There are those who say a day trader is only as good as his charting software. While that's debatable, it's certainly true that a key part of a trader's job – like a radiologist's – involves interpreting data on a screen; in fact, day trading as we know it today wouldn't exist without market software and electronic trading platforms.

A lot of software applications are available from brokerage firms and independent vendors claiming varied functions to assist traders. Most brokerages offer trading software, armed with a variety of trade, research, stock screening and analysis functions, to individual clients when they open a brokerage account. In fact, the bundled software applications – which also boast bells-and-whistles like in-built technical indicators, fundamental analysis numbers, integrated applications for trade automations, news, and alert features – often act as part of the firm's sales pitch in getting you to sign up.

Much of the software is complimentary; some of it may cost extra, as part of a premium package; a lot of it, invariably, claims that it contains "the best stock charts" or "the best free trading platform." Fact: There is no single best stock chart, or best stock screener software. There are too many markets, trading strategies and personal preferences for that. But we can examine some of the most widely-used trading software out there and compare their features. Whether their utility justifies their price points is your call.

MetaStock: One of the most popular stock trading software applications, MetaStock offers more than 300 technical indicators, built-in drawing tools like Fibonacci retracement to complement technical indicators, integrated news, fundamental data with screening and filtering criteria, and global markets coverage across multiple assets: equities, derivatives, forex, futures and commodities. Both its MetaStock Daily Charts Subscription and its MetaStock Real Time packages (especially geared for day traders) include its highly praised stock charts software.

Worden TC2000: If you are interested exclusively in U.S and Canadian stocks and funds, then TC2000 offers a good solution. Features include stock charts, watch lists, alerts, instant messaging, news, scanning, and sorting.TC2000 offers fundamental data coverage, more than 70 technical indicators with 10 drawing tools, and an easy-to-use trading interface, as well as a backtesting function on historical data. It does not, however, offer automated trading tools, and asset classes are limited to stocks, funds, and ETFs.

eSignal: Another popular stock trading system offering research capabilities, eSignal trading tool has different features depending upon the package. It has global coverage across multiple asset classes including stocks, funds, bonds, derivatives, and forex. eSignal scores high on trade management interface with news and fundamental figures coverage, and its stock charts software allows for a lot of customization. Available technical indicators appear to be limited in number and come with backtesting and alert features.

NinjaTrader: An integrated trading and charting software system, providing end-to-end solution from order entry to execution with customized development options and third-party library integration compatible for 300+ add-on products, NinjaTrader is one of the commonly used research and trading platforms. It's especially geared to futures and forex traders. While not a free trading platform, costs can be as low as $.53 per contract, and commission rebates are not uncommon. Apart from the usual technical indicators (100+), fundamentals, charting, and research tools, it also offers a useful trade simulator, enabling risk-free trade learning for budding traders.

Wave59 PRO2: Offering advanced level products for experienced traders, Wave59 PRO2 offers high-end functionality, including "hive technology artificial intelligence module, market astrophysics, system testing, integrated order execution, pattern building and matching, the Fibonacci vortex, a full suite of Gann-based tools, training mode, and neural networks," to quote the website.

EquityFeed Workstation: One prominently highlighted feature of the EquityFeed Workstation is a stock hunting tool called "FilterBuilder"– built upon huge number of filtering criteria that enables traders to scan and select stocks per their desired parameter; advocates claim it's some of the best stock screening software around. Level 2 market data is also available, and coverage includes OTC and PinkSheet markets. However, it offers limited technical indicators and no backtesting or automated trading. Its product-specific search tools like ETFView, SectorView, etc. rank among the best stock screening software. And it even offers free trading platforms – during the two-week trial period, that is.

ProfitSource: Targeted at active, short-term traders with precise entry and exit strategies, ProfitSource claims to have an edge with complex technical indicators, especially Elliot Wave analysis and backtesting functionality with more than 40+ automated technical indicators built in. Its asset class coverage spans across equities, forex, options, futures, and funds at the global level.

VectorVest: With trading platforms and analytics software that cover different geographic regions (for the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Europe, Hong Kong, India, and South Africa), VectorVest is the one for the intercontinental crowd. Its program offers comprehensive coverage for common technical indicators across major stocks and funds all around the world. VectorVest also offers strong backtesting capabilities, customization, real-time filtering, watch lists, and charting tools.

INO MarketClub: For users specifically looking for charting software, INO’s MarketClub offers technical indicators, trend lines, quantitative analysis tools, and filtering functionality integrated with a charting and trading system – not just stocks, but futures, forex, ETFs and precious metals.

The Bottom Line

The decision to go beyond free trading platforms and pay extra for software should be based on the product functionality best fitting your trading needs. You can often test-drive for nothing: Many market software companies offer no-cost trial periods, sometimes for as long as five weeks. Novice traders who are entering the trading world can select software applications that have a good reputation with required basic functionality at a nominal cost – perhaps a monthly subscription instead of outright purchase – while experienced traders can explore individual products selectively to meet their more specific criteria.

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