Editor’s note: Page von Roenn is a former member of TechRepublic’s project management team who now does consulting work.

I recently signed on to help manage a project for a start-up that wants to keep everything about the initiative lean and flexible: brief specs, outsourced development, and relatively light functionality. And, oh yeah—they want to keep to a tight budget.

Much of my work will consist of simply managing the schedule of business deliverables for the small, largely virtual company. I clearly don’t need a dynamically updated Web site or any of the other enterprise-grade functionality found in Microsoft Project. I also don’t have $600 or so to spend on software.

I evaluated many of the lower cost project management tools on the market and found that for as little as $30, I could generate a Gantt chart to track key deliverables. If I escalate the requirements to resource leveling and dependency management, the bill goes up. However, I found that these tools can support projects for smaller shops that don’t want to invest in Microsoft Project, FastTrack Schedule, or other enterprise-grade tools.

Here is a look at six programs I reviewed:

Project KickStart
Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP

Price: $129.95

Figure A
Project KickStart walks you through building a complete project plan and offers a robust library of common items to choose from along the way.

Project KickStart is a remarkable tool for the novice project manager or anyone who has been tasked to manage a project without having formal experience. The interface is intuitive and easy to navigate. Operating much like a wizard, it walks you through goal definition, phases, tasks, resources, and obstacles.

At each of these steps, Project KickStart offers a robust library of common items that should be included at the scoping, research, and specification phases. The wizard generates a project plan complete with a Gantt chart and a project task list that contains all tasks, subtasks, resources, and notes. The program offers standard reports that you can print or save as HTML or RTF, allowing for easy information sharing across resources.

Project KickStart is a great tool to use with other project management software, such as Microsoft Project or FastTrack Schedule. It links to several project management tools, as well as to many common desktop applications, such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, and Excel.

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about Project KickStart. It doesn’t support dependencies between tasks, but this isn’t an issue if you use it in conjunction with another project management tool. The Gantt chart display is limited: It doesn’t allow you to define which columns should appear next to the chart, and it doesn’t include resources in the chart itself. But then again, neither do any of the other tools I evaluated.

Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/NT/XP

Price: $49.95

Figure B
MinuteMan generates a Gantt chart, but makes every item in the plan a task header and a subtask.

MinuteMan is appropriate only for managing very simple projects. It offers project outline, PERT chart, and Gantt chart views, as well as budget and resource tracking. It also has a nice list of standard reports that you can print or save as .TXT files.

You get what you pay for with this software. It’s not very easy to use and requires a lot of unnecessary clicking to enter every piece of data. The overall interface is anything but intuitive. The Gantt chart display has a nice interface that allows easy navigation, but it doesn’t allow any customized display of additional information, and it makes strange assumptions on task headers and subtasks. MinuteMan does support export to comma-delimited files or to Microsoft Project, but if you already have Project, it’s not worth struggling with this limited and difficult tool.

If you plan to use this tool on a regular basis, I recommend that you save your money for something slightly more robust and considerably more usable.

Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP

Price: $29.98 basic; $69.98 professional edition

Figure C
PlanBee offers sophisticated color-coding of tasks to evaluate dependencies.

PlanBee is an amazingly robust tool for less than $30. It’s structured with many windows, which lets you look at different views simultaneously. However, navigating these windows can be difficult. The program offers several options for handling dependencies and allows for specifying different kinds of lag times (finish to start, start to start, finish to finish), a feature that isn’t available in any of the other tools I evaluated. It color-codes all dependencies and predecessors, so you can evaluate a project at a glance.

While this tool offers a number of features for the money, I wouldn’t want to use it on a regular basis. Unless you spend the extra $40, you don’t get any of the tools to manage resource leveling, a very common task when doing even simple project management.

Although there are many options for customization and tracking, they tend to be overwhelming and confusing to customize for even basic functions. The most irritating thing about this application is that an alert window pops up every time you add a new task (you’ll definitely want to turn your speakers off when using it).

But, if you’re a onetime project manager faced with complicated dependencies, it’s worth the $30 for the basic edition.

Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP, requires Microsoft Excel

Price: $20

Figure D
ProjeX generates a simple Gantt chart using Microsoft Excel.

ProjeX is a Gantt chart tool for Microsoft Excel that generates simple Gantt charts, critical path analyses, cost analyses, and resource usage evaluations. This add-in is very easy to use for anyone familiar with spreadsheets. The color-coded Gantt charts and critical path analyses are easy to generate, easy to read, and easy to share with others on the project team. ProjeX also allows you to take a snapshot of the project so you can compare different versions at a glance.

This tool is incredibly simple, but also fairly limited. If you’re working on an uncomplicated project and need to generate a Gantt chart with minimal headaches, this is the tool for you.

Mission Manager
Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP, requires Microsoft Access 97 or Access 2000

Price: $39.95

Figure E
Mission Manager, a database tool, allows you to create and track goals, projects, and their tasks.

Mission Manager is a database program that runs in Microsoft Access. It’s organized around the fundamentals—goals, projects, and tasks—and brings together strategic planning and implementation. It offers several standard reports, and since it runs in Access, it also lets you build many customized reports.

The application’s organization is simple to use and the reporting is sophisticated, but it lacks the ability to generate Gantt and PERT charts. Plus, the functionality is very limited and doesn’t allow creation of subtasks, a fundamental component of managing tasks in a project.

This is a good tool for high-level project management, but begs for additional functionality to manage the tasks that make it all happen.

Intellisys Project Desktop
Platforms: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP, Mac OSX, Linux/UNIX

Price: $89

Figure F
Project Desktop has an intuitive interface for entering and evaluating all aspects of the project plan.

You get a lot of bang for your buck with Intellisys Project Desktop, which is a great solution for working in multiplatform environments. Project Desktop offers a very simple interface that has all the essential elements in project tracking, and then some. The layout is similar to Microsoft Project, with an improved interface that limits excessive scrolling. It includes Gantt chart, critical path analysis, and limited customizable report generation, all of which can be exported as PDFs. Project Desktop allows tracking of multiple projects in one interface and can automatically schedule and level resources across all projects.

It does, however, have a few drawbacks. It allows the assignment of only a single resource to a task, even if you specify multiple resources to complete it. The reporting customization leaves a lot to be desired with respect to formatting and data customization, such as creating a single task list for multiple resources. The Gantt chart offers no customization other than time scale, and it does not contain PERT chart functionality.

Despite these limited shortcomings, Project Desktop is a phenomenal tool at a great price.