With Microsoft Money, Microsoft (MS) show that they're fully prepared to go into a software sector where they're not leaders, and keep refinining a product year after year until the market leaders are pressured into staying ahead. By the time that pressure hits home, the Microsoft “runner-up” in the market almost looks preferable.

Such is the case in the financial software sector. Sage and Intuit Quicken are the kings with their various families of products, and Microsoft Money was nowhere to be seen. Now the MS product has been split into a basic and Financial package just like the 2003 version. Like last year's version, Taxsaver as sponsored by The Inland Revenue is included in case you need to assess yourself and don't want Henry from the cartoons to do it for you.

On presentation terms alone, the as-plain as possible English manual is immediately endearing. Four pages of it cover file importation from Quicken and one on using an older MS Money file so they're not shy about chasing their target market. We were less pleased with the online obsession when it came to plugging the MSN Money section of the website but this can be understood when you see it. At the moment it's a useful set of information pieces on various aspects of finance, but such a site can get overcomplicated very easily which we hope never happens.

You will start from scratch with all the usual paper lying around and you'll have to feed everything into the newly installed program. Next you'll have to keep it updated with every item of incoming and outgoing spending to make the best use of it, including whether any VAT is included. If you choose to include your ISA (or Government-sponsored tax-free savings account for our non-UK readers) you'll have to ensure the rate entered is correct, and kept up to date for it to forecast your annual payout with any degree of accuracy.

In spite of our concern at the promotion of the MS Money website, one of the great stumbling blocks of British internet banking is how many services are “zoned” for security meaning a lack of interoperability when it comes to sending payments out unless you use the telephone to bank instead. For example; being able to view all your Nationwide accounts online, but not being able to pay your credit card bill from within the same site. Money's bank support list had Nationwide as pending rather than supported when released, and Virgin remains unsupported at the time of review for statement downloads. In spite of being able to source a limited set of statements. You could at least get a quicker picture of where everything was going- particularly if you're the kind of person who waits for statements and has to rush to the bank to pay off the overdraft. In short you get out what you put in.

Fully new features are Credit Centre with an aim to let you manage your debt if you've let things get out of hand in the past. While worthwhile it's best viewed as an add-on to the established free debt help services rather than fully trusting a computer. To be balanced and fair, linking up with one of the UK's largest credit rating agencies (Experian) is a step in the right direction. If you're in England and Wales you can also create a will with added advice at the ubiquitous MSN Money, but once again it should be taken as a help to get you started rather than a tool for avoiding solicitor's fees.

Ultimately whether you buy Money will depend on your personal attitude to cash. If you've no clue and are fed up with being charged every month, you may consider it as a fresh start even if you fail to keep it going. However if you're a mere mortal who works for a company, so you won't be assessing your own tax, you can save £18 and buy the basic Money unless you really need that paper manual (on the cheaper version you just get the manual as a .PDF and the weblink). At £27 this edition will pay for itself a little more quickly than the Financial Suite under review.

Price when reviewed:

If you've got last year's version, Quicken or Sage (and then hand the computerized records over to a real accountant for final checking) then don't bother. The problem with Microsoft's endless polishing is when the package in question gets to the point of not being broken. It then becomes difficult to persuade people to buy it all over again to “fix” their problems. In this scenario the 2 years' online support is generous, but in our opinion, not a sufficient carrot for users of the old version either. You can however, download a 30-day trial if you're still undecided.

Check for ongoing bank support athttp://money.msn.co.uk/MyMoney/microsoftmoney/online/fininst/default.asp

(if the above link fails, go to official homepage below and choose “Financial Institutions” from left column)

Money UK Official Homepage: