Review: Intuit TurboTax and H&R Block TaxCut for the Mac

With the perennial chore of preparing your income tax returns looming, it's time to decide whether to go with a pro or roll your own return. If you opt for the latter, you shouldn't proceed without tax-preparation software at the ready. H&R Block's TaxCut and Intuit's TurboTax each provide the up-to-date tax expertise and number crunching that you'll need to minimize your tax due or maximize your refund.

This year TaxCut and TurboTax both offer new features--some of them specific to the Mac, such as the ability to easily backup to .Mac. TurboTax, in particular, has undergone a major overhaul, sporting a brand-new user interface with some appealing innovations.

TaxCut and TurboTax each come in several versions, starting with a basic version for people with simple tax returns and topping out at a full version that will prepare your state tax returns and file electronically. Specifically, TurboTax comes in four Mac versions. The US$19.95 Basic targets users filing a 1040EZ or other simple return. The $44.95 Deluxe includes a state return and aims to serve users who itemize deductions, while the $74.95 Premier serves users with investments and rental property. The $89.95 Home & Business is aimed at individuals who are also consultants, contractors, or self-employed. TaxCut offers three Mac-compatible editions: a $19.95 Premium version that offers a federal return; a $39.95 Premium + State version that adds a state return; and a $69.95 Premium + State + E-file that lets users file federal and state returns electronically.

I put the complete version of each through its paces--TurboTax Home & Business from Intuit and TaxCut Premium + State + E-file from H&R Block--with salary and self-employment income, rental property, investment income, and various deductions, depreciations, and other complications you may run into. Each person's tax situation is different, but by looking at each program's highest-end option, we can get a view of their respective capabilities and limitations.

While I'm focusing on the desktop versions of these programs, both Intuit and H&R Block also offer online editions of TurboTax and TaxCut, respectively. You can read a review of those two services and other online tax options elsewhere on Macworld.com.

Although both packages deliver a non-intimidating, interview-style user interface chock-full of tax expertise, TurboTax makes it easier to complete your tax return with an innovative user interface features and plainer English. TurboTax also has the better ability to find deductions that can save you money.

The virtual interview

When you first launch either TurboTax and TaxCut, both programs check for last year's tax return in order to import data. TurboTax only supports its own files and Quicken files. TaxCut has an advantage here, not only supporting H&R Block's TaxCut and DeductionPro, (a Windows program), but also letting you import Intuit's TurboTax and Quicken data. Another handy bit of automation that TaxCut features is the ability to import your address from Address Book with one click.

Intuit and H&R Block also do a good job of automatically keeping you up to date. Both applications check for updates whenever they're launched; both downloaded updates several times during the course of my tests for this review. If you have bought the state versions, they'll also download software for your state returns when you first launch the program.

Both programs start the interview in a similar manner, providing a screen where you identify major changes to your situation, such as marriages, the sale of a home, a new job, and the buying or selling of stocks. Filling in this screen accurately tailors the interview to your situation, making sure that the program asks you the right questions.

The differences between the two programs begin to emerge once you get past this screen. TurboTax's user interface feels cleaner and more intuitive than TaxCut's. TurboTax also requires fewer mouse clicks to do the job than does TaxCut.

For instance, if you have lot of 1099-MISC forms to report for self-employment income, you'll spend a lot more time in TaxCut clicking through screens. That's because TaxCut has several screens to get through to enter each 1099. TurboTax only has one screen to get through for each 1099-MISC entry. Click continue, and it brings you right back to add another entry.

TurboTax also makes it easier to navigate your way around the different sections of your tax return. In TurboTax, there's always a Back button to take you to the previous screen you visited, even if the program has taken you to a different section in the tax from process.

TaxCut doesn't always provide a Back button to take you to the last screen you were working on. When you find yourself in a new section, you'll have to use the tabs at the top of the window to find your way back to where you were, often requiring you to click through several screens.

When you quit the application and relaunch, TurboTax also does a better job at getting you back to exactly where you left off.

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