There are fewer, but tougher, low-cost accounting packages.

The number of accounting packages for small to midsized businesses continues to shrink. Products are bought up, consolidated or discontinued in favor of others. The advantage is that the ones that remain on the market have to be increasingly good just to stay even with the competition.

All accounting software for small-to-midsized businesses does general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable and payroll; most do inventory, job costing, and time and billing, either built-in or as an add-on.

You should also be able to print quotes, sales orders, purchase orders and checks, and have a wide range of customizable, professional-looking reports. Documentation should be complete and there should be an Internet user forum for discussing problems with other users.

The product should 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 e-mail invoices, statements and reports.

Depending on your business, you may also want to make direct deposits and business-to-business payments or set up a Web store using your company's inventory.

This article reviews five Windows accounting packages:

- DacEasy

- MYOB Premier Accounting

- Peachtree Premium Accounting

- QuickBooks Premier

- Simply Accounting

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 set-up make sense? Was it easy to add invoices and pay bills? Can data be imported and exported?

* Product features. How complete is the package's feature set? How many sample charts of accounts are available? 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 available? Are there filtering and sorting options? Can you easily export report information and financial data to other formats?

DACEASY

Sage Software Small Business

www.daceasy.com

Price: Single user - $499.99; five users - $899.99.

DacEasy Version 16 from Sage has come a long way. It's made a successful transition to a full-featured Windows product. It has a few shortcomings in its look and feel, but it offers enough to keep both current and new users satisfied.

Installation was a bit sparse, but DacEasy is noted for being somewhat less frilly than other products. Setting up a new company is not bad, although again not as smooth as you might expect. There is only a single chart of accounts, but you can customize it as necessary.

DacEasy is noted for being modular. The basic accounting module handles GL, AR and AP. You can add modules for such things as PR, POS and OE functions. You can run modules separately or you can open the DacEasy Business Center, which looks like a Web site. From here, you can run all the modules, as well as get extensive information about how to use the product, accounting process flows and many other features.

There are also a number of analysis and business visibility options; for example, you can examine your bank accounts, customers or inventory with several pre-set reports. You can also set business alerts using rules (similar to setting rules in Microsoft Outlook).

Entering information can be done through standard menus or through the Activities portion of the Business Center, as you prefer.

Reporting features are very acceptable. The number of reports available depends on which modules you have installed, but the basic accounting module offers 38 different reports. The online help is very good, although a bit dense in places. Nevertheless, you'll be able to find everything you need and there are good navigational options for finding information.

There are some rough spots here and there. The screens are adequate, but also a bit dense and hard to follow. Modules are always separate on the Business Center menu, so reports for each module remain under that module's Reports menu, rather than one Report menu that covers whatever's available. In addition, menu commands and screen names aren't always intuitive, and warnings and errors could be timelier.

For example, DacEasy will let you set up a user with a two-character password without comment, but when you try to open the Crystal Reports module, you then get an error message and have to go back and fix the password in the Edit Passport screen.

Overall, the program doesn't feel nearly as smooth as some of the others in this review.

DacEasy is $499.99 for a single user for accounting, PR, POS and OE modules, or $899.99 for a five-user pack, which is somewhat pricier than comparable products in this review. DacEasy retains the modular features that long-time users will appreciate, but the product has enough features and in-depth documentation to make it worth a look to the new user as well.

MYOB PREMIER ACCOUNTING

MYOB US

www.myob-us.com

Price: Premier - $299; additional seats - $149 each, or $499 for five-pack. MYOB BusinessEssentials - $99.

MYOB Premier Accounting 2009 has not changed its look and feel from the previous version, but there are several enhancements that keep the product competitive and worth considering.

The new-company set-up in MYOB is unchanged: You can select one of 99 charts of accounts. You can start with the minimum or use MYOB's Easy Set-up Assistant to add information for accounts, sales, purchases and company payroll. The Command Center maps the accounting tasks in the order you're likely to do them and has good, easy-to-follow graphics in the process flow maps.

In addition to the standard general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable and PR, the software also does inventory, job costing, and time and billing. There are add-ons for direct deposit, payroll, credit card transactions and EFT. MYOB also supports multiple currencies, recurring transactions and sales tax codes, and has good auditing tools for reconciling your invoices and purchases, checking your audit trail and transactions, and examining inventory pricing and tax exceptions.

Once you've identified a problem, you can undo your last reconciliation, enter correcting transactions, and then reconcile again. There are also batch e-mail options for sales forms, payment notifications, purchase orders and statements. Payroll, W-2 and W-3 forms can also be batch-printed, instead of individually.

In addition to the budgeting information, this release also retains the prior year's paycheck data.

There are strong enhancements to reporting in the latest version. You can now preview your forms prior to printing with actual data (instead of the sample data). The 223 customized reports and forms also have improved filtering options. There are drill-down features that provide additional detail on many of the reports. The application also comes with a forms designer that lets you customize, including invoices and POs.

Office support includes the ability to export contact information from the MYOB card file to Outlook, and there are more than 300 templates for Word and Excel for reports, business letters and other documents.

Besides the many reporting enhancements, MYOB 2009 supports editing non-financial transaction information for recorded transactions, such as the account, ID, memo and date information. Credit card information is now more secure and complies with the new, tougher Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard for encryption, and the new spell-check feature ensures that your communications with your customers always look professional.

MYOB Premier Accounting 2009 costs $299. Additional seats can be purchased at $149 each, or in a five-pack for $499. MYOB BusinessEssentials, which provides just the basics without as many reports and add-on modules, costs $99.

There are also Mac versions called AccountEdge and FirstEdge. All versions have a 30-day money-back guarantee, and there are timed demos you can download from the MYOB Web site.

MYOB Premier Accounting is doing a good job of adding features and enhancements that keep the product competitive. Its solid basics and great reporting options make it very desirable for any small or midsized business that doesn't need every possible accounting bell and whistle.

PEACHTREE PREMIUM

Accounting Sage Software Small Business

www.peachtree.com

Price: Single user - $499.99; five users - $1,099.99.

Peachtree Premium Accounting 2009 continues to have an exceptional range of features and options. It's an excellent choice for small and midsized businesses that want a complete accounting solution at a reasonable price.

New companies can choose from 80 different charts of accounts. Peachtree Premium Accounting does GL, AR, AP, PR, inventory, job costing, time and billing, and fixed asset management.

There are extensive enhancements to payroll, such as tracking FSAs, insurance and retirement programs, logging additional kinds of vacation and sick leave, and tracking a number of company-paid state and industrial taxes. In addition, you can purchase online payroll services that let you make direct payroll deposits to your employees.

As with other accounting products, you have process flow charts in information centers that help you identify tasks and display information. The Peachtree Business Center provides excellent reporting and display options for your company's information. This release also has additional cash flow management tools for forecasting and what-if scenarios.

Companies that make or sell items will appreciate the product's strong inventory features. Peachtree lets you build and unbuild kits, reserve inventory stock and even create POs to re-order stock automatically based on minimum levels you set for items. Peachtree also lets you do direct deposits, transaction summaries, backorders and broadcast e-mails of invoices.

There are 189 reports, lists, forms and statements in this version of Peachtree. You can export reports to Word and Excel, and the software has a strong forms designer, along with excellent filtering, sorting and drill-down options. This version offers multi-year reporting, including running reports on closed years.

Peachtree's well-written and compact guide to getting started accompanies the product, and the online help is very good. It also comes with a comprehensive guided tour and targeted training videos for specific tasks you'll need to do. Other features are credit card handling, contact management, a Web site builder, and UPS shipping. You can also back up company files online. The Peachtree Web Accounting interface lets you enter and view company transactions online.

Peachtree Premium Accounting costs $499.99 for a single user and $1,099.99 for five users. (Industry-specific versions are also available at the same price.) If you need something a little less robust, try Peachtree Complete Accounting, at $269.99 for a single user and $699.99 for a five-user value pack. Peachtree Quantum is a server-based product that's more robust, offering between 10 users ($3,975) and 40 users ($11,975), supporting up to 200 employees. All products come with a 60-day money-back guarantee.

Peachtree Premium Accounting 2009 is a complete accounting product that will probably do everything you're likely to need. It offers the best price and performance of any of the products in this review.

QUICKBOOKS PREMIER

Edition Intuit Inc.

www.quickbooks.com

Price: Single user - Premier, $399.95; Pro, $119.95.

QuickBooks Premier Edition 2009, an excellent accounting package with an exceptional range of features, overcomes the relatively minor problems of the last release with some powerful new features.

New-company set-up is the very best in this review. There are recommendations for your choices at each stage of the process and 32 charts of accounts for you to choose from.

QuickBooks Premier handles GL, AR, AP, PR, time and billing, job costing, inventory, and fixed asset management, and add-on payroll processing from Intuit. The product also comes with a built-in UPS and FedEx shipping manager. You maintain and view information about customers, vendors, employees and reports through Centers, pages that display detailed information from several related windows. There are 117 reports, most with drill-down features. You can also export information to Word, Excel and Outlook. There are add-ons for credit card processing, timesheets and building Web sites. The QuickBooks Coach provides online video tutorials. There are also Coach Tips that give you additional info for specific tasks.

Online help has been improved and there is more consistency between the screens, although it's still not perfect. There are also still multiple license agreements to agree to in different parts of the product. However, this release has several strong features that make up for this: a Web site builder, enhancements to online banking, and a company snapshot function that displays a wide variety of information about your company all in one place. The most exciting addition is the Live Community, which gives you a direct connection to other QuickBooks users so you can get information and advice directly from other people who have had the same questions.

QuickBooks 2009 costs less than the 2008 editions. Premier is $399.95 for a single user, while QB Pro, which doesn't have inventory, budgeting or as many templates, is $119.95 for a single user. Additional licenses are available for both. You can also buy industry-specific versions with customized reporting options and tools. All QuickBooks products come with a 60-day money-back guarantee.

With this release, QuickBooks Premier 2009 is once again the first-class product it's been for many years in the past. Any small or midsized business can buy this with confidence that they'll have their accounting needs met completely.

SIMPLY ACCOUNTING

Sage Software Small Business

www.simplyaccounting.com/us

Price: First Step - $49.99; Pro - $149.99; Premium - $299.99 (multi-user); Enterprise, $1,249 (five users) or $2,499 (10 users).

A bilingual product, Simply Accounting can be installed in English or French in Canada, or English and Spanish in the United States. New-company set-up is mostly a matter of entering basic company information and selecting one of the 102 sample charts of accounts. (There are good groupings, such as "Food and Beverage" and "Personal Service" to narrow down the charts of accounts.) The package's main screen shows the accounting task flow with icons. (Users of earlier versions can change the interface to the older style by clicking "Switch to classic view.") There are four versions of this product. Simply Accounting First Step (formerly known as "Entrepreneur") does GL, AR, AP and basic reports. It's good for small businesses that don't need PR or inventory. The Pro version (formerly known as "Basic") also does POs, sales orders and quotes, project tracking, and multiple currencies.

The Premium version adds time and billing, job tracking, BOM, departmental accounting, Outlook integration, packing slips, and any in-depth accounting features such as FIFO costing, forecasting and analysis, and enhanced reporting features. It's also multi-user ready. The Enterprise edition offers additional security features and serialized inventory, as well as coming with five- and 10-user licenses. You can also buy add-ons for such functions as EFT and direct deposit.

Depending on the version that you're using, you can have as many as 132 reports and nine graphs, which can be customized and exported to Excel. You can also synchronize your customer and vendor information with Outlook and e-mail invoices in both RTF and PDF formats.

The getting-started manuals and online help are complete and easy to use. The Daily Business Manager lets you display up to 25 key performance indicators, including your current cash position, average aging of customer invoices, revenues and sales. The custom information fields and to-do list display pop-up reminders for tasks and events on your calendar.

Simply Accounting First Step is only $49.99, a steal for those who just need basic accounting. At $149.99, Simply Accounting Pro is a good, basic accounting product.

If your business requires more in-depth features or multiple users, look at Simply Accounting Premium ($299.99) or Simply Accounting Enterprise at $1,249 for five users or $2,499 for 10 users. All versions have a 60-day free trial period.

Simply Accounting has versions for all levels of small and midsized businesses. Both Canadian and U.S. businesses can start with Simply Accounting First Step and then move up to more comprehensive versions of the product as the business grows.

SUMMARY

You probably can't lose with any of these products, but the winner by a nose is QuickBooks Premier. The interface is still not quite as good as it was a few years ago, but the new product features bring it even with Peachtree and the new Live Community help features push it over the line.

But users who want an entry-level accounting package that can do everything for them smoothly should definitely look at both products, which are both outstanding and comparably priced.

MYOB continues to be a very good product with many features that is remaining competitive, while Simply Accounting gets points for being bilingual, easy to use and very inexpensive. DacEasy offers solid accounting, but the rougher interface and higher price may make it a less appealing choice.

The true value of a product is how well it fits a company's needs. Each of these products has features and strengths that may make them uniquely appealing. Assess each in light of your requirements and take advantage of product demos and trial offers to make sure that you're getting the best possible solution for your company.

John Hedtke is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication and the author of 26 books. This review was originally printed in the June 2009 issue of Accounting Technology.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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