Gretchen Spiegel seems like the perfect candidate for the

Quicken.com

portfolio tool.

A bookkeeper in Tampa, Fla., Spiegel knows from records. For nearly a decade, she's used Quicken's desktop software, diligently entering her trades and getting an easy-to-import tax report at year's end.

But when it came to selecting an

online

tracker, one that would let Spiegel see the intraday action in the 500-some stocks and funds she likes to follow, she chose

MSN MoneyCentral's

tool over Quicken's online portfolio. "I use Quicken to keep up with all of my financial affairs, not just my stock stuff. It works well for me," says Spiegel of the software. "I love the MSN portfolio tracker."

The L word might be a bit strong for our tastes, but in general, What Works agrees. As part of the What Works ongoing

portfolio series, my colleague

Mark Martinez

and I studied the online portfolio tools at three big sites, MSN MoneyCentral, Quicken.com and Yahoo! These trackers are free services accessible online that do not require a software package purchase. The trackers update throughout the day, so you can see how your portfolio is faring based on intraday market action.

The What Works assessment: While Quicken and Yahoo! sport some special features, overall the Redmond giant's tool is our choice for comprehensive online portfolio tracking. As usual, please let us know if you

agree with an email to

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

Before reading the evaluations, check out our

story about

why

you'd want to use an online portfolio tracker like one of these three in addition to or in lieu of another tool, like your broker's portfolio tracker or a software program like Quicken or Microsoft's Money -- and how you can use these various tools in conjunction.

Tracker Takeaway

Our basic takeaway: MSN's tool is best on functionality and in-depth investment research -- not surprising from the company that created the Excel spreadsheet and has distinguished its entire MoneyCentral area with deep research tools. Also, MSN's tracker had some features that, while seemingly arcane, actually made a big difference.

Quicken's strength is in tax consequences of investing decisions -- no surprise for a product from

Intuit

. Yahoo!'s advantage, true to its strength as an aggregator, is in its tight display of huge amounts of information. In

this chart, we highlight and rate many of the specifics. Check out our reviews of the individual trackers below.

MSN MoneyCentral

The main selling point of this system is the myriad ways it lets you view data. For example: Select one of your stocks, go to "historical chart" under the "analysis" tab, and you'll get a basic chart. But click the analysis tab

there

, and you'll get choices like fast stochastic oscillator and slow stochastic oscillator. That's the kind of investment detail you won't find at Quicken or Yahoo!.

Reader

Paul Dailey

of Murray, Ky., a

Datek

user, raves about this analysis/report feature on MSN. "There are more reports than I can ever use."

And that raises the point: What if you never used these reports? Many users surely don't. Is MSN still better? We think so.

First, consider the notion of "watch lists." A watch list is generally defined as a list of stocks or funds that you don't own but are "watching." All three trackers let you create accounts that function as watch lists, but only MSN's tracker labels it that way, with a little set of binoculars -- a nice organizational touch. Plus, say you input a hypothetical number of shares in a model portfolio. Only MSN lets you elect

not

to have those "holdings" count toward your total portfolio value. That makes sense because these stocks aren't part of your net worth -- yet.

Second, and this is big: In calculating total change throughout the day, MSN doesn't include the gain on your mutual funds from the day before. Again, this makes sense; mutual funds update prices once a day after the close. If you count Tuesday's closing prices in Wednesday's intraday daily gain, you mix apples and oranges.

That's what happened to us this past Wednesday, when the market was down after Tuesday's huge rally. The strong Tuesday fund prices in our mock portfolio showed up in the daily gain on Quicken and Yahoo!, making our Wednesday losses look much lighter than they actually were.

Third, on MSN, prices update automatically at intervals you select, as quickly every minute. (Why they put the default at five minutes is a mystery to us. Martinez plopped in one minute and it worked!) At Quicken, it's every 20 minutes, unless you set your options for every 10 minutes or hit "update prices."

Fourth, MSN's "portfolio review" tool under "analysis" tells you how your portfolio is performing year-to-date and compares that to the indices. While it doesn't let you chart and manipulate that figure yourself, it's still a valuable comparison we didn't find elsewhere. As reader

Shane Bouslough

of New York points out: "If I can't beat the averages, why am I bothering to actively manage my account?"

Finally, MSN had excellent help. We faulted the site for ease of use in our

assessment of its stock screener. MSN's tracker was different. It was intuitive to begin with. But if help was needed, it had a search-term driven "help" functionality that easily walked us through several questions. I input the word Excel, for example, and got instructions on how to export my portfolio to a spreadsheet.

Quicken.com

Quicken offered groovy features that we didn't find elsewhere. You can input your tax bracket to compare your potential short and long-term capital gain on any given investment.

In the "stock fundamentals" view you get a terrific overview of all of your stocks' valuation ratios (e.g. price-to-earnings, price-to-sales, PEG) compared to their industry averages. You can quickly size up which stocks in your portfolio are bargains, and which are higher fliers.

Finally, Martinez was a fan of the site's asset allocation tool, which helps you measure your portfolio against a model representing your risk/reward goals, and explains how to rebalance accordingly.

Overall, though, Quicken lagged behind MSN. While MSN let you input CDs, options, short selling, employee stock options, even warrants, for Quicken there's only the ability to buy or sell stocks and funds. If you want to get more precise, you need to enter those transactions in the company's software program and then upload to the Web, says spokesman Michael Thacker. (Not that we can vouch for these intricacies on MSN. We noticed, for example, that you can't input an interest rate with your CD. We just haven't tried them all.)

Quicken had no search-term-driven help, just an FAQ-style help that didn't have answers to several of our questions. There's no Excel download (same problem we found with Quicken's stock screener). Finally, some features were only available with the "enhanced" portfolio tool, which is only available through Internet Explorer, another bummer.

Yahoo!

If you want real analysis tools on your portfolio tracker, you'd be better off with MSN or Quicken than with Yahoo!. But if it's presentation and linkability you're after, Yahoo! is your tool. With Yahoo!, headlines are on the same page as the portfolio symbols. With MSN and Quicken enhanced, you either have to click or mouse over to get news.

Also, when your portfolio(s) show up on my.yahoo.com, you can elect choose to have their

total

values

not

show up. It's a thoughtful option on Yahoo!'s part. Who needs their boss noticing just how wealthy they really are?

Finally, at Yahoo! you can see your portfolio using real-time quotes from electronic communications networks, specifically

Archipelago

,

Instinet

and

Island

, which handle roughly 25% of the volume in Nasdaq stocks, according to Yahoo!. (See our related

story on ECNs.) While this feature is limited to these three ECNs, it's an improvement over Quicken and MSN, neither of which updates portfolios with real-time quotes.

The ECNs are an attraction for

Karen Hamp

, a counselor, volunteer and part-time teacher who makes about 30 trades a month. "I use that to see my whole portfolio at a glance and see what I might want to trade."

Ongoing Assessments

These tools are always changing. Please keep us up to date on where you're finding fault or favor with our analysis or the tools themselves. Email

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

Metrics editor Mark Martinez contributed to this article.