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Originally published February 26, 2010 at 1:24 PM | Page modified February 26, 2010 at 3:51 PM

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Quicken Essentials fails to deliver, despite some nice features

Essentials matches neither Mint.com nor Quicken 2007, and that's a problem.

Special to The Seattle Times

Intuit has finally delivered on its multiyear promise to update Quicken for Mac. But Quicken Essentials, released Thursday, isn't a successor to Quicken for 2007, the current latest version of the financial-management package. Essentials is missing several key features and feels like a pale shadow of a program that even Intuit isn't claiming it will replace, while costing $59.99.

Last year, Intuit purchased Mint.com, an online money-management system, and Quicken Essentials is one result. The founder of Mint is in charge of Quicken, and Quicken Essentials looks quite a lot like Mint.com, without all the features and sophistication. Essentials matches neither Mint nor Quicken 2007, and that's a problem.

As a multiyear Quicken user, what's missing is significant. You can't export from Quicken Essentials to TurboTax, Intuit's tax-preparation software, which seems like a giant lacuna for anyone who uses both programs.

Reporting is limited to a handful of prepared reports that can be modified, but sophisticated queries and summaries that I used in Quicken 2006 and 2007 aren't available. As in earlier versions of Quicken, there is no report builder, either, but simplified reports can be modified and saved as custom ones.

The Class feature, which I never took advantage of, is gone, too. It allows categorizing an item in multiple ways. A new Tags feature may be better, by allowing one or more tags to be assigned to any transaction.

Bill paying within Quicken has been removed; Intuit says 6 percent of its customers across all Quicken platforms used that feature, but that percentage will likely be upset.

The investment component has been more or less gutted. In Intuit's own words on its site, "It will not ... track investment buys and sells, nor will it provide some advanced investment reports." Interviews with Intuit's Quicken product manager hint at future improvements in investment tracking.

However, Quicken Essentials isn't a total write-off, pun intended. The ugly, inconsistent and sometimes impenetrable interface that has characterized Quicken for Mac for many years has been reworked into something attractive and informative. It's easy to navigate, easy to see at a glance what you need to know.

I imported months' worth of transactions from several checking, savings and credit-card accounts to give Quicken Essentials a workout.

At first glance, Quicken Essentials provides a far better glimpse into the current state of my finances, bills I need to pay, and — if I set up a budget for various categories — how well I'm living within my limits. Essentials is terrific at revealing information from all my stored data; that's been one of Mint.com's strengths all along, as well.

The new interface for connecting to financial institutions for either direct Internet transaction downloads or importing Quicken-formatted data files is marvelous. I was able to hook up my several BECU accounts, a Chase credit card and an FIA credit card in moments. A single menu item selection or keyboard stroke downloads all new transactions.

There's less to like when I start drilling down. I've complained for years that one of the most common activities in Quicken lacks a keyboard or menu short cut: a way to mark an item, such as a deposit or credit-card charge, as recorded. In Quicken 2007, you must either click in the checkmark area for a transaction in the register or use the Reconcile feature.

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Quicken Essentials still has this problem. In the normal transaction recording and viewing mode, you have to use a contextual menu item (right-click and then select Set Status of Selected Transaction To), and choose one of four paired options to clear or review items.

What's not explained? What either clear or review means in this context. A Status column shows a solid circle to the left of transactions, which changes to a circle outline if you set status to Reviewed.

The new Reconcile view doesn't bring up a separate window, as in previous Quicken releases, but changes the register view to show a Reconcile column. That column name doesn't match any of the options in the status menu, however.

Yes, Quicken Essentials has nice touches, such as showing a piggy-bank icon for accounts identified for savings; using a "tag cloud" that shows relative sizes and ordering of categories to indicate how much you spend; and automatically identifying and marking certain categories.

But the program feels much more like a sketch of what a full Quicken update might look like. I certainly cannot migrate to this fresh-feeling interface without losing many of the tools I use to manage my household and small-business financial life. If I were starting from scratch with wages (instead of freelance income) and home accounts, Quicken Essentials might have had some merit.

For those who are looking for a fresh start or who don't want to wait to see if Intuit comes up with a full refresh of Quicken 2007, alternatives include Moneydance (moneydance.com), SEE Finance (scimonocesoftware.com) — and Mint.com.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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