Payroll services in the cloud: Intuit vs. ADP

Nobody pays attention to your payroll system unless it's not working. When you're running a small business, it's no small task to please your staffers every payday and satisfy Uncle Sam at tax time. Larger companies employ payroll personnel to calculate taxes and withholdings, and to manage IRS forms correctly. But if you're responsible for cutting the checks at a smaller company, online services can automate most of the payroll chores.

Both Intuit Online Payroll and RUN by ADP can help you better understand and track the forms and filings required for your employees. Each service lets you access payroll information from a Web browser, smartphone, or tablet. These cloud-based tools also offer employees online access to paycheck details, W2 downloads, and even paid-time-off balances and 401(k) specifics. Which service is better for your business? We took a closer look to find out.

You get the usual payment schedule options with Intuit.

Intuit Online Payroll

Pros: Affordable; simple setup; easier for payroll beginners; live tech support by phone

Cons: Fewer features than ADP RUN; no 24/7 help

Intuit Online Payroll is a great option for small businesses—especially those without prior payroll experience. It starts at $25 per month to manage paying employees and contractors, and rises to $39 per month to support federal and state tax forms. Under either subscription, Intuit charges an additional $1.50 monthly fee for each employee you pay. On top of that, Intuit Online Time Tracking, at a cost of $3 per month per employee, will track hours either via online timesheets that employees can edit, or through a multiuser online time clock.

To better compare its pricing with that of ADP’s RUN, I calculated the estimated cost for Intuit Online Payroll for 15 employees. It added up to about $61 per month for the subscription that includes the tax forms, or about $106 per month with employee time-tracking. Intuit Online Payroll starts as a 30-day free trial period, which begins when you run the first pay period.

Intuit also provides a payday to-do list.

Intuit Online Payroll Plus ($39 a month) can also help you manage and track your federal, state, and local payroll taxes. It even supports electronic filings and a separate workers' compensation service.

Intuit's wizard-style setup interface asks about your pay schedule, direct deposit information, and vacation/sick-time policies. You can also input older payroll data if you’ve used another payroll system in the past.

Intuit's app lets you keep up with payday concerns on the go.

When setting up individual employees, you can configure federal, state, and local tax withholding. Intuit provides the required tax forms, such as the W-4 (Employee Withholding Certificate), I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification), and new-hire state forms. Supported deductions include insurance, retirement plans, flexible spending accounts, HSA plans, garnishments, and other items such as cash-advance and loan repayments. You can even add custom after-tax deductions. In addition to regular pay, it supports commissions, bonuses, holiday pay, overtime, reimbursements, allowances, tips, and other miscellaneous earnings and compensation.

For employee payments, Intuit supports free direct deposits, preprinted QuickBooks-compatible check stocks, blank check stocks, and plain paper stubs that can accompany handwritten checks.

Like ADP’s RUN, Intuit Online Payroll offers employees online access to view their information, including paycheck details, as well as to download W2s. Intuit also supplies free apps for iPhone and Android that let you perform most payroll-management tasks, but it doesn't provide mobile access for employees.

Overall, Intuit Online Payroll is sufficiently user-friendly and feature-rich for most small businesses. It offers additional help and tips for many topics and fields while you’re inputting data. For instance, during the initial setup it gives tips on the employer ID numbers you need and how to obtain them. And when you're entering employee data, it explains how to verify Social Security numbers. Intuit also provides a to-do list showing required and recommended tasks, and its email reminders can help keep you on your toes.

ADP RUN

Pros: More employee payment methods; mobile access for employer and employees; live 24/7 phone help

Cons: More expensive and complex to set up than Intuit Online Payroll

RUN, from payroll giant Automatic Data Processing, offers three main online services for small and medium-size businesses: Essential Payroll, Enhanced Payroll, and Complete Payroll and HR 411. The first subscription is the most comparable to Intuit’s, whereas the remaining two subscriptions offer additional payroll and HR information and services. RUN is a good option for any small business, but those without payroll experience may need to call for assistance.

For the sake of my example, I once again calculated the pricing for 15 employees: The cost totaled about $284 per month for Essential Payroll and $370 per month for Enhanced Payroll. For employee time-tracking, the EZLaborManager service costs $57 per month for a 15-employee operation. Though the pricing is much higher than Intuit’s, RUN offers additional features and services. The RUN interface and configuration process aren’t as wizard-like as Intuit’s, but they're still fairly user-friendly.

Managing payroll details per employee is straightforward with RUN.

RUN keeps all of the company configuration and global settings in a Company section, for contact and direct-deposit account information. You can also define default policies for pay frequency, taxes, earnings deductions, paid time-off, and workers' compensation.

When you're setting up employee records, you can configure federal, state, and local withholding. You can also set up direct deposit and customize items such as earnings deductions, paid time-off, and workers' compensation data. In addition to regular pay, RUN supports commissions, overtime, and 1099-MISC forms, plus reimbursement, vacation, sick, personal, bonus, and earning and compensation types. And it provides help with 401(k) and insurance plans, federal student loans, garnishments, and other deductions.

Employers and staffers can see their data with RUN's mobile app.

As for employee payment methods, all RUN subscriptions include free direct deposit and printing, as well as delivery of paper checks and payroll reports to your business on payday. Additionally, you can print your own checks with a microprinter or a regular printer with check stock, or on plain paper for stub printing only if you want to handwrite the paychecks. Enhanced Payroll allows you to have paychecks printed on official ADP checks and delivered signed by ADP, or to offer reloadable Visa debit cards to employees.

Just like Intuit Online Payroll, RUN works with QuickBooks, QuickBooks Online, Zero, and other accounting software products with a generic file output.

Unlike the Intuit competitor, however, RUN gives both employers and employees access to payroll information via online access and mobile apps.

Overall I found RUN to be feature-rich and user-friendly. But it could use some improvement with the help function, such as more tooltips on data fields so you don’t have to consult the separate help section for an explanation of tax lingo. However, since it has 24/7 payroll support, if you’re in a bind at midnight you can talk to a person to get assistance.

The winner

Intuit Online Payroll delivers what most small businesses need: help with automating the payroll basics. Its economical and user-friendly service is great for anyone without prior payroll experience. RUN, by contrast, costs much more and could improve its documentation. That said, RUN is a fine choice if you have enough money in the budget to afford its higher fees. Although RUN offers more features for midsize companies, I recommend Intuit Online Payroll for the majority of small and medium-size businesses due to its ease of use and affordability.

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