It's Tax Time

TurboTax and TaxCut remain at the top of heap as Microsoft enters the tax-prep fray

February 14, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

So you think you have it bad this tax season? Don't cry on this shoulder, pal.

I've had to do my returns three times this year, but such is the life of a software reviewer: Sometimes you play games, sometimes you do your taxes. Again, and again, and again.

That's because this year the two heavyweights of personal tax software -- Intuit's TurboTax and Block Financial Corp.'s TaxCut -- finally have some competition.

To round out its personal finance titles, Microsoft has launched TaxSaver, a surprisingly robust first effort from a company that usually doesn't get things right until Version 3.0. (Macintosh users still have only Intuit's MacInTax or Block Financial's TaxCut for Mac.)

Market leaders TurboTax and TaxCut haven't changed much this year, and that's fine because both are just about as good as it gets. Developers have spiffed up each program's interface a bit, pruning some of the clutter that has crept in over the years, and they've added a feature or two.

All the tax prep titles this year use the same winning formula. If you've used this stuff before, you know the drill:

The programs interview you about your financial life, filling in the appropriate tax forms automatically based on your responses. Or, you can opt to work directly on the forms themselves. Once finished, the programs comb through your returns for errors, as well as pointing out spots where you might be able to save a buck or two. Then you can either print out the return and mail it, or file electronically. (For more information about e-filing, see companion article.)

When deciding which tax program is best for you, consider how complicated your return is, whether you have to file in more than one state, and which features are most important -- for instance, the title's price tag or how many planning tools it offers.

Here's a look at this year's tax software:

Intuit TurboTax Deluxe

It's not the cheapest or most elegant of the three programs reviewed here, but Intuit's TurboTax Deluxe does outshine its competitors in two important places: auditing and planning tools.

I thought TurboTax's Auditor was the most thorough in combing my return for data-entry errors, items that might raise red flags for auditors, and potential overlooked deductions. TurboTax's planning tools, meanwhile, were far easier to use than its competitors' and more fun, allowing me to see how events such a having a baby, buying a house or getting divorced might affect my tax status.

There are other things I liked about TurboTax: While all the tax programs will import data from personal finance software packages, I found -- not surprisingly -- that TurboTax was the best match for sister product Quicken, the most popular personal finance program on the market.

For example, the TaxLink feature allows users to edit Quicken transactions before importing them into TurboTax. The software also works the other way: TurboTax can send filing status and other tax information to Quicken to help you budget for the coming year.

TurboTax costs $29.95 (with rebate) and includes one free state version. Information: www.intuit.com, 800-446-8848.

TaxCut Deluxe Multimedia

Block Financial Corp.'s TaxCut Deluxe has always played the underdog to TurboTax. But that's starting to change, thanks to a strategy designed to court taxpayers where it counts: their pocketbooks.

TaxCut Deluxe is the only package to offer unlimited free state versions, which could add up to real savings for anyone who has to file in more than one state because they've moved or whose incomes come from two different jurisdictions, such as Washington and Baltimore.

Another financial plus is TaxCut's new Electronic Refund Advance program. If you're due a fat refund, the company will front you up to $5,000 of your refund within two business days after you file. The cost: $19.95, deducted directly from your refund.

The other place TaxCut shines is its ease of use. TaxCut's FastLane feature allowed me to avoid slogging through subjects irrelevant to my tax life, such as farming and fishing revenue. I also liked the Shoebox feature, which allows you to see exactly what role each of those slips of paper you've stuffed in your files will play in your tax returns.

One caution: While I didn't experience any problems with this year's edition of TaxCut, others apparently have. Before you buy, you might want to check online newsgroups such as misc.taxes.moderated, misc.taxes and us.taxes to see how others using the program are fairing. You can find easy access to these newsgroups on the Web at www.deja.com.

TaxCut costs $24.95 (after rebate). Information: www.taxcut.com, 800-457-9525.

TaxSaver Federal Deluxe

Microsoft may have fumbled the ball with the Justice Department's trust-busters, but it knows how to handle the IRS.

TaxSaver is an admirable debut, and if it weren't for one glaring hole -- the lack of companion state versions -- the software would have proven a serious contender to rivals TurboTax and TaxCut.

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