Once again, TurboTax Premier remains our favorite tax software, if only by a slim margin, over the ever improving H&R Block TaxCut Premium. But aside from some interface refinements, don't expect dramatic changes within TurboTax Premier 2004. Attention to detail makes TurboTax better overall, with its pervasive use of plain English rather than confusing tax jargon, recurring summary screens that let you periodically review your tax information, and--a boon for modem users--its ability to download program and tax-form updates while you are using the program. We recommend TurboTax 2004 for upgraders and new users alike. TaxCut users, however, should stick with their program, which is good, if slightly harder to use. Installing TurboTax Premier 2004 was easy and took about three minutes in our tests--just as speedy as competitor TaxCut. Compared with last year's version, TurboTax 2004 offers a faster postsetup experience, too. No longer must you click through a series of welcome screens that discuss program upgrades or tax code changes (as is still the case with TaxCut); rather, the opening screen of TurboTax now begins with the tax interview required to complete your return.
Also new: TurboTax 2004 lets you begin the interview while downloading updated tax forms and program files in the background. Modem users will like this feature. Why? In our tests, the estimated dial-up download time was 15 minutes. That's a long wait, particularly if you've waited until April 15 to get started. Via DSL, the same download/installation took 2 minutes. By comparison, TaxCut waits for the update to finish before starting its interview--precious time wasted.
The TurboTax interface, which was good last year, is even better this year. Many screen titles are actionable, meaning they ask you a question (for example, "Any dependents?"). For the most part, Intuit keeps baffling tax lingo to a minimum. However, some jargon is inevitable. For instance, one screen title reads: Any Forms 2439? If you don't know Form 2438 from Formula 409, click the Get Answers button in the upper-left corner of the screen for the nitty-gritty details.TurboTax 2004 comes in a variety of flavors. We tested the Premier package, which offers additional tools not found in the Deluxe and Basic versions. These include extra help for reporting business and investment income and advice for maximizing 401(k) contributions. TurboTax prices are comparable to, or slightly higher than, their TaxCut counterparts--as of February 2005, for instance, TurboTax Premier 2004 costs $10 more than the similarly equipped TaxCut Premium 2004.
Interface improvements--not new features--are the focus of TurboTax 2004. As a result, there isn't much new here. But we're not complaining. Premier is packed with well-written tax tips and information, and that's why we give TurboTax the edge over TaxCut in this all-important area.
For example, take the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). This mysterious tax system, with its own collection of (typically less generous) deductions, bedeviled millions of middle- and high-income taxpayers last year. While both TurboTax and TaxCut help determine whether you quality for the AMT, TurboTax's instructions are much easier to grasp.
Here's TaxCut on incentive stock options:
If you had a disqualifying disposition of stock you acquired in a prior year by exercising an incentive stock option, enter here as a negative number the ISO AMT adjustment you had in the prior year.
And here's TurboTax:
During 2004, did you have either of the following incentive stock option (ISO) transactions?
You exercised ISOs but did not sell the stock in 2004. You sold stock that you had purchased under an ISO in 2003 or a previous year.
Simply put, TurboTax's language is easier to understand.For technical support, we like the Intuit TurboTax Web site, which contains comprehensive product and tax information. Unfortunately, the rest of TurboTax's technical support needs improvement. For example, Intuit promises a 48-hour response time to e-mail TurboTax queries, but our missives went unanswered for several days--not good if you procrastinated until April 15. By comparison, H&R Block's support for TaxCut was much faster; its staff even answered one of our TaxCut e-mails within two hours.
And phone support? Again, H&R Block TaxCut has the edge. Intuit charges for TurboTax phone help: $9.95 per incident. But H&R Block offers free phone help, albeit via a toll call. Block's Priority phone service (a toll-free call and shorter wait times) is also $9.95 per call.