Best CRM Software 2017

Looking for a better way to manage and grow your small business? Customer relationship management (CRM) software can make all the difference. Whether you're looking for a robust CRM software solution, a simple one designed for very small businesses or a free version to fit your budget, there's a CRM software choice for you. Our staff researched and reviewed an extensive collection of CRM software products and picked out what we believe are the best for different types of small businesses in 2017.

Here is a roundup of our best picks and how we chose them. To help you find the right CRM software for your business, check out Choosing a CRM Software: A Buyer's Guide. 

Best CRM Software

Best CRM Software for Small Business: Salesforce

Salesforce is an all-in-one, cloud-based solution that has everything you need in a CRM software. Although this software is typically associated with larger businesses and enterprises, Salesforce's small business edition lets you take advantage of the product's robust set of CRM tools and resources at an affordable, small-business-friendly price. Part of Salesforce Small Business Solutions, the platform is very easy to use and includes key features like lead generation, contact and opportunity management, sales forecasting, workflow automation, and much more. [Go here for a full review of the Salesforce CRM software.]

Best CRM Software for Very Small Business: Insightly

Insightly is a simple, but feature-rich CRM software fits the bill for microbusinesses. It has all the basic capabilities that really small businesses need in a CRM software, but is also highly scalable as your business grows. Additionally, Insightly is one of the most affordable CRM solutions available; there's a free version to help you get started, and paid plans start at a fraction of the price of comparable CRM software. [Go here for a full review of the Insightly CRM software.]

Best Free CRM Software: Zoho CRM

Zoho CRM is powerful CRM software that doesn't compromise on capabilities just because you're not paying for it. Unlike other free CRM, Zoho CRM offers all the core functionalities of CRM software and lets you onboard up to 10 users at no extra cost. You'll also have access to your data anytime, anywhere using Zoho CRM's mobile app, without having to purchase a plan. [Go here for a full review of the Zoho CRM e-commerce software.]

Editor's Note: Looking for CRM software for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

How many employees will need access to this system?

1 to 10

11 to 49

50 to 99

100 to 200

200+

NEXT ?

Our methodology

To find the best CRM software for small business, we started by asking small business owners what CRM software they used, what their likes and dislikes were, and what they think makes the "perfect" CRM software. 

Next, we looked at CRM software that appeared on review sites, business websites and other reputable online sources. We also considered popular CRM software that we were familiar with or have heard about. 

The last steps of our research involved testing our top picks ourselves. This process included signing up for business accounts, trying out software demos, downloading mobile apps, watching videos and contacting vendors with questions as business owners. 

In total, we ended up with more than 50 CRM software products. Our top picks are Salesforce, Insightly and Zoho CRM. Those that made it to our short list include Infusionsoft, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics, Nutshell, NetSuite, Act!, TeamWox and Highrise.

Here are the criteria we used to evaluate each software:

Cost

Ease of use

Contact-management features

Lead-generation tools

Sales and marketing tools

Employee-tracking capabilities

Customization options

Automation capabilities

Third-party integration

Reporting and analytics 

Mobile access

Service limitations

Customer service

 

Here is a full list of CRM software and a summary of what each company claims to offer. This alphabetical list also includes our best picks.

Act! Essentials — Act! Essentials, by Swiftpage, marries contact management with e-marketing to help you get organized, convert new customers and get more from existing customers. The software takes the guesswork out of choosing where to focus time and resources by offering you intelligent, prioritized recommendations based on the level of engagement of customers and prospects. act.com/products/act-essentials

AllProWebTools— If you're looking for a simpler way to acquire leads and maintain customer relationships, AllProWebTools' CRM software is a unique integrated solution. This CRM tool is part of a business suite that also includes email, Web and e-commerce hosting, marketing, task management, and timecards. Having all these tools available from one dashboard keeps you organized and saves you time. AllProWebTools.com

Apptivo CRM — Apptivo CRM combines contact and lead management with project management and marketing software to help your business connect better with customers. Apptivo CRM is part of Apptivo's suite of business solutions. apptivo.com/crm

Avidian/Prophet — Use Outlook as your CRM software with Avidian. The company's own Prophet CRM turns your inbox into a full-featured, mobile-friendly CRM solution. From contacts to emails, tasks, notes, appointments and meetings, Avidian also syncs all your data in a familiar platform you likely already use every day. avidian.com

Base — Called an "intelligent productivity platform," Base is all about using data to help your business make wiser, more informed sales decisions. It closely monitors your sales pipeline, sales rep activities, goals and quotas to make sure your team is productive and succeeding. getbase.com

Bluenose — Bluenose combines big data analytics with powerful technology for customer-success management. Known as a "Customer Success" platform, the software empowers software-as-a-service (SaaS) businesses to proactively manage and engage their customers through its insight-driven toolkit, built-in playbooks and more. bluenose.com

BoomTown! — Do you own a real estate business? BoomTown's predictive CRM software is designed specifically for agents, teams, brokerage firms and other real estate professionals. Services include lead generation, a website builder, success management and the ability to manage multiple offices. boomtownroi.com

bpm'online — Get end-to-end process management, from lead generation to ordering to customer service. More than your traditional CRM software, bmp'online combines sales, marketing and help desk functions so you can be there for customers every step of the sales journey. bpmonline.com/crm

Buddy CRM — True to its name, Buddy CRM acts as a small business's CRM BFF for establishing and keeping customer relationships. It starts by giving you all the information you need about customers before you even contact them, so you're always prepared for a sales call or meeting. Buddy CRM also gives you at-a-glance looks at the status of your business throughout the sales cycle, so you can pinpoint hot leads, identify where and why sales are lost, monitor KPIs and track team activities from a single screen. It also comes with a free mobile app, so you can take Buddy CRM with you wherever you go. buddycrm.com

Bullhorn — Own a service-oriented business? Bullhorn CRM is specifically built to help service providers strengthen relationships with customers while improving sales productivity and driving growth. There are also dedicated CRM software offerings for niche businesses, such as staffing and recruitment firms and PR agencies. bullhorn.com/products/crm/

CampaignerCRM — Campaigner offers two types of CRM software. One is for businesses that deal with shorter, simpler sales processes, and the other combines CRM with sales-process management to help companies with longer, more complex sales processes. The latter option offers more advanced functionalities, such as reporting, customization, a sales process API and more. campaignercrm.com

Capsule — Capsule aims to make CRM as simple as possible by offering six core capabilities to help you run your business: managing relationships, managing the sales pipeline, organizing emails, saving contact histories, performing task management and completing customization. capsulecrm.com

Commence — Specifically designed for small to midsize businesses, Commence is a Web-based CRM software that's both powerful and affordable. It's also designed for fast deployment, meaning it's easy to implement and you can get started right away. commence.com

Contactually — Contactually is all about getting the most out of your CRM investment. It is built to help businesses convert existing leads into closed sales, build relationships for long sales cycles, stay on top of revenue opportunities and get more prospects down the sales funnel. contactually.com

GoldMine — Need a premise-based CRM software? Unlike cloud-based CRM software, GoldMine is installed on your own servers and infrastructure to give you more control over your software. In addition to its many CRM features, the company also offers one of the best customer support systems, so you can get help right when you need it. goldmine.com

GreenRope — GreenRope combines the best of CRM with robust marketing automation to help you save time and dedicate more resources to closing sales. Additional features include project management, collaboration tools, e-commerce, event management and more. greenrope.com

Hatchbuck — One of our runner-ups, Hatchbuck is all-in-one sales and marketing tool built with small businesses in mind. It focuses on simplicity, ease of use and affordability, while giving you all the tools you need to organize data and automate marketing processes. hatchbuck.com

Highrise — Also a top contender on our list of best CRM software, Highrise focuses on helping you manage three key areas of your business: contacts, tasks and communications. You can maintain and share contacts with your team, create tasks and set reminders, and keep track of emails, notes and other forms of correspondence. highrisehq.com

Hubspot CRM — A popular inbound marketing and sales platform, Hubspot's CRM software streamlines your sales process across multiple channels in your organization. It works in the background to save you from wasting time manually performing repetitive sales and marketing tasks. The software also specializes in automatically logging and syncing data from different sources of communication, such as your website, phone calls, emails, social media and more. hubspot.com/products/crm

Infusionsoft — Infusionsoft is a favorite amongst small business owners we talked to, because of its ease of use and because it offers a comprehensive set of CRM tools at a small-business-friendly price. Users particularly liked its automation features, ability to nurture leads all the way to closing the sales and extras like email marketing, billing and project management. infusionsoft.com

*Insightly — Our pick for the best CRM software for very small businesses, Insightly is a simple, scalable solution that grows with your business. It offers both basic and advanced capabilities, so you can start with a free or super-affordable standard plan, then upgrade as your business expands. Read our full review here.

iSEEit — Focus on sales. iSEEit offers an intuitive way for sales people to manage all their daily sales activities. This iPad and Web-based CRM solution makes it easy to focus on the right steps to move deals through your pipeline by letting you better qualify leads, tasks, and opportunities; manage deals via milestones and qualifiers; and coordinate and collaborate with customers and colleagues, all from a single, consistent source. now.iseeit.com

LeadMaster — If you're looking for a simple way to gather, manage and convert leads, LeadMaster can help. First, the software aims to save you hours spent looking for high-quality leads by automating your marketing system. Next, its sales lead-management tools helps you turn those leads into sales by making it easy to track, analyze and communicate with those prospects. leadmastercrm.com

Maximizer — Need more flexibility in your CRM software? Maximizer is an all-in-one CRM solution that is completely customizable to cater to your business's unique needs. In addition to offering three robust CRM tools — sales management, marketing automation and customer service — the software also gives you a choice of using the cloud-based version of the software or an on-premise version hosted on your own servers. maximizer.com

Method:CRM — Do you use QuickBooks as your accounting software? Intuit-approved Method works with QuickBooks to integrate your customer data with your financial data. This software links and syncs everything from contact information to invoices, purchase histories and much more to give you a complete view of customers in one, easily accessible place. method.me

Microsoft Dynamics CRM — Microsoft Dynamics CRM takes a different approach to CRM. The software uses social insights, business intelligence and campaign management to help your business strengthen relationships with customers, improve marketing campaigns and, ultimately, boost sales. It is available in the cloud, on premise or a combination of both, and you can integrate the software with Office 365 for even more productivity. microsoft.com/en-us/dynamics/crm.aspx

NetSuite CRM — NetSuite CRM lets you track leads through each step of the customer lifecycle, from lead generation to prospect nurturing, sales ordering, fulfilment and support. It also shows you opportunities for up- and cross-selling, as well as renewals to boost sales and maintain customer loyalty. Other features include order management, commission management, sales forecasting and e-commerce. netsuite.com/portal/products/netsuite/crm.shtml

Nimble — Does your business rely heavily on social media marketing? Known as an Intelligent Relationship Platform, Nimble automatically syncs all types of contact data across multiple channels, including social media. It uses "social listening" to filter contacts and prospects on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn to help you find and close high-value opportunities. The software also syncs emails, direct messages and @mentions, making them easily accessible straight from your dashboard. nimble.com

Nutshell — Specially built for small businesses, Nutshell helps you close sales fast. In addition to standard CRM features like contact and lead management, Nutshell also offers collaboration tools, custom reporting and third-party integrations. You're also in luck if you use Google Apps; the software automatically imports Gmail messages and events and meetings into Google Calendar. It promises fast deployment, too, so you can get started in no time. nutshell.com

Odoo — Odoo is an open-source software that focuses on tracking leads, closing opportunities and generating accurate forecasts. And because it's open source, it lets you customize the software to your exact needs and add on a wide range of apps. Supported apps include marketing, project management, e-commerce, Website building, billing, accounting and even human resources. Odoo is a little on the pricier side, however. It requires a monthly per-user fee in addition to a monthly per-app fee, though you get two free users to start. You can also use the software on multiple companies for an additional fee. odoo.com/page/crm

OnContact — OnContact combines CRM with marketing automation, giving you a complete sales and marketing solution in one. Unlike many CRM solutions, however, OnContact comes with powerful customer-service features, such as contact center capabilities and incident tracking, so you can be there for your customers whenever they need you. OnContact is available as a cloud-based or on-premise software. oncontact.com

Pipedrive— Small business owners like Pipedrive because it is simple and easy to use. It's also a highly visual platform, making it easy to quickly navigate the dashboard and get the data you need at a glance. There is also no training required, and setup takes less than two minutes, so you and your team can get started right away. pipedrive.com

PipelineDeals— PipelineDeals doesn't just help you boost sales; it also helps you and your staff be more productive. What makes it stand out from other CRM software is that it goes the extra mile. For instance, it can send snapshots of your pipeline to your inbox every morning so you know exactly how your business is doing before you even open the software. Plans also come with premium support, so you can reach a real, live PipelineDeals representative any time to help resolve any issues. pipelinedeals.com

Pipeliner — If you're a visual person, you'll like Pipeliner. This CRM software presents all your data in an intuitive, visual way, so you don't have to go through multiple steps to get the data you need. For instance, when you go to the Pipeline section of the software, you'll be greeted with charts showing you who is in which stage of your pipeline. This way, you don't have to open each stage or contact separately to get this information. Pipeliner also offers an all-inclusive pricing model, so you get all the features for just one monthly price. pipelinersales.com

Podio — Podio aims to cut through the noise of CRM and deliver a clutter-free CRM solution. It is a very lightweight software that lets you customize features, so you get all the capabilities you need without all the fuss. With this product's simple interface, you can easily get where you need to go without getting lost in extra steps navigating the software. podio.com/site/use-cases/crm

Sage CRM — Sage CRM is an all-in-one solution that lets you do more with your CRM. In addition to contact and lead management, Sage CRM offers targeted marketing, email marketing, social CRM and more. It also comes with a built-in customer-service portal to help you deliver excellent customer support. And if you use Sage ERP, Sage CRM integrates seamlessly for even better sales acceleration. sagecrm.com

*Salesforce — Our top pick for the best CRM software for small business, Salesforce has everything you need in a cloud-based CRM software. It's affordable and easy to use, and offers a ton of features at a small business price point. It also comes with top-notch customer support, so you can get help any time you need it. Read our full review here.

Salesnet — Salesnet takes CRM to the next level by pairing it with Microsoft Office. Besides Salesnet's native CRM features, the software integrates with Outlook to automatically sync contacts, meetings and tasks; Excel to view and edit reports; and Word to merge data and attach files to the software. salesnet.com

SalesNexus — SalesNexus isn't just another CRM software; it combines CRM with email marketing to help you better target leads, connect with them and convert them to loyal customers. You won't even need a separate email-marketing solution to get the job done. SalesNexus' lead-generation tool also lets you find leads using a wide range of specific categories, such as by industry, title, company revenue, location, social media profiles and more. Each plan comes with 500 leads and 25,000 emails per month. salesnexus.com

SAP Digital CRM — SAP offers enterprise-level CRM tools at a small business price point. Features include lead, contact and opportunity management, as well as robust collaboration capabilities to help you and your team engage more effectively with customers. It's also easy to get started — just follow the step-by-step wizard and you're good to go — and you can manage the software yourself (for instance, you don't have to wait on SAP to make user changes to your account). And because the software is built for small businesses, there are no minimum user requirements and it is scalable to your needs as your business grows. sapstore.com/solutions/99026/SAP-Digital-CRM

Snapforce — If you want a truly comprehensive CRM solution, check out Snapforce. This CRM software eliminates the need to use multiple tools to manage your business. In addition to core CRM features, Snapforce offers cloud-based file storage, calendars and event management, email syncing with your email client, and case management via a ticket system. It also comes with a complete call center software, so customers can reach you with a simple phone call. snapforce.com

SugarCRM — Another favorite amongst small business owners, SugarCRM is powerful CRM software that integrates sales, marketing and employee tracking. The base plan comes with a robust set of features, such as sales automation and forecasting, lead management, call-center automation, reporting, unlimited customizations and unlimited online support. SugarCRM is available as a cloud-based or on-premise software. sugarcrm.com

TeamWox — Need a more advanced CRM software? More of an enterprise management system, TeamWox brings big business tools to small businesses. In addition to CRM, it also helps you manage teams, tasks, service desks and other areas of your business. But if you're looking for a ready-to-use, cloud-based solution, look elsewhere — you'll need to download TeamWox, then install it in your own systems. TeamWox is also on the pricy side. It's free for up to five users, but it will set you back several hundred dollars if you need more than that. teamwox.com

Vtiger — Vtiger is a one-stop shop for all your sales, marketing and customer-support needs. It features a bevy of built-in CRM solutions, including email marketing, project management, calendar and task management, reporting, document management, and more. It also has a customer portal where customers can access their accounts and submit help tickets. vtiger.com

Workbooks — Known for its high level of customer satisfaction, Workbooks is one of our runner-ups for the best CRM software for small business. It focus on four core areas of CRM: sales to boost your business's growth, highly targeted marketing to help you get the most ROI, order fulfilment to streamline your sales processing and customer support to keep your customers happy. A free version is available for up to two users; it also comes with free online support. workbooks.com

*Zoho CRM — Our top pick for the best free CRM software, Zoho CRM is packed with features, despite its free price tag. Unlike other free CRM software, Zoho CRM offers a ton of premium capabilities and lets you add up to 10 users at no extra cost. Read our full review here.

Ready to choose a CRM software? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

How to Choose a CRM Software

Salesforce Review: Best CRM Software for Small Business

Insightly Review: Best CRM Software for Very Small Business

Zoho CRM Review: Best Free CRM Software

 

Editor's Note: Looking for CRM software for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

Best Online Stock Trading Brokers for 2017

I’ve had an online stock trading account since I was 13 years old. I’ve used at least a dozen of the best online stock trading platforms in real practice and in testing over the past 4 years. I’ve gained a few “learning experiences” from managing my own account and working as a day trader for a firm in Chicago for several years. Using my knowledge of the platforms and experience as a trader, I worked to uncover the top picks and identify who or what each product is best for.

What Matters When You Trade Stocks on Your Own?

Managing your own money can be a stressful endeavor. To minimize this, and to minimize information overload that tends to come from watching the markets 24/7, there are a few must haves that I look for in an online broker.

Clean interface. When I trade, I want to be able to easily find my order entry ticket. I don’t want it buried under a number of drop downs. This interface should have intuitive access to see your balance, available cash, positions with real time P/L and all be easily navigated.

Quick access to basic charting. A chart tells me where the stock has been recently. I don’t trade minute to minute anymore, so I don’t need complex tools like stochastics or retracement lines. All that’s important is that I have a basic chart on a yearly, monthly, weekly, daily and intra day time period. I use a chart to see current price relative to those time periods, mainly to avoid purchasing at a bad price.

Low fees. Self explanatory.

There are over 50 online brokerages where you can open an account. Beyond the my three rules above, best online brokerage accounts aren’t just for trading stocks. Sure, many of them started as online stock trading accounts, but now they’re full-fledged trading, saving, investing, retirement planning, and banking machines.

This industry is more complex than the average person thinks. You shouldn’t just pick any online broker and sign up for an account. The best online broker for one person is often completely different for the next person. Use this resource as a guide to your decision process. Figure out what features are best for you, and make your selection.

What Makes a Great Online Broker?

I analyzed a number of elements to come to my decision on which brokers are the best. Later in this post, I provide full details on how I selected the best online brokerages.

When you take all the features, resources, trading platforms, and technology into account (while also considering every type of trader), the full-service brokers, like E*TRADE and TD Ameritrade are the best for the largest number of people.

For those simply looking to make cheap trades, I would recommend going with OptionsHouse.

If you’re a very advanced trader, high-volume trader, or a professional who manages money, I recommend going with Interactive Brokers. However, I didn’t include Interactive Brokers on my list because they’re best for a very small group of traders and the platform is very complex.

Top Qualities of Standout Online Trading Platforms

Quality trading tools and technology

Multiple trading platforms for all levels of traders

Excellent mobile trading features

Solid navigation that displays the relevant information where you want it

Quality educational resources and research for trader development

There’s more to selecting an online broker than price. You have to consider the resources you’re getting for the cost you pay per trade.

For example, my colleague, who is also an ex-trader, likes to use a combination of stock and options trade in his longer-term trading. He recently switched over to Fidelity because he really liked the cash management features, but was very disappointed by complex order entry, sub-par options execution and frustrating navigation. He’s currently making the switch to one of the brokers I profile here.

Analysis of the Best Online Brokers

OptionsHouse Best Discount Broker

When it comes to getting a deal on a stock or options trade, it’s tough to beat OptionsHouse. Along with the low costs and fees, you’ll also have access to proprietary tools and technology. OptionsHouse isn’t a “full-service” broker like TD Ameritrade, which means you won’t find the same comprehensive financial resources and access to every investment product. OptionsHouse is good at what they do — providing very affordable trading prices, low margin rates, and unique tools for stock and options traders.

NOTE: OptionsHouse was acquired by E*Trade at the end of 2016, but no changes are expected to OptionsHouse pricing or trading platforms, according to this statement released by its CEO.

Scottrade Best Support and Service

For years, Scottrade has been known as the best online brokerage for customer service. Scottrade doesn’t just let you open an account and ignore you. They thrive on building relationships with their clients, which is pretty rare these days. Scottrade is behind the times with some of their features, but they also don’t charge as much money per trade as the other full-service brokerages. If you’re a new trader or you just like being taken care of regardless of how much money is in your account, I don’t think you can do better than Scottrade.

Another reason to consider Scottrade: They were recently acquired by TD Ameritrade. The deal is expected to close by fall of 2017 and a full conversion to TD Amertrade’s systems by 2018. You’ll be well-served with Scottrade’s amazing service for beginning traders and TD Ameritrade’s breadth of offerings for traders of all levels.

E*TRADE Best Trader Resources

E*TRADE is right there with TD Ameritrade and Scottrade if you’re looking for the all-around best online brokerage. What’s interesting about this comparison is that E*TRADE excels in several different areas compared to TD Ameritrade and Scottrade, but also has many similar offerings. E*TRADE’s web-based platform is incredibly advanced and a breeze to use, as is their mobile app. However, you have to pay for these features because E*TRADE is just as pricey as TD Ameritrade and requires a $500 deposit to open an account (TD Ameritrade is free).

TD Ameritrade Best For Developing Traders

I’ve actually had a TD Ameritrade account for over 15 years now. Back in the day, it was TD Waterhouse and then it merged with Ameritrade to form one company. TD Ameritrade is one of the all-around best online brokers because any level of trader can be satisfied here. While the costs and fees are on the high end of the industry, you get access to comprehensive research materials (both third-party and in-house) as well as education resources that can help you advance as a trader.

Choosing the Best Online Brokerage Accounts

Choosing the best online brokers is no easy task. There’s so much variation in this industry from company to company, and then you have to factor in the type of trader or investor who’s opening the brokerage account.

Here’s how I got started:

I conducted research to compile a list of every online broker.

I narrowed the list down to just under 50 brokers by eliminating those that did not allow U.S. stock trading.

I individually researched each broker, visited their websites, and analyzed rankings and reviews across the web.

I concluded that there were 15 online stock brokers worth digging into.

My next step was to come up with measurable data to compare these brokers.

I had to be aware that comparing a full-service broker to a discount broker or options broker was going to be difficult. I didn’t want to penalize companies for specializing, but I also needed to reward the full-service firms for offering additional resources.

These were my next steps:

I came up with 10 important categories of features to measure each company.

Some of these features included costs and fees, access to investment products, research, education, trading technology, and financial resources.

I compared each of the 15 online brokers across these features.

Once this comparison was complete, I was left with four of the best online brokers that excelled in specific areas. These four online brokerage firms cover the spectrum for anyone who would sign up for an investment account. I knew I could recommend one of them to a specific group of investors or traders.

Here are the final steps I took:

I tested out each of the top four brokers (I actually tested several in the top 15) and simulated the trading experience.

I analyzed the unmeasurable aspects of each broker that the data could not account for, like usability and functionality, and downloaded all the mobile apps.

I looked for additional features unique to each online broker that I also did not capture in the data.

Investment Calculator

To help you determine what to expect from your investment, we’ve created this investment calculator. Simply enter your investment details and our calculator will let you know if your goals are achievable and if it’s not, how far you are from it.

A Valuable Lesson at 14

When I was 13, I had about $1,000 worth of stock in a company called Superconductor Technologies, Inc. The company still exists today and trades under the ticker SCON.

This was the time of the first technology boom from 1999-2000. By the time I was 14, my $1,000 worth of SCON (I purchased 50 shares at $20/share) was sitting at $480/share and worth $24,000. The stock eventually went up to nearly double that and then crashed with the rest of the tech market. Being 14 years old and thinking this stock was going to go up forever, I rode the wave up and all the way back down — down to nothing.

Check out the chart of SCON below and feel my pain. You can see that the stock took two major spikes up and crashes back down (I was involved in the first one). Today, the company trades for under $3/share.

I tell this story because I learned three great lessons about stock trading:

Stay disciplined

Have a plan

Entries AND exits matter

Some people liken online stock trading to gambling (this can be true if you have no clue what you’re doing), but it’s really all about risk and reward.

Staying disciplined can keep you from losing money and ensure you lock in your gains. By discipline, I mean picking your prices — where you get in and get out ahead of time — and sticking to them. Always risk less on the downside than you’re willing to make on the upside.

The good news about many of the best online brokerage accounts is that you can start by trading virtually before you risk your money. You can practice strategies and track your gains and losses without having to invest a dime using the same software the broker offers for real money.

By applying what you learn and maintaining discipline, you have the potential to earn a decent side income if you’re willing to invest the time.

Becoming a Day Trader

I’ve been told several times that “trading is the hardest way to make an easy living.” That’s the truth. The best traders in the world are extremely disciplined and always on top of the latest research and trends in the market. I worked with several of these people and witnessed it firsthand on a daily basis.

I spent just under three years trading S&P futures, oil markets, foreign currencies, and other markets as an employee of a day-trading firm. The same principles I learned from making that big $24,000 mistake in my teens carried over to that job. The amount of money I would make on my biggest winning days was significantly more in comparison to the amount I would lose on my worst losing days.

I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want you to sign up for one of the online brokers I’m recommending and lose a bunch of your money. If you’re interested in trading, I want you to find a way to build a substantial income on the side and grow your money slowly.

I eventually quit trading because it wasn’t my calling. Once I figured out what I wanted to do with my career, enduring the daily stress of watching money come and go just wasn’t worth the massive upside. However, I can say with confidence that trading was the greatest education I’ve ever received.

Now, I’m able to leverage my trading experience and knowledge of online trading to thoroughly review each of the best online brokers to help you set up the right account. The experience was well worth it.

Recap: Best Online Brokerages

My recommendation to most of you is to open an account with a full-service broker. There are different scenarios in which you should choose each of these brokers I reviewed.

You should sign up with Scottrade if you put a high value on getting help, but you don’t want to pay $9.99 per trade.

If you’re a new trader looking to advance up the ranks and absorb knowledge but still want to make trades on one of the best trading platforms around, try TD Ameritrade.

If you’re simply looking to make cheap stock and options trades, open an account with OptionsHouse.

For those of you who want access to every investment product and a great mobile trading platform, go with E*TRADE.

How Can I Recover Data from a Dead or Erased Hard Drive?

Dear Lifehacker,

I have a hard drive with valuable information on it, but I can't seem to access it—the drive is either damaged or erased. Is there any way I can see what's on the drive and get it off?

Sincerely,
Drive Paramedic

Dear Paramedic,
Don't worry, we're not going to ask where you got the drive, but there are plenty of ways to examine it and see if any of the data is recoverable. With a little time, the right tools, and some care, you may be able to get some data off of that drive.

Step One: Assemble Your Tools and Examine The Drive's Condition

The first thing to do is make sure you have the tools required to connect this drive to another computer safely. Ideally, you'll have some kind of SATA/IDE to USB cable or USB drive enclosure or sled that you can mount the drive into and connect it to your computer easily. Sure, if you have a desktop and like getting your hands dirty you can try to install the drive as an internal one, but an external connection is faster and easier.

Next, take a look at the drive itself. Is it damaged in any way? Are the pins bent or broken? Make sure that the drive is in good enough condition to actually use before you try anything in the first place that may damage it even further. If the drive is too physically damaged to attempt recovery, you may need more drastic measures that we'll get to later. If everything looks good and you have the equipment required to connect the drive to your system, we can proceed.

Step Two: Grab Some Data Recovery Software and Connect the Drive

Before you do much else, make sure your antivirus and antimalware tools are up to date. You don't know what you'll find on this drive, and you don't want it to start misbehaving once the drive is connected to an active system. Once you've done that, it's time to download and install some data recovery tools. Here are a few we love:

Recuva (Windows, Free): Personally, Recuva has been indispensible. Made by the same folks behind CCleaner, Recuva makes data recovery simple and easy. if you're only interested in browsing and restoring selected files off of the drive, Recuva is a great option. Alternatively, check out Undelete Plus for Windows.

FileSalvage (OS X, $80): File Salvage for Mac will set you back some serious coin, but it's one of the best tools to pull data off of a connected hard drive in OS X. It can recover virtually any type of file on multiple partition types, and prides itself on its ability to recover from damaged drives and corrupt media. If you want an alternative, try Data Rescue for Mac ($100).

TestDisk (Win/OS X/Linux, Free): If you're not afraid of the command line, TestDisk is an open source utility that can run against almost any platform or partition type. It does a great job of recovering data quickly, and won't do unnecessary writes against the drive you're trying to recover from.

Bootable Linux distros for drive recovery: If you're not interested in messing around with apps (or paying for them), consider burning a bootable CD or USB key with BackTrack, Bart PE, or SpinRite on it, so you can boot to an OS that's not your primary drive, avoid writing or touching the drive you want to recover from, and run a host of recovery and forensics tools against that drive that are highly effective and completely free. Photo by Roman Soto.

A number of these tools can recover from formatted drives, especially if the data hasn't been overwritten. We've tackled this topic before, and used Knoppix as our bootable linux distro, but the steps apply to the ones we've mentioned as well. For more reading, check out this old but still largely accurate guide at Linux.com to recovering from formatted drives.

Remember, the less you work with the drive you want to recover data from, the better. As you read from the drive, you run the risk of exacerbating any damage it may have. The more you write to the drive, the more likely you are to overwrite something you want to recover. Bootable linux distros—many of which have tools like TestDisk pre-installed (among other, more advanced tools)—are the best way to go if you're familiar with the method and if you're interested in recovering entire partitions, or making a non-bootable drive bootable again. If you're just looking for files and you know the drive was in a Windows system or a Mac, a stand-alone app is an easier way to go.

Step Three: Get Out the Big Guns (and Your Wallet)

Okay, so the drive is physically damaged, has been wiped and overwritten, or nothing else you try works and you really, really need the data off of it. You're even willing to pay a lotfor it. We're not going to ask why, but at this point it's time to call in the professionals. Photo by Glenn Fleishman.

Pick up the phone and call the folks at DriveSavers and OnTrack to see what they can do for you. I've had good experiences with OnTrack. DriveSavers is well known and loved, both because they came to the rescue with free drive recovery services after September 11, 2001 and more recently helping Wired's Mat Honan recover from his epic hacking. Both companies do a superb job at pulling data even off of drives that have been formatted, overwritten, or even severely physically damaged. Keep in mind though that these services generally run in the tens of thousands of dollars thousand dollar range, according to DriveSavers (thanks for reaching out!) and higher.

If the drive is yours, or the data you get from the drive is valuable, we'd strongly suggest you make sure your data is backed up, both locally and online. After all, it's better to be able to get the data back quickly than have to jump through these hoops every time a drive fails. Remember, every hard drive will fail eventually, it's just a matter of time. Now go forth, use this knowledge for good, and recover!

Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards for 2017

Experts agree, it’s best to pay off your entire balance each month. But when that isn’t possible, balance transfer credit cards can help you get your debt under control. The strategy is simple: transfer your debt from a high-interest card to one with 0% introductory APR, and you’ll pay off what you owe sooner.

The Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer is our favorite balance transfer card for several reasons. 1) It offers extra-long 0% intro APR to pay off what you owe interest-free. 2) It also has great rewards potential, with 5% back on rotating categories and 1% on everything else. 3) Its first-year bonus for new customers is one of the best out there: Discover will match the cash back you earn at the end of your first year, automatically.

Card Highlights

Card Highlights Provided by Discover: You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.

Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like gas stations, Amazon.com, restaurants, wholesale clubs and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.

100% U.S. based customer service.

Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.

No annual fee.

Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Have a large balance to transfer? If so, balance transfer fees (rather than rewards) may be your top concern. The Chase Slate® charges no fee on balance transfers made during your first 60 days (plus, you’ll get 0% intro APR on those transfers).

Each of the cards we’ll describe would be a good choice for transferring a balance — but the best fit will depend on your priorities and circumstances. Ready to find the card that works best for you? Check out our top picks for balance transfer cards that will help you knock out your debt this year.

Longest 0% Interest Period:
Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer

The Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer is our top pick right now. It offers an extremely long 0% intro APR period with no annual fee, so you can make a big dent in your balance without paying a dime in interest.

Discover’s popular cash back program makes it easy to earn rewards quickly. You’ll get 5% cash back in rotating categories like gas, restaurants, and online shopping (up to the quarterly maximum), plus 1% back on all other purchases. Amazon shoppers will be happy to learn they can apply Discover cash back instantly at checkout.

This card also includes an amazing offer for new cardmembers: automatic, dollar-for-dollar match of all cash back earned at the end of your first year. All told, the Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer strikes a great balance between a rewards card and a balance transfer card.

Card Highlights Provided by Discover: You could turn $200 into $400 with Cashback Match™. Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.

Earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter like gas stations, Amazon.com, restaurants, wholesale clubs and more, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Redeem your cash back for any amount, any time. Cash rewards never expire.

100% U.S. based customer service.

Get your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.

No annual fee.

Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.

Best for Large Balances:
Chase Slate®

The Chase Slate® is also worth a look, especially if you’re looking to transfer a large balance. In addition to extended intro APR, it offers $0 intro balance transfer fees. If the balance you’re looking to transfer has crept into the hundreds or even thousands, your savings with the Chase Slate® could be significant. (Note: to get the $0 balance transfer fee, you’ll need to transfer your balance within 60 days of opening your account. Transfers after that period will be subject to a fee of 5% or $5, whichever is greater.)

One caveat to keep in mind: you won’t be able to transfer a balance from another Chase account to the Chase Slate®. Your balance transfer must come from a card backed by another bank, like Bank of America or Discover. The Chase Slate® doesn’t include a rewards program, so it will work best for tackling your existing debt. Use it to pay off your balance quickly— then consider making the switch to a card with a rewards program.

$0 Introductory balance transfer fee for transfers made during the first 60 days of account opening

0% Introductory APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers

Monthly FICO® Score and Credit Dashboard for free

No Penalty APR – Paying late won't raise your interest rate (APR). All other account pricing and terms apply

$0 Annual Fee

Great Signup Bonus:
Chase Freedom®

In addition to a generous intro APR period, the Chase Freedom® offers access to a popular rewards program. Like the Discover it 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer, this card features rotating 5% cash back categories that change quarterly. There’s also an easy-to-earn $150 signup bonus — all with no annual fee.

If you happen to have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the Chase Freedom® is a no-brainer: Chase Ultimate Rewards® points are transferrable between the two cards, so you can earn rewards even faster while you’re paying off your transferred balance!

Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening

Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate

Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – it's automatic

0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 15.74-24.49%. Balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum

Enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months

Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open

No annual fee

Best Rewards for Everyday Purchases:
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

Want a balance transfer card that will double as an excellent everyday card even after you pay your balance off? The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express hits all the marks.

In addition to extended 0% intro APR, it offers a rewards program that aligns well with most people’s spending habits. Cardmembers earn 3% cash back on up to $6,000 per year at U.S. supermarkets per year (then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores, and 1% cash back on everything else. Additionally, the $100 signup bonus is easy to earn — just spend $1,000 in purchases in your first three months. And there’s no annual fee!

Our Verdict

$100 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.

No annual fee.

3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%).

2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and at select U.S. department stores, 1% back on other purchases.

Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable rate, currently 13.74% to 24.74%.

Expanding merchant acceptance: Over 1 million more places in the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in the last year.

Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be easily redeemed for statement credits, gift cards, and merchandise.

Terms Apply.

See Rates & Fees

Honorable Mention:
Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard®

Everyone loves a good rewards program. But if you have a large balance, balance transfer costs and terms should take precedence when choosing your new card. Most balance transfer credit cards charge a fee of 3-5% per transfer — but the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® is different. It offers a rare combination of features that make it an especially powerful tool for paying down high balances.

Why the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® is Best for Large Balances

No balance transfer fees
Some cards offer $0 balance transfer fees for a set period after you open your account. But the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® doesn’t charge them at all.

Extended 0% intro APR on balance transfers and purchases
This will give you more time to make a dent in your balance interest-free. And if you need to make a large purchase, you can save on interest there too (as long as you pay off the total amount during the intro APR period). Note: you’ll need to transfer your balance in the first 45 days to secure the 0% intro APR.

While the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® doesn’t offer a rewards program, it’s very effective as a debt-elimination tool. In addition to $0 balance transfer fees, it has no annual fee, so you can transfer balances within your first 45 days without an upfront cost.

Our Verdict

0% Introductory APR for the first 15 months on purchases. Plus, you'll get a 0% introductory APR for 15 months on Balance Transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, 13.74%

No balance transfer fees

No foreign transaction fees

Chip technology, so paying for your purchases is more secure at chip-card terminals in the U.S. and abroad

Free online access to FICO® Credit Score

The Best Way To Use A Balance Transfer Card

Let’s say you have a high balance to transfer and don’t want to get hung up on the fees charged by most cards. The Chase Slate® is the only card on my list that doesn’t have any fees for transferring a balance for the first 60 days of account opening. If you need as long as possible to pay down your debts, you may want to consider a different balance transfer card with a longer timeline.

Also, balance transfer cards extend the 0% APR offer to balance transfers and purchases. These cards simply offer more flexibility to manage your cash flow and pay down debt without donating your money to high interest payments. So, you can use a balance transfer offer to make a large purchase at 0% APR, then use the promotional period to pay it off over time. The best 0% balance transfer cards will usually offer 0% on new purchases for at least 6 months.

This is obviously to incentivize people to keep spending on the cards, but if you’re not in debt, you can take advantage of it. Maybe you want to buy a couch, pay a medical bill, or tackle a home renovation project.

Other reasons to get a balance transfer card:

Consolidate your debts or get rid of cards with fees

Upgrade your credit card to earn more rewards

Add a card with great service and amenities

If your credit is good and you’re in this camp you should check out my reviews of the best rewards credit cards, best cash back credit cards, or best travel credit cards.

Research More Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Our team also created a directory of the most popular balance transfer credit cards available today. This directory was used as a starting point for my research and analysis. It is updated weekly to reflect any new changes to balance transfer offers, to add new cards, and to remove any expired deals.

The balance transfer credit cards directory is customized to highlight the most important features for balance transfer credit cards. It includes every credit card that has a 0% intro APR on balance transfers and rates each offer based on a number of key factors.

Balance Transfer Credit Card Directory

In order to value each of these cards, certain features were balanced accordingly based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder. The most relevant features for balance transfer credit cards are Balance Transfer Fee, Introductory Balance Transfer APR, Ongoing APR, and Annual Fee.

Obviously the biggest feature is having a 0% intro APR. You can also use the directory to filter by signup bonus or ongoing rewards if those are features that are more important to you.

Rating Methodology

To come up with a list of top balance transfer credit cards, I used the information shown in the directory above in addition to other data gathered on each credit card. For a better explanation of what was analyzed, I’ve included additional details below. Sometimes the terminology in the credit card world can be a bit confusing, so take a look if you’re unsure of anything.

Balance Transfer Fee

Credit card companies usually charge a fee of up to 3% when you transfer a balance to a new card. This means that if you transfer a $10,000 balance, you will pay an extra $300 to the credit card company. Even some of the best balance transfer credit cards on this list charge this fee.

The Balance Transfer Fee carries high importance because it can likely cost you a decent amount of money. However, depending on the card you choose, the fee may be worth it to get a few extra months of zero interest.

The Chase Slate® does not have a balance transfer fee for the first 60 days of account opening, making it the top choice on my list. The Discover it® has an industry-leading intro offer of 18 months for a balance transfer, which is six months longer than any other card, including the Chase Slate®. Deciding which of these cards to commit to may come down to knowing how much you’ll transfer, so you can decide between having no fee or the longer introductory period.

Balance Transfer Intro APR

The Balance Transfer Intro APR refers to the promotional interest rate charged for transferring a balance or making new purchases. The Intro APR is 0% for the best balance transfer credit cards. Nothing higher should be considered unless you can’t get approved.

Intro APR holds a high importance level when ranking all the top balance transfer cards simply because the main reason to transfer a balance is to stop paying interest for a period of time by taking advantage of a 0% APR.

Many times, the Intro APR is also extended to new purchases, not just balance transfers. This way, you can take advantage by purchasing items and paying them off over the introductory period without accruing interest.

Balance Transfer Intro Period

The Balance Transfer Intro Period is the time frame for which the Intro APR or other promotion is valid. As I mentioned earlier, the best balance transfer credit cards will run a 0% Intro APR on a combination of balance transfers or new purchases for at least 12 months, with some offering up to 18 months.

The Intro Period is of high importance because it controls the amount of time you can start paying down a high balance without accruing interest.

Best Charities for Your Donations

For many people, the holiday season is the time of year for charitable giving. Donations can be given to charities that support the environment, protect children, feed the hungry, or help other worthy causes. Last year, nearly 18 percent of charitable giving occurred in December, according to a recent report by the Giving USA Foundation in partnership with the Growth in Giving Initiative. 

For many donors, though, the tricky part of making a donation is choosing the charity.

"You can't really base your decision to give to an organization on the name alone," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the charity watchdog BBB Wise Giving Alliance. "Unfortunately, there are some donors who do." 

But a charity's name doesn't always tell you where your donation will go. The Disabled Veterans National Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., has a name that suggests that most of the money it raises helps veterans. But according to its latest 990 Form (Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax), of the $29 million it spent in its fiscal 2015 year, less than one-third was used for the group’s charitable programs. Most of the rest was used for fundraising. (Disabled Veterans National Foundation didn't respond to our request for comment.)

By comparison, the St. Louis-based charity The Mission Continues—a name that gives no clue that it helps veterans—spent nearly 90 percent of its total spending on its charitable program and just 7 percent on fundraising, according to the watchdog Charity Navigator.

A better way to choose a charity is to find one that really puts your money to work.

“You can get more bang for your buck by giving to an A-rated charity," says Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of watchdog group CharityWatch, referring to the grading system it uses. CharityWatch gave Disabled Veteran’s National Foundation a grade of F, and The Mission Continues earned an A.

Go to Consumer Reports' 2016 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. Be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide, and sign up to get an e-newsletter with top picks, trusted product reviews, and the latest news from CR.

Check With a Watchdog

Before making a donation, it's a good idea to look up the charity you are considering at the websites of the charity watchdogs. The three big ones are CharityWatch, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Collectively, these groups evaluate thousands of nonprofit organizations based on how they collect and spend their money, how transparent they are to the public, and how well they’re governed.

Though each watchdog has its own system for assessing charities, they all use similar criteria. For example, CharityWatch says that for a group to have a satisfactory rating, at least 60 percent of its spending should go to the charity's programs. To garner its top rating, 75 percent of a group's expenses must be used for its programs, and its fundraising costs cannot exceed 25 percent of the money it raises.

Charity Navigator also examines how much of a charity's spending goes to programs, but the percentages vary depending on the causes they support.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance requires charities to spend at least 65 percent of their total expenses on their charitable missions and no more than 35 percent of their contributions on fundraising activities—as well as meet about 20 other requirements—in order to be accredited. 

The watchdogs, though, report their findings differently. CharityWatch gives letter grades, Charity Navigator uses stars, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance reports which, if any, of its charitable standards a charity fails to meet, awarding accreditation only to those charities that comply with its request for information and meet all of its standards. Those that don’t send in requested information get the label “Did Not Disclose” on the BBB website.

What are your favorite charities?

Tell us in the comments section below.

Using the watchdog reports, we came up with a list of some of the highest- and lowest-rated charities in 11 categories. We looked for agreement among all three watchdogs; however, in some cases we included groups that were evaluated by just two. If a group did not disclose requested information to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, we did not include it in our list of high-rated charities, although it may have been included on our list of low-rated charities.

Our goal was to come up with five highest- and lowest-rated charities in each category, but that wasn’t always possible. Though environmental charities generally do well with all of the watchdogs, for example, it was impossible to find highly rated national police and fire charities.

Keep in mind that our table below is a partial list of high- and low-rated charities in only some categories. You can find more by going to the watchdogs’ websites directly. CharityWatch is the only watchdog of the three that requires visitors to make a donation for full access to its reports, although it provides a list of its top-rated charities and other useful information free of charge.

High-Rated and Low-Rated Charities

Tips for Giving

• Verify tax-exempt status. If you're not sure whether donations to a particular charity are tax-deductible (don't assume they are), confirm a group's tax-exempt status by checking with the group or by going to the IRS website.

• Give directly. If you're contacted by a professional fundraiser for a charity you want to support, hang up and give directly instead. “The fundraiser might be keeping 75 to 90 percent of the money,” says Borochoff of CharityWatch. Sometimes, he says, charities may end up paying fundraisers more than they take in, leaving the group with a loss.

• Request privacy. If you don't want to be bothered by endless fundraising appeals, tell groups you support that you don't want your name and contact information sold, exchanged, or rented to other groups or for-profit companies, a common practice among some charities. You also can ask the groups not to send you further appeal letters, email, or phone solicitations. Check the charity's privacy policy before giving.

• Be on guard for sound-alikes. Some low-rated charities have names that resemble those of high-rated ones. For example, there's the low-rated Kidney & Urology Foundation of America of Freehold, N.J., and the high-rated American Kidney Fund in Rockville, Md. "In some cases, sound-alike charities are there with the intent to deceive donors into thinking they are donating to somebody else," says Weiner of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. In other instances, groups have similar names because they're focusing on the same causes.

• Consider donating to the charity watchdogs. They're charities, too.


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