February is here, which means that most of us have already received all of the W-2, 1099s and other financial documents we need to start filing tax returns. All that remains: Choosing the right tax-prep software and cozying up to your computer for a long weekend of data entry.
This year, the key players are mostly the same as last, although they’ve made enough innovative changes that you should choose your tax software carefully.
Consider, for example, that tax prep is now more mobile than ever, thanks to Intuit’s (INTU) TurboTax. That program is now seamlessly compatible with Apple’s (AAPL) iOS and Google’s (GOOG) Android. That doesn’t mean it’s a scaled-down version of TurboTax for the iPad, like Adobe’s (ADBE) mobile-optimized Photoshop.
Instead, TurboTax works the same no matter what platform you’re on. You can start your taxes on the desktop, switch midstream to your iPhone and finish up later on an iPad. This kind of smooth cross-compatibility is akin to what Microsoft (MSFT) is attempting with its Office suite, and probably represents the future of software. That TurboTax lets you photograph your W-2 with your phone and automatically enter the data seems almost pedestrian in comparison.
Tax-prep software is also more “free” than ever this year. All of the major offerings — including H&R Block (HRB), TaxACT, and TaxSlayer — have a free version for federal taxes that includes support for fairly simple scenarios, as they have for the last few years.
When it comes to state taxes, though, you have to pay. TaxSlayer and TaxACT, for example, cost $15 for the state return, while H&R Block charges $10. This year, TurboTax offers completely free tax prep for both federal and state. If your finances are simple enough, you can do it all for free — even file your return electronically without spending a penny.
All that said, it’s worth pointing out that Intuit has moved key features of its $35 TurboTax Deluxe package (like Schedule C, D and E) into the $55 TurboTax Premiere — something you should be aware of before you get knee-deep into entering your taxes into the same TurboTax package you’ve used for years. And if you’ve already bought Deluxe and found it lacking, H&R Block is offering to let disgruntled customers switch to its product at no additional charge.
If you’ve been using tax-prep software for a long time, you might also be surprised to learn that traditional desktop software — the kind you buy on a DVD in a store or download from the vendor’s website — is more or less extinct. Some (like TaxSlayer) are exclusively available online.
If for some reason you still relish having the program installed on your own hard drive, you have some options, at least this year. Intuit’s TurboTax, TaxACT Deluxe and H&R Block Deluxe are all available as installable programs from a DVD. Still, the companies clearly emphasize the online versions, and the sun is clearly setting on these old-school programs.
It’s entirely possible that in 2016, the only choice for people who file their own returns will be to prepare them online.