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Online portfolio trackers are all well and good, if you need them.

Between portfolio software programs and your portfolio holdings at your online broker, yet another tracker seems excessive. But online trackers do offer distinct benefits.

Here's a rundown of the tradeoffs between online portfolio managers, like those at

MSN's MoneyCentral




, vs. the software products and the brokerage trackers.

Online vs. Software

The nice thing about an online portfolio tracker is that it's


. That means that, unlike a personal finance software program like Quicken or


Money, you can access the information from any networked computer. Also, online trackers update prices automatically; with software you have to dial in for updates.

But online trackers don't match their offline predecessors on comprehension. With software, you can pull your investments into an in-depth, malleable, historical and current picture of your whole net worth. You can produce year-end tax reports that offer easy importing into tax software programs and fiddle with year-long tax planning tools. You can produce robust analysis reports. Online trackers shine when showing your portfolio in a snapshot, one moment in time.

"When you're working on the Web ... it's going to give you what your investment picture is, not what your overall financial health picture is," says Microsoft spokeswoman Joanna Fuller. Quicken software offers a "more detailed view of your portfolio for more high-powered analysis," says Charlie Vestner, senior product manager of

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Online Trackers vs. Brokerage Trackers

Because your Net broker already tracks your portfolio online, you might wonder what you gain from another online tracker. Here are the main benefits:

Your broker tracks your


account. It doesn't include, say, mutual funds you purchased directly from




, cash that you have in the bank or other nonbrokerage assets.

Even if your broker does let you set up "watch lists" of other stocks and funds beyond your holdings with the firm, odds are the capabilities of its tracking tool won't be as robust. Brokers are best at brokerage functions, like trading stocks. The Microsofts and


of the world specialize in outdoing each other at portfolio tracking functionality.

One exception? Real-time prices. Some brokers, like


, have portfolio trackers that update holding prices (and account balances) in real time. Plus, they offer "streaming" quote services, where the quotes on a watch list of stocks stream in without your having to hit "refresh." Neither MSN nor Quicken has real-time quotes in its portfolio tracker. Yahoo does offer quotes real-time quotes from ECNs. (See this week's

What Works, as well as our

related story on real-time portfolio updating.)

Finally, the online trackers don't have the same stringency with password protection as the brokerage sites do. And this makes sense. While information is private, it's not as sensitive as actual account access. If you've got 10 seconds at work to check your portfolio and no intention of trading, why be unduly burdened with password gateway upon gateway?

Integrating Services

If you're confused, take comfort in this: Increasingly, these systems are synching up. and Yahoo! both accept importing of many brokerage account portfolios. With MoneyCentral, the list is smaller. Below are their current lists. I haven't tested the importing myself, but readers have said that it works. Please

let me know otherwise.