Big on service

Some notable improvements and a generous support service in H&R Block's tax prep app recommend it, but there are still soft spots in this tax-prep app.

Don't bother looking for H&R Block's TaxCut to prepare your 2009 taxes. You won't find it. Sixteen years after Snapping up TaxCut from Kiplinger, H&R Block is girding its own brand by doing away with TaxCut and renaming the product H&R Block At Home.

As with the rest of its desktop cohort, H&R Block At Home takes a few good minutes to install, scan for updates, and download those too before you can get going on the desktop version. You'll need to only wait for a secure connection to go ahead with the online product. Apart from differences like the number of Federal e-files you get in your return, and whether or not a State e-file is bundled into your package, there are relatively few differences between the desktop and online versions. As a result, we're applying this review to both.

Like last year, H&R Block's tax return software lineup includes both online and desktop products, including an all-free, online version. For the 2009 return, H&R Block has turned its Signature service that it piloted for the previous two years into a product called Best of Both. Best of Both ($99.95) combines the online version of H&R Block At Home Premium with a review from an H&R Block tax professional, who will also file the return for you after you approve their suggested changes to your initial return.

In addition to the dramatic product name changes, H&R Block boasts a brighter, redesigned interface. Along with the overhauled language of the interview that removes confusing tax jargon, the changes add up to a friendlier, easier-to-navigate experience for the beleaguered tax-doer. Unfortunately, FAQs were absent in the segment that stumped us, and an underpayment penalty on the State return that ended up not applying to us was written in a manner both confusing and alarming. H&R Block At Home still has soft spots.

The best new feature, hands down, is the capability to import W-2 forms from an employer and 1099 forms from banks, investment firms, and brokerages--an improvement over last year, when the previous year's tax return was the only item you could import. Unfortunately, our W-2 forms were incompatible with H&R Block At Home and the program doesn't yet work with our brokerages, so we still had to manually add investment and employer information, putting us at greater risk for committing human errors on our return.

Many of the explanatory videos in the program also got a redo. In some cases, H&R Block added more videos, for instance on hybrid cars and education-related credits.

H&R Block also added more detailed guidance, in the way of a module called Personal Tax Guide, for specific occupations that may have extra tax credits or complications--like teachers, salespeople, and the newly retired. While we embrace this angle for breaking down common tax scenarios by occupation, it's a static, text-heavy help file that could wield so much more oomph were it interactive. For instance, if the profile a teacher or military veteran chooses were to then highlight areas in the interview that apply to the individual, like certain adjustments and deductions for buying out-of-pocket supplies or compensation for service.

There are other nice touches--an overview on tax credits and law for hybrid car owners, children, and education credits. The way the app groups investment income makes it easy to match to the forms in front of you (with TurboTax, you have to go through the interview first in sections, you may not know which form comes next.) Viewing and printing a reminder to itemize taxes for the next year is a good idea, but not a bright one since the app only prints a slip of paper you then have to hold onto. Instead, the app should offer to upload a reminder in Outlook, iCal, or a Google Calendar.

Of a trio including TurboTax and TaxAct, H&R Block is known for its more generous customer support. Free chat is available 24 hours a day. By phone, you can reach someone--for free--from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. PST on weekdays, and until 6 p.m. on weekends. There's also live technical support with tax advisers, as well as free audit support with an H&R Block tax pro should the IRS come a-knocking. Beyond your first free tax topic, TaxCut 2008's "Ask A Tax Adviser" button (on every page of the tax interview) will connect you with an H&R Block tax representative by phone or e-mail for an additional $20 per theme.

While TurboTax still did better by us for our personal tax situation (importing our investment information was key,) those who feel more comfortable knowing they can turn to live people in a retail tax shop in times of trouble may prefer H&R Block's brand.

A note on online versus desktop prep: While there's no rule, we tend to think of online tax prep as ideal for those filing individually--it's sometimes less pricey for singletons and stores your encrypted return on the provider's server. Linux users may also prefer online prep, since most makers of tax software don't program downloads for the Linux platform. Desktop prep may be better suited for families, who can file up to five Federal e-files as part of a single software license, or for those who would rather store their data locally on their computers.

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