Entry-level accounting packages are terrific. They provide excellent features, and are frequently a good value. However, regardless of how good or cost-effective they are, they don't serve your clients' needs if the client has 25 or 30 users who need simultaneous access to the financial information, and the accounting system is limited to five or 10 simultaneous users.Perhaps your clients need a more detailed account-numbering schema, or the ability to do extensive bill-of-materials processing. Another common scenario is when the client has too many transactions and users for an entry-level accounting system to handle comfortably. While the underlying database in many entry-level accounting systems is quite capable of handling a considerable volume of simultaneous transactions, it will, at some point, start to bog down under the load.
Many of the mid-range accounting systems available are built on top of sophisticated database software, such as SQL. With more sophisticated and powerful database software, it's less likely that the application will slow down appreciably or noticeably under large transaction loads.
Another reason for upgrading a client to a mid-range accounting system is that these applications often have more sophisticated analysis features, including comprehensive executive dashboard displays that show detailed, and continuously updated, snapshots of important accounts and ratios.
What's the difference?
Categorizing accounting software is not a simple task. To some extent, software can be stratified by how it is purchased - in retail venues such as big-box stores, office superstores and chains like CompUSA, Best Buy and Circuit City. Most retail accounting software can be categorized as entry-level.
Mid-range accounting applications have some significant differences, both in functionality and the way that they are acquired. None of the packages that are included in this roundup can be purchased through the retail channel, though several can be purchased directly from the vendor. More commonly, a mid-range accounting solution is purchased through a value-added reseller, who can provide pre-installation planning, installation assistance and ongoing support of the application. In many cases, these ancillary services can be several times as costly as the actual software purchase itself.
Even if the software is available directly from the vendor, there is usually a reseller network that can provide more local and direct support and assistance if your client is having some difficulty configuring the accounting system or training staff to use it effectively. Many of these VARs are also able to extensively customize the application.
That brings us to another very obvious difference between entry-level and mid-range accounting systems: price. In the entry-level area, it's rare to find an off-the-shelf package going for more than $700 or so, even in multi-user versions. If you really pump up the multi-user licenses and add all the bells and whistles, you might break $1,000.
Many mid-range accounting systems are modular, and the lower limit of those individual modules starts at $500 or more. With a common configuration consisting of a system manager, general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, and payroll, your client is looking at an initial outlay of several thousand dollars. And that's without other ancillary applications, such as sales or order processing. Add in the additional services that you or a reseller might provide, and your client could very easily be looking at between $5,000 and $10,000 to get their system up and running.
There are some alternatives. With high-speed Internet access becoming so widely available, the application service provider model may be attractive to clients who need the functionality of a mid-range accounting solution, but don't currently have the budget or personnel resources to support it.
NetSuite has been very successful in popularizing the online accounting system model, and offers a lot of functionality at a price that varies according to use. Intacct is another Web-based accounting service provider. Both of these ASPs provide a system that is affordable at the outset, and can grow as your clients' needs change. They also offer the advantage of not requiring your client to deal with software upgrades and back-ups (though a prudent client will always have their own back-up system in place, even if the ASP provides back-up services).
Putting them to the test
None of the packages that we tested require a particularly robust hardware platform, though many are available in Client/Server versions. With this type of configuration, it makes sense to base the server power on the number of users and transactions that the server will have to handle. If your client has an older system that they intend to use as the server side of the application, it may be in their best interest to have them upgrade, especially as the new Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron blade servers provide a lot of power for a very reasonable price.
We tested the software in workstation mode, installing it on a 3GHz Pentium 4 small form-factor Shuttle PC equipped with 1GB of RAM, integrated graphics, a set of Western Digital 250GB SATA hard disk drives in RAID 1 array, and a Lite-on dual-layer DVD burner.
Accounting in any company is a mission-critical application, and should always be run on a reliable system with good back-up protocols in place. The dual-layer DVD burner provides 8GB of back-up space. Another solution is to add a Network Attached Storage device. These are inexpensive (just a few hundred dollars) and plug right into an Ethernet hub or switch.
We reviewed nine popular mid-range applications. Our review was done using sample companies provided by each vendor for training purposes. Except as noted in a specific review, we were generally up and running quickly. Depending on your client's needs and configuration, set-up may be easy, or you might require the services of a support technician.
Cougar Mountain Accounting V. 10
Cougar Mountain is changing its image. It's still proud of its direct marketing background, but you won't find an order form on its newly designed Web site. Your client can still purchase the software directly from Cougar Mountain by clicking on the "call me" button, but there is also a growing number of resellers. These resellers can provide installation and training, but your client may not need it. Cougar Mountain also conducts numerous training seminars and courses, and also provides support over the phone.
Cougar Mountain Accounting is a modular system, but one with a difference. Most mid-range vendors require that you purchase modules separately or in a variety of bundles. Cougar Mountain has one price for the Accounting System, which includes GL, AP, AR, inventory, order entry and report writer. The vendor also has several optional modules, including purchase order, bank reconciliation, credit card verification, payment processing, point-of-sale, payroll, job costing, and e-commerce extensions for the accounting system. A nonprofit version of Cougar Mountain Accounting is also available.
The accounting system has two price levels, single user or unlimited multi-user. It's not evident if there is a scalable underlying database, so we can't speculate on how well the software will scale up to a large number of users and transaction loads.
Our installation was quick and problem-free. Screens are clean and easily navigated, but the design seems somewhat sparse compared to several of the other systems we looked at. This follows through to the reports as well. They are certainly usable, but still not particularly fancy. The included report writer can be used to customize these reports, as well as generate ad hoc reports. We would also hope that future releases include more analysis features. That's one of the reasons that companies upgrade to a mid-market product.
Cougar Mountain has come a long way since it first started advertising in Computer Shopper many years ago. A completely new accounting system named Denali is in the works. The Point-of-Sale is available now, and the rest of the system will be rolled out during 2006. We can't wait to get a look at it.
Cyma IV Financial Management System
Unlike many of the other vendors included in this roundup, Cyma IV doesn't offer bundles or "core" combinations of its modules. Your client simply picks the modules they want at $595 per module (except for Payroll). Add in a license for the Pervasive SQL database, which ranges from $125 up to about $5,000, depending on how many users your client will have working simultaneously, and you have your software cost before maintenance.
The module line-up is comprised of the system manager, GL, AP, AR, bank reconciliation, inventory control, job costing, purchase order and sales order. Payroll is priced according to the number of employees your client will be processing. Using Pervasive SQL for the underlying database lets your client scale up easily by just upgrading the software and database licenses. Cyma IV's price list tops off at 50 users for the Pervasive SQL license.
Cyma IV also has a not-for-profit version of the software should you have exempt entities that you want to examine the system for. Additional products include F9 Financial Report Writer in single and multi-user licenses, and Crystal Report Writer in single and multi-user licenses.
One additional add-on that might make a lot of sense for your clients is a MICR Check package. Priced at $295, this lets your client generate checks using blank safety stock on a laser printer using magnetic toner. If your client has multiple bank accounts or writes lots of checks, MICR can save them substantial money.
We experienced no problems installing Cyma IV FMS, and the installation and configuration were quick. Screens are attractive and easy to navigate through, and it's easy to switch between modules. A drop-down menu on the upper left of the menu bar lets you select which module you want to work with.
We liked the reports, which seem well designed, but a bit on the sparse side compared to some of the other vendors' offerings. If your client has specific reporting needs that are not met by Cyma IV's selection of reports, purchasing the optional F9 or Crystal Reports might provide a solution.
This release of Cyma IV FMS adds Inventory, which has basic BOM and kitting. Warehousing and distribution are not really supported, nor are manufacturing protocols like MRP or MRP II. If your client requires any of these, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Cyma IV is very reasonably priced, and offers a good basic foundation of modules. It has also garnered a significant amount of third-party support over the 25 years that the vendor has been in business, so it's worth a call to see if they have a vertical solution if the standard modules don't seem to be a good fit for a particular client.
QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions 6.0
Intuit calls this version of QuickBooks "Enterprise Solutions," though even calling it mid-range might be stretching things a bit. When most accountants think of "mid-range," they think of greatly enhanced functionality. QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions 6.0 does provide some of this enhanced functionality, but don't expect it to go head to head with MAS 90 and other enterprise-level accounting applications.
While Intuit might have stumbled in naming Enterprise Solutions 6.0, it did a pretty good job of designing and improving it in the latest release. Some of these enhancements, such as improved bill-of-materials tracking, come from the upgrades made to QuickBooks Premier and Pro, the core of the QuickBooks product.
Another very cool feature is "Available to Promise." This shows you the components that you have to use in fulfilling an order, where these items are committed, and what is on order. The Sales Order Fulfillment Worksheet lets you move around these items to determine if you should partially fulfill orders (where applicable) or prioritize order fulfillment to maximize revenue. Unfortunately, QES 6.0 still suffers from limitations on how your client can cost their inventory, a significant lack in the mid-range market, but one that's not likely to be all that important to a client that's upgrading from QuickBooks Pro or Premier.
As is appropriate with a mid-range system, Intuit has modified the audit trail feature to be always on. Other enhancements include new Customer and Vendor Centers, as well as new Employee and Payroll Centers. These provide an intuitive process flow when working with a related set of tasks.
The real benefit of QES 6.0 is that it provides a cogent and practical upgrade path for all those users who love QuickBooks, really aren't interested in having to relearn system processes and flow, and are just pushing the envelope on the capabilities of their current Pro or Premier editions. With a SQL database underlying the Enterprise Solutions 6.0 edition, QuickBooks won't slow down or stutter even if all five, 10 or 15 licensed users are banging away at it simultaneously.
Edition V. 10.2
Open Systems is well known in the mid-range market, and its Traverse is a mature and tested product. The version that we tested, 10.2, is an upgrade from the one examined last year. One of the major upgraded features is the availability of three new application modules: Customer Relationship Management, Distribution Requirements Planning, and a Warehouse Management module.
Documentation for all of our software was contained as PDF files on the install CD. Since the PC does not need to be rebooted between installation tasks, it's easy to have Acrobat in a separate window as you perform the install.
Open Systems has also updated the user interface a bit, making it more like Microsoft Outlook. Another nice feature that's new with this version is built-in analytics. This lets you create pivot tables and pivot charts right in the application without requiring that you first export data to Excel.
Several versions of Traverse are available. We tested the Desktop Business Edition, which runs under a runtime version of Microsoft Access. For larger clients, the Enterprise Edition requires Microsoft SQL Server. Running under SQL, the application doesn't suffer a slowdown under heavy user or transaction loads. Adding additional users is as easy as purchasing more user licenses.
As with last year, we stubbed our toes on configuring Traverse's underlying database. This time around, we broke down and called Open Systems for help, rather than banging our heads against the monitor for several hours as we did in the past. A half-hour with a support tech walking us through the process step by step and we were up and running smoothly. You have to purchase support with most mid-range accounting systems, including this one.
In addition to the three new modules with this release, Traverse also offers a full complement of available applications. These include a system manager, general ledger, AR, AP, payroll (with direct deposit available), bank reconciliation, inventory, sales entry and purchase order entry. Additional modules directed at manufacturing and distribution companies are available, as are selected vertical editions. Multicurrency options are available in all Traverse modules.
You know that a software package has become mature and reliable when the newest release is pretty much fine-tuning and user-requested upgrades. That's the situation with Red Wing TurningPoint 4.0.
Red Wing is well known for its agricultural-oriented accounting software, now renamed CenterPoint. The vendor has been producing more generic accounting software for many years, and even has products for municipalities. It took the introduction of TurningPoint several years ago to really change the accounting market's perception of the vendor.
Like the other products reviewed here, TurningPoint is a modular system. It is not built on one of the popular database products, such as Pervasive SQL or Microsoft SQL Server. Red Wing sells licenses on a per-user basis, charging $295 for each concurrent user. Modules include a system manager, GL, AP, AR, inventory, order entry, purchase orders and payroll. A core financial suite, priced at $2,495, includes GL, AR and AP. The inventory suite jumps to $4,495 and adds inventory, order entry and purchase order. Payroll is separate from the bundles and is priced at $795.
Red Wing also mentions several third-party applications, including the Acme point-of-sale system, Dynamite Service System, and PDF Blaster. This last product adds the ability to turn reports, invoices and statements into PDF files.
TurningPoint installed easily and with no problems. The screens are nicely designed, and we like the Windows Explorer-like interface that puts all of the available modules and task groups vertically along the left side of the screen. Reports are comprehensive and attractive, with very good filters so that your client can produce directed printouts. Reports can be queued, and it's easy to create standard report lists to run every time, as well as export and import to and from Microsoft Office applications.
As with a number of the mid-range systems that we looked at, Inventory might be the stumbling block, depending on your clients. TurningPoint can handle multiple warehouses, provides basic BOM kitting, and lets your clients choose between LIFO, FIFO, average, standard and specific costing. The Inventory does not, however, provide extensive warehousing, distribution or manufacturing support and features. TurningPoint is certainly not alone in this respect, and in other areas, the software provides a very credible accounting solution.
Sage Accpac 100 ERP Series V. 5.3 Small Business Edition
The appellation "Small Business Edition" may very well be a misnomer when referring to this version of Accpac 100 ERP. Sage has a large number of accounting offerings (including four in this roundup), and two of its mid-range products are under the Accpac label. In addition to the Advantage series, which was Accpac's original product, Accpac now offers the Pro 100 ERP Series as well, which is the former VisionPoint line and provides source code if desired, so that the applications can be highly modified and customized. Both Accpac 100 ERP and Pro are sold through the reseller channel, and are meant to be installed and configured by the reseller.
As with a number of products we tested, Accpac 100 ERP is built around a SQL Server database, and several different versions of SQL are supported. Our review copy did not include the SQL Server software, though Sage quotes the price for Accpac 100 ERP with Pervasive
SQL included. We were able to download a 30-day trial copy of Persasive SQL 9.0 from Pervasive Software's Web site.
The installation went rather smoothly, though it is a bit long. First the SQL Server needs to be installed, then the system manager, and finally, from a second CD, the individual applications. The system manager CD also includes the LanPak (which determines how many users can access the application), multicurrency features, and the transactional analysis and optional field creator. This last option lets you add custom fields to the client's database and is a simple way to add custom features to the client's system.
The standard Advantage modules include GL, AR, AP, inventory, order entry, purchase orders and payroll. Additional applications in the Advantage series include warehouse management and manufacturing, human resources management, point-of-sale, project/job costing, and CRM.
All of the Advantage modules can be set up so that they are accessible through a Web browser, though you will want to make sure that the security and access rights are also enabled to protect the system from unauthorized users. This allows your client to implement true wide-area network capability - users can be physically located anywhere as long as they have Internet access.
Sage Pro 100 ERP Series 7.3B Small Business Edition
Accpac's Pro 100 ERP Series is the second product line under the Accpac label. While it is also a mid-range accounting product, it doesn't really compete head on with the Accpac 100 ERP Series product, though a particular reseller may not offer both series of products. In addition to providing a complete range of application modules, Pro 100 ERP Series' real claim to fame is its extreme customization capability. That's because the applications are programmed in Microsoft's Visual FoxPro, and run under this database system or Microsoft's SQL Server if your client needs extensive scalability. Pricing on the individual application modules is the same regardless of the underlying database, but Microsoft SQL Server user licenses are somewhat more expensive.
The reason for the extensive ability of Pro 100 to be customized is that the client can purchase the underlying source code of the applications. This is a double-edged sword, because if the person doing the customizing isn't very experienced and careful, they can really screw up the applications and database. Fortunately, most of the Pro 100 resellers have lots of experience in this area, and can fine-tailor an accounting system to your clients' specialized needs. There are also a very large number of third-party vertical solutions based on Pro 100, if your client doesn't want to spring for the cost of a completely custom system.
As with Accpac 100 ERP, the Pro 100 ERP Series has a large number of application modules available, including several for manufacturing entities such as production entry, work orders and shop control. Pro 100 supports MRP and MRP II, and has excellent bill-of-materials capabilities. As with Accpac 100 ERP, Pro 100 can be set up for Web access. While manufacturing is well-supported, Pro 100 does not provide as robust a solution for warehousing, though numerous third-party offerings are available.
Pro and Accpac 100 ERP may both be Sage products, and have many capabilities in common, but they are still very different offerings. Pro's user interface, while attractive and easy to navigate, is somewhat simpler than Advantage's, which has a Windows Explorer-like navigation window on the left side of the screen, in addition to the more common drop-down menu top bar that both series use. The real difference, though, is just how much of a custom fit your client requires.
Sage BusinessVision V. 7
Sage completed its acquisition of Softline a while ago, and BusinessVision32 has now been renamed Sage BusinessVision.
The comprehensive BusinessVision module line-up consists of 18 modules: a system manager, GL, AR, AP, inventory, order entry, POS, sales analysis, bank reconciliation, purchase order, purchase analysis, job costing, bill of materials, budgets and forecasts, file validation, import/export, and a reporting suite. Reporting capabilities are excellent, and Crystal Reports can be used to enhance the included reports. As with several other Sage product lines, BusinessVision does not incorporate MRP or MRP II, nor does it have many distribution-specific features.
Sage also sent us the "CustomPack" that it offers as an option for BusinessVision. This is priced at $995 if purchased with the core software, or $1,495 if added later. The CustomPack provides an easy way to add features and functionality to the BusinessVision system. With the CustomPack installed, your client can have customer-specific pricing; add up to 50 additional user-defined fields in the customer, vendor and inventory; link documents and images to customer, vendor or inventory records; and use the data contained in the financial database in a mail merge. CustomPack also includes a SuperTicker, which is a dashboard-type display of selected data.
Additional optional BusinessVision modules include a Multicurrency module and e-BusinessVision, which adds e-commerce features. Your client can also use the included links to Act!, Goldmine and other CRM applications.
BusinessVision is built using the Pervasive SQL database, which allows Sage to offer almost unlimited scalability. Sage packages BusinessVision as four editions. The Limited Edition is a single-user system and does not include budget and forecast or BOM. The Small Business Edition is a three-user system, again with all modules except budget and forecast and BOM. The Standard Edition and Client/Server Edition include all 18 modules and are for 10 users and 10-plus users, respectively.
Set-up was quick and we encountered no problems. Our review disc included Pervasive SQL, and it installed itself with minimal input from us. There is no standard user interface or navigation between the Sage mid-range products, but we had no trouble navigating through BusinessVision's attractive screens.
Each of Sage's mid-range offerings is just a bit different from the others. If one of the other Sage products doesn't appeal to your client, BusinessVision just may hit the target.
Sage BusinessWorks 6 Standard Edition
BusinessWorks falls somewhere between entry-level and mid-range in capabilities, but we've chosen to include it here, rather than in our entry-level roundup, because it is built on the Pervasive SQL database engine. That allows the software to scale up in users and transaction load very nicely as your client grows. Of course, if your client eventually grows out of BusinessWorks, Sage has plenty of other offerings, including its MAS product line.
This version of BusinessWorks is a major update, and just to completely confuse everyone, Sage went from BusinessWorks Version 12 to BusinessWorks V. 6. This newest version (despite going in reverse on the numbering scheme) adds some significant new features, including Terminal Services, so that the software can be accessed using a Web browser; the ability to e-mail forms; improved payroll and direct deposit; and improvements in report and forms customization and searching speed. You can now share quotes and sales orders between separate sites, and create a purchase order directly from the sales order. General ledger account structure and description fields have been expanded, with three department digits and eight account digits available.
BusinessWorks is a modular system, so in addition to the system manager, you can add applications from GL, AR, AP, cash management, purchase entry, sales entry, inventory control, payroll and job costing. The StarShip freight manifest add-on is available for your clients with distribution functions, but, as in earlier editions, manufacturing capabilities beyond kitting and basic BOM, such as MRP and MRP II, are lacking. Other third-party applications available through Sage include F9 and Crystal Reports, as well as links to Goldmine and Sage's own Act!
Pricing on BusinessWorks is quite reasonable, and the module prices start at $595. Different bundles are available in common application combinations, and you can add users individually, or in packs of three, five, 10 or 20 users.
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