Published by Blain Reinkensmeyer
Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
To trade online successfully, some investors rely purely on their trade platform. Today’s trading platforms are not only web-based but also desktop-based, and are increasingly becoming mobile-based as well. Advanced charting, options tools, screeners, hot keys, virtual trading, watch lists, ladders, Level II quotes and back-testing are just a sampling of the functionality brokers make available to their clients.
Over the years, we’ve learned that it is not just the tools that separate the brokers, but the design, depth, speed, and overall execution of delivering the ultimate trading experience. This is where brokers such as TD Ameritrade’s thinkorswim and TradeStation really differentiate themselves. After spending hundreds of hours on both desktop platforms, we give thinkorswim the edge, thanks to its redesign and reliability improvements in 2015; however, both platforms execute so well that it truly comes down to personal preference. Die-hard fans exist for both and either one is a great choice for seasoned active traders.
Behind thinkorswim and TradeStation, Fidelity’s Active Trader Pro and Schwab’s StreetSmart Edge are two other desktop platforms worth a close look. Active Trader Pro and StreetSmart Edge have one distinct advantage over thinkorswim and TradeStation, and that is ease of use. While these platforms do not offer the same depth of tools, historical data, chart studies, etc., both platforms are very well designed and are easy to adapt to. In some respects, their balance of power and design make them a better fit for certain traders.
Unfortunately, not all active trader platforms are free to use or available to all clients. For example, to gain complete access to Fidelity’s Active Trader Pro offering, 120 trades or more must be placed in a rolling 12-month period. Similarly, ETRADE Pro requires at least 30 trades per quarter or $250,000 in assets (the platform can also be used for $99 per month). Scottrade limits its active trader ScottradeELITE platform to clients who have at least $25,000 in assets. Lastly, both TradeStation and Lightspeed charge $99 per month for access to their flagship platforms. This charge can be waived if certain criteria are met. Platform fees and minimums are set in place to keep costs under control, and while these serve simply as examples, investors should be aware of them if they are considering an online broker based solely on its platform.
For investors who prefer a web-focused experience, there are many great browser-based platforms to consider. Our top pick again this year, OptionsHouse, combines the best of both worlds: ease of use with fantastic tools. The platform is just “ok” for equities trading, however is terrific for options trading (see section “Options Trading” below), alongside our No. 1 recommendation for new investors looking to trade virtually and hone their skills.
Ultimately, TD Ameritrade takes the overall No. 1 spot for Platforms and Tools because it offers investors fantastic experiences not only on desktop, but also browsers. Trade Architect (browser) appeals to newer and intermediate investors while thinkorswim (desktop) is built solely for seasoned active traders. The icing on the cake? Both platforms require no minimums or fees for access and use. All clients have access. If there is one request we have for TD Ameritrade, it is to add virtual trading to Trade Architect; thinkorswim is best kept to the pros.
When selecting a broker based on its platforms and tools, try it out first before committing. If you are really serious about your trading platform, then take the time to read our full-length broker reviews, narrow your search to two or three brokers, try out each of them, then compare both brokers and make a decision. Start with questions like: Do I prefer a more user-friendly browser-based platform or a more advanced trader-focused desktop platform? Will I reach the minimums to maintain fee-less, consistent access throughout the year? What specific tools must I have to trade successfully?
All pricing data was obtained from a published web site as of 2/16/2016 and is believed to be accurate, but is not guaranteed. The StockBrokers.com staff is constantly working with its online broker representatives to obtain the latest pricing data. If you believe any data listed above is inaccurate, please contact us using the link at the bottom of this page. For stock trade rates, advertised pricing is for a standard order size of 500 shares of stock priced at $30 per share. For options orders, an options regulatory fee per contract may apply.
TD Ameritrade, Inc. and StockBrokers.com are separate, unaffiliated companies and are not responsible for each other’s services and products. Options are not suitable for all investors as the special risks inherent to options trading may expose investors to potentially rapid and substantial losses. Options trading privileges subject to TD Ameritrade review and approval. Please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options before investing in options. Offer valid for one new Individual, Joint or IRA TD Ameritrade account opened by 09/30/2017 and funded within 60 calendar days of account opening with $3,000 or more. To receive $100 bonus, account must be funded with $25,000-$99,999. To receive $300 bonus, account must be funded with $100,000-$249,999. To receive $600 bonus, account must be funded with $250,000 or more. Offer is not valid on tax-exempt trusts, 401k accounts, Keogh plans, Profit Sharing Plan, or Money Purchase Plan. Offer is not transferable and not valid with internal transfers, accounts managed by TD Ameritrade Investment Management, LLC, TD Ameritrade Institutional accounts, and current TD Ameritrade accounts or with other offers. Qualified commission-free Internet equity, ETF or options orders will be limited to a maximum of 250 and must execute within 90 calendar days of account funding. Contract, exercise, and assignment fees still apply. Limit one offer per client. Account value of the qualifying account must remain equal to, or greater than, the value after the net deposit was made (minus any losses due to trading or market volatility or margin debit balances) for 12 months, or TD Ameritrade may charge the account for the cost of the offer at its sole discretion. TD Ameritrade reserves the right to restrict or revoke this offer at any time. This is not an offer or solicitation in any jurisdiction where we are not authorized to do business. Please allow 3-5 business days for any cash deposits to post to account. Taxes related to TD Ameritrade offers are your responsibility. Retail values totaling $600 or more during the calendar year will be included in your consolidated Form 1099. Please consult a legal or tax advisor for the most recent changes to the U.S. tax code and for rollover eligibility rules. (Offer Code 264) TD Ameritrade Inc., member FINRA/SIPC. TD Ameritrade is a trademark jointly owned by TD Ameritrade IP Company, Inc. and The Toronto-Dominion Bank. © 2016 TD Ameritrade IP Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.