It’s not a dearth of competition that has made TurboTax the market leader in tax preparation software and websites for many years. Though numerous tax-preparation applications popped up once it was possible to support them on the web, Intuit has hung onto its dominance. As we did last year, this year we reviewed the online version of TurboTax Deluxe. The results, however, were a little bit different than in past years.
Intuit has continued to tinker with an already-excellent user interface, paring it down some while making fonts and graphics larger. In fact, that’s one of the only two significant changes since last year. The other is a change in the help system. The old TurboTax Support page, which I thought served users well the way it was, has been replaced with the TurboTax AnswerXchange.
Returning users should find that their 2013 tax chores are easier because of the data that’s moved over. And the new home base, My TurboTax, provides access to previous returns as well as a personal guide to the Affordable Care Act.
As usual, the competition among the top three tax-preparation websites was tight. But the new approach to user support that Intuit took this year, along with the fact that the company requires independent contractors and even very small businesses to purchase a $99.99 federal product plus $39.99 for state ($74.99 and $36.99 if purchased within the introductory period) makes this a different race this year. TaxACT Ultimate Bundle ($17.99 for federal and state, plus an optional $7.99 for unlimited phone help) wins our Editors’ Choice among the Deluxe versions for the 2013 tax year.
A Smooth Walk-Through
Intuit claims that TurboTax Deluxe searches through 350+ deductions and credits to help you claim everything that you can according to the IRS tax code. You’ll believe this once you’ve explored the wizard-like interview that walks you through the tax preparation process.
TaxACT Ultimate Bundle and H&R Block Deluxe work much like TurboTax Deluxe does. Since they’re online applications, you can enter every bit of tax-related data you have in any of the three before paying. You’re only charged when you file your return. These solutions have all turned the 1040s and their own supported groups of forms and schedules into a one-step-at-a-time interview process. It’s something like going to a tax preparer who asks questions about your financial situation and collects the form you’ve brought in. Sometimes there’s one question on a page, and sometimes there’s a small multi-item table for you to complete.
TurboTax Deluxe and its competitors then take the information you’ve provided, do the required calculations and drop your answers into the correct fields on IRS forms and schedules. That goes on in the background. All you see is a succession of screens asking you questions and providing ways for you to answer (i.e., entering data in fields, selecting options from lists). You move forward and back in the interview by clicking buttons.
TurboTax Deluxe provides navigational guidance for you in many ways. Your federal review is divided into three major sections. At the beginning of the first two, Wages & Income and Deductions & Credits, TurboTax asks if you’d like extra assistance, more thorough explorations of your situation, as you move through the interview, or whether you want to go it alone by tackling topics from the lists provided. (The third section, Other Tax Situations, only offers the topic list). Either way, you’re guided through the tax preparation process seamlessly by following the provided prompts.
There are other ways to navigate through the site. Click on the Tools icon in the left vertical pane, and a small window containing four links opens. You can search for a topic in a lengthy list (forms and schedules by number and letter, and topics like child care credit and interest) or see the list of topics covered on the site in alphabetical order. Click on a topic, and TurboTax takes you to that screen. You can also create a flag on a page if you want to remind yourself to come back later and fill in missing information. The fourth link displays your fees.
Unlike H&R Block Deluxe, which insists that you finish a required screen before going on to the next, TurboTax Deluxe lets you move forward and back. When you think you’re entered everything, TurboTax and its competitors review your return and reveal any errors or omissions you made, one at a time. TurboTax Deluxe does an excellent job here. It displays the relevant portion of an actual form or schedule and provides a field for your answer.
When you enter a word or phrase in the search box on a preparation screen, TurboTax Deluxe often displays an official answer that looks like it was generated by Intuit. You’ll also see several other sometimes-misspelled and badly punctuated questions from users, which are answered by people often identified with monikers like TurboTax, Super User, and TurboTax Employee. Depending on your question or phrase, some of these questions may be only tangentially related to your original one.
Other help: Throughout the interview process, you’ll see words and phrases that are hyperlinked, or separate links that say Learn More. When you click on one, a small window opens containing a clear, well-written explanation. Click on See More Help, and a second window slides open, displaying questions from other TurboTax users. Clicking on one takes you to another page that contains similar questions from other users and responses, part of the TurboTax AnswerXchange. You can even add your own answer here, which seems like an unwise option to build into the site.
And if you click See All Questions, the comprehensive Answer Xchange opens. Your original question is probably answered here at least once, but there are numerous unrelated Q&As there, too. You can type a word or phrase in the search box to get a more focused list. Depending on how general or specific your phrase is, your might get many thousands of responses. TurboTax uses filters to help pare that number down. You can search by a date range, post type or state, product or tag. The sheer volume of content here may be helpful if you’re trying to track down a very minute detail, but the AnswerXchange seems like overkill.
In the meantime, you have several browser windows open.
In its early days, TurboTax only included guidance written by the IRS or interpreted by tax professionals. Now it appears that some of the answers are coming from other users, based on screen names that are not affiliated with Intuit. H&R Block Deluxe only presents tax-related help that’s generated by its tax professionals, leaving the community sharing of information outside the walls of the product itself, and TaxACT doesn’t use community content at all.
If you use TurboTax Deluxe, it’s probably wise to just stick with the first level of help windows and submit a specific question via chat if you can’t find your answer.
Mobile Apps, Too
Intuit also offers five mobile personal income-tax related products:
- SnapTax. For very simple returns (W-2, interest income, unemployment income and student loan interest only).You can take a picture of your W-2 with your smartphone, and SnapTax grabs the data and drops it in the right fields on the form. Or you can enter it yourself. Federal e-file plus state is $14.99 (introductory price; may increase). Taxpayers living in states with no income tax can file their federal returns free. Available in Spanish. iPhone, iPad, iPad Touch, Android
- TurboTax for iPad. Just what the name says. Federal, $29.99; state, $14.99 (limited time offer) iPad
- MyTaxRefund. Free app that provides the status of your e-file and estimates when your refund will arrive. iPhone, iPad, Android
- TaxCaster. Estimates your tax refund based on basic information you enter. iPhone, iPad, Android
- ItsDeductible. Free app designed for year-round tracking of charitable donations; will import into TurboTax. iPhone
Given its exceptional navigation tools and user interface, thorough walk-through of the 1040s and their related forms and schedules, and just-right review tool, TurboTax Deluxe could be a smart choice if you need preparation help with the most common tax situations (W-2 income, interest income, mortgage interest, child and dependent care costs, charitable contributions, etc.), but don’t have freelance income and expenses or a small business, capital gains or losses, profit or loss from a farm, or other complex scenarios.
TurboTax Deluxe presents the most state-of-the-art user experience, and it matches or exceeds the actual tax prep tools provided by competitors. But its revamped help and its prohibitive cost for small business support keep it from winning Editors’ Choice for the 2013 tax year. TaxACT Ultimate Bundle, with its inclusion of every federal and state form and schedule that can be e-filed; its solid, professional help system; its reasonable price and its excellent navigation and review tools, takes the crown this year.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc