by Ted Needleman

Accounting software isn’t always easy to classify or stratify.

In the past, applications that were sold through the retail channel have been thought of as low-end or low-cost. While these packages may not hit your or your clients’ budgets for an extensive amount of money, considering an application “low-end” simply because you purchase it at Staples, Office Depot, Costco or Sam’s Club is not giving the software its due.

It wasn’t all that long ago that you would have had to pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for accounting software that didn’t have a fraction of the utility that you can purchase today for several hundred dollars.

Given all of this, it’s much more appropriate to refer to this class of accounting applications as “entry-level” — for many of your clients, one of these packages will provide them with an introduction to the benefits of computerized bookkeeping.

You will note that we’re using the term “bookkeeping,” rather than “accounting.” All of these packages are true accounting systems, but using them for accounting, rather than bookkeeping, implies a level of expertise that many small businesses will not have. Those of your clients with financial officers or comptrollers would, of course, be able to do many of their own adjusting entries, reversing entries, and even preliminary quarter and year-end closing entries.

Other clients, however, would require that you provide these services for them. For these clients, you may want to recommend a package that lets these services be performed remotely. Several vendors offer entry-level accounting packages that support remote access and journal entry by the company’s accountant.

Every time we come back to look at these packages, we’re impressed with just how much they continue to improve, and just how feature-rich the “entry-level” class of software has become. Many of the features, such as graphic navigation, drop-down menus, auto-fill, and master file maintenance on-the-fly were pioneered by the vendors in this class of application, and migrated upward into the more expensive midrange and enterprise-level offerings.

At the same time, while one of the applications we reviewed here would meet the requirements for many of your clients, they are not panaceas. Nor are all entry-level accounting applications identical.

While the genre does share a lot in the way of functionality, each vendor has its own idea of what makes a perfect package. Most vendors offer more than a single package in this market category. For example, Best Software offers Peachtree First Accounting, One-Write Plus, DacEasy, and two versions of Peachtree Complete. Intuit has several “levels” of QuickBooks, including a special edition for accountants. And if your client wants to use a Mac for their accounting, MYOB has two accounting packages for this operating system, as well as the one for Windows that we reviewed.

To some extent, there is variation in features between these different offerings. The one place where this variation may be significant is how a package handles inventory. Most entry-level accounting packages provide only the weighted average costing method. If your client needs to be able to maintain their inventory on a LIFO, FIFO or specific identification basis, you’ll need to make sure that the package that you recommend can accommodate these needs.

Payroll is another area where there is a good deal of variance. Some vendors don’t offer it in their entry-level products. Others provide payroll only as a service bureau offering. Several of the applications that we looked at, however, either include payroll as part of the package, or have an optional payroll package that can seamlessly integrate with the base application.

Another area where the entry-level accounting industry has seen a lot of change this year is in the offering of ancillary services and features. Many of the vendors providing entry-level accounting software now supplement these packages with business services such as credit card authorization, loans, and features like integration with Microsoft Office and printing reports in the popular Adobe PDF format.

Putting them to the test
To help you and your clients in your search for the “perfect” entry-level package, we looked at the newest versions of half a dozen packages from the major vendors. Our testing protocol consisted of setting up the software, a sample client, and then entering transactions into the sample data set that each vendor provides for you to practice and learn the software. We printed reports and evaluated each package on ease of set-up and use, as well as new features that vendors added for the current version.

Our test platform was a pretty powerful one, a 3-GHz Pentium 4 PC with 1GB of RAM and dual 120GB Seagate DATA hard disk drives in RAID array. You and your clients won’t need anywhere near this amount of computing power to run any of the packages we tested. In fact, an older Pentium 3 will probably suffice, and some of the published “minimum requirements” specify a Pentium or Pentium II.

Running accounting on a hand-me-down or surplus system is simply not a good idea, though. Accounting/bookkeeping is a mission-critical application in any business. As such, it should be run on a reliable PC, and that PC should be backed up on a regular basis as well as attached to a UPS, or uninterruptible power supply. None of these components are very expensive, and the under-$2,000 up-front investment in good equipment and power conditioning is cheap insurance. Having a client’s accounting system crash and burn because they were trying to save a bit of money on the PC simply makes no long-term economic sense.

Accpac Simply Accounting Pro 2004
Accpac International

Simply Accounting has been around for many years. While it probably isn’t as well known as the entry-level products from Intuit and Peachtree, it has a huge number of happy users, and is the most popular entry-level application in Canada.

Accpac also puts a good amount of effort into keeping Simply Accounting fresh every year. We tested the Pro version of Simply Accounting, which sells for $99. This version includes a fully functional payroll, time and billing capability to let you accumulate hours and funnel them into payroll, departmental accounting, bill of materials, and the ability to add multiple users as an upgrade. You can create multiple pricing lists, so that groups of clients, or even every single client, can have its own pricing for the same products.

Granted, the bill of materials in Simply Accounting Pro is rather basic, but considering the under-$100 price tag, it’s amazing that it’s included at all. If your client does not need the payroll, the standard version of Simply Accounting is only $49. It does eliminate a few features, but about 95 percent of the functionality of the Pro version is contained in the basic version. At $49, it’s one of the biggest bargains in accounting software.

Another thing that blew us away is that Simply Accounting is bilingual right out of the box. There’s no special fee or upgrade needed — you simply choose when you install the software whether you want to run in English or Spanish.

Accpac has spruced up Simply Accounting a bit since the last version. The user interface is just a bit spiffier, some of the reports have been cleaned up a bit, and many of the report filters have added additional parameters. There’s a version of Crystal Reports included so that you can do a fair amount of editing of the reports or create simple ad hoc reports without too much difficulty. Since Simply Accounting integrates with Microsoft Word and Excel, you can also use these applications to customize reports.

Multi-currency functionality has been part of Simply Accounting from almost the first version, and it’s still there. The less expensive basic edition handles only two currencies, but the Pro version lets you define pretty much as many currencies as you’d like. You can even start a client out with the basic version of Simply Accounting, and add the payroll later on. It’s available as a $79 add-on package called Simply Payroll. The Simply Payroll package can even be used with other vendors’ entry-level accounting packages.

If your client needs a little more functionality, Simply Accounting provides some add-on services for an additional fee. These include direct deposit for the payroll, credit card authorization and processing for sales, and even online data back-up.

Simply Accounting is a very affordable entry-level solution, and simply gets better every time we look at it.

DacEasy v. 13
Best Software, DacEasy Division

Given how many different versions of Peachtree Accounting are available, it would be easy for Best Software to just throw in the towel on DacEasy. After all, it’s sold by the same division, and competes somewhat directly with Peachtree.

There’s a considerable difference, though, between Peachtree’s user base and that of DacEasy. One big difference is that Peachtree’s applications are sold pretty much at retail, while you’ll have to go to an authorized DacEasy reseller or purchase the DacEasy product directly from the vendor.

The most probable customer for DacEasy Version 13 is a client who is already using a prior version of the software. That doesn’t mean that you should not consider DacEasy for those of your clients who are looking to implement their initial entry-level system, or to move from a product that is not meeting their needs.

The basic accounting system consists of general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, inventory, purchasing, sales, billing, fixed assets and a custom report writer. Missing from this collection are payroll, order entry and point of sale. Another extra-cost option is Crystal Reports for DacEasy. None of these add-ons comes cheap. Order entry and POS each cost $399 in single-user format, or $699 in network form. Crystal Reports will add another $149 to the tab. The price for payroll was not available at press time, but that adds to the overall system price, as well.

On the other hand, DacEasy does offer some capabilities that are exceptionally good for this type of application. Inventory is especially robust, with multiple warehouse capabilities and the ability to cost inventory using standard, average or LIFO.

The “other” Best Software entry-level products (i.e., Peachtree) have a My Business screen that provides an essential summary of the client’s business at a glance. DacEasy added this feature in the last release as well, calling it the Business Center. It’s easy to see why this type of feature is showing up in most of the accounting products currently being rolled out. Being able to see the important data points of a business at a glance is valuable.

As with the last version, many of the features that Best is touting as new in v. 13 are really just minor upgrades, such as the ability to customize the Toolbar and schedule back-ups. The most important thing about these is that they are usually requested by customers, and demonstrate that Best Software continues to listen and respond to their users.

Peachtree First Accounting 2004
Best Software

Peachtree Software has several entry-level products, not all of which are reviewed here. This division of Best Software actually further stratifies the entry-level market into really basic under-$100 applications and its Peachtree Complete Accounting, which also has several versions available.

For under $100, you get your choice of Peachtree’s One-Write Plus, which we’ve reviewed in previous years, and the Peachtree First Accounting application. One-Write Plus continues to be a popular product, but it’s been in v. 8 for several years now, so there’s nothing new to say about it this time around.

Peachtree First Accounting 2004, on the other hand, is a new version of this popular budget bookkeeping package. First Accounting won’t be appropriate for some of your clients, even if they are pretty small businesses. It contains only general ledger, accounts payable and accounts receivable capabilities. Accpac’s Simply Accounting and even Peachtree’s own One-Write Plus both have at least basic inventory, and include or have an optional payroll, as well. So, if your clients need these capabilities, First Accounting shouldn’t be your first choice. It is also only a single-user product. You can run it over a network, but there’s no way for more than a single user to operate the application.

Still, there are plenty of smaller businesses that can do very well with just the three core ledgers contained in First Accounting. If your clients fall into this group, they (and you) will be very happy with the way First Accounting works.

Set-up is very similar to the “grown-up” Peachtree Accounting and the graphical look and navigation is identical to Peachtree Complete Accounting. In fact, both the First Accounting and Complete Premium packages contain identical Getting Started guides. This makes upgrading in the future almost painless.

As with most entry-level accounting applications, First Accounting has dozens of charts of accounts for different kinds of businesses, so set-up is mostly just choosing one that’s the same kind of business that your client is running (or close) and adding or editing a few accounts.

We really like the opening screen. You can click on the My Business button and view charts of various sales and other details, a Daily Register of important summary totals, or just move into the main program navigation screen. Data entry is done using forms that emulate the familiar, such as a checkbook register. You can always double-click on figures to see the double-entry “real” accounting behind the easy-to-use graphical representation.

Whether or not First Accounting is too “light” for a client really depends on what they need to accomplish. If they need to record income/sales, follow purchases and print checks, First Accounting is an excellent way to do this.

Peachtree Premium Accounting 2004
Best Software

Peachtree Software, a division of giant Best Software, has an entry-level product for you regardless of how you want to define “entry-level.” One-Write Plus and Peachtree First Accounting both cost under a hundred dollars and are good choices for many of your smaller clients. The other Peachtree line includes Peachtree Accounting, Peachtree Complete, and the newest member of the family, Peachtree Premium.

Each is built on the same basic core, but as you move up the ladder, each adds features and capabilities, and costs a bit more. With a single-user price
of $499, and a five-user price of $999, Premium displaces Peachtree Complete at the top of the line, and is a worthy competitor to Intuit’s similarly priced QuickBooks Premier.

Premium starts out with the complete feature and function set of Peachtree Complete. These very comprehensive capabilities include all of the basic accounting ledgers, such as GL, AR, AP, PO, OE, payroll and one of the best inventories in the entry-level world. Peachtree is still the only vendor to provide all of the most common costing methods, including FIFO, LIFO and weighted average costing. There’s a good basic kitting capability for your clients who are in the manufacturing industries, and you can track additional inventory information such as SKU and weight. You can have up to 10 different pricing levels for each inventory item, and it’s easy to globally make adjustments to the inventory.

Peachtree also includes fixed asset management in its Complete and Premium applications. It used to be the only vendor to include this capability, but Intuit has added fixed asset management into its Premier version for 2004. Not all that many small business clients are actually using fixed asset accounting, but many should and would benefit from having it available and included in the price.


Vendor Information
Accpac Simply Accounting
Pro 2004

Accpac International Inc.
6700 Koll Center Pkwy.
Pleasanton, Calif. 94566
(800) 808-7000
www.accpac.com
Pricing: $99.


DacEasy v. 13
Best Software, DacEasy Division
17950 Preston Road, Suite 800
Dallas, Texas 75252
(800) DAC-EASY
www.daceasy.com
Pricing: Single user — $299;
network — $599.


Peachtree Premium
Accounting 2004/Peachtree First
Accounting 2004

Peachtree Software Inc.
1505 Pavilion Place
Norcross, Ga. 30093
(800) 228-0068
www.peachtree.com
Pricing: Premium Accounting — single user, $499; multi-user — $999 (five-user limit recommended). First Accounting — $99.


QuickBooks Premier 2004
Intuit Inc.
P.O. Box 7850, MS 2535
Mountain View, Calif. 94039-7850
(800) 4-INTUIT
www.quickbooks.com
Pricing: Single user — $499; five users — $1,499.


MYOB Plus 2004
MYOB US Inc.
300 Roundhill Dr.
Rockaway, N.J. 07866
(973) 586-2200
www.myob.com/us
Pricing: Single user — $249; network licenses — $99.

Peachtree’s accounting products have always been designed to be multi-user capable. In some years, this capability has been included. More recently, Peachtree has charged for this functionality. Peachtree recommends that not more than five simultaneous users access Premium, and a five-user license for the application doubles the price to just under $1,000.Where Peachtree Premium differs from Complete is in the addition of several higher-end features. One is the ability to perform consolidations. A Consolidation Wizard lets you consolidate balance sheets as well as income statements and budgets across related companies or divisions. This is made even more useful by extending the budgeting capabilities to up to three years worth of data.

Peachtree has always had extensive reporting capabilities. This is true in the newest family member, but is made even better with the addition of Crystal Reports 9.0 for Peachtree. This lets you easily create custom and ad hoc reports for your clients using the software. Peachtree has also extended the payroll reports to include compensation management. This allows you to track raises and other vital employee management information.

The Premium version of Complete isn’t the only thing new in 2004. Peachtree has made the toolbar customizable, and added an automatic spellchecker and the ability to e-mail forms and statements. They have also expanded their already extensive offering of Web and other add-on services, including ACT! Link for Peachtree, Direct Deposit, Online Backup Service, Website Creator Pro and Website Trader.

Peachtree has always been “real” accounting, even at the entry level. This latest offering from one of the originators of personal-computer-based accounting really blurs the line between entry-level and the next level up.

QuickBooks Premier 2004
Intuit Inc.
Over the years, the two main vendors in the entry-level market have been Intuit and Peachtree. While one or the other may introduce a new feature one year, both vendors are pretty well able to maintain parity with each other from year to year.

While Peachtree has tended to accent its accounting roots, Intuit has steadfastly concentrated on usability as its main focus, without giving up much ground in other areas, such as the accounting functions side. Peachtree still has an edge when it comes to inventory costing methods, but QuickBooks has evolved into a solid and very usable financial management system. The latest version of QuickBooks Premier 2004 builds nicely on that foundation.

Unlike its main competition, QuickBooks Premier 2004 does not offer payroll or time and billing features. Payroll is available in a separate product, and T&B is included as part of QuickBooks Pro.

New this year to QuickBooks Premier 2004 are a host of features and capabilities. Many of these are in the area of financial management. A new Cash Flow Projector makes it easy to estimate near-future cash flow and test out what-if scenarios. You can also easily link fields in an Excel spreadsheet and import them into QuickBooks. Moving QuickBooks data into Excel is even easier — just export a QuickBook report to Excel. This transfers even the formulas that are used in the report to the spreadsheet.

This latest version of QuickBooks also adds several new data management functions. Most notable is a new Fixed Asset Tracker. This lets your clients track their fixed assets, but doesn’t provide the amortization/depreciation features that are included in Peachtree’s Fixed Asset subsystem.

A loan manager feature stores information about all of your client’s loans in a single place. This tool does, however, go beyond simple data storage and allow you to calculate principle and interest payments. If your client uses their personal automobile for business, or needs to bill out the use of a business auto to a client, the Vehicle Mileage Tracker can help with these data collection tasks.

As with most of the vendors detailed in this roundup, Intuit also provides numerous additional fee-based services. These include payroll, credit check services through Dun & Bradstreet, and merchant account service for processing credit card transactions.

Peachtree and Intuit may be targeting similar smaller business clients, but the two offerings are not identical or interchangeable. QuickBooks has always valued ease of use over all, and that is still true with the newest version of QuickBooks Premier 2004. Intuit makes some very sophisticated analysis very easy to do. If that’s what your clients are most interested in, QuickBooks Premier should be high up on their list.

MYOB Plus 2004
MYOB Inc.

MYOB is another vendor that has a significant portion of its user base outside the U.S. It is also one of the very few entry-level accounting vendors to offer applications for both Windows and the Macintosh operating system. MYOB has several Mac-based packages, including AccountEdge 2004, which is similar in functionality to Plus 2004 for Windows, and a very basic Mac accounting package called FirstEdge.

This latest iteration of MYOB Plus still uses a card model, with card-like screens for customers, vendors, employees and the like. The look has been updated, and the interface is both very attractive and very easy to navigate. One interesting feature of all of the “cards” is that you can insert a photo. When you make use of this feature, you can see what a customer looks like when you pull up their record. Inventory records can also include an image, which makes it easy to identify items when you are updating an inventory or conducting a physical inventory. You can perform kitting, have multiple pricing per item, and cost using average cost or specific cost.

Other features include a basic time and billing capability, which feeds into the payroll. You can also perform basic job-costing. The MYOB Plus package is multi-user compatible. It is initially single-user, but can be upgraded to a multi-user system by purchasing network licenses.

New this year are improved reports with a greater number of filters and parameters. MYOB has also expanded its repertoire of extra-cost add-on services. MYOB SurePayroll was available last time we looked at the software, and has been joined with a direct deposit service, electronic payments to vendors, and the ability to accept credit cards.

MYOB Plus 2004 is a great system to consider if your clients have both Windows-based PCs and Macs and want to be able to use both. The data is compatible between the Plus and AccountEdge packages. The flip side of this is that, as with several of the other entry-level packages included in this roundup, there is no upgrade path should your clients find that they are outgrowing their accounting system.

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