Best tax program 2018: TurboTax, TaxSlayer, H&R Block, TaxAct compared

It's tax season. Here's a look at four online offerings to help you file with the IRS.

taxes thinkstock resized
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Nothing is certain but death and taxes, as they say—and so we head once more into tax season by looking at four major online tax prep applications: H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and TurboTax.

All of these web-based tax apps work equally as well on your phone as they do on your computer, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, a Pixel or an iPhone X. Regardless of device, you can start and complete your taxes with ease.

Overall, the basic process is essentially the same no matter the service: You provide your financial information and the tax software uses an interview process to gather that information, minimize your tax liability, and, with some luck and good data, maximize your refund and reduce your stress level.

All of these online tax services offer various try-before-you-buy options that let you fill out your forms and then pay when it’s time to file. However, all of these apps also charge more money the closer you get to tax time—so don’t delay if you want to pay as little as possible.

Editor’s note: Prices accurate as of 3/9/2018.

H&R Block

H&R Block is familiar name, but not necessarily because of its online offerings—you can find its offices almost anywhere you live. An H&R Block office is within walking distance from my house, and I live in a city of fewer than 14,000 people. Which is why, when you first log in to H&R Block online, you’re given the option of preparing your taxes yourself or scheduling an appointment at a local office. And, if you choose to start your return on your own, you can always make an appointment at a local office if you need more personalized help.

hrblock local Jeffery Battersby/IDG

H&R Block offers a smorgasbord of filing options that run from basic do-it-yourself to full-on in-office appointments. Each of the do-it-yourself filing tools offers the option to add a Tax Pro Review starting at $50, depending on the type of forms you’re filing and how complicated your taxes are.

With H&R Block you’ll pay:

  • $0 for a 1040EZ
  • $35 for Deluxe, which includes itemized deductions (Jumps to $55)
  • $55 for Premium for those with special income needs, including rental income (Jumps to $75)
  • $75 if your return includes self-employment income (Jumps to $95)
  • State tax filings cost an additional $37 per state

H&R Block has improved its interface with each passing year, and its online tax offerings look and feel far less clunky as a result. This time around, my overall user experience with H&R Block was on par with TaxAct and TurboTax.

hrblock little bit of info Jeffery Battersby/IDG

H&R Block starts your tax filing process by helping you figure out which version of the tax software you’ll need. Once determined, you’re off to the races with a standard interview process, so the app can nail down your specific tax situation and how best to maximize your deductions. As you go through the process, the H&R Block app will check in periodically to make sure you’re feeling good about the work you’re doing and where you are in the process.

Once you complete the interview process, it’s just a matter of entering your income and expense information. The online version of H&R Block offers a unique method for entering W-2 information: They send you a link via text that you use to access an H&R Block portal for taking a photo of and uploading a photo of your W-2. I’ve never had much luck with any photo-based W-2 imports, but this worked perfectly.

Bottom line:

Color me impressed! H&R Block continues to up its tax game. Continued attention to how the app looks, feels, and works makes it an excellent choice for filing your taxes. Additionally, you have the option of walking into any local H&R Block and getting assistance from a real human when completing your taxes.

TaxAct

TaxAct is a full-featured online tax application that offers options for most every tax scenario. Basic filer? You’re set. Freelancer with 1099 income? That’s covered too. S Corporation? Yup. Not-for-Profit? You betcha. In fact, TaxAct also offers options for professional tax preparers that are inexpensive—and can accommodate any size tax prep business, too.

For personal taxes, you’ll pay:

  • $0 for a 1040EZ
  • $15 for a basic filing
  • $30 for an itemized tax filing
  • $60 if you itemize and work as a freelancer or have other 1099 income
  • $70 for complicated returns requiring specialized forms
  • State taxes, where required, are an additional $37

(For business taxes, you can find options and pricing here.)

No matter which path you choose, TaxAct walks you though a simple interview process specific to the type of return you’re filing. For personal taxes, you provide details such as employment information, income, and deductions. For businesses, you’ll need to share income and asset information. TaxAct makes the latter easier by providing tools to simplify the process, like one that lets you print K-1s for each of your corporate board members. 

taxact qa Jeffery Battersby/IDG

If you’ve previously filed returns using TaxAct, you’ll find that your filing task is that much simpler as TaxAct will quickly and easily import data from your prior year return, including K-1 information for business taxes.

The user interface for TaxAct is simple, but it works well. Since it’s free of distractions, there’s never too much information on any given page. Questions are also organized in a clear and straightforward manner, allowing you to make quick work of completing your taxes.

As easy as TaxAct is to use, I did discover some minor issues. For example, there was a link on the Federal Q&A page for a Tax Return Checklist that, when clicked, took me to a Page not found page. The checklist page does exist, however—I was able to find it by using a search field that appeared on the Page not found page. Little errors of that sort can undermine your confidence if this is the first time you’re using TaxAct.

taxact big for business Jeffery Battersby/IDG

Since TaxAct is web-based you can use it on all your devices, no matter what flavor you prefer. There are also mobile apps for TaxAct. While they appear to be app-based interfaces for the same TaxAct site you access using a web browser, they do offer one additional feature: the ability to snap a photo of your W2 and import the information directly into TaxAct. Just be aware that like with most photo-based W-2 imports, you can enter the information by hand faster. But TaxAct’s import did work...eventually.

Bottom line:

I’ve used TaxAct to file my personal and business returns for the last several years—prior that, I’d been using TurboTax. I still find that TaxAct offers the broadest range of options and features of any online tax prep tool. I wholeheartedly recommend it as the best service out there.

TaxSlayer

As soon as I logged into TaxSlayer to create a 2017 return for this review, the feeling I had last year came right back to me:

This is the first time I’ve looked at TaxSlayer, and right from the start the process was a little off-putting. Once you create an initial user account, you’re asked to enter your Social Security number and sign your name to agree to the terms and conditions. If I weren’t reviewing this software, that would have been enough for me to close the browser window and take my business elsewhere.

“Signing” a license agreement before I could start working on my return still feels icky. Icky enough that I’d refuse to use this tax filing tool if I weren’t reviewing it.

taxslayer interview Jeffery Battersby/IDG

TaxSlayer’s look and feel have improved markedly this year—it has a cleaner look and feel. But the interview process still lacks a finished quality. For example, when entering or editing information, it was never clear to me when I’d finished a section or if I’d ever entered any information in the first place. I had no indication of progress or information on what I’d worked on last if I came back to something after a couple of hours.

I also often had the feeling I had to figure out for myself what I could and couldn’t deduct or who I was allowed to claim as a dependent. For example, I have a daughter who lived on her own the entire year, was not in college, and is of an age that her dependent eligibility should be in question: She’s too old to be my dependent, unless she was living at home due to a disability.

taxslayer grounds for divorce Jeffery Battersby/IDG

TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxAct each walked me through a quick questionnaire that ruled her out as a dependent. TaxSlayer asked me no questions about her status and when I changed the number of months she lived with me to “0,” told me I would need to remove her (correct answer) unless I had a “Form 8332 or a Post-1984 divorce decree” (wrong reason). So, this was a case where I had to be smarter than TaxSlayer to make sure my information was correct.

If you were to choose to use TaxSlayer you’d pay:

  • $0 for a 1040 EZ filing incl. a free state return
  • $17 for Classic, which is good for most 1040 filers ($0 for active duty military)
  • $35 for Premium, which includes live chat-based support and audit assistance
  • $40 for Self-Employed, which can be used by anyone
  • State tax filings cost an additional $15

However, I can’t recommend that you use this service.

Bottom line:

As was the case last year, TaxSlayer does exactly the opposite of what it should do: Make you feel comfortable that your taxes will be filed with no mistakes. While I like the service’s new look and feel, TaxSlayer always made me feel like I was on my own, which isn’t a comfortable situation to be in when filing taxes.

TurboTax

TurboTax is the best known of all tax prep software on the market. It’s been around for years, and accordingly, it also features the prettiest user interface. It’s as if Intuit is trying to whisper, “Don’t worry, this won’t be as bad as you think,” throughout the process.

There are 5 flavors of TurboTax:

  • Free Edition ($0), for basic filers
  • Deluxe ($60), which is what most tax filers will use
  • Premier ($80), for filers with rental property or investment income
  • Self-employed ($120), for anyone running a personal business that isn’t a corporation; this version is compatible with QuickBooks Self-Employed
  • TurboTaxLive ($170), for filers who want a tax professional to look at their return before filing
  • State taxes cost an additional $39 per filing

TurboTax runs you through a quick checklist of items to help you determine which version makes the most sense for you. Once you complete the initial interview, the tax prep process begins.

turbotax which works for you Jeffery Battersby/IDG

Intuit tries to make this process as personal as possible, which means that the interview seems more like an online conversation than a series of questions about your personal finances. The process starts with a question on how you’re feeling, then you’re off to the races. I confess that rather than feeling cheesy, this personalization actually put me in the mood to do my taxes.

turbotax expert access Jeffery Battersby/IDG

TurboTax generally offers a new feature with each year’s software release. For the 2017 tax year, that feature is TurboTaxLive, which gives you direct access to an actual CPA or Enrolled Agent credentialed to do your taxes. This access is unlimited, which means you can speak with someone any time you need to, about anything that crosses your mind. The gamut of your options runs from answering a basic tax question, to sharing your screen to review information you’ve entered, to completing your entire tax return. (According to an Intuit rep, all of their experts are W-2 employees of the company and not random “experts” on the Internet.)

Regarding the security of your personal information and TurboTaxLive, Intuit states that any personally identifiable information, such as your SSN, is obscured from the expert’s view. They only see the information required to answer your questions or complete you tax return. You can add live access to any TurboTax offering for $60.

Bottom line

TurboTax remains the most recognizable tax tool you’ll ever use—and one worthy of its renown. It has the best user experience and interview process of any tax preparation app. While Intuit’s service doesn’t offer the same broad range of tax filing options as competitors like TaxAct, the company’s still upped its ante in the game by now offering access to real tax experts. If you don’t want to figure out your taxes on your own, you don’t have to.

Final verdict: The best tax software

Whether you choose TaxAct, H&R Block, or TurboTax, you’ll be well-served—TaxSlayer is the only service I cannot recommend. Each of these three apps does an equally good job of walking you through the tax filing process. All use an interview process to figure out who your dependents are, what your tax liabilities are, and what deductions you qualify for. They all also try to provide enough assistance and assurance to make the process comfortable. 

So which product do you choose? That depends largely on your tax filing needs. Turbotax is the easiest to use, and the most familiar of all three recommended apps. It also offers the option of live online help and tax filing. H&R Block, in addition to being an excellent tax filing tool, is the only offering that is likely to have an office right nearby. You can easily go from working on a return at home to working with someone you can talk to face-to-face. My personal favorite is TaxAct, because it offers filing options for my business and allows me to easily access the information from my business taxes when I’m filing my personal return.

All that said, no matter which of the three recommended apps you choose, each is sure to make filing your taxes easy and worry-free.

This story, "Best tax program 2018: TurboTax, TaxSlayer, H&R Block, TaxAct compared" was originally published by Macworld.

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