Whether you want to file your own return or seek the help of an accountant at tax time, TurboTax can help you better understand your taxes without demanding that you have IRS expertise. Indeed, the easy-to-learn tax interview of Intuit TurboTax Premier Investments 2006, like H&R Block's TaxCut 2006, remains among the best of tax-preparation services. TurboTax 2006 looks pretty much the same as last year's model, although you'll find enhanced sections on managing deductions and investments. This update to TurboTax also includes new support for managing stock purchases and sales. But, offering comparable tools and usability, TaxCut costs significantly less.
TurboTax 2006 comes in four flavors. There's an additional $24.95 charged for each edition with state filing. Those with a simple W-2 who don't need help managing deductions, such as a college student with a part-time job, can probably get by with the free federal edition of TurboTax. If you're dealing with a simple W-2 but want to check for deductions, such as student loan interest and hefty medical expenses, then the $29.95 TurboTax Deluxe should suffice. The $49.95 Premier Investments, which we tested, features Its Deductible, the Deduction Maximizer, and investment guides to help you report income and losses from stocks, bonds, mutual funds, rental property, and so on. For $30 more, TurboTax Home&Business provides Schedule C help as well.
In our tests, installation of TurboTax Premier 2006 took less than 10 minutes. You may have to wait a bit longer while Intuit connects to the Web to retrieve the latest updates and tax forms. TurboTax requires that you run a computer with at least Windows 2000 or Mac OS X 10.2.8, and one disk suffices for all supported operating systems. TurboTax does not include a tool for creating a legal will, which TaxCut offers as a free extra.
Once this program is running, the sober, tabbed interface of TurboTax is similar to that of its predecessor: functional, not flashy. Tabs along the top of the screen organize Personal Info, Federal Taxes, Federal Review, State Taxes, and Print and File options. You can jump between the tabs and pick up work where you left off. We like the Federal Refund box that shows how much money you might get back from Uncle Sam. Below that is a new Deductions Tracker tally. Roll the mouse over this section and a pop-up window breaks down Income and Adjustments, Deductions, Taxable Income, and so on. Unlike TaxCut, TurboTax forces you to choose "None of the above" from its lists, which can make for a more thoughtful process.
There are two noteworthy upgrades this year. The new Deductions Maximizer Center does a fine job of organizing deductions and credits into 10 jargon-free categories--such as Your Home for mortgage interest, energy credits, and so on. The You and Your Family category determines if you can claim deductions for dependents, child tax credits, and the like. Next to each subheading--Mortgage Interest, for instance--is a "Do I Qualify?" link. When you click the link, a pop-up box explains the deduction in simple, layperson's terms without a lot of IRS lingo. We also like the "Why Is It Different?" button: click it to learn why the deduction claimed on your return is different than the amount you entered. While TurboTax 2005's Your Deductions section offered pretty much the same set of deduction-sniffing tools, the 2006 improvements are welcome.
TurboTax flags items that might draw unwanted attention from the IRS, and it shows how your return compares to national averages. And there are plenty of tips on how to keep proper records. If you have two years of tax data, TurboTax can perform a ratio analysis comparison of profitability, liquidity, and so on for your personal business.
TurboTax Premier Investments 2006 also features BasisPro from Gainskeeper, a tool for determining the cost basis of a stock or mutual fund. Let's say you purchased a stock over multiple periods, but can't recall the price you paid for certain shares. On the "Enter What You Paid for This Stock" page, click the Use BasisPro button. A browser window launches, takes you to the BasisPro site, and lets you use Gainskeeper's historical data of stock prices to find the accurate purchase price.
TurboTax lets you import investments from banks, mutual funds and brokerages at 90 institutions--an advantage over TaxCut. However, TurboTax doesn't explain whether you need such details if you haven't actually sold off and profited from any investments. For example, while it walks you through listing IRA and pension distributions, TurboTax doesn't explain what "Distributions" means, or if your W-2 automatically deducts, say, your 401(k) contributions to keep that money safe from taxes. The video explains things better, but not well enough for novices. In several instances, we wanted to ask advice from a tax pro, but we found TurboTax's $39.95 fee prohibitively expensive. At the same time, if you're well-versed in investment and tax lingo, that may not be an issue.
TurboTax customers get free technical support by telephone, chat, and e-mail, which is a great deal. Intuit promises wait times of 10 minutes or less for phone queries--a promise that rang true in our tests. Support hours are Monday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific Time--and that's better than TaxCut, which gives its tech reps the weekend off. However, you'll pay $39.95 for a telephone or e-mail conversation with a tax advisor--$20 more per incident for business advice. And unlike TaxCut, TurboTax doesn't provide free IRS audit support, instead charging $39.95 to help you prepare if the taxman cometh. You must pay this fee before the IRS audits you. Unfortunately, clicking the links for Service and Support or Live Tax Advice opens a Web browser without warning, which could be annoying.
If you've used TurboTax Premier for years and have grown accustomed to its well-crafted interface, the 2006 version offers welcome improvements, although H&R Block TaxCut Premium costs even less. We don't recommend that longtime TurboTax users who are pleased with the program spend the extra time and effort to switch to TaxCut. However, while TurboTax is a thorough, do-it-yourself tax application, TaxCut is a better bargain and should serve the needs of most filers.