Quicken Essentials is Intuit’s ground-up rewrite of Quicken for the Mac in Cocoa. It’s a good looking, basic application that has plenty of room for growth. Regrettably, it is still somewhat unrefined and has some serious limitations.
First, here are the notable features of Quicken Essentials (QE):
- Connects to over 12,000 financial institutions
- Uses SSL 128-bit encryption
- Uses a secure file format for use data on disk
- New interface allows one to see all accounts in one place
- Learns user habits for data entry over time
- Overview mode provides snapshot of all money coming in and going out
- Categorizes transactions to highlight where money is going
- A single app that’s simply copied to /Applications. A single user data file.
- Special “picker” boxes make data entry easier - just click instead of typing
- You can import data from the previous Quicken for Mac, Quicken for Windows or Microsoft Money - with some limitation.
There are some things that version 1.3x of QE cannot do:
- It cannot print checks
- It cannot export to TurboTax
- There is no buy/sell detail for investments
- There is no direct BillPay from within QE
- Quicken Essentials does not include many of the advanced features in other versions of Quicken, including Business features, Rental Property, lifetime planner, cash flow forecast, spending plan, debt reduction plan, emergency tax records, tax planner, and home inventory manager.
Quicken Account Data
Out of the Box Experience
I reviewed Quicken Essentials version 1.3f4519 — which was an Internet update subsequent to the original version (1.1f4360) supplied by Intuit’s product manager, Eddy Wu. The download, curiously, is a .iso file instead of a .dmg file, but it really makes no difference. There is a 35 page Getting Started PDF file, a directory with instructions for converting old data and a conversion tool, and, of course, the QE app. The app is simply dragged to /Applications.
The application is simple enough that a 35 page Getting Started guide is sufficient to get one started with this app. Intuit’s support page for Mac is well laid out and has good information for the new user.
My first experience with QE on launch was a dialog that suggested there may be a problem with my Internet connection. It walked me though a diagnostic that resulted in nothing wrong at all. That has happened several times.
Internet Connection Diagnostic - snafu
Because I didn’t want to download real data from my own checking account, I created a dummy checking account instead. It is here where you’ll have to be careful if you don’t find your bank in the list and set up your own named checking account. What appears to be merely a footnote below the list is what you must click on. Clicking continue, which seems like a natural bypass, will take you to a place you probably don’t want to go at that point.
Add Checking Account
For testing, I started entering some dummy data, checks written to payees. Then, I was notified of the automatic update available, so I downloaded it. Afterwards, several things happened:
- My picker windows disappeared
- The check number column disappeared
- The running balance disappeared
A phone conversation with Mr. Wu revealed that items #1 and #2 were bugs, a result of the update process. As for #3, that was the result of inadvertently clicking on a column other than the date. After all, if the data isn’t viewed in time order, then a running balance makes no sense and is, therefore, suppressed. Mr. Wu admitted that perhaps some kind of warning in the balance column would allay the fears of those who don’t notice which column is the sort column.
There is no doubt that QE presents your financial data in a beautiful way. The subdued pastels and blue sky backgrounds make for a pleasing app to use. I got the feeling, however, over time, that the app really is a minimalist endeavor. A look at the preferences supports that feeling. It’s just one small window with only a few options. It’s almost as if the design philosophy were, like Apple, start simple and grow the app, taking the customers along for the learning curve.
The problem with that philosophy is that this app deals with people’s money, and those users expect a lot of predictability and dependability. They become irritated with little things go wrong, or something doesn’t seem to work right because it’s their money being dealt with. As a result, the simplicity of the app seems out of sync with its robustness.
What I liked
Despite the observations above, there is a lot to like about this program. The clarity of the UI leaves no doubt about the next steps. The summary pages provide great pie charts to help you track expenditures. The three-panel layout, like iTunes and other Apple software, creates a great comfort level with the app.
For example, just was you would create a new playlist in iTunes, you click the “+” symbol at the bottom left to create a new account. This mimicking of, for example, iTunes goes a long way towards learning to use the program quickly.
One feature I particularly liked was the picker. As you define each payee and category, a popup window appears below each field in the account register. Just click on one of the items in the picker’s window, and it’s selected for that field. If you don’t like a payee, category or tag, just click the edit field in the picker window to fix it. Click outside the picker window to make it go away. The picker is a great way to handle data entry in a fast, pleasing way. It may be the best feature of QE.
Picker in Action
There are several pre-defined reports. For example, one shows all activity for the current month. I tried printing a checkbook register and a report, and they came out perfectly formatted and with the right colors.
An overview option shows a pie chart of where all your money goes each month. These charts and reports are very nicely laid out and pleasing to look at. It’s what Mac users expect.
Another feature I liked was the attention to security. Users get paranoid about downloading their checkbook data over the Internet from their bank, and want to know that it’s safe to do so. I spent a lot of time quizzing Aaron Patzer about that when he briefed me in an interactive session, and I’m satisfied. For example, if your bank has additional challenge questions, over and above username and password, to authenticate you, QE is prepared to interface to those challenge questions.
Finally, if you’re stumped on something, a “Community” button at the bottom right takes right to the community forum where users can post questions.
What I Didn’t Like
When creating, say, a money market account, cash or an asset account, the default data fields are pretty much like they were in the checkbook. For example, there is a payee field, which doesn’t make sense to me. Worse, the picker, so convenient in the checkbook, has the same entries for payee and category, but they don’t make sense for, say, tracking an asset or cash. This is simplicity carried to silly extremes.
One can change the columns for each kind of account with View -> Columns, but I think the default should reflect the sensible columns for each new account by default.
Another thing I didn’t like is a minor inconsistency. There is an account type called savings. But if you create a money market account, the “overview” shows a savings category. One must click the disclosure triangle to see that the savings category isn’t an account, but rather a container for the money market account. The dual use of the term “savings” is confusing.
Other things that I didn’t like were noted in other places in this review.
The Bottom Line
Quicken Essentials is not a mighty financial app. I used Quicken for Mac in the 1990s for years, and while QE is more Mac-like, it somehow feels too simplistic even compared to that previous, somewhat ugly but capable incarnation. As listed above, lots of features that users will likely feel are essential are missing in this version 1.x, especially the export to TurboTax. That will be a deal breaker for many experienced users.
Also, little bugs, like the update bug mentioned above are admissible in a beta, but not for version 1.3. The program seems rushed and incomplete.
I applaud Intuit for the initial effort in Cocoa, but my recommendation is to wait for the program to develop further and reach maturity and feature parity with its brethren. And if all you want is a simple checkbook program, there are plenty of shareware checkbook programs, some with 4+ stars, to be found at MacUpdate and Version Tracker.
Quicken Essentials requires Mac OS X 10.5.8 or later (Leopard), 10.6.2 or later (Snow Leopard) and an Intel-based Mac.