Quicken 2011 is one of the biggest new releases in the recent history of Intuit's venerable personal finance package, and for anyone still interested in managing their finances on the desktop, it's well worth a look.

In addition to a major overhaul that makes setup easier than ever and updates the app's look and feel, Quicken 2011 supports transaction data downloads from more than 12,000 financial institutions. That's about 2.5 times as many as the 5000-odd institutions supported in Quicken 2010, so if you've been holding off on personal finance software because your local bank doesn't work with it, you might find that things have changed. The ability to automate data entry is one of the most useful features of a personal finance package, since it makes seeing where your money is going and, by extension, planning for the future so much easier.

Quicken 2011 doesn't just support thousands of new institutions, it also simplifies the task of setting them up for data downloads. When you set up an account, the software presents you with a list of the top 20 institutions offering that account type (and autocompletes as you type in the name of an institution that isn't on the list). If you already have an online account with the institution, all you have to do (in most cases) is enter your existing log-in info (user ID and password) to complete the setup.

This is pretty much how Mint.com works, and the similarity is no coincidence. Intuit has made Mint.com its online brand for personal finance and put Mint.com's leadership team in charge of Quicken desktop editions.

In fact, Quicken is starting to look eerily like Mint in many respects and more than ever, the basic editions of Quicken 2011 provide similar features. Given that Mint is a free service, these Quicken editions seem to be designed primarily for people who don't want to entrust their financial data to a web application that stores it in the cloud and are willing to pay for the privilege.

However, the higher end Quicken Premier 2011, which I tested in late-beta form, does offer a fair amount of functionality relating to investments that you don't get from Mint. This is the package for people who like to keep close tabs on their portfolio and want tools to help analyze the tax consequences of a stock sale, or to rebalance their asset mix.

Other editions with special features include the Quicken Home & Business, which includes everything in Premier plus additional help for self-employed people who wish to track their business and personal finances in a single application and the Quicken Rental Property Manager, for small landlords.

Regardless of the edition of Quicken 2011, its designers' web sensibility is immediately evident in their use of graphics: If you like to see your financial life laid out in pie charts, you'll love Quicken 2011's ability to create them not just for transactions in a single account, but across all accounts (much more useful for obtaining a real world picture of what's going on). Drilling down for details is as easy as clicking a chart segment and when you're in register views, you can adjust column widths to your liking and add or remove columns if you like.

Intuit is also touting Quicken 2011's improved ability to categorise downloaded transactions accurately, claiming a 90 percent accuracy rate. In my tests, I couldn't verify this claim, however. Several transactions came in with no category label, and I did have to correct a few. But certainly the software got many categories right, leaving significantly less work for me to do. Assigning categories to expenses is important if you want to see where your money is going and where you might be able to cut back, if you want to save toward a goal, for example.

Longtime Quicken users may have to spend a few days getting used to the new streamlined user interface, which is a lot less cluttered with menus and toolbar items than the old one. I liked it and found it reasonably intuitive. I certainly didn't miss items such as Goals (which has largely been subsumed into the Planning section).

The app had no trouble importing data from my previous Quicken file, so people interested In upgrading (if only to maintain transaction download support, which expires for editions older than three years) shouldn't find the transition too painful. (Quicken 2011 still supports importing Microsoft Money files, even though Microsoft has discontinued the product and will end its support for online services in January.)


Lacking serious competition in the desktop realm, Quicken 2011 still brings welcome innovation to the table for people who want help from a desktop product in managing their finances, especially people who like to dig deep into their investments (in the case of Premier) or who want to manage a sole proprietorship (Schedule C) as well as their personal finances in a single app (Quicken Home & Business). Existing users facing a sunset policy on data downloads and newcomers to personal finance software should find plenty to like in this package.