If you ask four computer software companies to help file your income taxes, you may be surprised to discover four very different approaches to the same problem. For a reviewer, this is good news. For users, it means having to choose carefully. Of the four systems reviewed here, I ran my own taxes on two of them, PC/TaxCut and J.K. Lasser. Using the same information, they both came up with the same answer. I think that proves something.
As a reviewer, I consider myself an average klutz in front of a computer. So before starting, I outlined some criteria I thought might be useful to other klutzes doing their taxes. Here are some of the ways I looked at the software:
1.How quickly can you start working on your taxes?
2.How clear are the instructions? What computers does it work on and what operating instructions do you need?
3.Do they give examples, or refer quickly to a manual? How good is the index to the manual?
4.How complete is the software? Are all the forms included?
5.Do you have to complete each form, or do they cross-talk?
6.Does it deal with 1987 taxes as well?
After spending many hours in front of my computer with these criteria and the software programs, here's what I found:
PC/TaxCut. Best Programs Inc. Arlington, Va. $49.95 (at discount in New York City).
No fancy packaging. No famous names. But, don't let that fool you. This is a well-thought-out and powerful piece of software which performed well with my IBM clone.
It's easy to enter. Within minutes you have a large and clear menu in front of you. Instead of plopping the Form 1040 on the screen to be filled out, the programmers ask the user to supply information on worksheets that then make up the tax form. The information is automatically transferred to the tax form. After you have completed a section, the program checks it off so you know it's done.
Not only is this software fast, but it is also accurate, catching an error we made on our own taxes.
PC/TaxCut is very precise on where to find additional information, referring on the screen to the exact page in the accompanying manual. It comes complete with all of the forms, including some extra Form 1040s. Printing the final version is easy.
Here's another bonus for buyers: From Feb. 1 to April 15, the company's customer service office is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Current users can get an update for 1987 taxes at a discount.
Bottom line: This tax program made doing taxes fun. OK, OK! At least bearable.
J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax, 1987. Simon & Schuster Software. New York, N.Y. $49.95.
For fifty years the Lasser Institute has been churning out tax guides. Only recently has it gone into software, using all that knowledge to come up with a product that will make some tax preparers envious.
Lasser starts with a painless interview process. This information is used to establish your filing status. Everything else follows, using a large and clear menu. It has wedged a lot of information into a single floppy disk.
What differentiates this software from PC/TaxCut is that it works from the form 1040 and you back up into the forms. Getting to the forms, however, is easy with a ``Go to'' button.
If you have questions as you fill in the forms, Lasser supplies good references to its own tax guide, which comes with the software.
By sending in a post card, you will receive new information from Lasser on 1986 and '87 taxes. Lasser has a customer service department, but the manual does not list the business hours.
Bottom line: A solid tax program.
Sylvia Porter's Swiftax. Timeworks. Deerfield, Ill. $69.95.
This software should go back to the drawing board. It is not user friendly and is very time consuming to install. On top of these drawbacks, the graphics are hard on the eyes.
The programming has many submenus which you have to access and exit. This is inefficient and distracting. In addition, I think Swiftax is vague in referring to where you can get information to specific tax questions.
As if all this were not a problem, the book did not come with computer-ready Form 1040s. And the forms included in the book are only ``proofs'' as of Aug. 15. If you send in a card at year-end, Timeworks will sell you at a slight discount a new program disk and manual incorporating the tax law changes in effect for 1987. Let's hope they go beyond this.
Timeworks has a technical-support hot line, but it does not give its business hours.
Bottom line: This is a book printed on a screen. You can find better reading material.
Tax Preparer by HowardSoft. La Jolla, Calif. $199.95.
The Whole Earth Software catalog, which I respect, loves this program. A business magazine recently called this the Cadillac of tax software. If this is true, I got a lemon.
After many hours in front of the computer terminal, I was never able to complete this program. When I had it running, I was frequently stuck in the ``help'' area or the backup schedules, unable to escape back to the form 1040. To get out I had to reboot my computer, losing the information I had already put in.
I also wonder who this program is written for. I spent 30 minutes trying to understand six questions that are part of the interview process. I think a certified public accountant would have been able to answer them in a snap. This leads me to think this program may be geared more toward professional tax return preparers than individuals.
This program is also slow. It seems as if part of my wasted efforts were spent waiting for the computer to read the program. Maybe the computer was as confused as I was.
If I had been able to complete the program, it would have printed out the Form 1040. It did not, however, provide print-out forms.
The manual claims to help with tax planning for 1987, but offers no discount to current users on 1987 software. Customer service is available, but only during regular business hours in California .
Bottom line: This program made me hate my computer.