All in Favor of MSN's Screener, All Against TSC's Tracker

Plus, price cuts at T. Rowe Price, direct access developments, and more.
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As the What Works

portfolio series progresses, we'll take a quick detour to the mailbag.

In Defense of MSN's Stock Screener

A few weeks ago when my colleague

Mark Martinez

and I

rated the online stock screeners,

Marketguide.com's

NetScreener nudged out Marketplayer and

MSN's

MoneyCentral in our view.

We've since received a compelling retort from reader

Rod Brandon

of Tucson, Ariz. His main beef: In criticizing MoneyCentral's ease of use, I was being too protective of the user. A do-it-yourself investor needs to be willing to work at do-it-yourself tools, Brandon insists.

"One thing I probably wouldn't do," Brandon writes, "is worry too much about ease of use. Deep, powerful stock screeners like MSN's are going to require a lot from the user, you have to understand the metrics and their function in evaluating stocks. There's no way around it. That's why these sites have so many pre-developed screens, which I used a lot when I was learning."

Brandon continues: "The perception of ease of use will depend on how familiar you are with

Microsoft

products. Interface consistency is, however, a powerful way to make software familiar and easier to use. For me there is no tool on the Web that even approaches the usefulness of a powerful stock screener, and MSN's is the best."

Note: Brandon is an applications developer and systems analyst. (And no, he doesn't work for the Redmond, Wash.-based giant but for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.) I won't dismiss his view simply because he's a techie. Rather, I want to hear from you: How important is it that a tool is intuitive? Should some user elbow grease be expected? Please write to

whatworks@thestreet.com and please include your full name.

TheStreet.com Portfolio Tracker

In response to my

call for comment about portfolio trackers, several readers offered up harsh reviews for

TSC's

tracker, available to subscribers of

RealMoney.com

, one of our paid sites.

I'm not writing about this tracker in the

portfolio series, because there are, frankly, better trackers to talk about there. But I'm not going to bury the reports either. Here are some of the remarks:

"Of the three trackers I use, I am sorry to say that the least effective one is the tracker utilized by your company. It has the most limited capabilities of them all and frankly the only reason I use it is because I subscribe to RealMoney.com. I would have thought that as progressive as TheStreet.com is in financial reporting, it would have made a special effort to utilize a better system," says

Greg Gagnon

of Los Angeles. Gagnon complains that

TSC's

tracker gives only percentage changes and not actual value changes of stocks. (It does show value changes, but for the entire position, not for price per share.) Gagnon says he does like seeing the percentage gain/loss with corresponding dollar amount since the initial investment.

Gustavo Pena

, who's tried a half-dozen trackers, says, "Sadly,

TheStreet's

portfolio tracker was the worst. Hard to get to, hard to use."

And

Kathleen Smith

, the woman from

Thursday's column, who now uses four different trackers, wrote: "Let me start by saying that

TheStreet.com's

portfolio tracker used to be the pits. I've stopped using it so I don't know if it has changed."

TheStreet.com's

veep of product development,

Gail Griffin

, didn't sugarcoat the situation. "We know that our current portfolio tracker has some problems, and are evaluating other alternatives to put into place in the new year. We're looking to partner with the best tools providers rather than building tools ourselves, which we've done in the past."

Commission Cut

T. Rowe Price

brokerage recently lowered its commissions for online stock trades to $19.95 for 1,000 shares. That's down from $24.95. The new prices aren't as low as places such as

Datek

($9.99 for up to 5,000 shares) or

Ameritrade

($8 for unlimited shares plus a $5 charge on limit or stop orders). But T. Rowe is now lower than

Fidelity

($25 for up to 1000 shares, plus $5 for limit or stop orders) and of course Cadillac service

Schwab

($29.95 for 1000 shares). And they're in line with

DLJdirect

: $20 for 1,000 shares.

Lower would have been better, but at least it's the right direction.

Next Time, Include Us!

DLJdirect apparently set out to make "good use of the medium" last week by offering live Webcasts from the

Credit Suisse First Boston Technology Conference

in Phoenix. (CSFB is the broker's new parent company.) It's a neat idea. (Anyone actually check it out? Let me

know.) Unfortunately it was available only to the broker's "preferred" and "select" clients, meaning those with $100,000 or $1 million in assets with the firm, respectively.

What ever happened to the democratization of investing?

Trading Convergence

In a recognition that everyone deserves a good execution, mainstream brokers are treading further into the "direct access" trading game. (Direct access brokers let their customers bypass middlemen and make trades directly with an exchange, electronic communications network (ECN) or market maker. For more on these brokers, see this

story.) In the last few days, Datek announced it is letting its customers direct trades to ECNs and market makers. Meanwhile, direct access broker

A.B. Watley

says it will be licensing features of its trading software to

E*Trade

and will work with that broker to create a customized trading product.

Our Saturday columnist

Mark Ingebretsen

will follow up on these developments. Also, check out his

column from this weekend on the differences between ECNs.

Care to comment? Please write to

whatworks@thestreet.com, and please include your full name.