However, Intuit's annual upgrade cycle demands new features every fall, and QuickBooks' designers manage to come up with some worthwhile stuff, particularly for new users. The new Coach Tips, for instance, help rookies learn the steps necessary for specific accounting tasks, such as how to create a bid, then convert it to an invoice. The upgraded Help system offers better content sensitivity, which is a fancy way of saying that QuickBooks is now smarter at dispensing advice relevant to the task at hand. Version 2008 also integrates nicely with Google Maps, making it easy to get directions to, say, a business address in your customer database. It also works better with Microsoft Outlook, and simplifies the task of sending a QuickBooks company file to your accountant.
As in the past, QuickBooks comes in several flavors, and prices have risen for the first time in five years. The Pro edition provides a fairly sophisticated assortment of payroll, invoice, and expense-tracking tools. Premier, which we tested, comes in industry-specific versions, and it adds business-forecasting and inventory-management features. At the low end, QuickBooks Simple Start offers basic invoicing and check-writing tools--probably the best choice for start-ups or very small shops with few or no employees.
Setup and interface
A sophisticated accounting program isn't easy to master, even one as user-friendly as QuickBooks. Version 2008 has upgraded its user guidance in several ways, and the results are good. The flowchart-style main interface now features QuickBooks Coach, a help window anchored in the upper-right corner. The Coach has two buttons: View Tutorials provides one-click access to the instructional videos in the QuickBooks Learning Center; and the more helpful Coach Tips guides you through a particular task.
Say, for instance, you're not sure how to process a sales order. If you click Show Coach Tips, the main screen darkens and information icons appear. Next, click the icon beside Sales Orders, and QuickBooks highlights the steps involved in processing an order. Drag the mouse over each icon, or step, in the workflow, and a text window explains that step. Of course, longtime users may find these training wheels annoying. If so, it's easy to turn off this feature by clicking the Hide Coach Tips button.
QuickBooks' core accounting tools have been honed to precision over the years. As a result, they don't change much from one upgrade to the next. Rather than fix what isn't broken, Intuit has chosen to add value by incorporating business-oriented features that expand QuickBooks' usefulness beyond its bean-counter niche.
We saw this trend in QuickBooks 2007, which added the ability to upload inventory information to Google Base, thereby increasing your online visibility. Version 2008's new WebListings feature expands on this slightly by automatically uploading your business information to top online directories, including Google Maps, Yahoo Local, Yellow Pages.com, and SuperPages.com. QuickBooks may not be a full-fledged e-commerce tool just yet, but it's moving in that direction.
In addition, QuickBooks now offers tighter integration with Google Maps. Let's say you're working in QuickBooks' Customer Center screen and want to visit a client. In the Customer Information window under the client's address are two links: Map and Directions. Click the first and a pop-up window displays a Google Map of the client's location; click the second and the window shows a map with directions from your business location. (You can enter a different starting address, or get reverse directions as well.)
Perhaps more beneficial to longtime users is QuickBooks' improved integration with popular e-mail clients such as Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Mail. Whereas QuickBooks previously provided a clunky e-mail applet for sending invoices, sales receipts, and other forms directly from the program, the new version takes the more efficient approach of utilizing your PC's default mail app. To e-mail a QuickBooks invoice via Outlook, for instance, you click Customer Center/Invoices, choose a customer's name, then press Send in the Create Invoices window. Outlook then launches with the customer's address in the "To:" field, the invoice attached as a PDF file, and a form letter (which you can customize) in the text window gently urging the client to pay up.
Small business owners--even experienced QuickBooks users--typically use an accountant come tax time. Version 2008 makes it easier to safely send your company records to an accountant, provided he or she uses QuickBooks as well.
You can upload your password-protected company file to an Intuit secure server, making it available for up to 14 days for your accountant to download. Your accountant automatically receives an e-mail with a link to retrieve the file, although you'll have to send the password separately, either via a phone call or separate e-mail. This approach seems a bit clumsy, but it's probably safer than inserting the password in the notification e-mail.
Service and support
Luckily, QuickBooks' Help file is now easier to use. Rather than popping up over the main screen, it appears as a right-side column that won't block what you're working on. (No more jumping back and forth between open windows either.) And Help has been reorganized to better address the task at hand. If, for instance, you're unsure what to do in the Select Item Receipt window, just click Help. The first topics displayed in the Help window explain when and how to use this feature.
QuickBooks technical support is free for the first 30 days, but it gets pricey once the grace period ends. Single support calls cost $49 per incident, although Intuit offers annual plans as well.