Intuit's QuickBooks Premier Edition 2004 is the best and most comprehensive small-business accounting program out there. With its sophisticated forecasting and business-planning tools, as well as a thoughtful interface packed with helpful tips and wizards for novices, the $499.95 Premier ($379.95 upgrade) is best of breed, outpacing the expert-oriented Simply Accounting and the beginner-friendly MYOB Plus. Despite its power and grace, however, Premier may be too much of a good thing for many small-business owners. Its key new features--including tools for tracking fixed assets and vehicle mileage, estimating cash flow, and managing loans--also come with QuickBooks Pro 2004, which costs $200 less. That said, professionals who purchase Premier won't be disappointed.
QuickBooks 2004's core interface remains pretty much the same as version 2003's--and that's good news for longtime users who know and love this easy-to-use app. All the familiar components live on, including the left-side Navigators column that provides one-click access to key accounting tasks (entering bills, creating invoices, and so on). The bad news: You still can't avoid Intuit's sales pitches; ads for the company's for-pay services, such as payroll management, appear on many screens.
This isn't to say that QuickBooks Premier is one gigantic billboard. On the contrary, practically every screen contains a thoughtful design and easy navigation and includes natural-language search boxes and links to helpful tips, making accounting chores less intimidating for newcomers. And while competing packages such as MYOB Plus also simplify setup chores, they lack QuickBooks' sophisticated forecasting tools, such as the Cash Flow Projector.
Not all of Premier's interface is last year's news, either. There are nearly two dozen new multimedia tutorials that lead you through features such as the Cash Flow Projector and Vehicle Mileage Tracker tools. You can preview these tutorials before setup (via the installation CD) or run them later. The handy step-by-step guides feature audio commentary and are a quick way to discover what's new in version 2004.
QuickBooks Premier 2004 retains last year's easy-to-use interface, complete with Navigator tools for managing accounting tasks.
Setup itself is painless and automatic; it took about 20 minutes in our tests. One gripe: QuickBooks added four new icons on our Windows Desktop--including two promoting third-party software and Intuit for-pay services--an annoyance that's easily avoidable by clicking a no-Desktop-icons dialog during install.
QuickBooks Premier 2004's best new features--the fixed-asset and vehicle-mileage tracking tools, as well as a handy cash flow projector--add more accounting functionality and provide extra flexibility for complex businesses.
Both the new Fixed Asset Tracker and Vehicle Mileage Tracker address the complexities of managing tax-deductible expenses. While tracking fixed business assets--printers, computers, furniture, and so on--in QuickBooks is nothing new, version 2004 allows you to catalog far more information per item, including warranty and serial numbers. Unfortunately, the Fixed Asset Tracker can't perform depreciation calculations--a major shortcoming. You can, however, export the Tracker data to QuickBooks Premier Accountant Edition or any of the QuickBooks Enterprise solutions, which do the depreciation math for you.
The Vehicle Mileage Tracker is a handy tool with an intuitive interface for itemizing business mileage and generating a report for your tax return or for a client invoice.
Managing cash flow is one of the trickiest aspects of small-business management, and QuickBooks' new Cash Flow Projector is a welcome addition. This forecasting tool allows you to project cash receipts and expenses over a six-week period, thereby avoiding out-of-cash situations that can cripple a small enterprise.
QuickBooks Premier's new Cash Flow Projector makes it easy for small-business owners to project cash receipts and expenses over a six-week period.
One big plus: QuickBooks now lets you import data directly from Microsoft Excel; in version 2003, you had to use a QuickBooks for Windows Interchange file (IIF) to transfer data, which was slower and more cumbersome. Another plus is the new Loan Manager for tracking escrow amounts, interest expenses, balloon payments, and other details.
QuickBooks Premier 2004 loses some points for technical support, especially when it comes to single-incident reports. One-time phone support (via a toll-free line) costs a staggering $75 for the first 20 minutes, then $25 for each additional 5-minute period. Alternative plans are available, but they're pricey, too. For example, the Ultimate Support Plan costs $399 ($349 when purchased with QuickBooks) for 12 months of unlimited calls, 24/7. The plan also includes e-mail query support with a turnaround time of two hours during normal operating hours, which are Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT. One-time support hours are the same. The good news: Phone support for questions about installation, QuickBooks-specific error messages, or those about converting QuickBooks data from an earlier version are free for 12 months.
We phoned Intuit support with a query about importing Excel data into QuickBooks. After being informed of the astronomical charges, we opted for free online support instead. The online knowledge base of FAQs provided helpful information on the Excel glitch. However, we noticed that links to an IRS page on vehicle mileage were out of date, as an IRS index page came up instead. Another free option is a message board for user-to-user assistance.
QuickBooks 2004 has a direct link to an online support site, which is a money-saving alternative to Intuit's pricey phone support.