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A review of TurboTax from Intuit.

Tax season again–ugh. Time to fire up Intuit’s venerable TurboTax, available in desktop and online flavors for Windows and Mac (desktop versions of both are now on the same disc). Both desktop and online versions come in several trim levels, ranging from $10 to $70. The federal tax-preparation engine is the same in each; it’s designed for personal returns, including Schedule C sole proprietorships. (The $100-$130 Windows-only TurboTax Business is available for partnership/LLC and corporate returns.)

More money buys you state return preparation and/or additional features, such as more extensive business/investment tax advice and donated property valuation (in a companion program, It’s Deductible). A new $30 annual subscription option is TurboTax Estimated Taxes, which helps those who must file these quarterly taxes calculate them and pay electronically.

I tested the TurboTax Premier desktop ($70) and online versions. In equivalent trim, the latter is five bucks cheaper and includes electronic filing–a $15 option with the desktop programs. Intuit stores PDFs of your online returns and maintains your tax data from year to year, to keep you coming back. The secure interface is quite responsive on my broadband connection, at least in January, when I’m writing this; I can’t vouch for dialup, or for performance on April 14.

The TurboTax interface newly resembles a tabbed Web page (which it is, in the online version). As in the past, you have two workflow options–Forms and EasyStep. With Forms, you select and complete onscreen replicas of IRS forms.

These are “smart,” in that related forms and fields are linked together; without doing an (ill-advised) override, you cannot directly enter data in a field TurboTax calculates from another form or line. I prefer to let TurboTax walk me through most of my return in EasyStep, simply answering questions and filling in amounts where requested. TurboTax determines and completes the necessary forms as you go.

You can flip back and forth between Forms and EasyStep; Forms is often faster for repetitive entries, such as depreciable assets for a Schedule C business. The new MyNav feature makes bouncing around in EasyStep easy and provides feedback on what remains to be done. With either method, you can flag amounts as estimated (for later correction), and double-clicking on any entry field brings up a Supporting Details window. Descriptions and amounts entered here are automatically summed and reported on the form line–very handy for recordkeeping.

With either method, you can reduce data entry (especially if you have business property) by transferring last year’s information if you used TurboTax then; this also transfers supporting detail descriptions to remind you of last year’s entries. You can also transfer tax items from Quicken or QuickBooks. Unfortunately, while the desktop transfer worked well, the online version stalled when I tried to upload my 2004 TurboTax data from my Mac; I tried several browsers and Intuit tech support, all to no avail. If data transfer matters to you, I’d try it before committing to this method; you can do everything except file your return before paying for online TurboTax.

If you bought a state package, your federal information is automatically transferred to it, and you complete it similarly. Before you file, TurboTax conducts a thorough review, where you correct errors, omissions, estimated items and overrides the program has flagged. You also may select optional reviews for missed deductions and possible audit flags. When you’re done, TurboTax lets you print a complete copy for your records (with all supporting details, if you wish). For filing, TurboTax prints just the forms the IRS or state needs or lets you eFile (after determining that the return is eligible) and get an email confirmation from Intuit.

Bottom line, TurboTax makes doing my taxes as painless as possible, and I’ve never had to invoke their accuracy guarantee. Frankly, I don’t understand why more people don’t tackle their own taxes. After all, 80 percent of the work is organizing your records, and many of the pros use TurboTax themselves. –Ken Henningsen

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