Big on service

H&R Block offers eight varieties of tax prep for online and desktop users. All of the options are easy to use and feature more support than any other service.

If you have tax prep needs, chances are H&R Block has you covered. The company is offering a total of eight options for the 2010 filing year: four software packages and four online prep services.

Like most other solutions on the market, H&R starts with a Free Edition as its entry-level product. This version, which is only available online, offers basic federal filing as well as a number of other free services, such as free advice and audit support. Moving up from there you have the $19.95 Basic Edition, which adds the ability to import last year's return and other tax forms. Then there's the Deluxe Edition for home owners and investors for $29.95, and finally the Premium Edition for $49.95, which is appropriate for self-employed users.

For the desktop version, H&R Block eliminates the Free version and adds a $79.95 Premium & Business Edition. Unfortunately, although the downloads do include state preparation features, state filing for any of the versions will cost extra--$19.95, to be exact, making H&R Block the second priciest of the tax prep options we looked at (Turbo Tax still blows it out of the water in expense). As for choosing between online prep or a software download, we address that at the end of this review.

Of course, that extra bit of payout gets you a smooth, user-friendly experience on the whole. The interface is cleanly laid out, and the wording describing each step is straightforward and free of any confusing legal jargon. A tabbed interface with an attractive design and a progress bar along the bottom are just a couple of the nice touches.

One minor complaint is that the way the W-2 input form is laid out caused us to miss a key section due to scrolling, but that was easy to pinpoint thanks to the dynamic refund ticker box in the upper-right corner. Of course, W-2 importing is included in the version we tested (Deluxe), but unfortunately, CBS Interactive was not a supported company. Also absent for 1099-INT importing: ING Direct, an unfortunate oversight given the current popularity of ING's savings accounts. On the plus side, you can suggest new institutions to H&R Block with the click of a button. This year, there's also improved support for importing last year's returns from other services.

Another benefit to paying a bit more are H&R Block's thorough instructional videos, which have not changed in this version. There are several tutorials as you make your way through the program, including some on hybrid cars and education-related credits.

In this year's versions, H&R Block seems to have done away with its static, text-heavy Personal Tax Guide, which offered guidance for specific occupations that may have extra tax credits or complications. Instead, there's an Alerts module that informs you about various forms and a module dubbed My Tax Resources. From here, you can easily view videos that lay out all the tax law changes, as well as access an "ask a question" link that pops up a window taking you to various help options.

H&R Block is known for its generous customer support, and that hasn't changed. Free chat is available 24 hours a day for paying users, but even those using the free version have access to a Q&A database with thousands of questions answered by tax experts. By phone, you can reach someone--for free--from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. PT 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, you can connect with an H&R Block tax representative by phone or e-mail for an additional $20 per theme. However, if you have a lot of questions that require personal attention, a better bet might to upgrade to H&R Block Deluxe and Best of Both for $79.95.

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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