For

Kathleen Smith

, every day is a four-portfolio day.

What Works

Today's Focus:What works in real-time portfolio tracking.

That's not four investment portfolios but four different Web/software systems Smith uses to track her personal investments.

The day starts in Smith's Fairfield Glade, Tenn., office at 7 a.m. with a look at her IRA and non-IRA accounts at

TDWaterhouse.com

. Smith, a broker and financial planner, then downloads that Waterhouse info into a tracker on

Quicken.com

, where she also keeps tabs on mutual funds. Throughout the session, she tracks holding prices on Quicken.com while making periodic trips to

Yahoo!

for news on those same stocks. The day ends about 6 p.m. with a trip online to get the latest stock and fund prices for her off-line portfolio, which she keeps on Quicken's desktop software.

For Smith, there's no one-stop-shop solution. Nor is there for most of the

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readers who wrote to me about their portfolio systems in response to my recent

column.

To a certain extent, that's troubling. Why can't these services make life easy and pull it all together so there'd be no clicking around, no re-inputting of data, no wasted time? (

Jim Seymour

wrote an excellent

column on this topic earlier this week.)

But some separation of strength is inevitable, even appropriate. Inevitable, because it's hard for any company to be best at much beyond their core competency. What broker, for example, is going to be able to create portfolio software as thorough as industry stalwarts

Microsoft's

Money or

Intuit's

Quicken? Appropriate, because there are certain things you

want

to be able to do at one site (e.g., get easy access to your stocks on, say, Yahoo!) but

don't

want to be able to do elsewhere (you want more password protection at your actual brokerage account).

Rather than tackle the disparate services in one column,

What Works

will break it up into a series of three over the next couple of weeks. (Plus, I'll be addressing alerts, as I

wrote about last week. Click here for more on the

What Works column.)

  • Today we'll focus one feature critical to a broker's portfolio offering: how fast it updates your positions and account balances.
  • In a later column, we'll size up nonbroker online portfolio services like Quicken.com, MSN MoneyCentral and Yahoo! and which brokers are set up for easy download into those systems.
  • In a third column, we'll talk about services that cater to investors who want real-time decision-making tools, such as streaming quotes (no refresh button needed) and real-time intraday charts. Examples would be Datek's Streamer and QuoteTracker.com, which offers real-time info services. If you have any thoughts and/or experiences on any of these services please email me at whatworks@thestreet.com, and please include your full name.

Real-Time Portfolio Updating

If you buy

Cisco

and

Ariba

and sell

IBM

before noon, how long is it going to take for those trades to show up on your account online? How long until you find out how much cash you have left? That's what real-time portfolio updating is all about.

Some brokers update your account immediately upon confirmation of a trade and some don't. The What Works assessment is that they all should, or at the very least, the delay should be no more than 20 minutes.

"I have started realizing that it is very important to have real-time update of my portfolio," says reader

Roger Patel

, who uses TD Waterhouse and

National Discount Broker

. (Waterhouse does not offer real-time portfolio tracking; NDB says it does, according to spokespeople at the firms.)

Says

Cathy Disse

, a user of

Schwab's

Velocity software for active traders: "You get real-time updates on your portfolio just by clicking the update button. I really like this feature, you always know what your bottom line is."

Immediate updating offers two main benefits. First, active traders can find out right away where they stand in terms of balances in their accounts. Second, even if you're not an active trader, an updated portfolio at day's end is a good thing if you are preparing for the next morning. (Margin is an exception because of an

New York Stock Exchange

rule that requires margin-buying power to be calculated for customers after the close of trading, according to Glenn Tom, senior VP of marketing for

MSDW Online

, which updates accounts real time.)

"My objection is having to wait until tomorrow to see where I stand," says

Bob Black

, an

Ameritrade

user from Atlanta. "With Ameritrade you either have to run your own calculations on your portfolio or wait until tomorrow morning for updates." (Ameritrade does not currently offer real-time portfolio updating.)

Still, several

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readers maintain that while immediate portfolio updating is important, it's not as critical as services that actually help you measure the market

before

you place the trade, like real-time quotes or a streaming real-time quote service.

"I do day- and swing-trading," says

Dan Rapp

of Salt Lake City, Utah, who has a full-time job as well. "A real-time portfolio, in my opinion, is only useful for those interested in such trading, unless one is into sweating each tick of his long-term investments."

"Real-time portfolio tracking is important. But I can do without it," says another reader. "If you can't do the math in your head I wonder if you should be trading."

And Kathleen Smith, the Waterhouse/Quicken/Yahoo! user in Tennessee, says "if it's one of those days when I happen to make five or seven trades, sure it would be nice, but it doesn't mean enough to me to make a change to another firm."

Nevertheless, What Works is not giving the brokers a pass on this one, for the reasons discussed above plus a third: Updating account balances is uniquely a brokerage function.

Other nonbroker online portfolio services like Quicken or Yahoo! may offer treats, such as news on the same page as positions, or instant views of the fundamentals on your holdings (e.g., price to sales vs. industry average). But only your broker knows if your trade has been confirmed and how much cash you've got left. So while I can perhaps excuse brokers for falling short on other features, on this they've got to deliver.

Here's a rundown on what some of the biggest brokers offer in terms of account updates. (Note that in some cases, you might have to refresh or hit a certain button to get the information. In Schwab's case, you hit "recent transactions" in the portfolio performance area, according to a spokesperson.)