Software Options for Project Managers That Offer Efficiency and Affordability

Like the global economy, the world of project management and collaboration software seems to be divided into two significant groups: the "haves" and the "have-nots".

AceProject's dashboard is a good snapshot of what's on your plate.
The "haves" are the big enterprise companies that enjoy having enough of an IT budget to afford solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint and Alfresco. It's not just the money, either: they have to be big enough to actually need such comprehensive tools.

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Then there's the "have-nots," who look at such lofty tools and wistfully wonder why they can't get solutions like that for their smaller organizations.

The good news is, of course, that there are plenty of smaller (and scalable) project management and collaboration tools available for any size organization -- even individuals.

The tool class we're examining is more than a task manager -- these tools also include file management and other collaboration features that let project managers create start-to-finish platforms that project participants can use to share information, documents, and task assignments easily. Hopefully, they will let your team create on-the-fly management for projects without the big-ticket prices the "haves" will pay.

This, then, leaves out a lot of really good applications and tools such as Evernote, Remember the Milk and OmniFocus, all excellent task managers that have mobile and desktop presences that let you remember things to do and important events.

AceProject

Price: Scaled (Free-$99/month)

Platforms: Online

I didn't know much about AceProject coming into the research phase of this review. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to see such a comprehensive project manager when I rolled into the system.

From the very first screen, I was impressed, especially with the dashboard that contained pretty much everything I needed to see about my own work. This system enables an unlimited number of users to track tasks, projects, time, and expenses in a cloud-based interface that was fast and efficient to navigate.

The AceProject sidebar enables easy access to all of these categories, so you and your fellow users can find what they need fast. You can either view tasks or projects that are only assigned to you, so there's not a lot of clutter with other projects' information getting in your way.

I was really intrigued by the time and expenses features, which let you track time spent on projects and tasks, and any additional expenses a project might have. Managers can approve time and expenses as needed. You can even generate nicely formatted time or expense reports to turn into managers.

I also liked the Portfolio feature, that gathered all the projects assigned to me in one place. It was here that I found the stand-alone Documents library, as well as access to Gantt Charts that showed task and project progress. Whole workflows could not be created per se, but it was a simple matter to assign dependencies to any task, which did pretty much the same thing, just more ad hoc.

Document management in general was relatively clear and easy to work with; the Document library was good, but it was a little hard to tell which tasks had documents assigned to them without cracking open the task itself.

I also had a chance to play with the mobile interface. All of the information about tasks and projects was presented within on the mobile platform, as well as the time tracking. Expense tracking was not available, though, but that was about all I noted as a lacking feature.

There is a lot of functionality within AceProject, and the prices were certainly right. Services are offered on a scale, starting from the free Basic service, which lets you manage two projects, 50 tasks, and provides up to 250 MB in storage space to the Gold package at $99 per month with unlimited projects and tasks and 20 GB of space. (There are intermediate options, and all accounts have unlimited users.) The AceProject site also mentioned the availability of a locally hosted version of the software, in case you would need even more oopmh.

Even at $99 per month, AceProject is a decent bargain. It pulls no punches as far as how deep it tracks users, tasks, and projects, and gives project managers a great deal of flexibility in how they can manage their work.

Basecamp's tools are simple and definitely geared for more work, less tracking.
Basecamp

Price: Scaled ($20-$150/month)

Platform: Online

Basecamp is a project management tool with a big following, highly popular among the small business and consultancy sectors.

It's easy to see why. Basecamp is a simple-to-use intuitive interface that lets project members come in, say what they need to say, and get back to work.

There are no formal task or project management tools in Basecamp, unlike those found in AceProject. Users are assigned projects, and within those projects they are given free reign to create their own to-do lists, events, messages, or "writeboards," real-time collaboration tools.

The mindset for using Basecamp is not so much formal project management so much as project collaboration. There's no time tracking or Gantt charts to be found in this tool. You make a task, you assign a task to another project member or yourself, and off you go. Documents are stored in one place, and aren't tagged to events or tasks.

If you are used to working with smaller projects, such as a putting together a customer deliverable or prepping for an event, Basecamp will serve you well. The writeboard and messaging features are useful for distributed workers, and having everything in one project-oriented micro-site lends a lot of efficiency to this tool.

But if you are doing any kind of serious project management, and need to track tasks more closely, Basecamp might not be the best tool for your organization. Price should be a consideration, too: there is no free option, so the base of the $20 per month plan lets you manage 10 projects with 3 GB of storage. The highest plan at $150 per month enables unlimited projects and 100 GB of file storage. (All plans have unlimited users.)

This is a more streamlined plan than AceProject (who wants to count tasks?) and Basecamp gives you more storage space overall, so in that, it's not a bad deal. But you will really need to know what you want in a project management tool before signing on.

Zoho Projects

Price: Scaled (Free-$80/month)

Platform: Online

Zoho Projects has a lot of tools under the hood, but watch your wallet.
Zoho is a cloud-based solutions provider that's been around for quite a while, even before they started calling online tools "cloud-based" or "software as a service," even though that's what these tools were.

I have run into Zoho before, when looking at online office suites, and while I liked the feature set of Zoho Office, I don't remember being entirely thrilled with the speed and usability.

Those reservations aren't held for Zoho Projects, which has an easy-to-use and snappy interface that delivers quite a bit of project management tools.

The entire tool set is built with full-scale project management in mind, with project management and creation that's easy to do, and task management that's clear, too. I liked that you could not only assign tasks within a given project, but you could also create tasklists within projects -- a nice little organization tool.

Document management was strictly done within a centralized library (though you could put documents within project-centric folders). What you could not do, however, was attach documents to individual tasks or events.

Where Zoho Project seems to break down is in pricing, which is downright confusing. For instance, time-tracking is available, but you have to upgrade from the free plan that I was using to demo the product. I clicked on the link to see the pricing for time tracking, and was taken to a yearly pricing page that had prices that came out to be less expensive than the public monthly pricing page. The difference is very significant, too: if you sign up for the high-end Enterprise plan without trying the demo first, (which gets you 30 GB storage, and all the base features) it's listed as $80 month. Try the demo however and upgrade from there, and the price is $599 per year, which breaks down to $49.92 per month -- a 37.6 percent savings.

So right away, the lesson here is upgrade from the demo and pay the yearly fee to save some coin.

But that's not the only pricing confusion. Rather than price based on projects or tasks, Zoho Project plans differentiate by features within a base set, and then adds additional fees over and above that for other add-ons. Want a wiki feature for your projects? Add up to $149 per year or $40 per month depending on how you pay. Want an iPhone add-on? That'll be $3/user per month. And so on ...

While some of these add-ons are nice and not available in other tools (like the wiki and bug tracker systems), the sense of getting nickeled and dimed here is palpable, and tends to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

All this does not preclude Zoho Projects from being a useful cloud tool -- but you will need to know exactly what you are willing to pay when you explore this product.

Overall, these three tools each offer unique ways to help you manage your time and projects.

AceProject is by far the most comprehensive and granular in nature, but for organizations that are looking for more collaboration than project management, it may be too much.

Basecamp is much more about the collaboration, and if that's what you are looking for, it's a great tool that lets you do just that. It doesn't get in the way with a lot of cumbersome project tracking.

Zoho Project is closer to to AceProject in functionality and while it provides a streamlined and easy interface, its pricing plans are complicated enough to warrant closer inspection when considering this cloud solution.

Collaboration and project management is one thing the cloud can do well, and all of these solutions definitely make that true.

This article, "Project management software smackdown," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe.

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