You’re in a spot that many of us have faced down. You need accounting software for your small business, your accountant said, “Get QuickBooks,” and now you’re trying to figure out which version is right for you – QuickBooks Online or QuickBooks Desktop. Have no fear – unless you’re being chased by a wolf, in which case fear is going to be helpful – we’ve got a rundown of the major differences between the two to help you make a decision.
Before we get too far into the details, let’s be clear about what Intuit – maker of QuickBooks – wants. It wants you to use QuickBooks Online. If you look at the company’s comparison, they’ve used the classic Good Option versus Bad Option chart, complete with a color versus black and white rundown of why Online is the way to go.
That might be true, generally speaking, but there are important details that you need to understand before you make a choice.
Basics features and versions
No matter which version of QuickBooks you end up with, you’ll have access to all the features that you would expect to find in an accounting solution. You can track payments, revenue, accounts payable, and invoicing. In terms of core features, you don’t need to sweat the choice, either program will have you covered.
The real distinctions are in how you interact with all these features. For QuickBooks Desktop, you’ll need to be sitting at your computer, clacking away. Desktop is just as restrictive as it sounds like it would be.
Now, before we dive into what features you get in Online, we need to check out the differences between QuickBooks Premier and QuickBooks Pro. These two desktop flavors should be enough to cover any small business – unless you use a Mac, in which case you need the Mac version of Desktop.
Pro is the smaller of the two versions, designed for three users at most. Premier is the slightly larger and more feature-laden version, supporting up to five users. Premier also comes with a bunch of additional reporting and forecasting tools. If you just need the basics, Pro is going to be the version you end up with.
Comparing QuickBooks Pro and Online
Okay, so there are actually three online versions, as well. Without diving too far in, I think the Plus version of QuickBooks Online is the best option. The Essentials version lacks inventory tracking and the ability to print 1099s for contractors. It also lets you track billable hours by customer. The Simple Start Version might be a good option for a freelancer, but it lacks recurring billing and the ability to pay vendor bills.
Let’s assume you’re now choosing between the Desktop Pro and Online Plus versions. Some of the biggest feature differences stem from the online nature of, well, Online. With the desktop version of QuickBooks, you won’t be able to automatically backup your data without some sort of additional work. QuickBooks Online lives in the cloud, where your data is basically in a constant state of back-up.
Online also gives you access to your books no matter where you are. QuickBooks has website versions for browsers, phones, and tablets. There are also apps, if you like your interactions in native form. QuickBooks Desktop has none of these options.
Online also lets you track fixed assets, like office equipment and sheds.
Desktop isn’t completely out of the race, though. If you’ve been using Quicken or Microsoft Office Accounting and you want to import data, you’ll need to hop on the desktop. QuickBooks Online only lets you import data from Excel and other versions of QuickBooks.
In your face, internet.
QuickBooks Desktop also includes more built-in sales and financial reports, more industry-specific reports, and gives you access to the Lead Center, which is a sales lead management tool. If those are important to you, your boss, or your accountant, you might be a Desktop business.
In addition to all these features, you’ll have different support systems in place for each version. With QuickBooks Online, you do get phone support standard. For the desktop version, you’ll have to pony up $89 for 90 days’ worth of support.
Additional desktop options
Paying for support is just one of the many additional things that Desktop users can pay for. For a price, you can claw back some of the features that Online comes with standard.
Apart from the phone support, you can also pay for automatic bank connections, automatic back-up, cloud hosting – which gives you access from more locations – and additional users. All of that comes in the vanilla version of Online, though, so you’ll end up paying a heavy price to make Desktop match up.
The balance to that pricing system is that buying the Desktop version means you pay once, and can theoretically use the product forever. On the Desktop side, Pro will run you $300 and Premier will come in at $500. Online you’ll be looking at either $13, $27, or, for Online Plus, $40 per month.
As I said, the desktop versions are a one-time purchase. The downside to that is the lack of updates, which means you can get left behind as new versions come out. To mitigate that, you can pay $300 per year for access to the newest desktop version.
For Intuit, this is all about the move from single purchase revenue to subscription revenue. Subscription revenue is more consistent, keeps customers more connected to the company, and is generally seen as higher quality revenue in the business world.
The bottom line
By now, you should have a pretty good idea of what solution is going to work best for your business. If none of these options look right, swing over to Capterra’s accounting software directory to get a comprehensive list of alternatives.
You should keep in mind that you’re not locked into any of these options. Over the course of a single year, you’re going to pay roughly the same amount for either a desktop or online solution. Give it a year and see if it works. If it doesn’t, you can make the relatively painless switch, importing all your data with ease.
For more small business finance tips and tricks, check out our weekly finance blog. Good luck out there.
Looking for software? Check out Capterra's list of the best software solutions.