Searching for the best online tax-prep service on the market.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
March 16 2010 7:12 AM

The Taxman Cometh

My search for the best online tax-prep service on the market.

(Continued from Page 1)

Complete Tax: $9.95 (Basic)

Let me start by saying that the Complete Tax Web site has some creepy clip art. Choose the "Premium" option and you'll see a professional-looking woman smiling at the camera and, over her right shoulder, a blurry apparition. There are ghosts in the machine. 

Moving on—the site claims to use the software preferred by accountants, which I'm not sure is a selling point for the rest of us. I want the software designed for math-phobic history majors who need pen and paper to figure out a 20 percent tip and even then get it wrong.

The site is loaded with information, perhaps more than any of the others. Unfortunately, in the free version, the "Help Me Decide" links are disabled. (Complete Tax has four versions, ranging in price from nothing to 50 bucks. The most expensive version is for business owners, and I did come across several online comments praising its ability to handle complex returns—for whatever that's worth.)

Complete Tax was the most time-consuming of the programs, in part because it makes you tick off each box, rather than automatically filling in the likely answers and letting you make changes where needed. Most irritatingly, when I tried to go back and change an answer, I got a message saying that I had to "clear data" on other pages before I could do this, but it didn't specify which pages. I was tempted to bail right then.

For the sake of fairness and all that, I slogged through. You shouldn't. Complete Tax: You don't complete me.

Ease of use: 6
Helpfulness of advice: 7
Value: 6
Total: 19

Free Tax USA: Free

As far as I can tell, Free Tax USA is a fairly obscure service. It doesn't come up on the first few Google pages for "tax preparation," and the name suggests that it was thrown together by a random patriotic word generator, possibly in a foreign country.

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But Free Tax USA is kind of great. Unlike the free version of Complete Tax, Free Tax USA lets you click on help menus without having to pay anything. (There is a $5.95 deluxe version that promises to help you if you get audited.) Free Tax USA also has handy cues like "Most people skip this question" and, at the end, it lets you download a PDF of your completed tax form.

It has thoughtful touches, too, like telling you what your standard deduction would have been if you'd chosen an itemized return. I like knowing that. Best of all, Free Tax USA features a big photo of an American flag, which made me feel all Lee Greenwood-y toward the country I help subsidize.

Ease of use: 7
Helpfulness of advice: 7
Value: 9
Total: 23

Turbo Tax: $29.95 (Deluxe)

It annoys me to no end that Turbo Tax, the best-selling tax software, is the winner. It's like advising people to shop at Wal-Mart or to go check out that new Stephen King novel. I'm sorry. It's just better.

Now, I should be clear that what separates Turbo Tax from Free Tax USA is not a chasm but more like a shallow, easily jump-able ditch. And unless you have the most basic tax return imaginable, you'll have to pony up $30 for the deluxe version—which makes it one of the most expensive programs out there.

You do, however, get something for your money. The questions, explanations, and help sections read like they were written by human beings rather than cut-and-pasted from the IRS website. It feels like a conversation rather than an inquisition. When Turbo Tax says you need a form, it actually shows you a photo of that form and asks "Did you receive any forms like this?" Some people may find it insulting to be treated as if they're forgetful, lazy, and just the slightest bit dim. I happen to enjoy it, and I never had the sick, pit-of-my-stomach feeling that I would soon be visited by scowling men with briefcases.

Ease of use: 9
Helpfulness of advice: 8
Value: 8
Total: 25

Summary
I should note that I did not actually file my taxes with each of the services so I don't know which of them performs that task most efficiently. (I'm not even sure what would happen if I tried to file my taxes multiple times—I'm guessing something bad.) I'll probably file for real with TurboTax, but Free Tax USA is tempting. I'd steer clear of H&R Block at Home and Complete Tax. Go with Tax Slayer if you're a fan of NASCAR and extremity.

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Tom Bartlett is a writer in Mount Rainier, Md.