Best of the bunch

TurboTax certainly isn't the cheapest option, but it remains the clearest-worded interview with the most broadly beneficial tax-info importing abilities.

Every year, Intuit adds something new to its online and desktop TurboTax tax prep software from the previous year. Since the online and desktop versions of TurboTax Deluxe 2009 are so similar, we're reviewing them together. We'll make a note when referring to just the online or just the desktop product.

Installation and setup

As with most desktop DIY tax software, TurboTax can take from 10 to 15 minutes to install, scan for updates, and download those updates before you can get started. If you're filling out your taxes online, you'll need to only wait for a secure connection to go ahead with the online product. Also as with most tax prep competitors, TurboTax can import previous year's returns from a variety of courses, and provides forms for filing amendments and extensions.

Features

One noteworthy addition in 2009 is the capability to flag a page to return to later, for instance, if you need to look up a Social Security number, but aren't ready to interrupt your work flow to get up and find it. These flags came in handy, especially in the desktop version where they're visible at all times. Flags were hidden in a drop-down menu online, making a fine feature less accessible than it should be.

TurboTax also introduces error reporting as you go. You can ignore the error flag, of course, but tending to potential problems as they arise in the interview process can make the final error check smoother and shorter. In addition, Intuit has wrapped up numerous smaller enhancements, including a tweaked interface that adds more visuals (thumb's up), a few more risk indicators in its Audit Risk Meter, and all-new recommendations to help you plan for next year's tax return.

Much more obtrusive is a summary screen that appears after you finish each segment. Having to scroll down the increasingly long list of modules you've already completed just to move on interrupts work flow on the desktop and online. (We appreciate being able to revisit sections of the tax interview, but TurboTax could just as easily add a button at the top of the summary page or use a drop-down list to fit this recurring section summary sheet on one page.)

The capability to import forms has long been a TurboTax hallmark. The program can grab W-2 details from employers using participating payroll processors, investment information from banks and brokerages like Charles Schwab (there's a long list,) and data from programs like Quicken, Quickbooks, or another program that uses the TXF format. H&R Block's app can now do this too, though TurboTax continues to import forms from far more financial institutions, making it ultimately more effective for a greater number of taxpayers.

Help and support

TurboTax's peer-driven Live Community continues to supplement the FAQs, help files, and videos. The online version also gives you Tina, a digital automaton who is supposedly available for live chatting, but instead, skirts specific questions and channels you back to Live Community and Help instead. Her one use seems to be in defining error codes.

Help from the pros will cost you. Live tax advice is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. PST on weekdays. It costs $30 for the first 20 minutes of phone time, and $20 for each additional 20-minute block. In addition, for $40, a real person can comb your review for mistakes. While those with more complicated cases may see value in this, TurboTax's self-service prep software should be good enough on its own to obviate the need for additional eyeballs.

In case of an audit, TurboTax's free downloadable audit support center is a well-designed guide to the four audit types, and includes some templates you can send to the IRS. Or, you can pay Intuit about $40 to represent you if Uncle Sam looks askance. One-on-one audit assistance comes free with H&R Block's already cheaper application, though Intuit claims that the vast majority of audited taxpayers receive the same letter and will do fine with TurboTax's audit wizard.

Bottom line

TurboTax certainly isn't the cheapest option, but it remains the clearest-worded interview with the most broadly beneficial tax-info importing abilities. Its bundled tools make it worth the extra cost for those who don't anticipate needing personalized help.

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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