First introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, microcomputer-based accounting has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of applications - often getting little respect. Some accountants and their clients have been somewhat dismissive of these packages, considering them "starter" accounting systems - good to get a client computerized and familiarized with the benefits and requirements of an in-house system, but ultimately just a stop on the way to a real application. While there are numerous clients that eventually will want to upgrade, the majority of entry-level accounting packages provide clients with a robust feature set and capabilities that will help them meet regulatory requirements and provide the information that they need to run their businesses better.
In fact, as is the case with many applications developed to run on small computers, some of these entry-level accounting applications are so feature-rich that they far outstrip the expertise of their users, with a multitude of reports and analysis tools that will, in many instances, never get used.
On a conceptual basis, one of the major differences between many entry-level accounting packages that you can buy for a few hundred dollars at Staples or CompUSA, and a mid-market accounting application that might cost tens of thousands of dollars from a VAR, is scalability - the number of simultaneous users that can access the software, or the number of accounts and locations that can be accommodated by the application.
Sure, you'll find a greater degree of specialization for specific kinds of businesses at the mid-market level, with additional features such as more detailed bill-of-material processing for manufacturing entities and point-of-sale/back office accounting for your retail clients. At the same time, many of these features are also finding their way down into specialized versions of the entry-level packages reviewed here, and are offered either directly from the original application vendor, or from a network of third-party developers that have morphed the generic application into a custom vertical solution.
Finally, to give entry-level accounting its due, we also need to point out that many of the deluxe features that we now take for granted in applications, including on-the-fly file maintenance, easy-to-use navigation, auto-fill, and drop-down menus, were all initially introduced in entry-level applications and have worked their way up the accounting software food chain.
Defining the 'entry level'
Defining the term "entry level" as it applies to accounting software isn't cut and dry, and is often a matter of perspective. For this set of reviews, we will arbitrarily define entry-level accounting software as costing less than a thousand dollars and generally available at retail. Even this definition, though, gets stretched a bit, as DacEasy, which is included in this roundup, is not available in retail stores, though it is available directly from the vendor, and through VAR channels.
Entry-level accounting applications are also frequently viewed as pretty much interchangeable. That's very definitely not the case. While there is a great deal of similarity in features and functionality between the different packages available in this market, the one-size-fits-all approach often needs to be examined in a bit more depth.
Different vendors take a somewhat different approach to the way that they configure their applications. There are three major areas where you'll most notice the differences. One is in the way that each package handles inventory. Most entry-level accounting applications offer only the weighted-average method of costing inventory. Some packages, however, add last-in-first-out, first-in-first-out, or specific-item costing. Some packages also offer rudimentary bill-of-material processing, allowing your client to perform kitting, or grouping discrete inventory items together as a unit. Some packages do not provide any inventory support at all.
A second area where packages differ is in supporting payroll. Some packages offer payroll calculation capabilities; others offer payroll support as an option or not at all. Your client may be able to process payroll on a service bureau and transfer the payroll as a set of detail entries into the accounting software.
Finally, the last major area of difference is in the ancillary services that the software vendor offers. These include Web site creation and e-commerce that ties into the accounting system, credit card verification and processing, integration with other applications such as Microsoft Office, and support for Adobe's PDF portable document format, so that reports and even invoices can be easily e-mailed.
How much PC is enough?
If you look hard enough, you can probably find close to a dozen entry-level packages, including some that are sold only over the Internet. To help you narrow your search for the right package for your clients, we tested a half-dozen entry-level applications from the major software vendors.
In our testing, we installed each package, made a variety of different kinds of entries using the practice data set supplied with each application, and evaluated the reports, navigation, editing and other features of the package. We also examined what new features were added in the current release.
Our test platform was relatively powerful - none of the packages we tested require this degree of computing power. In fact, most will run nicely on a Pentium II-based PC.
As in the past, however, we'll reiterate that, for any business, financial record-keeping is a mission-critical application. As such, it should be run on a reliable system, and this PC should be equipped with some form of back-up so that the client data can be restored in the event of an equipment failure.
Many of the applications we tested provide built-in back-up capability - all a user has to do is specify where the back-up should be written to. If your client makes two back-up copies of their data at the end of each session on inexpensive write-once DVDs or rewritable discs, and stores one of these copies off site, perhaps at home, they will be able to quickly recover from most data disasters.
Accounting Basic 2005
Simply Accounting has had an interesting life. It was first developed by Bedford, a Canadian company, and for years has remained one of the top selling applications in Canada. Bedford was purchased by software giant Computer Associates, and merged into its Accpac division. Last year, Best Software purchased the company, so Simply Accounting is now in the same software division as DacEasy and Peachtree.
Fortunately, Simply Accounting, while similar in concept to Peachtree First Accounting, has enough uniqueness and a large enough user base to remain a robust product in Best Software's lineup.
For 2005, Simply Accounting again has multiple editions, starting with the $49 Basic Edition that we reviewed. The Pro Edition is now a multi-user product with greatly enhanced features, and the price jumps to $299. A new Premium Edition joins the lineup, topping out at $499 and offering industry-specific features and multi-company consolidation of most of the available financial reports.
Other new features for the latest edition of Basic include enhanced reporting, including the ability to generate invoices in PDF format, and lots of tweaks, such as better filters in several reports. The Daily Business Manager - an executive dashboard that was added in the last release - now includes 25 business performance indicators, so your clients can get a good idea of what's going on in their businesses from just one master screen.
Considering that Simply Accounting is the least expensive application in this roundup, it is surprisingly comprehensive. As with many of the entry-level applications that we examined, Simply Accounting is easy to set up and, with a front-end navigation screen, also easy to get around in.
The Basic Edition lets you maintain a general ledger, create invoices, print checks, perform a basic inventory, and even track payroll. The payroll system contained in the Basic Edition does not do payroll calculations; your clients will have to manually calculate the gross-to-net, or spring for an additional $249 a year for tax table updates. Other optional services include merchant card account processing and direct deposit.
Simply Accounting seems to be evolving, at least at the Pro and Premium levels, into a competitor with other products in the Best Software stable. That's probably unintentional, but unavoidable as the company tries to make moving up an easy process for its Basic users. Given how strong a product the $49 application is, and the multitude of users it has, that's probably not a bad strategy.
DacEasy V. 13
Best Software certainly has a plate full of accounting software offerings, even at the entry level. These range from Simply Accounting through several editions of Peachtree. DacEasy is also sold through the same division, though it's come very far from the initial "everything for $89" package that pretty much launched the low-cost accounting software market. Today's DacEasy is a modular system, though the base system includes modules for general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory, purchasing, sales, billing, fixed assets and custom report writing.
Other modules are available. Payroll, order entry and point-of-sale cost $399 each. The almost industry-standard Crystal Reports adds another $149 to the bottom line. Adding just a few of the options can push the $299 base price to a considerably higher level. At the same time, in some respects, DacEasy is more like a mid-market accounting system than an entry-level one, especially in its inventory capabilities. While many of the applications that we reviewed limit inventory costing to weighted average, DacEasy lets you cost using LIFO, standard or average cost.
Unlike the rest of the applications reviewed here, DacEasy is not a retail product. Your clients can purchase it either from an authorized DacEasy reseller, or directly from the vendor.
The version of DacEasy we received for review, Version 13, is the same version that we received last year at this time. While there have been minor updates during the year to address various bugs and glitches, no major upgrade has been performed on the product. Other Best Software products, including Simply Accounting and the various Peachtree editions, have all changed version numbers during the year.
Best is honest in admitting that Version 13 is most likely going to be purchased by an existing DacEasy client. There are enough of these that Best is hesitant to discontinue the application. At the same time, we recall that another Best Software product, Peachtree's One-Write Plus, stayed at Version 8 for several years before being discontinued last year.
Whether this same fate is in the cards for DacEasy is unknown. Regardless of its eventual fate, though, DacEasy 13 is still a very viable upgrade for existing DacEasy users. Others in your client base, however, may be better off choosing a different product to get started with.
QuickBooks Premier 2005
When thinking about entry-level accounting for your clients, there are two vendor names that probably pop into your head immediately. Peachtree is one, and Intuit is the other. Peachtree has been around a bit longer, but with its original Quicken and QuickBooks offerings, Intuit has captured the hearts and minds of small business owners who want to do financial record keeping and management, but shy away from accounting.
To be honest, both QuickBooks Premier and Peachtree Premium are very close in features and functionality. At the single-user level, they are priced identically. QuickBooks does not provide a built-in payroll such as the one that's included with Peachtree Premium, and Peachtree's inventory is the best in this market segment, especially if your client wants the ability to choose between costing methods. Both vendors' products allow your client to perform kitting, combining individual inventory items into trackable subassemblies. On the other hand, QuickBooks lets your client tie in directly to both UPS and FedEx to ship products, while Peachtree has only a UPS direct link. Both vendors, however, concentrate on offering external payroll services that are extra-cost options.
Not a lot has changed in Premier since last year. Online help and tutorials have been improved, and Intuit has added more institutions so that your clients can download their bank transactions. An expert analysis tool has been added to an already robust collection of financial management tools, so your clients can compare their operating results with industry standards. Your clients can also create business plans easily using a question-driven wizard. This is a handy feature if they will need to pursue financing.
Also new this year is a low cost ($99) edition of QuickBooks called Simple Start. This is a bridge product, with capabilities between Quicken and the Basic Edition of QuickBooks, and eliminates some QuickBooks features, such as job costing and the ability to print reports as PDFs. Intuit also offers QuickBooks in an edition for the Mac, and in several vertical editions for nonprofits, professional services, contractors, wholesale and retail sales, and, of course, for accountants. The Enterprise Edition lets your clients upgrade to more capacity at a later time.
If your client suffers from "fear of accounting," but still considers themselves a financial sophisticate, get them QuickBooks Premier. They'll be happy and so will you.
Money Small Business 2005
Microsoft has already let the cat out of the bag that it intends to once again offer a small business accounting software product that will become part of the Office application suite. In the meantime, there is Money Small Business 2005. Just as Intuit grew QuickBooks from Quicken by adding more accounting functionality, Microsoft has enhanced its personal financial product by adding features. The result is a bookkeeping application that will appeal to those of your clients with small and straightforward business.
Money Small Business does not include payroll or inventory. You can, however, run a client's payroll on PayCycle and import the detail into Money. The first year of this service is free, a savings of over a hundred dollars.
Microsoft also offers optional deals on Experian credit reporting, online tax prep and e-filing from H&R Block, and a capital gains optimizer from GainsKeeper. A coupon that can be redeemed for a free one-year subscription to Money magazine is included in the box. Microsoft also includes a utility that lets your client convert their records from Quicken, if they currently happen to be using it.
Money is easy to install and easy to set up. The Setup Assistant helps determine which accounts will be used, and your clients can use it to automatically access their bank accounts online if the bank supports integration with Money. This allows users to download the statement directly into the software, greatly simplifying reconciliation of the account(s).
To be honest, Microsoft Money Small Business 2005 is less a QuickBooks equal and more like Quicken. While a small business client could possibly do their record-keeping using Money Small Business 2005, they would probably find it an easier task using one of the other applications we reviewed. At its heart, despite the "Small Business" label, Money is still basically a personal finance manager, albeit a sophisticated and comprehensive one. Still, a surprising number of small businesses still run their operations on Quicken, rather than QuickBooks, so Small Business 2005 would be a viable alternative for this type of client. The application even includes a utility to import data from an existing Quicken installation.
Where Money Small Business 2005 would be most appropriate is for your clients who run a second business out of their house, and want to keep track of Schedule C income. Money Small Business 2005 will make it easy to generate simple invoices, and track and separate personal and business income and expense.
MYOB BusinessEssentials Pro 2005
MYOB US Inc.
MYOB, like Simply Accounting, has a very large user base primarily located in other countries. As with DacEasy, MYOB's products are not generally sold at retail, but are available both through the vendor's reseller channel and directly through the vendor itself via its Web site. For 2005, the product lineup has been completely revamped, with BusinessEssentials Pro as the top-of-the-line offering. A less expensive $99 BusinessEssentials is designed for smaller businesses, and MYOB continues to offer and update the $299 AccountEdge accounting application for the Macintosh operating system.
BusinessEssentials Pro 2005 is actually a suite of applications. At the core is MYOB's Premier Accounting. This is the former MYOB Plus, which has been updated with several enhancements, such as a new Process Payroll Assistant. The previous version of MYOB Plus required that you calculate each payroll check before processing the next one. Now you can batch process recurring payroll transactions. Also new is the ability to print W-2 and W-3 forms on plain paper.
MYOB was originally designed as an electronic analog to a card-based system. The card design still underlies the application, though most of the screens appear similar to those found in other entry-level applications, and are both very understandable and easy to navigate. The records allow you to insert images in many of the files, so you can place a photo of an inventory part so that your client's staff can find the correct part more easily.
The BusinessEssentials Pro accounting component provides all of the basic functions, including receivables and payables, payroll, and inventory. MYOB's inventory supports kitting, and you can have several different prices for the same item. Pricing is primarily average cost, though you can use specific cost as well. The Pro Edition also allows your clients to perform job tracking (though not job costing), and basic time and billing. There is excellent integration with Microsoft Office - you can edit reports in Word, and output data into Excel for extensive analysis. Credit card processing, direct deposit and full-service payroll are extra-cost options.
In addition to Premier Accounting, BusinessEssentials Pro also includes a very serviceable HR application called Staff Files. There's also a financial forecasting utility and a customer appointment manager. Finally, the Logo Creator lets your clients create their own graphic identity and use it on their checks and invoices.
MYOB provides a free copy for you when your client purchases BusinessEssentials Pro. That makes it easy for you to provide support, as well as create adjusting and closing entries. There is even a set of small books, including "Where Did the Money Go?" and an Accounting 101 Guide.
At $299, MYOB BusinessEssentials Pro is in the middle of the price range for entry-level accounting. At this price, however, it's a very good value.
Peachtree Premium Accounting 2005
Considering that Peachtree has been selling accounting software for almost 30 years, it's hard to see how they can continue to improve it with every new release. First introduced in 1976 by Retail Sciences, the current version of Peachtree Premium Accounting 2005 maintains the completeness that's always been it's hallmark, while continuously improving its ease of use.
The Premium Accounting that we reviewed is Peachtree's top-of-the-line offering. It also offers Complete Accounting, Peachtree Accounting and First Accounting, each with a slightly different feature set. Peachtree also offers vertical versions of Premium Accounting that have been tweaked for use in manufacturing or distribution entities, as well as an accountant's version for you to use in remotely working with your clients who are using Peachtree's applications.
Looking at the feature set of Peachtree Premium, it's hard to think of it as entry-level. While exceptionally easy to set up, use and navigate through, the application handles AR, AP, purchasing, sales order, job costing, time and billing, full in-house payroll, and a comprehensive inventory that's the best offered at this price level.
You can cost using pretty much any of the industry-standard methods, including LIFO, FIFO, average cost, standard cost and individual cost. The inventory supports kitting and has links so that your client can automatically ship through UPS. Fixed assets can be tracked and depreciated using an FAS-developed module from Peachtree's sister company. Your client can consolidate divisions or umbrella companies, and if the standard customization features aren't enough to make them happy, Crystal Reports for Peachtree is also packed in the box.
Another Best Software company produces the ACT! contact manager, so you won't be too surprised to learn that there's built-in integration with this application as well. Peachtree even integrates well with Microsoft Word and Excel, though these products are not yet owned by Best Software.
As with most vendors, Peachtree has a long list of "improvements" for the 2005 version of Premium. Many of these are features suggested by their customers, and include such capabilities as automatically creating a purchase order to restock inventory when the level falls below a set amount. You can now e-mail financial statements and reports, and there's a new inventory trend analysis report. Another new inventory feature is the ability to enter serial numbers for inventory items.
None of these are break-down-the-barn-door must haves, but they are indicative of the vendor's commitment to continued improvement. Even though Peachtree Premium Accounting is a polished product, it never hurts to add another coat of wax and a buffing.
Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.
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