Online Tax Prep: An Upgrade Year

Why do your taxes on the Web? Portability is one good reason: You can work on your return anywhere there's Web access. And unlike with shrink-wrapped software, which you must take care to update, you never need to download patches or state files for Web services. The vendors install these information on the server, so you always have the most up-to-date software. An added bit of good news: Prices generally include free e-filing.

But don't wait until April 16 to start your Web return. The servers will be awfully busy this year. (April 15 is on a Saturday, so the IRS has kindly given us two extra days to file this year.)

Web-based tax preparation has really grown up (and consolidated a bit, with H&R Block's acquisition of last year's newcomer, TaxNet).

Each of the sites from the five major services I looked at--CCH's CompleteTax, H&R Block's TaxCut, Intuit's TurboTax, Petz Enterprises' TaxBrain, and 2nd Story Software's TaxAct--has improved its user interface and interview process over last year's version.

The interviews--a series of questions designed to solict the information necessary to fill out the tax form--are also noticeably different from each other. While wending your way through the tax maze is never much fun, choosing a site that fits your style can reduce the agony a bit.

Ranking the Services

Overall, TurboTax provides the best overall experience, with comprehensive tax help, a thorough and detailed interview, and superior navigation tools.

Those who don't feel comfortable with a structured interview might consider CompleteTax. It has some flaws, but its interview is considerably more flexible than those of the other four products, thanks to fine navigation design.

If, on the other hand, you're ultra-organized and are willing to work your way through all your IRS forms, TaxBrain is the Web site for you. However, I had some problems with this site and its pricing (see review below).

TaxAct remains the low-price leader, with free basic federal returns and e-filing for those with uncomplicated tax situations who don't need a lot of advice (but might not qualify for any of this year's offers in the IRS-backed Free File program).

I'm less enthusiastic about Web version of TaxCut, however: It's not nearly as good as the shrink-wrapped software.

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