Filing taxes is never fun, but Intuit's TurboTax Deluxe 2003 makes this annual fiscal obligation a little less painful, thanks to its detailed Q&A tax interview, which delves deeper into mysterious yet common topics brushed over by its main competitor,. The newest TurboTax isn't dramatically different from the 2002 version, but it provides several noteworthy improvements. These include the removal of Intuit's antipiracy product activation feature, which formerly prevented you from running TurboTax 2003 on more than one PC. And the Help section now supports natural-language queries, a boon for those of us who don't know a 1040 from the Top 40. TurboTax is a bit pricier than TaxCut--about $10 more, depending on the version--but it's worth it.
TurboTax setup is fast and painless: Launch the CD-ROM or download the software from Intuit's site and relax as the program installs within minutes. If there are any updated IRS forms, TurboTax delivers them via an update from within the product. Intuit has wisely dumped its antipiracy technology, which was loudly booed by 2002 users, and now allows you to install TurboTax 2003 on multiple PCs. This is good news for families who need to complete more than one IRS return and don't want to fight over the computer to do so or those who have family members (such as college students) in far-flung places.
At first glance, TurboTax and TaxCut have similar interfaces. Both gather your tax information through a tax interview, a feature that takes you through the filing process step by step by asking you questions and inputting those answers into the correct areas--be it a single page 1040EZ or an attachment-stuffed tax novella. Both use two layers of menus that allow you to quickly jump from, say, the capital gains interview to one dealing with moving expenses.
TurboTax provides Q&A interviews to help guide you through the process of filling out various tax forms.
Delve deeper, however, and TurboTax proves why it's the market leader. Its tax interview covers topics that TaxCut doesn't address (not in much depth, anyway) such as deductions resulting from a flood, a fire, or another major disaster--especially important to anyone affected by this year's fires in the Los Angeles area, for example. TurboTax asks questions about the disaster and completes IRS Form 4684 (casualty and thefts) for you; TaxCut makes you fill in the form manually. A similar example is seen with Form 2688 (filing extension): TurboTax has a complete interview for this procedure, while TaxCut makes you complete the form on your own.
TurboTax 2003 strives to simplify the alchemy of tax preparation, rather than overwhelm you with a hodgepodge of new features. This year's improvements are subtle yet useful.
The upgraded Help system now allows natural-language queries, which makes it easier to find topics without resorting to IRS-speak. For instance, if you enter Nanny tax in the Help box, a pop-up screen displays links to information on household employee tax. By comparison, the same search in TurboTax 2002 would have turned up nothing.
TurboTax Deluxe 2003 expands its coverage of interview topics, including how to file for an extension, and supports natural-language queries.
Intuit has done a fine job reducing tax jargon in TurboTax and explaining complex forms and concepts in clear, concise English. Its search tools are robust, too. For instance, a query on the acronym ESOP returns a cogent and brief explanation of Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The identical search in TaxCut 2003 returns no match.
Again, it's TurboTax's depth--the ability to automatically prepare tax forms its competitors brush off--that makes it our Editors' Choice.
TurboTax prices range from about $20 (Basic version) to $99 (Business), before rebates. Tax software typically comes with an assortment of perks and freebies, and this year's models are no exception. TurboTax Deluxe comes with a free program for filing your state return and provides one free IRS electronic filing (both after rebates).
Support is one area where TurboTax lags behind TaxCut, due to fewer options and certain restrictions. Intuit doesn't allow e-mail queries, for example, while H&R Block (maker of TaxCut) does offer this service. Intuit does offer technical online chat, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week until April 15. The chat staffers are knowledgeable and polite, and wait times were negligible in our tests, which were early in the tax season.
Intuit's support program includes live chat that lets you communicate with trained experts 24 hours a day, seven days a week until April 15.
Phone support is another story, however. In order to receive free phone support, TurboTax users must first try chat support before calling a live technician. TaxCut users, on the other hand, may phone in anytime. If you choose to bypass the chat option, phone support costs $19.95 per call, and the number isn't toll-free. Phone support hours are 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. PT.