Groundhog Day kicks off another income tax season


February 08, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Groundhog Day, Tuesday, was also the unofficial start of income tax preparation season.

The final versions of the major 1992 federal income tax preparation programs have arrived in the stores. (If the groundhog emerges from his burrow and sees the shadow of an Internal Revenue Service agent, winter will last until April 15.)

Just as the groundhog's fame is fleeting (What does he do the other 364 days of the year?) so, too, is the attention brief for personal computer tax programs. Anonymous programmers race all year to add new features to make tax preparation easier, all for a program that has at most 10 weeks of optimum use.

As in years past, the choice for most PC owners ultimately comes down to two packages: Turbotax, the perennial best-selling program, and Andrew Tobias' Taxcut, the challenger.

Both Turbotax and Taxcut have been improved for the 1992 versions, and both come in three versions, for DOS, Windows and Macintosh. The Macintosh version of Turbotax is called Macintax.

Both Turbotax and Taxcut (in all variations) will do a good job of helping the taxpayer select the proper federal forms and schedules. Both can use data taken from last year's returns and from personal finance programs like Quicken. Both are powerful enough to handle a complicated return from someone with lots of investments, while still helping the novice PC user fill out a Form 1040EZ.

Taxcut is winner

But Taxcut wins the green eyeshade award this year by virtue of its ease of use, its superior documentation, its better customer support and a greater attention to detail. As with any tax program, though, it is no substitute for a trained tax adviser.

Taxcut was the first program to employ an "interview" process, which through a series of yes-no responses determines which forms and schedules are appropriate to the return.

Turbotax now has an interview process as well, but the Taxcut version, which was devised by Dan Caine, a tax lawyer, is more comprehensive.

Entering "journalist" in the occupation box on Form 1040, for example, triggers a reminder about deducting office equipment, while entering "doctor" summons a note of sympathy for the demise of tax shelters in the 1980s.

Taxcut also includes the options for filing Form 1040PC, new this year, or for filing electronically. Both options are intended to reduce the chance of errors in the return and to speed the return of refunds, if any are due.

Filing electronically is actually done by sending a diskette to a tax service, rather than blasting electrons to the IRS over a modem and phone line.

However, the diskette has advantages to offset the extra $20 fee it costs to file electronically. First, it eliminates the need for IRS typists to rekey each paper return into a computer, lessening the risk of errors. Also, it cuts weeks off the time it takes for refunds. You cannot file electronically if you owe money to Uncle Sam.

Form 1040PC is a paper form designed expressly for personal computers. It eliminates the lines, boxes and text on a standard paper return. The return is reduced to raw numbers, like a spreadsheet without a grid. The IRS can scan the form and process the return faster. Refunds can be deposited directly to the taxpayer's bank, if desired. Unlike electronic filing, 1040PC can be used by people who owe taxes.

Turbotax requires the user to send in for a free disk for 1040PC capability. Since the whole idea of 1040PC is to speed the tax process, sending away for a disk is a frustration.

The frustration was compounded by the fact that there was no mention of 1040PC in the Turbotax package or documentation received here. If it was mentioned in the Turbotax 24-hour electronic bulletin board, it was well hidden.

After last week's diatribe in this column against poor customer support, it seems appropriate to contrast the two competing tax programs.

Technical help

The Taxcut technical support telephone line was answered on the first call, although it took two minutes on hold for a human to come on the line. He was courteous.

In contrast, 25 calls to Turbotax's DOS technical support line were greeted by busy signals before the caller gave up.

The program's installation screen gave a different telephone number for specific information on obtaining the Form 1040PC software, so I tried that one.

It was answered on the first call, but only so a robot could determine whether I was using a touch-tone phone.

Back on hold for three minutes with recorded music.

Finally, another robot answered and offered a selection of services. I chose "5," for customer service. Back on hold.

A couple of minutes of music later, the robot returned and said something like "Sorry, there's no one to take your call. You can go back to the main menu and start over or try calling back later."

If support is bad by Groundhog Day, imagine it by April 14. Then again, it may be just another example of deteriorating customer support in all industries, not just computers.

Andrew Tobias' Taxcut (for DOS, Windows or Macintosh) has a suggested retail price of $79.95. More information is available from MECA Software Inc., P.O. Box 912, 55 Walls Drive, Fairfield, Conn., 06430; telephone (203) 256-5000, or (800) 365-1546.

Turbotax (for DOS and Windows) and Macintax (for Macintosh) have a suggested retail price of $79.95. More information is available from Chipsoft Inc., 6256 Greenwich Drive, Suite 100, San Diego, Calif., 92122-3954; telephone (619) 453-4446.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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