Function: Personal financial management.
Price: $50 (multi-user discounts available)
Requirements: Mac OS X 10.3. Universal.
Trial: Fully-featured (30 days).
Everyone wishes that they could stay on top of managing their finances well. Who wouldn’t want to keep their checkbook balanced, their bills paid on time, savings set aside, and their budget balanced? Few actually accomplish such a seemingly reachable goal, but the search for good software to help achieve it offers varying degrees of promise.
Such a search might lead you to Maxprog’s iCash. Now in its sixth major version, iCash is among the more mature entries into this category of personal finance software. We have reviewed iCash before, in the January 2006 issue. That was version 3.x, and iCash has had a lot of room to grow since then.
iCash is able to handle your financial records in a useful, organized fashion. It works via a breakdown of your financial picture into categories of accounts, like Banks, Portfolio, Assets, and Liabilities. It can generate reports such as a balance sheet, a profit and loss report, both summary and detailed reports on categories, and so on. You can quickly view statistics of how your spending breaks down, and get an overview of how you’re doing with your budget.
In all of these, iCash is quite capable. In fact, if you’re familiar with some basic accounting principles, you’ll find iCash deals with financial matters in ways that are standardized and with language that is unambiguous and professional.
I found that iCash was quite stable and didn’t feel sluggish even on a Mac where it was competing for resources. I also found that iCash was able to import a long history of 8,000+ Quicken transactions and data without any problem.
iCash also generates charts to give you a visual report of your spending trends. It includes a scheduler to help you pay bills on time and anticipate other credits and debits. It can handle investment portfolio data, and will manage the details of accounts such as your home mortgage, car payments, and credit card accounts. All of these it does capably.
Users will also find that iCash has a thorough User’s Guide that is available both online and locally, and a helpful FAQ online. And, since iCash is available for both Mac and Windows platforms, users with both will find that data can be passed back and forth without converting files or working with tedious export/import procedures each time. Maxprog even offer a two-license pack for both platforms, available in their online store.
While iCash includes all of those functions, and it handles them ably enough, I’m still left a little cold with iCash. I think there are three reasons why.
1. The Quicken Factor
We’ve used Intuit’s Quicken in our household for years, and my wife (who handles 80% of our home bookkeeping) is both familiar and comfortable with it. If we are going to replace Quicken, the software we replace it with must be at least as easy to use as Quicken—and preferably more so.
iCash does not exceed Quicken in usability. From the start, it lacks some of the oompf and lustre of Quicken’s user experience. For example, when we first started up Quicken for Mac years ago, a “wizard” opened that walked us through the setup of accounts and basic information. Even though we were seasoned Quicken users (we had used Quicken for Windows previously) and were importing data from our prior versions of Quicken, we found the wizard to be a helpful tool in getting things set up properly.
No such wizard comes with iCash; while it will import your existing Quicken data, it’s not readily apparent how to do so. In fact, I had to get into the User Manual just to figure out how to begin an import process: while I assumed that I would begin an import under iCash’s File Manager, I learned that importing Quicken/QuickBooks data required that I set up a master account first in File Manager and then begin importing.
Entering transactions is similar: all of the function is there, but the ease-of-use falls just short of Quicken by comparison. Though there are a few features that iCash might nudge ahead of Quicken on—I like iCash’s Scheduler better, for example—these tend to be the secondary tools.
iCash strikes me as much more oriented toward formal and well-principled accounting than it is a layman’s financial management application. That is, many of the terms, labels, and even concepts built into iCash either assume some level of formal accounting familiarity, or expect that the user will intuit it (sorry about the pun).
For example, the concept of property, like an owned home, as an “asset” is the way an accountant might think of it, but most folks who don’t work with finance at some level probably don’t. Likewise, thinking of the category of a particular expense—say, Auto Repair—as a “target account” (as iCash expects me to do) doesn’t naturally occur to me. In both cases, I think most users could easily pick up these terms and concepts, but I also think that most users aren’t interested in learning more about accounting than they have to. This will probably turn them off from iCash.
In fact, iCash strikes me as something more like an individual user’s version of QuickBooks than an alternative to Quicken. What I mean is that a lot of it is structured in the same way that a small business accounting application might be structured, with input fields for things like “project” and “invoice” attached to each transaction, and reports like “profit & loss” and “balance sheet.” While iCash is not marketed as a double-entry bookkeeping application, neither is it a typical single-entry system, either.
Number three is, sadly, that iCash is not pleasant on the eyes. There’s a fair argument in the fact that a personal financial management application doesn’t have “looks nice” as a primary goal, but there’s also a case to be made that this is precisely why it should be more pleasing to look at.
Yes, it is possible to change the font and size, in the Preferences panel. Other than that, there is no capacity for customizing this application’s appearance. We’re talking about an application that, to be well-used, will be stared-at for long periods of time, and frequently. It shouldn’t make our eyes tired or give us headaches; this isn’t too much to ask.
And I admit it: I’m comparing this to Quicken, wherein I can choose themes and colors and a number of different ways to make it look better. But here’s the rub: I’m comparing this to Quicken 2006—not just this year’s version. Maxprog, take a note: applications have been looking nice for a while; join us in the 21st century, won’t you?
Some of my complaints won’t resonate with everyone, I’m sure. Maybe it’s not fair to compare iCash to Quicken. But given that Quicken is the current industry-standard, and that a copy came for free on new Macs for years, this isn’t an unreasonable comparison. And if you’re looking for a better replacement for Quicken 2006 or 2007, I doubt that you’ll think iCash is it.
But iCash has this going for it: by all reports, the new “Quicken Essentials” is scaled-down and stripped of many popular functions, and appears to be little more (or maybe even a little less) than Mint.com in a localized form. This could be the very thing Maxprog needs to establish a bit more marketshare, particularly given the stability and maturity of their application.
For users who have never used Quicken (or at least, not a fuller version than Quicken Essentials), the lack of comparable experience may open the door a bit wider. iCash does do a good job with the essentials, and offers a nice complement of functions and features that round it out into a pretty complete financial management application. And for small businesses that want to avoid the high costs of QuickBooks and other business-oriented suites, iCash may be an excellent choice.