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FreshBooks is a Web-based and 256-bit encrypted accounting, time billing, estimate, and invoicing application that seeks to replace desktop-based accounting programs like Quicken, QuickBooks, FirstEdge ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), and AccountEdge ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). It's an aspiration that FreshBooks reaches for and nearly meets.

Good business accounting packages do a few things well: Track income and expenses, manage estimates, invoices, and customer payments, and give you clear, concise year-end financial information. Really great accounting applications also let you create and manage inventory and track the cost of goods sold. FreshBooks excels in almost all these areas, but offers only 19 reports. While this is far fewer than you'll find in most desktop accounting applications, the reports FreshBooks does offer are sufficient for most businesses. FreshBooks is also limited when it comes to inventory management, offering basic inventory tracking that will only be useful for those businesses where inventory isn't a major source of income.

Like Ballpark ( Macworld rated 3 out of 5 mice ), FreshBooks offers several cost tiers, from free to $149 per month. Paying more increases the number of clients and employees you can carry, and free accounts display a small FreshBooks ad on every e-mail, invoice, and estimate you send. As a business finance app, FreshBooks offers most of the features found in similar business accounting apps like AccountEdge and QuickBooks and offers many more features than Ballpark.

FreshBooks' workspace is broken into ten tabs that you use to manage clients, employees, invoices, estimates, and expenses. FreshBooks also offers tools for time tracking and billing. You can access these time tracking tools using any Web browser, including mobile Safari. If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you can use the MiniBooks for FreshBooks (iTunes link). Using MiniBooks on your iPhone or iPod Touch lets you create new clients, invoices, and estimates. I much preferred MiniBooks to FreshBooks on my phone, as FreshBooks' Web interface didn't scale well to the iPhone's smaller screen.

FreshBooks uses a homepage to display the status and current activity of all your open invoices and estimates, and includes information on the last time one of your clients logged in to view an invoice or estimate or to make a payment. While FreshBooks displays the same information that Ballpark does, the FreshBooks home page isn't as clear or well organized as is the Ballpark home page.

It's easy to import client data from your existing accounting app or almost any address book application, but importing existing accounting information isn't currently possible. As you create new estimates and invoices they're emailed to your customers who can then approve the estimate, make payment on the invoice, or request that changes be made. FreshBooks currently supports 10 different payment methods, including PayPal and and your customers can make payment by clicking a payment link that appears on the invoice. If you choose, or if your clients prefer, you can also send out paper invoices via snail mail for a small fee.

(Image Caption: FreshBooks lets you interact with clients and update estimates and invoices entirely via the Internet.)

FreshBooks can track all of your business expenses and lets you link individual expenses to specific customers when you need them to pay for items you've purchased, but there's no way for you to add a markup to anything you've paid for. FreshBooks also lets your clients create support tickets that you can track and respond to and you can create client-specific folders to store documents for your clients to review.

Macworld buying advice

FreshBooks is a very capable web-based business accounting package that's suitable for many types of small business owners. While FreshBooks' reporting features are very limited when compared with desktop applications like QuickBooks or even MYOB's very basic FirstEdge, what FreshBooks does offer should be more than sufficient for most users. But take note, if inventory management is a big part of your business, FreshBooks will not be able to fill your business accounting needs.

[Jeffery Battersby is a writer, (very) smalltime actor, and a regular contributor to Macworld.]

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