Tax Time Puts Multimedia Software To the Test

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February is the time of year when the news begins to fade into the background and questions of no importance come to the fore.

What's the size of my home office? How much did I spend on gasoline last year? Does anyone know the standard meal allowance for Haiti?

It's tax time. And in this season of sharp pencils and dull forms, the makers of the two most popular tax-software programs have decided to add a third ingredient: glitz.

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Slide in the CD-ROM of Intuit's TurboTax program this year and up pops a video greeting from financial experts Marshall Loeb and Mary Sprouse. Load the TaxCut program from Block Financial Services and the software's developer, Daniel Caine, says hello in his own voice. I suppose it had to come to this. The sound-bite accountant. From H&R Blockbuster.

Fortunately, I've discovered it is not all hype. Multimedia - the addition of sound, video, and animation to computer text - can simplify the tax process if carefully applied.

After my video greeting, TurboTax took me straight to its interview - a TurboTax tradition. I answer questions, the software fills in the forms and does the calculations. This year I could even click on Marshall or Mary to give spoken or visual advice on such things as entertainment write-offs and child-care credits. The multimedia help was there if I wanted it. And so was loads of IRS and other help that seemed to answer everything - except that nagging question about meal allowances in Haiti.

TaxCut takes a bolder approach. Unlike TurboTax, it talks through almost every question unless you turn the feature off. Dan, TaxCut's chief developer, gave me tips through the entire interview. I liked this much more than the video for two reasons.

First, I'm a cautious taxpayer. Deep down, I know I'm not liable for the 1993 alternative minimum tax. But since I don't even know what it is, I comb the directions to double-check. Having Dan tell me aloud: ``Most people will answer `no' here'' jolted me out of that habit and kept me moving.

Second, while the audio speeded me up, the video slowed me down. Imagine what would happen if these experts - Marshall, Mary, or Dan - came to your house to help with the tax program. You'd sit in front of your computer. They'd be at your side. Now, every time they said something, would you really stop what you're doing and look at them? That's what the video forces you to do.

The more natural way - and certainly the speedier one - is to keep your eyes on the screen and type away while the experts talk. ``A number of people who have used it ... say it's very comforting,'' Dan says about TaxCut's audio.

But Mark Goines, vice president and general manager of Intuit's tax group, says his tests found that approach turned off users. ``They didn't pay attention to the audio when it was on all the time,'' he says. ``They missed some pretty important points.''

Both men are probably right. People learn in so many ways that one approach doesn't work for everybody. I hope future versions will give users more custom options.

I had a few quibbles with both programs. TaxCut left me confused about mileage deductions for volunteer work. TurboTax gave me little guidance on how to handle home-office expenses. Neither one could tell me about meal allowances.

TaxCut has a neat little feature that allows users to call a local H&R Block office and ask questions for free. My local office was able to tell me the meal allowance for Raleigh, N.C. But nobody knows beans about Haiti. And the phones at the Internal Revenue Service are always busy.

* Send comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), or via Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).

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