Quicken XG

If you haven't already computerised your personal or small business accounts, Quicken XG should convince you to do so.

Intuit has broken several moulds with Quicken XG: there's only one version this time; pricing is mainly based on support levels; and there are several ways to pay, including by instalments.

Although there's only one Quicken XG, it offers the same features as all previous Quicken editions -- Basic, Deluxe or Deluxe and Business. Everything is now rolled up in one program and you choose the ones that interest you. This gives you an opportunity to acquire a fully-featured finance facility for as little as £20. If you're not interested in, say, investing, you can hide that feature set from view. If you don't have a small business to run, you can dispense with those features, and so on.

Quicken XG comes with a new online support service called Advantage. Its pricing is complex and has only just been resolved by Intuit. Advantage offers a mixture of telephone support and online DIY help, and there are several levels and payment methods. If you purchase the standard Quicken XG at £59.99 you get twelve months of Advantage service. If you buy the otherwise identical Quicken XG Start Up at £19.99 you only get three months' Advantage service. When this expires, you can top up by online subscription at £3.95 monthly (saving a fiver on the inclusive price). You can also buy Quicken XG in various suites, all with their own Advantage options and a plethora of payment plans including annual and monthly subscription. Quicken XG itself will continue to run even if your Advantage subscription expires.

However you buy Advantage, it lets you into its 'online community' with automatic software upgrades, exclusive offers, continuous online access to banking and other financial facilities, FAQs, and a users' forum. Mind you, when we looked, many of the online pages remained empty.

Subscription to Advantage also entitles you to 'free' telephone support 'consultations' with a Quicken expert, although the users' forum carries reports of problems in attracting the attention of an advisor. Advantage subscribers who have paid for the full year (£59.99 version) get up to three consultations: those who have paid for 3 months (£19.99 version) get one telephone consultation: and there's a fee of £9.95 each for subsequent support calls. It's not clear how monthly subscribers fare. Non-Advantage customers, including previous version users, now pay £15 a time.

Turning to the software itself, Quicken XG will make a good job of recording your personal income and expenditure, including multiple accounts, and can even aggregate all your assets and liabilities to give your net worth. Other features from all previous versions include mortgage calculations, retirement planning and loan tracking. The home inventory is still there (but still no picture capability), as is the emergency records organiser.

Improvements include bank account and credit card tracking, chequebook balancing, reminders and alerts, cashflow reporting, foreign exchange rate downloads, stocks, investment and unit trust price updates. Improved tax facilities include identifying relevant accounts and transferring data to Intuit's TaxCalc software (Money Financial Suite can do this to Microsoft's TaxSaver 2003).

If you bank with HSBC, NatWest or the Royal Bank of Scotland, Quicken XG will let you download transactions directly from your bank into a Quicken account (you need to have signed up for online banking first).

For small business users Quicken offers an accounts receivable (sales) ledger plus invoicing. Invoices, which can also be created from estimates or bids, can optionally be emailed to your customers. There's a purchase ledger -- here called accounts payable -- to record supplier invoices and settlements. If you use your car for business, you can now note your business mileage. VAT accounting can be cash- or accrual-based.

If you're looking for your first personal finance package, Microsoft Money 2003 (basic) or Money Financial Suite 2003 can match Quicken's corresponding features and offer better off-the-shelf prices. However, for those needing small business facilities as well, improved Quicken XG outperforms Microsoft's Personal & Business, which is still in its 2002 edition. For upgraders, particularly those who no longer need extensive support, Quicken XG Start Up is an absolute bargain.

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