While I don’t work on per-hour billing projects very often these days, they do come up every couple of months. When those projects come along the clients expect detailed invoices for the time I log on their projects. As an executive-level technical advisor and consultant my rates reflect the 25-plus years of experience I have in the software industry, 15 of which I have been spent launching and selling several successful companies. As such I need to produce easy-to-follow invoices that account for my time on a per-minute basis with enough detail to justify any time that has been billed.
For years I used the built-in systems from Intuit. However in recent years their online time tracking system has become more of a hassle than a helper. It has crashed numerous times. I have lost data many times after compiling 2-weeks worth of time entries, and to rub salt in the wound, Intuit support is not only expensive but the ultimate answer on more than one occasion was “we don’t know what happened”. I paid support for THAT answer? Ouch.
With several large long-term projects looming on the horizon I decided to start re-evaluating the time tracking applications that are out there. I want it to be quick and easy to add a customer, add projects, and add tasks. I want it to track time by the minute. I want a web, mobile, and desktop version of the app with a stopwatch that assigns the recorded time to a task. All 3 platforms must sync at the end of the day, if not in real time. Most importantly it needs to be able to produce pre-project invoices in a clear legible format that shows each task with minutes-per-task breakdown. Bonus points for syncing with QuickBooks and/or PayPal. Extra points if it can create custom invoice layouts with my own header and footer including logos, contact info, and messages.
Here are the time trackers I’ve come across and my opinions about each. Some I tried for minutes, some for days.
$0 : 1 user : unlimited clients & project : 1 invoice/month : 50MB storage
$10 : 2 users : … : 30 invoices : 5GB storage
$15 : 3 users : … : unlimited invoices : 15GB storage
Looked promising from the start, however the honeymoon was soon over. It was easy to sign up. It was free for basic use. They have a desktop (Air app wrapper) and a web version. They may have a mobile version but I never got that far. The web interface is easy enough to follow, but could use some improvements along the way. However I started running into problems within a day.
The desktop app has a known bug. I could not move or close or resize the window. I wrote to support, they acknowledged the issue and said “close and restart the app, it will fix itself”. Not a good start, IMO. If you know about the bug fix it. It is the first thing the users sees.
Entering and tracking time was easy enough, but I found myself having to go to the website fairly often as I could not create new customers or projects. I could only add tasks to existing customers/project. I also could not edit details. Not very efficient.
On the web side I found that if I clicked on a box to try to move or edit the task it would close and hide the task. When I figured out what was going on, I unchecked the “hide closed tasks” on the sidebar. Unfortunately it only stays in effect for that one page load. It shows all closed and open tasks but as soon as you do ANYTHING all closed tasks are once again hidden.
However the deal breaker on this one was trying to send a client a report on time worked to-date. I simply could not find an easy way to do this. There is no way, as far as I can tell, to generate an interim report. Even worse, the few ways I thought I could show them tasks completed v. still open, such as printing the browser window, leaves all the completed tasks with strike-through attributes, so you cannot read the tasks easily. Not a great design.
Close, but poor interim reporting and a kludgy invoice generation system are not going to work for me. Next…
Make Some Time
$0 signup – terms not disclosed openly
After a quick Google Search I came across a Life Hacker article that seems to tout the Make Some Time web app. Sure enough, creating clients, project, and tasks was easy. I got my first project in place within 5 minutes. The sign up was quick and painless, and it is free. However I did notice multiple screens are not rendering properly in Chrome. Not a big deal, but it gives the app a distinct “not finished yet” feel. That makes me nervous when time tracking is a key component of my monthly income.
I was able to quickly and easily generate a project report, modify my time entries, and get something that was almost EXACTLY what I needed for an interim time report for my clients. Exactly what I could not get PayMo to do minutes early after an hour of “screwing around with it”. Nice start.
But then I realized something. There does not appear to be any way to add details or notes of any kind to the tasks. I looked for 15 minutes and gave up. If I can’t find it in 15 minutes then the user experience needs work. My assumption is there is no way to add notes to tasks. That is a deal breaker. Too bad, it looks promising but this plus the “not quite finished yet” feel makes be a bit nervous about burning more time learning this system.
Time for another option…
$0 : 1 user : 2 projects : 4 clients
$12 : 1 user : unlimited projects : unlimited invoices
$49 : 5 users : … : … : timesheet approval
$99 : 10 users : … : … : …
The initial interface is fairly well polished and the design of the site is clean. Sign up is quick and easy. The very first thing I want to do is track my time for a client project. I go to the clock image on the to bar and go to start my time for a new project. Wrong place. Goo to “timesheets” on the top bar. Ok… took eme 2 tries but I found what I need.
Already I am faced with the bane of most time tracking software… you must follow THEIR work flow not your own. Turns out I cannot freely create a client or project from the time tracker. I must go to another interface first and create these elements. Boo. Already an extra step that is no necessary.
So now I need to go setup a project. Manage/projects is fairly easy to find and the entry form is easy enough… sort of. The invoice method already presents me with a choice and forces me to learn THEIR terminology. I invoice my clients by the hour. Yet I have several options on “Invoice Method”. Project is not billable, project is billable / do not apply hourly rate, project is billable / task hourly rate, project is billable / person hourly rate, project is billable / project hourly rate. Already I am put off by the complexity. What do I choose? What if I choose the wrong thing? Will I need to change it later? Why do I need to be educated on what to choose or find help for what should be a simple “bill hourly” selection. Not fun.
I also have a budget section with several options and check boxes. This should be hidden, as should the above options, under an “advanced” tab. Then when I go to start the project I have a tasks section with “Admin” and “Project management” both with a billable check box an hourly rate. Again, a bit much for a simple setup but at least this is a simple UI. I also have a people interface which, as a single user as I selected at the start of this thing, should be hidden until I add other users. This system is obviously built to be all-things-to-all-people and is overly complex for simple task management.
So now I start tracking my time. Oddly if I stop it too soon it does not track anything, so I let it run a bit longer. It takes a while but eventually puts 0.01 in the time log. The granularity appears to be 1/100th of an hour which is a very odd metric. Either that or they are showing time as 0.00 with the second digit being minutes but that is quite confusing. Maybe they think replacing the standard minute (‘) and second (“) marks or hour/minute (:) delineation with a period is cooler because this it he age of dot-addresses but it makes you wonder what the heck the actual time is tracking.
While the UI here is clean, I don’t like that I need to click the pencil icon to add a note. I should be able to edit on-field using standard AJAX editing trickery and type my added note/detail right in place. So far, however the UI is fairly clean and modern. Not exactly what I’d like as far as functionality but a good start.
So let’s try out invoices. The create invoice is a multi-step process but fairly intuitive. However something odd here. My test case uses a base $100/hour rate. Guess what I learn here? That 0.00 IS hundredths of an hour. Ok, that is an odd way to track the time. Easier for math, sure, and that is how some law firms work but it is not clear from the start. At least they are using standard notation. I just have not seen a timer that actually logs in hundredths of an hour right from the start. No harm no foul.
Harvest does have a native Windows 7 desktop gadget available, so that is a bonus. I did not see a Windows 8 app listed but if they don’t have one I’d imagine they are working on it. The gadget itself comes with a small clean UI which does not clutter the desktop. However, this slick looking desktop gadget does not appear to work. It is pulling my new project and tasks, but the “leave time blank to start timer” just plain doesn’t work. You leave it blank and press save and nothing happens. Boo, again. I shouldn’t have to be guessing how to get a simple desktop timer working and I refuse to keep a browser window open to track time. Not only does that take up valuable desk real-estate, eventually I close the window or the system shuts down and something funky happens. Typically losing all my tracked time for the day.
Not a great start.
Already frustrated, though the UI is nice so I may come back to it. However at this point a simple desktop timer and Google spreadsheet seems to work better.
A day later… I closed the account. I was being spammed with a “you left a timer running”, which I did not think I had. Turns out the sample task in the account was automatically set to “run” and was still going, only to spam me 12 hours later. In addition, they don’t stop it automatically they require you to sign in and stop it manually.
$5 : 1 user
$15 : 5 users
$25 : 15 users
$35 : 25 users
$50 : 50 users
TimeIQ has an nice updated site since my last review 5 years ago. However it immediately brings up my concern for lack of attention to detail and quality issues that we encountered years ago. Right on their pricing page a few lines away from “same great level of quality and service” is “please feel welcome tget in touch with us”. So much for the quality aspect.
The “Widgets and Gadgets” graphic front & center on the home page showing “Vista” and “OSX” as the main operating systems tells me they are not staying current. Vista has essentially been dead for 2+ years now with Windows 7 and now Windows 8 the go-to version of Windows for most business users. They also have minor grammar issues like using employees’ instead of employee’s.
These oversights on the main “marketing pitch” of the website combined with dozens of odd phrases, typos, and grammatical errors have me leery of trying this company again. On to the next vendor…
$0: 1 user
$6 : per user at 2nd user+
The sign up was dead simple. Username (email) + password. Done. You are signed in to a sample setup with sample tasks to give you a feel for the project. Not bad… but that wood background needs to go. Yuck!
Like Harvest, but not as polished IMO, the UI is simple and easy to follow. That is good because one of the first things I had to do was figure out why time was wanting to log in on Monday even though it was Sunday night. Turns out they default to an 8-hour day Monday-through-Friday and apparently you cannot easily add time to a day that is not pre-approved for working hours. Once again we find a system that is trying to force you to build your contract work setup around their pre-conceived notions. Easy to override, but why even limit this in the first place? Over-thought and over-implemented.
I was able to fix this issue and modify the default Sample Project / Sample Task very easily. I did not like that the “Save Project” label on the button was “Save Task” or that pressing enter did not auto-save which meant I had to go back and do it twice. Exiting the popup change info form in ANY WAY should ask you if you want to save your changes. Better yet, just save them. Once that was out of the way, however, it was very easy to start the timer. It uses standard hh:mm:ss notation and you can see the time changing. I already like that feature better than Harvest.
Not a bad start. Let’s go get the desktop app. Hey.. and guess what? There is a link right here in the sidebar “Install / Application”. Sweet. So easy. Click, downloaded. Done. Open to install what appears to be a native widget for Windows. It opens a window where you enter your username and password and syncs tasks with the server. I right-click to get my options, select the task I was working on and start the timer. It happily starts adding minutes to my task list. Exactly what I want. Not too mention it is small an takes almost no space on my desktop. Perfect. Now if only I could change that “HEY LOOK AT ME NOW green”. I’d love to be able to mute that color so it is less distracting, but that is a minor issue.
Sadly the TimeCamp system looks like a very promising start, but again there are shortcomings. They have several typos on the settings page with things like “metting, lanuch” instead of “meeting, lunch” right on the second line. QA an attention to detail is missing.
However the big deal-breaker for me? No easy way to create a report or invoice for my customer. It is great to be able to easily track time but not when you have to re-create that time in an invoice for the client. I want the time tracker to at least create a simple web or PDF based invoice.
Another issue? The desktop widget tracker never seemed to sync with the web server. I could not get my time to show up. I had to re-open the preference and re-enter my user info, which was obviously correct as it collected the tasks from the server to show them on the task list. After I re-entered the data the app synced but then crashed.
$60 per year : 1 user : desktop app
$12 per additional year
This is a bit different than the other apps, this is a full blown desktop app for OSX, Windows, and Linux. Download an installation is quick, you also do not need to register on their site which is nice for a change.
Getting started is easy and intuitive. I added a client and a project by clicking icons in the interface and filled out a couple of fields within minutes. I quickly found and started the desktop timer, closing the main app window which starts a system tray icon to get to the interface. I was able to start a timer and after seeing “no service” I could easily find the “edit timer task” icon and assign the right project and set up a standard billable item I called “hourly consult” at my base rate.
The interface is certainly more intuitive and user friendly than the prior online based system, however there were a few mis-steps while setting up the tasks. I thought I was setting up an hourly contract item, however I was editing the current task at hand which is what the client would see. Easy enough to fix but not perfectly intuitive.
The product is somewhere between the more advanced and over-loaded features of harvest and some of the simpler interfaces. Not a bad compromise but not dead-simple everything is so intuitive it always does exactly what you expect.
After a few weeks of using the product it turns out to be one of the better solutions out there. However invoice integration and coordination with QuickBooks and/or PayPal is lacking. So, once again, I am searching for a better solution.