the QuickBooks product, offering separate payroll software and services. That’s still true, and Intuit’s payroll offerings in both environments have been strengthened with the vendor’s acquisition of CBS last year. As with many accounting software vendors, Intuit hopes to leverage your clients’ purchase of QuickBooks Premier with other fee-based optional services. These include on-line billing, merchant account services, and a credit-check service provided by Dun & Bradstreet.

Inventory is another improved area. New in this edition is a very nice basic bill-of-materials capability that smaller manufacturers should really like. It is implemented using a “kitting’’ approach. Your client builds assemblies, and these kits are used to complete finished goods.

Vendor informationAccpac Advantage Discovery Series; Accpac Simply Accounting 2003 Pro
Accpac International Inc.
6700 Koll Center Pkwy. Pleasanton, Calif. 94566
Phone: (800) 808-7000
www.accpac.com
Pricing: Discovery starts at $495 per module; prices are set by reseller. Simply Accounting Pro - $89.

DacEasy Accounting for Windows 10
Best Software, DacEasy Division
17950 Preston Road, Suite 800 Dallas, Texas 75252
Phone: (800) DAC-EASY
www.daceasy.com
Price: Single user - $299; network - $599.

QuickBooks Premier 2003
Intuit Inc.
P.O. Box 7850, MS 2535 Mountain View, Calif. 94039-7850
Phone: (800) 4-INTUIT
www.quickbooks.com
Price: Single user - $499; five users - $1,499.

MYOB FirstEdge for the Mac; MYOB Plus for Windows v. 12
MYOB US Inc.
300 Roundhill Dr. Rockaway, N.J. 07866
Phone: (973) 586-2200
www.myob.com/us
Pricing: $99.

Peachtree Complete Accounting 2003; Peachtree One-Write Plus Release 8
Peachtree Software Inc.
1505 Pavilion Place Norcross, Ga. 30093
Phone: (800) 228-0068
www.peachtree.com
Pricing: Peachtree Complete, single user - $299; multi-user - $699 (five-user limit recommended. One-Write Plus - $69.

QuickBooks Premier doesn’t offer quite the same level of complexity that a true manufacturing inventory provides, but the whole package costs less than just a manufacturing inventory module would in a larger accounting system.Also noteworthy is an integrated Federal Express shipping program that lets users process an order from receiving it, though building it and shipping it very smoothly.

One thing, however, that hasn’t changed is the way that QuickBooks’ inventory handles inventory costing. It’s strictly average cost, so users requiring LIFO, FIFO or specific-item costing must look elsewhere.

One place they can look is the QuickBooks Solutions Marketplace, which offers integrated applications that QuickBooks customers may be looking for to provide more specialized functionality, such as LIFO or FIFO. The marketplace is at http://solutionsmarketplace.intuit.com, where customers can locate a third-party developer of an application that integrates with QuickBooks.

As in previous versions of QuickBooks, Premier 2003 is network-capable. Upgrading to network capability is as simple as purchasing and installing a network license.

If your client doesn’t need all the functionality that QuickBooks Premier provides, or is a more service-oriented business that requires time & billing capabilities, you may want to consider QuickBooks Basic and QuickBooks Pro. Larger clients, with a lot of users and a higher volume of transactions, may benefit from the QuickBooks Enterprise edition introduced last year.

For many clients, QuickBooks Premier is an excellent choice. That’s why it enjoys substantial sales year after year.

MYOB FirstEdge

MYOB cut its teeth on the Macintosh operating system. And while it has a variety of upscale products for Windows, including the one in the review that follows, it has never forgotten its beginnings.

MYOB’s FirstEdge is a basic bookkeeping system for Mac users running OS 8.6 and higher. It’s not as fancy as many of the Windows-based applications we looked at, but doesn’t pretend to be anything other than the entry-level system that it is. When a user outgrows FirstEdge, MYOB has a more comprehensive Mac product, AccountEdge, that has more of the bells and whistles.

MYOB positions FirstEdge to compete with Intuit’s Quicken for the Mac and ApGen’s MyBooks. It is priced at the same $99 level as Quicken for the Mac, but it is more business oriented - although MYOB envisions FirstEdge users mainly as very small one- or two-person businesses, very possibly home-based.

As such, FirstEdge provides basic accounts payable and receivable, including invoicing. Conspicuously absent, though, are inventory and payroll. Nor does FirstEdge have any networking capability.

FirstEdge has a very intuitive and easy to navigate interface. Set-up is exceptionally easy on the iMac. We were ready to browse the system in just a few minutes. A large list of business types is included, and you can customize these even further if your client requires it.

Once installed, the application is equally easy to use. Tasks are divided logically under headings such as spend money or receive money. Considering its low cost, FirstEdge provides a lot of customization: Users can jazz up invoices and statements to reflect their business and personalities.

As inexpensive as it may be, FirstEdge has a few interesting surprises. They include the ability to e-mail invoices to your customers as PDFs. Since almost everyone has a copy of Adobe Acrobat on their system these days, this is an unusual capability to find in an inexpensive bookkeeping application.

However there is no free technical support beyond access to a prerecorded product introduction. Support plans costs $49, or you can also pay per call, at a $4 per minute rate with a $40 minimum.

FirstEdge is a slick product that’s priced right. But we’d rather see MYOB bump up the price about $20 or so and provide at least a measure of basic support.

MYOB Plus v. 12

MYOB Plus v. 12 is MYOB’s latest Windows product. The vendor has not skimped on features. There are very nice receivables and payables, both of which have a good basic ancillary application - sales and purchases.

Inventory is a bit light compared to the multiple-costing inventory in Peachtree Complete, but that’s true of other vendors’ offerings in the entry-level market, as well. At least MYOB Plus has an inventory, and it lets you cost using average cost or actual specific cost.

The software has built-in payroll, and MYOB offers an online SurePayroll service. MYOB’s payroll is fairly comprehensive for an entry-level product, but it will cost you about $15 a month to keep the tax tables and other upgrades up to date.

For service-oriented users, this product has appealing time & billing capabilities, which are priced lower than the T&B in competing products from Intuit and Peachtree.

MYOB Plus for Windows is cross-platform-compatible with the vendor’s AccountEdge Mac product, so you can mix Macs and PCs on a network, and enter transactions or print reports and invoices from any of the computers running accounting. Since both applications are multi-user ready, extending the applications across a network is simply a matter of purchasing a network license for the required number of users.

This is an excellent entry-level package at an affordable price. Your concern may be where clients go when they outgrow MYOB Plus, since the vendor doesn’t provide a clear upgrade path. But, if this is not a concern, MYOB has proven to have considerable staying power in a tough market.

Peachtree Complete Accounting 2004

In the entry-level accounting market, which has a large retail sales component, it’s usual for a product to be updated every year. This also allows the vendor to sell the upgrade into its existing user base as well, which provides a nice additional source of revenue to the company.

It’s getting increasingly rare to find ground-breaking features in these upgrades, especially in a product such as Peachtree Complete, which has been around long enough to become rock solid and polished to a jewel-like finish.

Peachtree Complete was pretty much just that - complete. It offers excellent capabilities in all subsidiary ledgers, and includes a very high quality fixed-assets function, since its parent company, Best Software, also develops Abra, one of the premier vendors of fixed-asset software.

Other high-quality additional applications include job costing, and a time & billing subsystem that will fulfill the needs of many of your service-oriented clients.

The beta version of Peachtree Complete tested for this report worked flawlessly. We did not have a user manual, but managed to set up the software and navigate using only an occasional reference to the comprehensive on-line help Peachtree Complete has long been known for offering the best inventory capabilities in the class, and this has not changed. As it has for years, you can cost using average costing, first-in/first-out or last-in/first-out, and the inventory provides kitting for your manufacturing clients.

There are some new and improved features in the 2004 version of Peachtree Complete. You can create your own task toolbar, which can be a timesaver when you usually do only the same tasks every day. You can also use this feature to keep new users from inadvertently straying into areas they shouldn’t.

A conversion wizard lets former QuickBooks users convert their data into Peachtree format, and there are new setup guides and preparation checklists.

Automatic spellcheck is among the niftiest new features; this can help prevent embarrassing spelling mistakes when preparing invoices, statements, and quotes and estimates. The reports now have improved filtering, so that your client can choose non-contiguous items to include in reports. Forms such as quotes, invoices and statements can now be e-mailed to clients.

As with the several previous releases, Peachtree Complete 2004 is network-ready, but at the $299 price, it is provided in single-user format. Adding network users is as easy as purchasing user licenses.

Peachtree also offers a variety of Web-based services and add-on products for Complete Accounting 2004 users. These include links to the Act! Contact management software, direct deposit for payroll users, Crystal Reports 9.0, and Website Creator Pro and Website Trader for your clients involved in e-commerce.

Please don’t mistake our statements about Peachtree Complete 2004 being a mature product to mean that it’s starting to show its age - it’s not. Rather, each new iteration of the software makes an already terrific application just a little bit better.

Peachtree One-Write Plus Release 8

One-Write Plus is still in Release 8, which was first introduced in 2000. That’s almost three years without an update.

Still, as an entry-level product for your customers who want to get their books on computer, but don’t want more than a basic bookkeeping system, this offers a familiar, user-friendly interface. One of the main reasons why Peachtree hasn’t felt pressured to make upgrades is that many of its users are happy with the software just the way it is.

One-Write Plus provides an excellent core of accounts payable and receivable. There is even basic inventory and simple payroll, a feature that’s unusual to find in a product this inexpensive.

Since the base price is so low, it’s pretty hard to justify a tax table update service that would probably cost several times the purchase price of One-Write Plus itself. This means that your clients will have to enter and update the tax tables themselves if they decide to use the application’s payroll capabilities.

Installing One-Write Plus is easy, and Peachtree provides templates for different kinds of businesses, so you can feel comfortable with your clients (or at least some of them) attempting this themselves. The learning curve is quick.

Once installed, the software is easy to use. The entry screen is very open, with different tasks arrayed at the bottom. Choosing a task brings up a flow chart of that particular application. For example, click on customers & sales, and a screen comes up that lets you choose to make up invoices and statements, create bank deposits and print the appropriate reports.

There’s nothing very fancy about One-Write Plus. That’s a large part of its charm, and the reason that it’s able to maintain sales even without yearly updates. If you have clients who really could be doing the grunt work themselves, but are just too “afraid” of computers, consider getting them up and running on One-Write Plus.

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