by Ted Needleman

Trial balance software is very much a niche product.

That’s really saying something, considering that the accounting market is itself a niche market to start out with. As a class of software, trial balance is a bit hard to pin down. In many aspects, it is very similar to write-up, and packages for the two applications, especially those available from the same vendor, often have a lot of feature overlap.

Write-up, as with trial balance, lets you capture transactions with the intention of generating financial statements. While the final product — financial statements — produced by the two applications is the same, the intent, mechanics and operation of these two classes of software products diverge substantially.

Write-up software is designed to allow you to perform both bookkeeping and financial statement preparation for your clients. While the end product of a write-up engagement is often a set of financial statements, the primary purpose is to produce the original books of record — the journals and general ledger. To accomplish this, it is necessary to capture the financial transactions in detail.

Trial balance as an application, however, usually concentrates on the financial statements as the primary product. These are often generated as the end product of an audit, compilation or review engagement. In this case, not only are the financial statements required, but depending on the type and scope of the engagement, you may also have to produce various types of workpapers and other documentation.

A number of the products we reviewed in this round-up address this need, as well as the financial statement generation requirement. Another way that trial balance software is used is as an input engine for tax return preparation. In this use, the trial balance is either developed or imported from an accounting system, adjustments are applied, and the resulting TB exported to the tax prep software to prepare a return.

At the core of any trial balance application is the trial balance report itself. This is used both to prepare adjusting entries, and to show them as being applied. The ancillary reports can include specialized journals for adjustments, reversals, and other specialized entries such as amortizations. Again, exactly how you use these journals, and, for that matter, which ones you use, will depend on the specific engagement.

In the reviews that follow, several vendors have addressed the details of the engagement itself, as well as, or instead of, the mechanics of producing an adjusted trial balance report and financials. These packages will be of benefit to any practitioner who accepts audit, compilation or review engagements.
The management of the details of these kinds of engagements can not only be tedious, but at some future time you may be called on to prove that you covered all of the bases. Engagement management software, either in concert with the trial balance application or as an adjunct to write-up and/or accounting software that is used for these types of engagements, is an important consideration for many practices.

How we tested
In the reviews that follow, we examined software from five vendors. Four of these vendors provide what we consider a trial balance application, and two of the four, CCH and Creative Solutions, also extend their trial balance applications with optional engagement management applications. For this article, we examined CCH’s and Creative Solutions’ pair of applications in a single review.

Practitioners Publishing Co. (PPC, a Thomson business) does not provide trial balance software. It does, however, offer Engagement Manager, an application that we have included under the trial balance software umbrella, and which is reviewed here.

To test each of the applications, we installed the software and sample data files as provided by the vendor. We made numerous adjusting entries of various types and checked that these correctly flowed to the proper place on the trial balance and financial statements. Where available, we used the filters and report generation features to customize reports and financial statements. We examined each application for its suitability in quickly generating a TB and financials, as well as in assisting and documenting the audit, compilation and review process.

None of these applications requires a tremendously powerful PC. Our testing was performed using a 3-GHz Pentium 4 system simply because that’s what we had available. You could probably run any of the applications we looked at very nicely on a slow Pentium II or Pentium III notebook or desktop. Our test platform had the Windows XP Professional operating system installed.

Keep in mind that several of the applications that we tested either require Microsoft Office, or are able to work in conjunction with Office. In this case, you’ll probably need at least the Office 2000 version. Our testing was performed with Microsoft Office XP installed.

Not otherwise engaged
In the reviews that follow, you will notice that we have examined both trial balance and engagement management applications. These two applications are very tightly related. The trial balance software is used to produce financial statements and often supporting documents. Engagement management software, however, is used to manage the workflow of a compilation, review or audit engagement, as well as, in many cases, the large number of documents that need to be created, captured and collated during one of these engagements.

CaseWare Working Papers
CaseWare is a company that’s probably best known for its IDEA audit analysis application. Fortunately, this vendor also produces several other accountant-oriented packages, including CaseWare Time and the Working Papers package reviewed here.

It’s difficult to precisely
pigeonhole Working Papers. Depending upon how you configure and use it, it can be considered a trial balance application or even a write-up application. Optional add-ons let you customize the application to an even greater degree specifically for audit, compilation or review engagements, though you will have no trouble using the basic package for these types of engagements.

Working Papers has a user interface that is similar to its time & billing application. A vertical panel on the left of the screen presents a Windows Explorer-like view of the tasks that are available. Small click boxes next to some of the labels let you expand or collapse the task tree. This is a somewhat unusual approach, and is supplemented with standard drop-down Windows menus, but it’s easy to get used to quickly, and we really like the way you can see almost the entire application at a glance.

Working Papers approaches the trial balance application by offering a set of client templates that can be customized and applied to new clients
as you add them. These templates contain not only the chart of accounts, but leadsheets and groups for creating actual workpaper sets. CaseWare Working Papers supports XBRL tagging in the reports and financials, and you can set this up as well in the templates or on a client-by-client basis. You will, however, need a pretty good working knowledge of XBRL in order to use this feature.

The vertical left window also serves as the document manager. You can see at a glance which documents are available for a client, and if need be, by opening another client, copy documents from one client to another.

CaseWare Working Papers has its own embedded word processor/spreadsheet called CaseView, and many of the reports and financials are written using this utility. This allows you to easily customize the reports, even though using CaseView is not entirely intuitive. In fact, half of the large manual is dedicated to using CaseView. You can also export documents and reports to Microsoft Word or Excel and can work on them in those applications, as well as import initial trial balances and other documents from these and other external applications.

The Working Papers application also provides an Engagement Manager feature. This allows you to add milestones and checkpoints so that you can track the progress of an engagement.

CaseWare’s Working Papers provides all of the basic tools and functionality that you’ll need to perform most engagements. You can perform consolidations and even perform ratio analysis as needed for a compilation, review or audit engagement.

If you want more functionality, check out CaseWare’s new add-ons. These include CaseWare Audit and CaseWare Review, which provide additional boilerplate work papers and links to authoritative literature and guidance. CaseWare Financials expands the options that you have in producing financial statements and supporting schedules and reports. Connector provides enhanced Word and Excel integrations, and CaseWare Scenarios expands the options that you have for performing ratio and other analysis of financial and performance data.

Even if you don’t opt for the add-ons, you’ll find that CaseWare Working Papers provides a robust and comprehensive trial balance application.

CCH ProSystem fx Trial Balance and Engagement Manager
CCH is another vendor that has a nice suite of accountant-oriented applications. That bodes well for users of ProSystem fx Trial Balance or Engagement Manager. These are actually two separate and different software packages — Engagement Manager has trial balance capabilities, but it does not incorporate the trial balance application. Rather, Engagement Manager’s trial balance features are macros that use Microsoft Word and Excel to generate the financial statements and other required documents and reports. Because of this, if you purchase Engagement Manager, each of your users will also have to have a copy of Microsoft Word and Excel. This must be a version no earlier than Word/Excel/Office 2000.

ProSystem fx Trial Balance was originally named ProSystem fx Audit. The software is easy to set up and easy to use. Generally, you’ll import the balances from an accounting package, make your adjustments, and generate the required workpapers, leadsheets and financials. If you are using ProSystem fx Tax, exporting the results and generating a return are just about seamless. Trial Balance has a wide variety of reports and workpapers, and can output in several formats, including PDF. In fact, you can output a comprehensive file containing all of the workpapers, leadsheets and financials as a single PDF file, which makes it easy to e-mail or transmit electronically.

Engagement Manager does have trial balance capability, but it’s an entirely different product from ProSystem fx Trial Balance. As previously mentioned, Engagement Manager requires Microsoft Word and Excel. This allows you to perform the required analyses in a predefined and preprogrammed Excel spreadsheet, then transfer the results into a Word template for printing. The output from Engagement Manager looks as good as that from any of the other vendors’ applications that we tested.

Engagement Manager is very strong in the features that let you plan and track an engagement. A “binder” is created for every engagement, and all
of the related documents, whether they be workpapers, leadsheets, Excel spreadsheets, or imported or even scanned documents, are stored in this binder. You can synchronize multiple binders, which smoothes the way if you have multiple staff members working on different parts of an engagement.
Which of the CCH offerings you choose really depends upon what kind of practice you have, since both Trial Balance and Engagement Manager are identically priced. If you are looking to move towards a paperless practice, Engagement Manager is probably better suited for this approach.

Engagement Manager also has the additional advantage of add-on content from the Miller Engagement Guides and McGladrey & Pullen Work Programs. These build in another layer of guidance and workpapers and analyses that are targeted for specific industries and entity types.

Creative Solutions Trial Balance Solution and Engagement Solution
Creative Solutions, also a Thomson business, has two of its “Solutions” to address your trial balance needs. The Trial Balance Solution is just that, a good basic trial balance application. At $600 for a single-user license, it’s reasonably priced, and has excellent features.

It is also the core of the Engagement Solution. This product is priced at $1,200 for a minimum four-user license, and adds full engagement tracking features to the Trial Balance Solution, which is also included in the purchase price. We installed the Engagement Solution, and looked at the core features of each of the applications in our testing.

One thing to keep in mind with most Creative Solution products, including these two, is that the license information is provided on a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Many of our current PCs no longer have a floppy drive installed, though we do keep a USB external drive around “just in case.” You can install the licenses from an external floppy drive, as we did, or possibly ask Creative Solutions to provide the licenses on a CD-R.

Creative Solutions has done an excellent job in developing a suite of products that integrate at a very basic level. This means that if you use any of the vendor’s other solutions, such as the Write-up Solution or Payroll Solution, the data will be instantly available for a client as soon as the Engagement or Trial Balance Solution is installed. It also means that Trial Balance or Engagement Solution will effortlessly export an adjusted trial balance to Creative Solutions’ Ultra Tax and is also very compatible with the other major tax preparation applications, including Creative’s own GoSystem Tax, as well as Lacerte, Intuit ProSeries and CCH’s ProSystem fx Tax.

Set-up is easy, and you can import balances from a variety of applications, including Excel and QuickBooks Pro. Depreciation entries flow from the Depreciation Solution, if you are using it.

All of the Creative Solutions products feature extensive reporting capability, and the Engagement Solution (and Trial Balance Solution) are no exception. We like the basic reports very much, and there are a variety of trial balance formats and worksheets available in the Trial Balance Solution. You can format these reports to a large degree, and add XBRL tags to reports that you may want to send to banks and other financial institutions. As with other software that offers this capability, you do need to know something about XBRL mark-up to get the most out of this feature.

If your firm does a fair amount of compilations, reviews or audits, you will probably want to consider the Engagement Solution. This incorporates the Trial Balance Solution at its core, but adds engagement tracking and management, the ability to integrate with Practitioners Publishing Company’s practice aides and e-workpapers, easier integration with Microsoft Word and Excel, and much more extensive analysis capabilities. There’s even a Wrap-up Wizard to make sure that you haven’t left any review notes open, and that all items in an engagement have been properly and completely addressed.

Both CCH’s ProSystem fx Trial Balance and Engagement Manager and Creative Solutions’ Trial Balance Solution and Engagement Solution are similarly targeted applications. Both are in the mid-range of this kind of application, and are excellently designed and implemented.

If, however, you have other Creative Solutions products, or one of the GoSystem applications, you’ll find the Trial Balance Solution or Engagement Solution a more attractive purchase.

Pendock Mallorn Accounting for Practitioners v. 4 Gold
Years ago, it was pretty common to find comprehensive applications that were completely written to run under a spreadsheet such as 1-2-3 or Excel. That’s a less common approach these days, but one that Canada-based Pendock Mallorn has taken to deliver Accounting for Practitioners.

AFP is available in three levels; the Gold level, which we reviewed, is the most expensive of the three. The Standard level provides an excellent basic feature set, and allows you to develop comprehensive lead- sheets and workpapers, as well as generate financial statements and supporting documents. A Light version is also available, and is designed primarily for converting trial balance data into a format that can be easily imported into most tax preparation applications.

We reviewed the most expensive version of the trio, the Gold Edition. This version adds a number of interesting features to the Standard edition. Some of these features are handy, but far from necessary. Examples of this type of feature include the ability to scan documents into an AFP client record, and the ability to output documents in PDF format. Both of these features are nice to have, but you’ll need to decide if they are worth the $300 premium. Each level of AFP is licensed for a different number of users. The Light Edition is a single-user product, while the Standard Edition can be used by up to five users in the same firm and office. The Gold Edition that we reviewed ups the number of user licenses to 10.

On the other hand, the Gold Edition also includes the ability to perform consolidations and generate operating budgets. If your client base includes larger or more comprehensive entities, these two features most definitely justify the slightly higher price of the Gold Edition — especially considering that the purchase price is very reasonable to start out with, and even more so if you have multiple users in the firm who need access to the application.

Keep in mind that in addition to the AFP application, you will also need to have a copy of Microsoft Excel installed for each user. The application will run with pretty much any recent version of Excel from Excel 97 to the latest Excel 2003. Some versions of Microsoft Office and Excel install with the macro capability disabled, so you may have to turn this feature on, as we did, before AFP will work.

Because AFP runs as an Excel worksheet, it is not quite as easy to operate as most of the other products we tested. At the same time, pretty much anyone who is performing a compilation, review or audit these days has to have at least a basic familiarity with spreadsheet operation, so we really don’t foresee any major problems with the few extra steps that are necessary to start the application. In fact, the biggest potential problem is that one of your staff members will decide to “improve” the appearance of an input screen and screw up the application logic.

The import and export capabilities of AFP are those of Excel itself, which makes getting trial balance starting figures from other applications a very simple task. The reports and statements are also Excel worksheets, so if you want to copy them to a separate worksheet outside of the application, so you don’t screw up the application logic, they are very easy to modify.

Accounting for Practitioners isn’t quite as polished as some of the other software we looked at. This is primarily because it runs as an application under Excel, which limits what can be done with the user interface. At the same time, Pendock Mallorn provides a lot of trial balance and worksheet utility for the money. If you are on a somewhat tight budget, this is one program you should definitely be looking at.

PPC Engagement Manager
Engagement Manager, from Practitioners Publishing Co. is not a trial balance application. Rather, it is an enhancement if you already have trial balance software that does not include the engagement management features.

These features include a link to PPC’s Library so you can bring in forms specific to the type of engagement that you are managing, including letters of engagement and other fill-in-the-blanks forms.

You can also import almost any kind of document into Engagement Manager, including scanned forms and papers, as well as work papers and leadsheets developed in other applications. If you provide the path to your trial balance folder or subdirectory, Engagement Manager will try and automatically import these documents for you if you wish. Once imported, you can reference supporting documents by building a hyperlink to it from a workpaper.

Engagement Manager is pretty simple to use, but by itself, it is of limited use. If you use other PPC products, such as e-Workpapers and Interactive Disclosure Library, or the GoSystem Audit application sold by Creative Solutions, integration is almost seamless. Adding Engagement Manager as an adjunct to these products will make your engagements a lot more manageable. Users of some of the other trial balance applications we tested may have some difficulty justifying the almost $500 price tag.


VENDOR INFORMATION

CaseWare Working Papers
CaseWare International Inc.
2425B Channing Way,
Suite 590 Berkeley,
Calif. 94704
(800) 267-1317
www.caseware.com
Price: Single-user license — $499; up to five users — $1,299.


CCH ProSystem fx Trial Balance
CCH Tax and Accounting
21250 Hawthorne Blvd.
Torrance, Calif. 90503
(800) PFX-9998
http://tax.cchgroup.com
Price: ProSystem fx Engagement — $1,100 (single user); $175 each additional user. Trial Balance & Workpaper Management — $1,100 (single user); $450 each additional user.


Trial Balance Solution
Creative Solutions Inc.
7322 Newman Blvd.
Dexter, Mich. 48130
(800) 968-8900
www.creativesolutions.com
Price: Trial Balance Solution — $600 (single); Engagement Solution — $1,200 (four seats, with TBS).

Accounting for Practitioners
Pendock Mallorn Ltd.
1883 Kanawha Dr.
Stone Mountain, Ga. 30087
(800) 567-4500
www.pendock.com
Price: Gold — $899; Standard — $599; Light — $399.


PPC Engagement Manager
Practitioners Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 966
Fort Worth, Texas 76101
(800) 323-8724
www.ppcnet.com
Price: $495.

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