Manage Your Bills Smartly With Chronicle 5

| In-Depth Review

Keeping track of and paying bills can be a chore. Chronicle 5, for OS X, can turn a chore into fun and help you get well organized. With a time-ordered list, visible calendar as well as payment reminders, it's a great tool to get your bills under control in 2013.

For me, paying bills has three phases.

1. Notification. The notification that you owe a payment is sent via paper/snail mail or via email.

2. Queuing. One must identify that a bill notice has been sent, then collect all payable bills and time order them.

3. Payment. As funds allow, pay the bills, generally on a first come, first paid basis. That may involve online bill pay services, having a credit card on file with the merchant, or mailing a check via snail mail.

Chronicle 5 takes care of phase 2. And that's where many people have trouble because identifying, sorting, prioritizing and logging bills that have been paid -- or must still be paid -- is the tricky part. This app doesn't actually make the payment, but it paves the way, and even has a built-in browser if you want to connect to an online bill paying service.

Basic Operation

Chronicle 5 is an OS X app, available in the Mac App Store, that installs simply and cleanly. You start with several panes on the Overview: a time-ordered list of "Your Bills" and the "Month at a Glance" which is a calendar with annotations and icons.

Click on a bill to edit or display possible actions.

You start by entering information about each bill you have, and you only need to do that once. Chronicle 5 can order the list, usually by date due. Once you log a bill paid, it will cycle down in the list to the correct point in time. Here's how that data entry looks. (The up/down arrows change the icon.)

Payment methods: Online, automatic, mail, phone & other

One of the nice aspects of this app is that if you enter a reasonable name for the bill, it will parse it and pick the corresponding icon. For example, entering "Mortgage" will auto-select a small house icon. Entering "Visa" will auto-select a credit card icon. If the app gets it wrong, you can change it from the list supplied.

After you've defined a bill entry, it goes into the list sorted as you've selected by clicking the title bar. You set a reminder lead time, and you'll be notified, via the OS X Notification Center, whether or not the app is running. That's a real plus. With an in-app purchase of $4.99, you can elect to be alerted to any upcoming payment via email.

If you select a bill, available options will appear in buttons at the bottom. For example, for monthly bills you pay manually, there will be buttons for "Log Payment" or "Pay Bill" or "View Bill" (also available by double-clicking it.)

If the bill is automatically made, it will be auto-logged and you won't see the "Pay Bill" option.

If you click on "Pay Bill," and you've define a URL, your pre-defined URL will be used. According to the preferences, that will either take you to the website with the built-in browser or your OS X default browser.

A built-in browser takes one to a user-defined URL. Logger pops up also.

Simultaneously, a logger popup appears so that as soon as you've authorized payment online, you can log the bill as paid in Chronicle. That seems tedious, but it isn't really in my experience.

Logger detail

If you've saved a receipt of payment, perhaps a verification code, as a PDF, you can use "Attach Receipt" to load it as if it were an attachment -- for your own later proof of payment.

When you go back to "View Bill," you have a lot of information about the history and statistics.

The "Bill View" has a boatload of statistics and historical data.

Perhaps the neatest feature, one that I would have wanted had I never seen the app before, is a monthly calendar on the Overview page. There, the small icon for each bill is displayed next to the (numerical) date due. If more than one bill is due that day, you'll see a stack of paper icon.

Calendar detai with icons

The Built-in Browser

I had some mild concerns about using a built-in browser to make inline payments, so I asked the developer for his approach design philosophy. Here's what he said:

Our built in browser is an implementation of Apple's Webkit, the same engine that powers Safari. It's basically a drop in element from Apple's SDK. So it has basically the same level of security as Apple's Safari, as far as the rendering engine.

One thing to keep in mind is that the browser internally in Chronicle only goes to the websites that a user has specifically typed in and saved locally on their Mac. So clicking the "Pay Now" button, they are always going to the correct site that they entered. So you avoid a lot of the problems of phising, because you can't be faked into clicking on a wrong URL, for example, from an e-mail. That is, the Chronicle browser can't open an arbitrary URL, only a URL that has been stored in Chronicle locally. So this is an advantage.

If every time you pay your bill, you return to Chronicle and click "Pay Bill", you will always be directed to the correct site that you yourself entered. This advantage is true whether or not you use the default browser.

Chronicle also displays the full URL at all times, you you can verify the URL and domain, (including https: status) to make sure you haven't been redirected to another site.

Some browser features are disabled to prevent malicious redirects as well. Unfortunately this breaks a few legitimate bill paying sites, and some sites will display with a slightly less interactive design than they do in Safari.

In addition, another advantage of Chronicle's internal browser is simply that it is not likely to be ever targeted by Malware. Malware to display ads or redirect sites targets the major browsers such as Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc. This isn't really a security feature, per se, but it is, nevertheless, an advantage.

There are other, more advanced security things that Chronicle's browser does not do, such as displaying an https: in green as Chrome does. There are probably other things that a full-blown browser does that Chronicle's browser doesn't do as well.... For users concerned or familiar with their browser's security features, they can disable the internal browser.

Some also choose to disable the internal browser because they use password managers (like 1Password), and some also disable the internal browser because of the aforementioned security procedures that break a few bill payment sites inadvertently."

Other Features

There are some additional features that I haven't explored but want to note: Income management, Dropbox syncing, and moving the database.The app is also ready for MacBooks with the Retina display. It already looks gorgeous on my Apple 24-inch Cinema LED display (1920 x 1200). If I run into any issues there later, I'll update the review.

System Requirements, Previous Versions

Chronicle, at version 5.0.3, requires OS X 10.7 "Lion" or later and a 64-bit Mac. There is a companion iPhone version, "Chronicle Touch" ($2.99) that syncs via Dropbox. Chronicle 5 is priced at US$14.99, and well worth it.

Back in 2010, our Nancy Gravley reviewed version 3. There have been some remarkable changes, both visually and in features, and so we thought it was time for an update.

Exporting Data

I noticed that there's an import function from a backed up Chronicle datafile. That way, if something goes wrong, you can revert to a previous backup. However, one still worries that in a dedicated app like this, if the internal data in the backup becomes corrupted, all is lost, because one has no visibility into the file structure. It would be nice to backup to a CSV file format, occasionally so that one can at least see and try to reconstruct the data in a worst case scenario. That's exactly what the developer has in mind for a future version.

Summary

Part of the appeal and fun of this app is the visual presentation. The developer has come a long way from version 3 where each bill was an entry in the sidebar. Now you have a glorious Overview presentation that makes sizing up your bill payment status a breeze.

In terms of features, the developer has pretty much thought of everything and is also thinking ahead in terms of exports, so one can jump in right now and ride along with the updates. The developer has shown a long-term commitment to this app and was very responsive to my queries.

In summary, it's not too hard to receive billing statements, and it's not too hard to write a check or go online and pay, but that critical Phase 2 is where one can really trip up -- namely paying a bill late because you forgot about it. The added advantage here is that a spouse who isn't paying the bills has a whole lot more visibility into the household finances than with some other techniques: shoeboxes, piles of paper, scattered envelopes and statements and check stubs. Also, a global view of all bills payable can assist with budgeting.

This is one of the best conceived, best designed, most attractive apps I've seen for OS X and it fills a critical void for all of us who have to pay monthly bills. I high recommend it.

Product: Chronicle 5.0.3

Company: LittleFin LLC

List Price: US$14.99

Pros:

Beautiful and well thought out management of bill payment status, good flexibility in defining bill payment cycles, a database that can be backed up and reloaded, payment history and statistics, use of OS X Notification Center, in-app paid option for email reminders, auto-detection of bill type for icon, built-in Webkit browser, income management, updated for Retina displays, iPhone companion version, Dropbox sync, continuous developent since release.

Cons:

No database export (yet) to human readable format.

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Comments

JonGl

I bought Chronicle thanks to Nancy’s original review, and have been using it since, and can say that it’s been the best tool I’ve ever had for paying bills, and keeping me on top of them. And the word “fun” actually fits. Paying bills is never fun, but Chronicle does its darn best to make it as not “un-fun” as possible. I highly recommend it. I recently bought the iPhone app and had problems getting syncing to work, and wrote to the dev in a very frustrated state of mind. He very quickly responded, and gave me just the info I needed to get running again. He is very responsive, and the app is nearly perfect (my one gripe being that the bill logging window appears as soon as you click on “Pay bill”, and stays on top of every other window, which, on my 13” MBP means it’s just in the way. I don’t bother using that button because of that, so the internal links are essentially useless for me. But that is also more likely a quirk in my personality, too. grin

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