In the tax preparation world, there’s no better-known name than H&R Block. It offers more tax solutions than any competitor, both face-to-face and digital. The company moved into the desktop tax preparation business many years ago when it purchased a popular application called TaxCut, and it’s been competing head-to-head with TurboTax since then.
TurboTax almost always wins our Editor’s Choice award, but not by much. H&R Block knows taxes, and its desktop and online tax preparation solutions reflect the decades of experience that the company has helping taxpayers around the globe. It ranks slightly behind TurboTax only because of the depth, volume and accessibility of its guidance features. Intuit also allows free email, chat and phone assistance, unlimited (within reason) contact with tax professionals. Getting personalized tax help from H&R Block can be an expensive proposition.
Like Intuit, H&R Block had its iPad version ready for the first time last year, though you couldn’t complete a review using the Premium version of H&R Block At Home. This year, you can. Neither it nor Intuit allowed you to access the same return on both the iPad and a desktop or laptop computer. TurboTax still doesn’t have that capability, but H&R Block for iPad does.
TurboTax still has a superior stable of help offerings, considering both the guidance within the app itself and the free phone support, and H&R Block still doesn’t handle error-checking as gracefully and easily as TurboTax does. So while I prefer TurboTax for the iPad, H&R Block has improved its offering more over the last year.
H&R Block At Home Deluxe Online has a very simple, unadorned user interface. This translates well to the iPad, and the two versions are as similar as Intuit’s versions of TurboTax. H&R Block for the iPad, as you might expect, supports a wide variety of tax issues, both common and not-so-common. It lets you prepare a return comprised of dozens of forms and schedules.
It does so by using a wizard-like process to get the information needed. Like its competitors, and like its online counterpart, H&R Block for the iPad lets you actually complete this process without paying; you only pay when it’s time to file. The app starts by collecting information about you – not just your name and address and Social Security number and your dependents (though it does ask for that early), but what life events have shaped your finances over the last year, so it knows where to concentrate its information-gathering efforts.
The app’s wizard walks you through a kind of interview, similar to what might occur if you went into an H&R Block office. As you advance through the app’s myriad screens, you’re asked questions about your tax-related finances—your income and expenses—and your answers get dropped into the right fields on the right forms and schedules in the background after any necessary calculations are automatically done. You don’t see your 1040 and so on until you’re ready to file. You see simple questions, and you’re provided with a variety of ways to answer them.
Tax preparation software makers didn’t invent wizards, but they use them as skillfully as anyone. Your journey through your tax return takes little effort on your part—just a lot of answers. Each screen asks you one or more questions, and you answer them by typing in a numeric value or some text (like the name of a bank), choosing from a list (like your dependent’s relationship to you) or checking a box next to the correct response. When you’re finished with one screen, you click the Next button to move on or the Back button to revisit the previous screen. None of H&R Block’s tax preparation solutions let you jump ahead of the current screen until it’s filled out.
There are other navigational alternatives. A vertical pane on the left of the screen displays the app’s main sections. When you click on one, it opens a tree-like outline of all of the subtopics under that topic, like Adjustments and Deductions/IRA Conversions. Click on the “i” on the bottom of the screen, and a menu opens containing links to some site utilities and “Find a Form.” When you select this, you can type a form or schedule number or letter, or a search phrase, and the app will display any options for that particular issue and let you go there (assuming you’ve already completed your return up to that point).
H&R Block’s iPad app doesn’t have the depth or volume of help tools that TurboTax for the iPad does. At various points in the interview process, a “Learn more” link opens a small window with clarifying information. If you want more than that, you can type your search phrase into the small Search box at the bottom of the screen. This opens the Help Center, which consists of dozens or hundreds of hits. So it’s best to be as specific as possible when you enter your word or phrase, or you’ll do a lot of scrolling.
A Weak Finish
When you’ve completed your return, the app checks your return for errors and omissions. If you click on “Fix Errors,” you’re not taken to a screen where you can actually make a change, and no field appears for your new answer like it does in TurboTax. H&R Block’s review process on the iPad and online is its weakest link.
It’s for this reason, plus the fact that TurboTax for the iPad’s help system is better within the app (and personal questions via phone or chat are free) that I prefer Intuit’s iPad-optimized version to H&R Block’s. Kudos to H&R Block for allowing users to access their returns on both the iPad and a desktop or laptop, but that’s not enough to propel it past TurboTax for the iPad for the 2012 tax year.
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