Among the very first applications to be developed for the PC, bookkeeping and accounting tolls are something of a specialist product, but still a PC staple. Suppliers have come and gone over the years, including Microsoft which briefly dabbled in the market a couple of years back, leaving just a handful to choose from, with Sage the undoubted leader, followed closely by Intuit with its QuickBooks family.

What is it and who is it for?

QuickBooks 2010 is the first major refresh of Intuit’s venerable bookkeeping package for a couple of years, concentrating on improving the way the software works rather than adding major new features or functionality. As with previous versions, no special hardware or software is needed?just a Windows PC?and the target market is small to medium sized businesses, from sole traders and start-ups to companies with in-house accounting staff.

QuickBooks can be used both by product and service based organisations covering a wide range of industries from retailing and manufacturing to professional services. Tools to manage sales, purchases and cashflow come as standard, with stock control, VAT, payroll and so on available according to the edition involved and options purchased.

A basic knowledge of bookkeeping principles is assumed, although there’s a user-friendly graphical interface plus wizards and online help to flatten the learning curve. A fully UK supported application, QuickBooks benefits from full HMRC accreditation for VAT and Income Tax processing, including electronic filing.

Pricing & setup

QuickBooks can be run on XP, Vista or Windows 7 with support for both 64-bit and 32-bit versions of each. Several editions are available, all based on the same core accounting engine fronted by a user-friendly graphical interface.

The most basic edition is QuickBooks SimpleStart (£99 ex. VAT), for companies merely wanting to produce quotes, handle invoicing and track cashflow. VAT calculations can be automated by SimpleStart, including electronic filing of returns to HMRC, but only on a cash accounting basis. A free version is also available, offering all the features of the paid-for SimpleStart edition, but limited to a maximum of 20 customers/suppliers and with no telephone support.

For larger companies and those looking for better stock control and additional bookkeeping tools, QuickBooks Pro (£249 ex. VAT) is a much more complete package, with enhanced VAT and multi-currency support among its other features. The Pro version also supports multiple access to the company data by up to five users, although each still requires their own licensed copy of the software. QuickBooks payroll is another option, subscriptions starting at £41 per month (ex. VAT) for which you get both the QuickBooks Pro package and the payroll service, including tax table updates.

The most complete of the QuickBooks editions, QuickBooks Premier (£499 ex. VAT), adds yet more functionality including extra budgeting and forecasting tools plus the ability to set prices and discounts by customer, job, item and currency. As with the Pro edition multi-user access is available (the Premier edition can be shared by up to 30 users) each user, again, requiring a licenced copy. Payroll support can also be added, QuickBooks Premier + Payroll subscriptions starting at £60 per month (ex.VAT).

Remote access to accounts data is another Premier edition option, along with tools aimed at professional accountants to review, modify and return client accounts submitted electronically. Additionally, accountants can join the QuickBooks ProAdvisor programme (£345 per year ex. VAT) to get both a fully supported copy of QuickBooks Premier and a listing in the QuickBooks accountants directory.

QuickBooks software can be supplied on CDROM or as a download. There are no special pre-requisites, although for full functionality Microsoft Word and Excel are required plus Outlook for full e-mail integration. Upgrades are available to switch from one edition to another, with 30 days free support included as standard on all editions. Additional support and training options are available from Intuit and third party providers.

Does it do it well?

It can take a while to get to grips with QuickBooks. A basic knowledge of bookkeeping certainly helps, but isn’t essential with a new QuickBook Coach and videos in the latest release to guide new users through the processes involved and the way they’re implemented in the Intuit package. An online forum service (Intuit calls it a live community) has, similarly, been added to provide guidance, added to which good telephone support is available from the company itself.

VAT handling is much improved in 2010 release with wizards to help setup and modify VAT codes, a new VAT exception report to cope with mistakes in filing plus the ability to file VAT returns electronically direct to HMRC. Multi-user access gets a much needed boost too, with users now able to work on data, run reports and so on at the same time, without having to ask other users to first close out of the application.

A QuickFilter search tool makes finding customer and supplier information a lot easier and there’s an enhanced company snapshot window to quickly see who owes you money, what bills to pay and so on. We also liked the new batching facility when e-mailing invoices and statements which makes life a lot easier when you’ve lots to get through.

Where does it disappoint?

As with previous versions, QuickBooks 2010 is a hefty application which takes a while to load, although you don’t need a highly specified PC to run it and once working we found it responsive enough for most tasks. The interface can be a little idiosyncratic in places and creating custom invoices and other forms a lengthy and involved process. Working out how to “undo” changes when mistakes are made can also be difficult, often requiring a call to support to resolve.

Would we recommend it?

Small businesses looking for in-house bookkeeping software don’t have much choice. Other than QuickBooks there’s Sage?which has the advantage of being the product that a lot of professional accountants use?plus a handful of less popular packages including those from Mamut, which recently acquired MYOB in the UK.

An affordable solution compared to Sage, QuickBooks is a good package that meets most small business accounting needs. The main buyers are likely to be those with in-house bookkeeping expertise, and companies whose accountants also use the Intuit software. It’s not necessarily the best solution for the sole trader, although the free SimpleStart edition is a risk-free way of checking it out. [7]