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Computer Associates started out decades ago making mainframe software for business information management. As times changed, the company did, too. It wrote some new software for desktop computers - and it bought a lot from other makers.

It went on such a buying spree that by 1989, it could boast of being the leading supplier of desktop accounting systems in North America. Its product line included the popular ACCPAC line for MS-DOS computers: ACCPAC Plus (once made by Canadian ACCPAC), ACCPAC BPI (once just BPI) and ACCPAC Easy.Since '89, it's been consolidating some of its lines.

It dropped support of Easy after buying Bedford's Simply Accounting for the Macintosh and rewriting it to run on MS-DOS computers as well.

It added `CA-' to a bunch of MS-DOS products.

Among them are CA-Cricket, CA-Infopoint, and CA-Cortana. It took popular Simply Accounting, added new features and moved it onto Windows on MS-DOS.

Now the company has struck a deal with the folks who produce The Kiplinger Letter. The result is Kiplinger's CA-Simply Money for Windows. Meant for home users and tiny businesses, CA-SM is positioned head-to-head with the Quicken for Windows version of the leading home accounting program.

CA-SM costs $70, same as Quicken, but for "a limited time," you can get the Kiplinger program for $6.95 by phoning 800-225-5224.

Despite its very long moniker, CA-SM is a neat, sweet product. It mostly does what Quicken does - providing home and small business with checking, savings, credit card, loan and investment accounts. It has essentially the same reporting and graphing ability. Like Quicken, it can automatically create a budget based on your prior getting and spending patterns.

CA-SM can track small, simple payrolls - something Quicken needs an add-on to do. It can also automatically add the money you spend on home improvements to your equity in the home. That's useful in paying taxes and if you ever decide to sell.

Another feature is a built-in financial adviser that pops up automatically with helpful and sometimes money-saving tips.

Some people will love CA-SM's opening icon-filled screen. We who have lots of income sources, outgo recipients and checking account categories much prefer to eyeball Quicken's lists than downpage through CA's graphics.

At tax-time, CA-SM exports its files to Kiplinger's TaxCut, a program we rate very highly. The program's package also claims easy transfer of data from and to Quicken (and other programs that import QIF files). But we must have been doing something wrong, because it didn't import our Quicken data. And the manual's instructions are cursory and unhelpful.

Most accountants urge even the smallest businesses to do double-entry bookkeeping. Neither Quicken nor CA-SM do that.

We use ACCPAC Integrated BPI for our own office because it can post a recurring charge as many times as you need (for us it's once a week) and itemize them in monthly statements. But its G/L, Payroll, AP, AR and Inventory Control modules serve sales companies better than services.

Unlike the Simply Accounting and Simply Money packages, BPI processes discounts and finance charges. It recognizes debits and credits in entering most transactions. All entries can include very brief memos that print in reports.

BPI stores data for up to 9,999 departments. It can use 12-digit account IDs. Entries automatically post, permitting up-to-date reports at any time. Fiscal periods are flexible and up to 11 can remain open.

There's fast onscreen data prompting and outstanding online help that always keeps us out of trouble except when we try to make corrections. (All ACCPAC's manuals seem to assume an infallible user! They're no help at all when we get in trouble.)

ACCPAC Plus is big, cumbersome, and long past its prime. A limited Time Billing and Client Receivables module adapts to some service companies. Other modules include AR, AP, Inventory Control and Analysis, Order Entry, U.S. and Canadian Payroll, Job Costing, Sales Analysis and Retail Invoicing.

There are better accounting programs from other makers that target the same market, do more and cost less. They include M*A*S 90, Solomon III, and AccountMate. NEBS (800-882-5254), the large direct-mail forms supplier, now sells old One-Write Plus. For $100, it gives small businesses double-entry receivables and payables. (With payroll, it's $150.) The latest update makes macros and has a calculator. It does bank reconcilia-tion, inventory record customiza-tion and better audit trailing.

But printer set-up is still primitive. You can't page up in onscreen reports. And the program (sold only for IBM compatibles) now needs more than five megs on disk. That's an awful lot for a program with this little power.