A Shopper's Guide to Accounting Software: Fifteen Leading High-End Packages for PCs Are Examined

Article excerpt

The computerization of accounting has done more than streamline the work of CPAs by eliminating post binders, columnar sheets and those quaint posting machines. It also has changed significant aspects of accountants' work fundamentally. For example, in precomputer days CPAs were instrumental in designing accounting systems for each client and then implementing them by hand. In the process, accountants made sure the systems included adequate audit trails, controls and reports, among other things.

That was then. Today, the most popular accounting tools are off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped products. While most allow some customization, their basic design is locked into the esoteric code of computer programming. As a result, today's CPAs, rather than being able to adapt an accounting system to a specific use, must themselves adapt to it. Thus the accountant's role has changed--from that of system designer to system selector and adapter.

CPAs who are asked to recommend an accounting package for a client or an employer must be sure it meets the business's unique needs. That's not easy. While many of the 200 or so products in the marketplace today are adequate accounting tools, rarely does any one package fit a client's needs perfectly. So, even before investing the time to analyze a package in depth, accountants must set their priorities and then search for the software that appears to provide the best fit. However, we have found that appearances, or claims about the ability to perform certain functions, can be deceiving.

At best, CPAs must compromise on software functions. Accordingly, this article, which examines 15 popular accounting software packages, probes not only the packages themselves but also how the various software functions affect the way today's accountants select and work with software.

MAKING THE SELECTION

We focused on high-end microcomputer accounting software designed for small to midsized organizations. Our selection was based on these criteria:

* Price. We reviewed programs that cost between $400 and $1,000 per module in the fall of 1993, when the review process started; since then, although some prices have risen above the $1,000 level, we retained those products in the review (see the sidebar on page 59.)

* Operating system. We chose only DOS packages because they make up the largest segment of the accounting software market. However, in the sidebar "Migration Paths: Planning for the Unknown," page 40, we alert readers about available Unix or Windows versions. We didn't include Unixonly software because it's usually somewhat more sophisticated and expensive than DOS software; as a result, fewer businesses use it. Windows software was excluded because in our view and that of many accounting firms, accounting often is a mission-critical application and the current Windows version, 3.1, has not proven sufficiently stable to support such applications. That may change with the new Windows version, Windows 95, Microsoft plans to introduce this year.

* Customers. We selected widely used and marketed software that is designed for a variety of industries rather than for only a specific industry. We focused on horizontal packages because most CPA firms find they can support only two to three programs--thus, they tend to select packages that are adaptable to a variety of clients rather than those that are highly specialized or industry-specific.

* Multiuser support. Even though an initial installation may be on a single microcomputer, we consider multiuser support essential for a growing business.

AREAS OF FOCUS

Accounting packages have many attributes worthy of review--so many, in fact, that no one article could cover the subject adequately. For example, ease of learning is important to the installer and new user. Efficiency of operation also is important, especially for data entry. But since there are no objective standards for such attributes, we focused on accounting considerations only, leaving it to the user to make those personal judgments. …