First Look: Quicken Essentials for Mac

After all the exceedingly positive...oh wait, it was incredibly negative...response to my podcast discussion with Aaron Patzer, head of Intuit's Quicken team, you think I'd run away from anything having to do with Quicken Essentials. But no, here I am again with a First Look at Quicken Essentials for Mac; I guess I'm a glutton for punishment or something.

When I chatted with Patzer about Essentials, the product wasn't out yet and I hadn't seen it in person, so we spent a few minutes discussing the features of the new program. Now, though, I've had the shipping version of Quicken Essentials on my machine for two days, and have given it what I consider the ultimate test: I fed it my Quicken 2006 data file, containing every financial transaction I've been involved with since 1993--nearly 17 years' worth of data! (This is a depressing history to look through, so I try my best to avoid it. For instance, on August 22nd, 1994, I paid $753 for a 1GB hard drive--ouch!)

What follows is not a review of Quicken Essentials--we'll have that done in the near future. What it is is an overview of the new program, and my observations after putting it to use for two days. (For more on the history of Quicken and how Essentials fits in, read this article, by Jason Snell, about the release.)

Overview

As you may have read by now, Quicken Essentials is a ground-up rewrite of Quicken. Now developed in Cocoa, you get all the benefits of the best OS X development environment--Services work, for instance, and if you're used to various text field shortcuts (Control-A to jump to the beginning of a field), those all work too. The look of the program is completely unlike any version of Quicken ever seen--the default view looks much more like a program from the iLife suite than something from Intuit.

The new interface is undeniably nicer looking than the old; nobody who has used Quicken would ever describe its interface as elegant.

In Essentials, the program opens to an Overview window that could easily be described as such. Down the left hand side is a list of your accounts, along with some standardized tools at the top and reports at the bottom. Accounts are grouped by category, each identified by a unique icon.

To the right is a summary of your recent spending (we had a tax bill due in January, which explains the large percentage to one item), along with a preview of upcoming bills and an overview of your spending against your budget (not yet set up in my screen shot).

There are some useful tools, too--Transactions presents what is essentially a global account register; you can use this to enter transactions in any account. At the top right of the Transactions window (and all registers) is a Spotlight-like search box. Type something in there, and Essentials filters the display to show only entries that match your search terms.

The Category Explorer makes it really easy to see a summary of spending by category and drill down into a given category to see exactly where your money went. Accounts Summary presents a summary by account, though you can't drill down into it.

In the Reports section, the Spending Cloud shows your spending levels by displaying words of varying sizes based on the percentage of your spending represented by that word. You can drill down into a category by clicking on that word.

Unfortunately, while I was playing with this feature, Quicken Essentials crashed, which brought up an application called Crash Catcher. Crash Catcher informed me--via a window that floats over everything else--that it was creating a crash log file for sending to Intuit, and warned that the process may take "many minutes." There's no cancel button, but you can choose File -> Quit to bypass the Crash Catcher.

Reports also contains a category summary and reports for "this month" and "last month" spending. At first glance, that's it for reporting. It turns out you can create customized reports, but the process is far from obvious. First select the Spending Cloud or Category Summary report, click the Settings icon you'll see there, and you can then create customized reports that can then be saved in the Reports section.

Overall, I'm not sure what to make of the new interface. It's clearly nicer to look at, and many aspects of it work much better than they do in Quicken 2007. However, it seems to require more clicks to get certain tasks done, and some features of the program, such as creating custom reports, are far too hard to find.

My observations

I think Quicken Essentials will get different responses from different people, based on their own backgrounds. Those who utilize most of the features of Quicken 2006/2007 (especially related to investments, taxes, and paying bills within the program) will find Essentials disappointing. Those who found Quicken overly complex for their basic needs will probably find Essentials perfectly satisfying.

My test import worked quite well--it took about 30 minutes, and brought over every single transaction without any obvious failures. You do have to then manually update your investment accounts, and re-enter passwords, but that worked well enough. But compared to past data upgrade scenarios, this one was smooth and simple.

The Cocoa rewrite brings tangible benefits--being able to use Services, for instance, and the standard text area keyboard shortcuts are most welcomed. When double-clicking an entry in a register, Essentials brings it to the foreground and dims the background, making it clear which record you're working on.

The visual effects are smooth and well done, and rely on Core Animation. Quicken Essentials is the first Intuit product I've used that truly feels and acts like a typical OS X application, and that's a good thing.

I also liked the visual reporting, the overview pages, and the filters, which are particularly useful for drilling back through large files. In Quicken 2006, I have to run a search across all accounts, and it then pops up results as it finds them. In Essentials, I just enter a filter term, and I see all matches in all accounts in one window--this is a huge advantage over the old program.

Unfortunately, once I got beyond the look and the few cool new features, one key limitation in Essentials means that I'll be keeping Quicken 2006 at least until the promised Quicken Deluxe comes out next year. That limitation? The investments section of the program is quite a letdown in this version. (We don't use the tax or bill pay features, so I don't miss those in my use of Quicken.) When I interviewed Patzer, he implied that Essentials would be able to track investments, but not handle some "more complex" transactions.

The reality is that Essentials can only track investments that it can download--and even then, all it tracks is your current position in those accounts. If you do any trading at all, and want information at hand instead of only on your brokerage's web site, Essentials will disappoint you.

Even worse is that if you happen to have accounts at an institution that doesn't offer direct or web downloads of your data, you're out of luck: There's no way to manually enter securities and balances in Essentials. You'll be forced to create a dummy "asset" account to just reflect the total value of your holdings, assuming you want Essentials to know about all your money.

Another limitation for me is the new layout for account windows. Essentials eschews the multi-row layout of Quicken's registers for a much wider single-row columnar table.

While this improves readability, it means you've got to have a really wide monitor if you want to look at two accounts side-by-side without scrolling. So where I could easily see two windows side-by-side on our 20" iMac, I can't do that in Essentials unless I size one of them to require horizontal scrolling.

If you only look at one account at a time, this won't be a problem. For me, though, I like to be able to easily see and work with my primary accounts without closing and/or shuffling windows, and I can't do that in Essentials. (You can, however, rearrange the columns to suit your tastes, and add and remove columns so you see only what you need to see.)

Another issue is that the old Accounts and Categories windows have been replaced by something Essentials calls pickers. A picker is a pop-up window with 'bubbles' containing the choices for whatever item you may have clicked on. There are pickers for not just category and account, but even payee.

Unfortunately, using these pickers is just painful. You can't use the keyboard to select an item in the picker, you must use your mouse. In the Reports section, you can't select all of, say, Categories, and then unselect the few you don't want. You can't even drag-select multiple items. You must tediously click each and every item you wish to select, scrolling slowly through a hard-to-read list of bubbles. Ugh.

Thankfully, you can disable the pickers in the register view, and you can then use the keyboard and get the same auto-completion features as exist in Quicken 2007/2006. You can't avoid them when customizing reports, however, and that's a real shame--with 100+ categories and 50+ accounts, the pickers are a substantial waste of time when creating reports.

For a brand-new program, I was surprised to find that Essentials lacks any real built-in help; there's just a Getting Started manual. For more help, there's a button that links to the Intuit Live Community, which is basically a forum-like web page that opens in your browser. So you're on your own to figure things out, as I had to do with the custom reports.

There are numerous other little things I found annoying: scheduled transactions appear in the register with no means to disable them. You can't memorize transactions as you could in prior versions. I saw the spinning gear icon way too often when switching views or creating new reports. I managed to crash the program twice doing nothing more than clicking on an item on the screen.

For someone with a financial or accounting background, there are even issues with the display of numbers: Essentials shows liabilities as a negative number, which is completely wrong. (Liabilities have positive values, just like assets; they're just on the other side of the balance sheet. They must be positive because of the basic accounting equation, Assets = Liabilities + Owner's Equity.)

This problem extends to the account registers, too--payments are shown in red (good!) and as negative values (bad!), even though they're in their own Payment column. While this may not bother everyone, it's grabs my eye every time I see a screen in Essentials, because it's just fundamentally wrong.

Conclusion

So will Essentials succeed? Possibly--for those using Quicken who don't rely on TurboTax integration, the investment tools, or the bill pay feature, Essentials will probably be a compelling upgrade, although I find the price a bit steep at $60 (with no discount for existing customers).

For those who need any of those three features, though, I think the current version of Essentials is a no-go: it doesn't make any sense to move to a new program that can't do what your current program does, regardless of the good things that new program brings to the table.

If Intuit does what Patzer described in Jason's article and follows through with a Quicken Deluxe next year that addresses the limitations in this version, I think they'll have a winner on their hands. Essentials' interface, despite some quibbles with window size and numeric representation, is miles ahead of its predecessor. If that interface is eventually tied to a program with all the power of the current Quicken 2007, it should be a simple decision for every current Quicken user to upgrade.

As it stands today, though, those contemplating an upgrade will have to weigh the loss of features against the new features and improved interface. For me, it's an easy decision; I'm sticking with Quicken 2006 for now, as I rely on its investment tool.

We'll have a full Quicken Essentials review online in the near future, which will dive into the program's pros and cons in much more detail.

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