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Review: GnuCash 2.0

By Conrad Canterford on November 06, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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GnuCash is a personal and small business accounting package that provides true double-entry accounting, the ability to set up automatic recurring transactions, and simple budgeting. The application does not try to hide the complexities of managing your money from you with pretty screens. It does show you where (and how much) you're spending your money. If you're prepared to learn a subtly different way of doing things, you will find GnuCash a very powerful alternative for home or small business use.

GnuCash supports a number of different languages (29, according to the release notes), and has multi-currency support as part of its fundamental design principles. It has QIF file import, and if the appropriate external packages are installed, it supports HBCI electronic banking (predominantly German, I believe), OFX/QFX and MT940 file import, and support for OFX DirectConnect. It has some basic business support, including the ability to create, monitor, and pay invoices and record suppliers and customers. It features a comprehensive range of reports, with extensive options for most reports to tailor exactly what is reported on. In my experience, it is a stable and reliable program, and the developers go to some length to ensure it stays that way.

The interface is structured around a chart of accounts, and each account opens into an individual view, called a register. The register is simultaneously an up-to-date view of the account and data entry point. In true double-entry accounting style, every transaction must have two (or more) entries that completely balance each other out. This might sound a little complicated, but it is a powerful way of viewing what is going on with your money, and from my understanding is not too dissimilar to the way "real" accountants manage money.

GnuCash is open source, and it looks different from the commercial (Windows) accounting software I've previously dealt with. This is predominantly because of its no-fuss interface style, which focuses (by default) on the chart of accounts. If you are not an accounting wiz it might take a little while to figure out how to do things. The tutorial and concepts guides (links to which are available on the GnuCash documentation page) and the users mailing list are invaluable resources if you need help or advice in working out how to do things. Most people get a helpful answer from other users on the gnucash-user email list fairly quickly.

The software doesn't have payroll, or inventory control, or detailed customer management features. I found for my purposes it was best (and cheapest) to purchase a cheap dedicated payroll software package and manually key the transactions into GnuCash. There may by now be other alternatives available.

What's new in 2.0?

In GnuCash 2.0.0 (released in July), the user interface has had a substantial rewrite to convert it to using Gnome2 interface libraries. This has resulted in a subtle change to how it looks, but it has not had a negative impact on how it works, even for old hands. The instinctive keystrokes I've learned from many years of keying transactions into previous versions all still work. This for me has always been one of GnuCash's strong points -- it is not just possible, it's actually practical to enter lots of transactions by manual keying at the keyboard. You don't need much in the way of mouse clicks, and after a couple of transactions you actually get very quick at it. This hasn't changed with 2.0.

The user interface now provides a tabbed layout approach rather than opening new windows for every new register and report. This behaviour is controlled by configuration options (one for registers, one for reports), so you can change back to the old behaviour if you like. The menu structure has been reorganised slightly to provide a more consistent approach and to confirm with GNOME Human Interface Guidelines. These changes have given the program a new fresh look, without detracting from its tried-and-true approach. It looks prettier, with a new logo and graphics, and with the upgrade to Gnome2 it now behaves much like most other GNOME programs.

Budgets are a new feature that looks to be fairly flexible -- allowing different budgeting periods to be specified, and with an "estimate" feature to calculate the budget from actual transactions. There is also the requisite "Budget Report" to provide budgeted-to-actual reporting. Budgeting is not a feature you have to use in order to get other stuff to work, so you can always ignore it if you can't be bothered or don't like the way it works. To be honest, I couldn't even find it when I went looking for it for this review, because its hidden away in the File menu. I required a gentle hint to point me in the right direction. If I were to have a complaint about this feature, that would be it -- I think it would be possible to better integrate it with the rest of the program while still keeping it an optional feature.

The release notes mention improved support for various online banking standards, particularly OFX DirectConnect support. This is dependent on a very recent version of the aqbanking library and an as-yet-unreleased version of libOFX, but by the time GnuCash appears in your distribution these will hopefully also be available. Version 2.0 also claims new support for importing files in the MT940 format.

So why should I upgrade?

From a users perspective, this release might feel a little light, with the only major new feature being budgeting. Don't be fooled -- this is much more than a bugfix release dressed up. A substantial amount of work has gone on in the background to update and improve the internals. This should make the next generation of features possible, and with any luck will speed up the development process. It might not look like much has happened, but plenty of changes have been made that should make the next generation of features possible.

That is not to say that there are no bugfixes in this release, of course. One of the main reasons for upgrading is that support for the old 1.8 series is now discontinued. There will be no more bugfixes made to the 1.8 series, so all users should change to 2.0 for that reason alone. There is already strong community support behind 2.0, and the developers have just announced the release of 2.0.1 to fix a few minor bugs and adjust a few default configuration options.

Upgrading is simple -- install the software, load up your 1.8 data file, and away it goes. If you don't set up a budget, 2.0 is completely backward-compatible with 1.8.12, so you can always go back if you want.

Building the software yourself isn't particularly difficult if you know what you're doing (it "just worked" for me, once I'd installed all the -devel packages), but if that doesn't make any sense to you, I'm afraid you will have to look around for precompiled packages for your distribution or wait until the distributions make the new version available. I know user-contributed packages have been made for Fedora and Debian at least.

Note that GnuCash is a GNOME program, and needs many of the GNOME libraries. If you already use GNOME, you won't notice this, but if you use KDE or another desktop environment, you will have to install the GNOME libraries in order for GnuCash to work. You will also need Guile (the Gnu Scheme interpreter) and g-wrap (which provides the interface between Guile and the rest of the program. If you are installing from a distribution, these should be installed for you. If you are building from source, you will need these to build. There is an up-to-date list of the dependencies required for most major distributions in the source code -- look for the "README.dependencies" file in the top level directory.

I have been a long-term GnuCash user (from the pre-1.4 beta releases, in fact). I have the accounts for my (very) small business in GnuCash, and have in the past been a heavy user. If you want something that looks and works just like package X, then GnuCash probably isn't for you. But if you'd like a stable and robust open source accounting solution, and are not afraid to learn a little bit to drive it, you could do a lot worse than to give GnuCash a try.

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Will GnuCash handle Fund Accounting for non-profit

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 02:35 AM
We are currently running Money Counts for DOS (a fund based accounting product that was originally from Parson's Technology). Money Counts was donated to our chapter of a National Non-profit organization many years ago by Parson's Technology when we called them up and they sent us a free copy (nice of them)!

FYI - Interesting History of Money Counts and Parson's Technology:
<a href="http://www.craigr.com/csdhist.htm" title="craigr.com">http://www.craigr.com/csdhist.htm</a craigr.com>

Parson's Technology provided various software for churches at one time. Since then their product line was acquired, and in the end it seems that Intuit ended up with the accounting software and has done nothing with it at all. This might be because Intuit now has a version of QuickBooks for non-profits! We don't run very many transactions per year at all, so to buy Quickbooks for non-Profits, and keep it upgraded seems pointless due to the expense of keeping up with too costly Windows and Intuit version schemes! And also there is another interesting factor that eliminates Intuit... Due to the fact that Quickbooks will not run on LINUX and we might like to use the $100 olpc laptop as a permanent accounting device that could be affordable and could hopefully run a LINUX GUI based and easy to use Fund Based accounting application.
<a href="http://www.laptop.org/download.en_US.html" title="laptop.org">http://www.laptop.org/download.en_US.html</a laptop.org> ).

For the next person that handles the chapter's bookkeeping, I don't think that he or she/they will be able to handle the learning curve of a non-GUI based application that is not like the Windows ones that they are used to!

So - Can GNU Cash be used for FUND Based Accounting (for non-profits and churches)?

See these links with regard to fund based accounting.

<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fund_Accounting" title="wikipedia.org">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fund_Accounting</a wikipedia.org>

<a href="http://www.drfrey.com/fundchck.html" title="drfrey.com">http://www.drfrey.com/fundchck.html</a drfrey.com>

<a href="http://www.drfrey.com/fundacct.html" title="drfrey.com">http://www.drfrey.com/fundacct.html</a drfrey.com>

***As you can see from these urls...

*** FUND Based Accounting is different than regular accounting.

I have looked and looked and there is no on-profit FUND ACCOUNTING package for LINUX at all? Do you know of one?

I was hoping that a FUND BASED non-profit ACCOUNTING system could be designed for the ultimate personal accounting machine that is being
developed at the OLPC ($100 computer) project that was born at MIT.

<a href="http://laptop.media.mit.edu/" title="mit.edu">http://laptop.media.mit.edu/</a mit.edu>

This $100 laptop computer would be perfect for a treasurer of an organization to use (and pass along to the next person to hold the office of treasurer).

Based on a FLASH DRIVE <a href="http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Ask_OLPC_a_Question#Flash_memory" title="laptop.org">http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Ask_OLPC_a_Question#Fla<nobr>s<wbr></nobr> h_memory</a laptop.org>
it would operate like an accounting calculator (we have very few transactions per year so I don't think that it would fill up the flash drive.

<a href="http://www.siliconvalleysleuth.com/2006/06/first_video_of_.html" title="siliconvalleysleuth.com">http://www.siliconvalleysleuth.com/2006/06/first_<nobr>v<wbr></nobr> ideo_of_.html</a siliconvalleysleuth.com>

I know of several churches that are looking at this kind of software need as well (who don't currently have an accounting package to use
since Money Counts for DOS is no longer available to buy or get support on)! Fitting such a software with the $100 laptop would be perfect.

Also - the CFO for a large 150,000 person non-profit organization approached Intuit to see if they could arrange a volume deal with them for the Quickbooks Non-Profit version use by all the US chapters of this organization and Intuit said, no way, "no discounts".

Some of the rules that this non-profit must follow are found in part of an email from the National CFO...

"A nonprofit can charge for advertising in any publication produced by the nonprofit, but you need to keep the following in mind.

1. As soon as a nonprofit has $1,000 of unrelated business income, which advertising is, the nonprofit must file form 990T. This is a rather complicated form, so I would recommend that your chapter line up an accountant who has filled out the form for other nonprofits to do this for you. So I would really recommend evaluating if charging for the ads is going to produce net income for the chapter after factoring the additional cost for a tax preparer.

2. Unrelated business income cannot exceed 33% of total gross income for a nonprofit. This can cause the loss of nonprofit status.

3. Advertising on the web is currently treated by the IRS as being identical to advertising in a newsletter and is therefore considered unrelated business income.

4. The chapter needs to keep good detailed records on all the costs related to the newsletter and website to help offset the taxable income.
To keep your tax return preparation fees down, the records should be kept in accounting software".

We even have to keep track of volunteer hours doing newsletters, and other volunteer projects (like planting trees, etc)! This tracking
would be nice to have built in to the non-profit accounting application.

--> Do you know of any accounting package for LINUX (or the $100 laptop computer from OLPC) that will do proper non-profit FUND based accounting
with the graphs, do the tracking and reports that we need?

GnuCash has no information as to how to set up GnuCash to set up and a volunteer non-profit FUND BASED accounting that would equal our old MoneyCounts DOS application? Does anyone know of a Linux Fund Based Accounting solution that non-profits will be able to run on the olpc laptop machine (heck, since this same fund accounting is used by governments then it might be also used by small villages, towns, and others that could use such software - worldwide?

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Re:Will GnuCash handle Fund Accounting for non-pro

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 09:06 AM
Take a look here: <a href="http://www.sql-ledger.org/" title="sql-ledger.org">http://www.sql-ledger.org/</a sql-ledger.org>

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One thing that would make GnuCash even better...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 02:42 AM
...would be the ability to use a SQL RDBMS as its backend. The two that come to mind are MySQL and PostgreSQL. With this ability, multiple accountants could, in theory, do work on the same data. The GnuCash dev team is aware of the benefit, but resources, like with all projects, are an issue. It'd be great to see a company step up and fund this. It could also be a good project for CompSci students at a university.

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Re:One thing that would make GnuCash even better..

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 03:33 AM
Would also love to see this. This would allow for nice custom php reports, OpenOffice reports and charts, or anything else.

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Re:One thing that would make GnuCash even better..

Posted by: Administrator on November 07, 2006 05:53 PM
There is work underway to (re)introduce an SQL backend. Work is only new, and is going to take some time to reach fruition, but the developers are aware of the demand for the feature. Don't expect to see this in a 2.0 release (although we might be lucky) but with any luck it might appear in the next stable release.


The 1.8 series did have a backend for postgresql, but it largely bit-rotted during the life of the 1.8 series and was unusable by the time 2.0 came out.

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Review

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 02:47 AM
Maybe I'm just a Type-A user, but I think there's a whole lot of features missing in the 2.0 series that should've been covered here if this is going to pretend to be even a halfway objective review--particularly in charting. No longer can I double-click on a slice of a pie chart and view the sub-expenses for that account or the account register. No longer can I rotate the pie graph. No longer can I drag a slice off the graph to set it off. No longer can I even simply view the percentages alongside each piece of the pie chart!

Does that make the program bad? No. But these things are important details that (at least I and I think others) use frequently.

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Re:Review

Posted by: Administrator on November 07, 2006 06:15 PM
Sorry that you feel my review did not meet your expectations. I do not use the charting features, so I was not even aware there was something to write about. If that makes me unobjective, well, so be it.

To cover every possible feature in detail would have required far more space that I had available, and far more time than I had available. I concentrated on what I saw as the major changes. If its any consolation to you, there are sure to be other changes I failed to mention too.

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Screenshots?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 04:30 AM
There are no screenshots?
I like to look at the pretty pictures, I don't like to read.

Oh and 2.0.2 is out! 2.0 has been out for months!

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Re:Screenshots?

Posted by: Administrator on November 08, 2006 01:23 AM
Screenshots are at <a href="http://www.gnucash.org/features.phtml" title="gnucash.org">the homepage</a gnucash.org> and in the <a href="http://www.gnucash.org/docs.phtml" title="gnucash.org">documentation</a gnucash.org>

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Re:Screenshots?

Posted by: Administrator on November 07, 2006 05:59 PM
Oh and 2.0.2 is out! 2.0 has been out for months!

That's publishing lead times for you....

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Re:Review

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 10:16 PM
My apologies on questioning the objectivity. I would've left that part off and just mentioned the charts themselves if I'd been thinking better. I use the charts a lot, therefore, everyone else uses charts a lot. You know how that goes.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

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Re:Review

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 07, 2006 10:41 PM
I printed the article to PDf for later re-reading.

In my latest go around with Linux, I've been focusing on replacing all functions previously requiring win32 OS. Accounting functions where coming up on my list soon and this gives me a good place to start from when figuring out what to run my house finances on.

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Re:Print checks?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2006 06:04 AM
I've not actually used it to know how well it works but this certainly looks promising...

<a href="http://www.gnucash.org/docs/v2.0/C/gnucash-help/transactions.html#print-check" title="gnucash.org">http://www.gnucash.org/docs/v2.0/C/gnucash-help/t<nobr>r<wbr></nobr> ansactions.html#print-check</a gnucash.org>

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Print checks?

Posted by: Administrator on November 09, 2006 03:35 AM
But can it print checks? Can it print 3-up checks? That has long seemed to be the divider between GnuCash and Quicken.

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