Since my last review, Intuit has made numerous improvements to QuickBooks Online, its small business accounting software, like the addition of mileage tracking, multilingual invoicing, and its ability to calculate project profitability. Intuit has also made smaller changes in almost every part of the site, all geared to help you get in, see what you need to see, do the work that needs doing, and get out. It’s once again our Editors’ Choice for online accounting software, based on its flexible functionality, financial connectivity, user experience, and extensibility. It shares its Editors’ Choice distinction with competitor FreshBooks.
There are three versions of QuickBooks Online that are designed for small businesses, all of which look and work similarly and offer a 30-day free trial. Simple Start costs $25 per month and is designed for microbusinesses. You can track expenses and income, create and send invoices and estimates, connect to your bank accounts, run basic reports, and track sales tax, among other features.. The $40-per-month Essentials plan does all of that and adds bill management, support for up to three users, and time-tracking. For $70 per month, the Plus plan also lets you track inventory and project profitability and allows access for up to five users. There’s a new Advanced level that supports up to 25 users and includes numerous advanced features, but it’s geared toward larger businesses that might need to consider midrange accounting solutions.
QuickBooks Online’s prices have increased once again. Intuit—at least as of this writing—offers 50 percent off on prices for three months, which makes them fairly reasonably priced for your first quarter (plus your 30-day free trial). After that, the sticker price kicks in.
If you like Intuit products but all you need is basic business and personal expense tracking, barebones invoicing, automatic mileage tracking, and help estimating quarterly income taxes, then you might consider the version aimed at freelancers and sole proprietors, Intuit QuickBooks Self-Employed.
Building a Foundation
If you’ve been entering and saving your accounting data in files that that can export in CSV or Excel formats, then you can import customer and vendor files, products and services, and your Chart of Accounts into QuickBooks Online. Importing data from one accounting application to another—or even from Excel—can be a challenging process, one that may require the help of a financial advisor.
The days of lengthy, multi-question setup wizards that desktop accounting software used to put you through are long gone. If you completed these early steps in the setup wizards, you were pretty much ready to start working. That’s not the case anymore. QuickBooks Online asks enough questions to do some of its setup in the background, changing settings to accommodate your particular type of business.
You can, of course, just jump in and start producing transactions, in which case you have to enter customer information, item records, and so on as you go along. If you take this approach, though, you may find that a feature you need hasn’t been activated, or that you need to connect your bank accounts and set up a payment processor. The best course is to explore the site’s settings first. You’d click on the gear icon in the upper right corner and select Account and Settings. QuickBooks Online then displays a series of sectional tabs on the left (Company, Billing & Subscription, Usage, Sales, Expenses, Payments, and Advanced).
You’ll specify most of your preferences in two areas. In the first, Sales, you’ll be able to turn much of the content in sales forms on and off, like Shipping, Custom Fields, and Discount. It’s here, too, where you’ll turn inventory tracking and progress invoicing off and on and customize the look and feel of forms like invoices.
Click on the Advanced tab, and you’ll see even more options. QuickBooks Online lets you specify, for example, your accounting method (cash or accrual), your business type (like sole proprietor), and your home currency. It provides automation tools that you can use or not (like automatically invoicing unbilled activity and automatically applying bill payments). It also gives you the option to activate tools like project and time tracking, and class (user-defined category) tracking. You’ll likely have occasion to return to these settings from time to time, so it’s good to know what’s there early on.
The User Experience
The first thing you see when you sign on is QuickBooks Online’s home page. Almost all cloud-based accounting solutions call these “dashboards” because they offer an overview of account balances, income and expense totals and charts, and tasks that need to be done. They also contain links to related activities, such as invoice creation and account maintenance. QuickBooks Online displays graphs for invoice and expense status, profit and loss, and sales totals, as well as account balances and a link to your audit trail.
I found Xero’s dashboard to be more effective; it makes it easier to see instantly what needs to be done, as does the dashboard in GoDaddy Bookkeeping. The current iteration of QuickBooks Online’s dashboard is getting a little stale, and it was never one of the best.
QuickBooks Online displays a vertical pane on the left that contains tabs representing each major part of the site; it. highlights the tasks that small businesses typically do most often. Its links take you to Dashboard, Banking, Expenses, Sales, Projects, Workers, Reports, Taxes, Mileage (new), Accounting, My Accountant, Print Checks, and Apps.
Four icons in the upper right open tools available from there. These include a button that opens the Create box for new transactions, a search tool, and a help link. The gear icon you clicked to open Account and Settings is here, too, and you’ll likely be visiting it often, as it contains links to lists (including products and services, and recurring transactions) and other tools, like budgeting, user management, data import and export, Chart of Accounts, and an audit log.
Once you’re in a working screen, QuickBooks Online uses a combination of lists, charts, drop-down menus, and links for its operations. While QuickBooks Online is designed for non-accountants, new users will likely have frequent questions. The site’s online help files are slim compared to those of Xero. Intuit does offer a web-based community and chat/email support, but the site is complex enough that it warrants much better explanations and step-by-step instructions. Some users may need to get personal support from an accountant or one of QuickBooks’ certified ProAdvisors.
Sales and Expenses
Once you click on a link in the navigation bar, you’ll usually find another series of navigation links that divides that area’s functions into subsets of tools and data. For example, if you click Sales, you’ll see five options. First is a sales overview that displays income and invoice charts and miscellaneous links to additional setup tasks, as well as a few shortcuts to transaction screens.
Click on All Sales, and the screen displays a multicolored bar across the top that gives you instant information about the state of your accounts receivable. It tells you how many pending estimates you’ve issued, along with the total dollar amount. It does the same for unbilled activity, open and overdue invoices, and invoices paid within the last 30 days. When you click on a tab in the colored bar, the list below changes to reflect only the transactions represented by those totals You can select a subset of those transactions and complete batch actions, like printing packing slips or sending reminders. You can also filter the customer list and access the underlying transactions. The final two columns in the table display the entry’s status (like pending or overdue) and a link to any related actions, like Receive Payment or Send Reminder. You can export the list to Excel or print it, and you can modify its columns.
The next tab in the Sales area opens a list of invoices, and the next, your customers. Your products and services appear in list form when you click the last tab. These three tables follow the same kind of format used when All Sales is highlighted: interactive lists of data with links to additional actions. The Sales module is the busiest set of screens in QuickBooks Online, and understandably so. Small businesses need detailed, up-to-date information about the changing status of their sales efforts.
The Expenses/Vendors area works similarly, though it relates to transactions like purchase orders and bills. And, of course, its action options are different.
Thorough Data Records
One of the advantages of using an online accounting application is that once you enter a bit of information, you rarely have to enter it again. For example, if you create records containing details about customers and vendors, products, and services, you’ll be able to access lists of these records when you’re creating transactions and reports. QuickBooks Online is only rivaled by Zoho Books when it comes to the thoroughness and flexibility of its record templates, though it has fewer custom fields than Zoho Books.
Beyond their contact information fields, customer record templates contain tabbed sections for notes, tax information, payment preferences, billing preferences, and attachments. Since my last review, a new Language tab was added, since you can now create and send sales forms in any of six languages. Once you’ve completed a record, the site displays this information and more in a kind of home page for each customer. You can switch between an interactive transaction list (the last column in the table contains links to actions you can take), related projects, and customer details. These aren’t as detailed as Zoho Books’ customer pages, but they cover much more than the basics.
Vendor records are handled similarly. They can contain account numbers, terms, billing rates, and opening balances. Product records are some of the best in this group of accounting websites. They offer individual templates for both inventory and non-inventory parts, services, and bundles (assemblies). Inventory templates include fields for both item sales and purchase information, with corresponding costs and accounts. If you want to track inventory, you can enter a starting quantity on hand within the record, and QuickBooks Online will continue to track it, so you know when to reorder (or stop stocking particular items). When necessary, you can make adjustments to stock levels.
If you’ve created service records because of your company’s offerings, you can track billable (and non-billable) time as single activities and/or timesheets. You’d click the plus sign in the upper horizontal toolbar to get to them. Individual timed activity records are exceptionally thorough, with fields for details like employee name, customer/project, cost/rate, and taxable status. You can enter start and end times and mark them as billable. Unfortunately, there’s no timer, but if you integrate QuickBooks Online with Intuit’s TSheets, you’ll have this and much more.
Best of Both
QuickBooks Online takes some of the sting out of one of the most dreaded of accounting tasks: account reconciliation. The site supports the standard reconciliation process, where you compare your monthly statement to what you see online and try to get the two closing numbers to match. This chore can be so frustrating and time-consuming that some businesses pay their accountants to do it.
Like many of its competitors, though, QuickBooks Online supports what you might consider a proactive approach. That is, you can reconcile as you go. When new transactions move into your account registers from your bank, you can verify and add them, ask QuickBooks Online to find a matching transaction in your online records (like a payment for an invoice), or record them as transfers. You can further document transactions by specifying a category (which QuickBooks Online will then use in the future for that vendor), marking it as billable to a customer, and providing additional details.
Calculating Project Profitability, Mileage Deduction
Intuit has added a new feature to QuickBooks Online: project profitability. If you document your projects conscientiously, you’ll be able to see the profit percentage for each at any point. Though Kashoo lets you track project costs overall and other sites let you assign projects to transactions, QuickBooks Online provides the most comprehensive coverage of this task. Knowing how profitable each project is can help you make better business decisions in the future in terms of variables like pricing and time allocation.
Once you’ve named a new project and designated the related customer, you simply assign items (invoices, payments, expenses, estimates, time, and bills) to specific projects. QuickBooks Online creates a home page for it, showing you at a glance what its current income and costs are by category. Besides this overview, you can see lists of related transactions and time activities, as well as project reports. Your profit margin always appears at the top of the page.
Intuit has also brought a feature quite popular with QuickBooks Self-Employed users into QuickBooks Online: mileage tracking. You can enter starting and ending addresses for each trip and the site will calculate miles driven and the mileage deduction for your income taxes. Or, you can just enter the number of miles driven yourself. The QuickBooks Online mobile app offers auto-tracking. Turn on your mobile device’s location tracker and the app automatically tracks miles driven.
Reports and Mobile
No other accounting service does reports as well as QuickBooks Online, though Xero has added new filters to some of its report templates, and Zoho Books offers roughly as many (though they’re not as customizable). QuickBooks Online has dozens of exceptionally customizable report templates. Most are standard reports that are broken down into the site’s core functions, including sales and customers, expenses and vendors, accounts receivable and payable, sales tax, and accountant reports. You can save modified reports; these appear in a list of custom reports. And three management reports provide more complex views of your company, sales, and expenses.
Android apps and iOS apps don’t replicate absolutely all of the browser-based version’s capabilities, but they provide abbreviated tools for almost every function. For example, there are only two reports, and customer/vendor and product records are not as comprehensive as they are in the full version. They do, however, contain historical data and action icons that let you quickly call or email a contact. You can’t create or manage projects or pay contractors or define sales taxes, and you don’t get interactive views in areas like sales and expenses. Transaction forms like invoices, on the other hand, are nearly as detailed as they are on the desktop. But there’s a lot that isn’t there
There are minor differences between the two operating systems throughout, but the two versions look and work quite similarly. The home page consists of two different screens. Click on the Dashboard tab to see a subset of the data found in the browser-based version. The Activity tab opens a list of recent activity. A vertical navigation menu slides out when you click on a button in the upper left, displaying a lengthy list of your activity and data options. Most screens also display a plus sign for quickly adding things like records, transactions, and accounts. The apps use graphics and color to liven up the screens and highlight important data and functions, which makes them both attractive and intuitive.
QuickBooks Online is the only site reviewed here besides Sage 50cloud that has a companion payroll solution built into the accounting application itself. It offers two levels of integrated payroll as add-ons: Self Service Payroll and Full Service Payroll.
QuickBooks Online’s reach goes far beyond its own payroll application. Both it and Xero can be integrated with hundreds of third-party applications that expand on their built-in functionality. Chances are good that, if there’s some related task QuickBooks Online’s modules can’t do, there’s an add-on app out there that can.
Still the Champ
There are many strong contenders for the online accounting top honors, each with its own strengths. For example, Zoho Books offers bookkeeping tools that are roughly comparable to those of QuickBooks Online. In some areas, it even provides more flexibility or power. But Zoho Books does not yet have a payroll solution that covers the whole country.
The sticker price for its most popular version, QuickBooks Online Plus, has gone up by $10 during the last year to $70 per month. That’s over $800 annually—more than twice the cost of the desktop version. At this writing, you can get 50 percent off for the first three months (plus your 30-day free trial), and even without the discount, it’s less expensive than the five-user version of the Sage 50cloud Premium plan. QuickBooks Online Simple Start and Essentials are more in line with the other competitors reviewed here price-wise (if not feature-wise)
Despite its prices and its less-then-stellar online help, QuickBooks Online earns our Editor’s Choice award for offering the most effective, comprehensive, useful, and usable tools. Furthermore, its depth, flexibility, and extensibility outclass those of its rivals. The race is tighter than it used to be, but QuickBooks Online is still the clear winner.