Quicken Essentials: Four Strikes and You’re Out

My initial approach to Intuit’s newly released Quicken Essentials was similar to how the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker approaches an improvised explosive device: with extreme caution. Why? Because, given the program’s dismal history, Quicken Essentials already had three strikes against it before I even installed the software. In baseball, three strikes and you’re out. Fortunately for Intuit, the rules of the software game are more forgiving. I figured I could allow the program at least one more strike before sending it back to the dugout.

Strike 1: Quicken struggles to survive. Prior to the release of Quicken Essentials, Quicken for the Mac had not seen a major upgrade since Quicken Mac 2007, released well over three years ago. For the record, I am still using Quicken Mac 2006 (as the 2007 version did not add any new features that mattered).

While Quicken 2006 has worked fairly reliably at carrying out its essential tasks of tracking transactions and printing checks, I would never describe it as a joy to use. To the contrary, I grumble and complain about some aspect of the program almost every time I launch it. It has a clunky interface (a remnant of the fact that it is a port of the Windows version of Quicken). Basic Mac conventions, such as Command-A for Select All, do not work. The Search function is annoying, showing only one match at a time, forcing you to jump from one unwanted item to the next until you hopefully stumble over the one you want. Auto-fill too often persists in filling in out-of-date or unwanted data. Connecting online to my bank has never worked as promised. Generating reports is clumsy, as I often have to redo the settings for a report several times before it finally displays what I want. The program was never updated to run natively on Intel Macs and has always lagged behind its Windows sibling in terms of features.

The only reasons I continue to use Quicken 2006 are because I have never found a better alternative (mainly due to a lack of competition) and at some point inertia took over.

Given this history, I was not about to get my hopes up for Quicken Essentials.

Strike 2: Financial Life is stillborn. In January of 2008, Intuit admitted that Quicken for the Mac was not up to the standards that Mac users expected. To remedy this situation, they planned to replace Quicken with Financial Life. As suggested by the new name, Financial Life would be a completely new program, rewritten from the ground up. It would be a Cocoa-based Intel-native application with an entirely new iTunes-inspired Mac-specific user interface.

As I wrote previously, Intuit initially promised a September 2008 release date for Financial Life. That never happened. New release dates were announced, followed by announcements of further delays. Intuit offered a free beta version of Financial Life at one point. Still, after over two years of development and considerable hype, Financial Life died. The program would never see the light of day.

Given this history, I was not about to get my hopes up for Quicken Essentials.

Strike 3: Quicken Essentials’ missing features. At the very end of 2009, Intuit announced the forthcoming release of a new and different upgrade to Quicken for the Mac: Quicken Essentials. Essentials appeared to be based on the Financial Life code. So why the rename? Because Quicken Essentials would not include certain “non-essential” features offered in Quicken 2007 and Financial Life. Intuit noted three such features in the “Using a prior version of Quicken Mac?” section of the Quicken Essentials Web page. Quicken Essentials: (1) “will not track investment buys and sells, nor will it provide some advanced investment performance reports”; (2) will not export data to TurboTax; and (3) will not allow you to pay bills online. If you want these features, Intuit recommends that you stay with Quicken Mac 2007.

On first hearing this, my reaction was: “What? After all the years of having to put up with the hassles of Quicken, and after the failure of Financial Life to ever appear, the best Intuit can do is release a product that isn’t even as capable as the program it’s replacing?” By this point, I was ready to storm Apple’s annual stockholders meeting and demand that Intuit’s Bill Campbell be removed from Apple’s Board of Directors. I restrained myself.

Given this history, I had virtually no hope for Quicken Essentials.

Quicken Essentials: A New Hope? Despite this gloom and doom, there is reason for hope that Quicken Essentials may yet herald a successful new direction for Intuit. I got my first inkling of this via a conversation with Aaron Patzer, VP and general manager for Intuit’s Personal Finance Group. Mr. Patzer is also the founder of Mint.com, the financial Web site that Intuit recently acquired.

I suspect that, after Mr. Patzer surveyed the wreckage in Intuit’s Mac division, he determined that: (1) there was no way Financial Life was going to be ready for market any time soon (although I have still seen no explanation for why this was the case, given that they had years to finish it); (2) something had to be released relatively soon or the window of opportunity to salvage Quicken’s Mac reputation would be closed forever (if it had not shut already); (3) it would be better to come out with a decent feature-missing “essentials” upgrade than a buggy more full-featured program or no upgrade at all.

From this logic, Quicken Essentials was born. As for the missing features, Mr. Patzer promised that they would return in a future “Deluxe” version of Quicken. Mr. Patzer also described a future where Quicken for Mac, Quicken for Windows and Mint.com are integrated so that users will be able to access their personal data equally well from any of the platforms.

As for the present, Quicken Essentials was publicly released last week. After spending a few days with the program, I can confirm that this is not your father’s Quicken. It is a major rewrite of the software. It at last feels and works like a program written specifically for the Mac. If you didn’t know that this was an upgrade to Quicken, you would think it was an entirely new program from a competitor. It’s that different.

Overall, the interface is much improved from the old Quicken. Quicken Essentials successfully imported my old Quicken data in a matter of minutes. The program easily established an online link to my bank (it connects to over 8000 banks with support for over 15,000 coming in an upgrade). In addition, Quicken Essentials now supports tracking credit card and brokerage accounts. Search requests in Essentials result in a convenient single list of all matching items. When entering a new transaction, you can scroll through all existing options (such as for payees) via popup lists — or you can start typing to take advantage of the improved autofill function.

Not every interface change in Quicken Essentials is a change for the better. I had unexpected difficulty figuring out how to use the reworked Reconcile feature. The data in the Balance column of my checking account sometimes vanished. I could not turn to Intuit’s documentation for help in such matters; all that is currently available is a far-too-brief Getting Started Guide. For an application entrusted with the critical task of managing finances, better documentation should be a requirement.

Strike 4: No Check Printing. I was not especially bothered by Quicken Essentials’ publicized trio of missing features. I never used those options anyway, so their omission was not a big deal for me. I certainly have the patience to wait for their return in a future Quicken Deluxe. I was not, however, prepared for the shocking discovery of another missing feature — one that Intuit did not mention:

Quicken Essentials does not support printing checks!

Let me state that again, in case you thought you misread it: Quicken Essentials does not support printing checks. Apparently, this is not an “essential” feature. For those of you with a stack of Intuit-supplied Quicken checks, you can toss them in the garbage if you upgrade to Quicken Essentials. I don’t know which is worse — that Intuit dropped check printing from Quicken Essentials or that Intuit’s Web site does not warn prospective buyers about this change.

Quicken Essentials does not even provide a column to display or enter check numbers. This means that, whether you write checks by hand or print them to your computer, you cannot record check numbers in Quicken Essentials. Further, after importing your old data into Quicken Essentials, all your existing check number data are stripped out. [Update: I stand corrected. You can add a Number column by Control-clicking on any column header and selecting the item. If you do this, you will see that your imported check numbers have been maintained.]

I asked Intuit about the absence of check printing. They replied: “We are reviewing the customer feedback and looking into the possibility of adding the ability to print checks into future versions of Quicken for Mac, but we don’t have specific plans to announce.”

My guess is that Intuit will not be restoring check printing in any future Deluxe version. In keeping with their planned integration of Quicken with Mint.com, Intuit sees the future of personal finance management as a paperless online-only world. While this may fit well with a segment of Intuit’s target audience, I am not in that segment. There are too many occasions where I want or need to stuff a check in an envelope. I may be “old-fashioned,” but the failure of Quicken Essentials to support any form of check printing is Strike 4 and definitely out. I will not be upgrading.

Bottom Line

I’d like to believe that Quicken Essentials will eventually grow into a program that I can use with pleasure and without hesitation. There are certainly aspects of the program that show promise. But Intuit has disappointed me too many times for me to have any confidence in this belief. Next batter!