With over 800,000 customers, Sage has to be the number one UK vendor when it comes to small-business accounting, and Sage 50 Accounts one of its top products. As such it comes as no surprise to find no major changes in the latest, 2013, version, where the emphasis is very much on making the software easier to use. That said, it does feature a new reports browser and improvements when it comes to e-mail and Excel integration, plus a revamped help centre and a couple of other new options.

Feeds and speeds

A Windows-only product, Sage 50 Accounts can be installed and run on most versions of the Microsoft desktop up to and including Windows 8. It can also be shared on a peer-to-peer or server-based network. Prices start at £595 (ex. VAT) for which you get a single user, single company license. A second user license will add £265 (ex. VAT) to this price and additional companies £275 (ex. VAT) each. Upgrades for existing customers can also be had, starting at £305 (ex. VAT).

Included in the purchase price is 45 days telephone support which can be further bolstered by adding tiered SageCover support services, starting at £155 (ex. VAT). Training is also available along with custom stationery in the form of invoices, purchase orders etc. designed specifically to be used with the accounts software. In terms of book keeping functionality, the usual sales and purchase ledgers, banking options and so on all come as standard, as does stock control. Payroll, however, needs to be provided for separately, either by Sage or another vendor.

Getting started with Sage

Software installation is straightforward and, once complete, a simple questionnaire takes you through the various options needed to configure a new company file with shortcuts depending on the type of organisation involved?sole trader, limited company, partnership, charity and so on. Standard VAT, cash accounting and flat rate schemes are all supported, as is electronic filing with HMRC and the use of multiple currencies, although this last option is only available in the Professional edition (£1,170 ex. VAT).

A new customise your company “launchpad” (a wizard by any other name) has been added in this release to explain and configure key components of the product. This has separate sections for customers and sales, suppliers and purchases, banking etc, each with a tutorial video plus a new “Setup Now” button for when you’ve digested the information.

The new launchpad can be run again later if wanted, which is just as well as you don’t get a manual any more. Just a bunch of PDF guides plus access to a built-in help centre which has been moved online in the 2013 edition and enhanced with new content and an improved search. Added to which there’s the bundled telephone and e-mail support for both technical and accounting issues.

While on the subject of e-mail, the ability to e-mail invoices, statements and other documents rather than post them also comes in for attention. Not least by the inclusion of a welcome set of new pre-set options to work with Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail and other providers. And, instead of having to manually configure each type of document, default e-mail settings can now be assigned automatically.

Usability and more

Already pretty intuitive, the user interface is tweaked rather than radically altered in this release with over 1,000 buttons and labels updated to make them easier to understand. Likewise, changes have been made to reduce the need for repetitive operations. For example, you can now select multiple stock items and add them together to a quote, order or invoice, plus make sure you have the stock available at the point of order, again, a new option in this release. Cash sales can also be recorded more easily, with a new one-click option to record the payment and mark the invoice as paid, all in one go.

Elsewhere it becomes a lot easier to design your own invoices, sales orders and the like, while the cheque layout has been re-designed to meet industry standards. Month-end and year-end processing have also been broken into steps to make the tasks involved a lot simpler and VAT reporting, similarly, made easier in this release. For example, following reconciliation, a new VAT Tasks window will guide you through VAT liability payment/reclaim and e-filing, with new Intrastat reporting formats also provided for companies trading with the EU.

Reporting plus

And then there’s the all new report browser with detailed descriptions, filters and previews to help with selection, plus the ability to define favourites; action buttons to quickly open or export reports; and an indicator to show when reports are running. Design and customisation of reports has been simplified and there’s a new option to re-use the same style across reports rather than format each one individually.

Reporting performance is enhanced too. Reports in the 2012 release were already a lot quicker to run and those enhancements continue in the 2013 product?not a major concern for smaller companies perhaps, but a real plus for those with large numbers of transactions to track.

And lastly, integration with Excel is vastly improved with the option to export data directly, plus an “export to Excel” button that appears over 100 times, making it a much easier and more obvious option. Added to which an Excel Integrated Reporting Module, installed as an add-on for Excel if found on the host system, adds Sage functions, data ranges and workbooks to give a more comprehensive set of reporting options within spreadsheets.

Overall we were impressed with what we found in this product. Moreover, although aimed more at professional book keepers and accountants than novice company owners, Sage Accounts 50 has an enviable reputation when it comes to trading off usability against functionality. A reputation that can only be enhanced by the latest 2013 release, which adds enhancements only where they are needed without rocking the boat and requiring lots of extra training.