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for Taxpayers who just aren't Intuit

by Jim Bray

(Note: This review relates to the Canadian Tax Preparation software package. Similar packages are available in other countries, under various names and with various capabilities.)

I hate tax time.

Short of implementing a flat tax, filing season is made bearable only because I get to try the latest tax preparation software - which means our family's returns get easier each year.

So right on schedule, Intuit's QuickTax dropped into my inbox with plenty of promise. It isn't the only such application, but it's been my favourite of the past couple of seasons, so I looked forward to using it as much as was humanly possible considering the task it automates.

As with previous versions, you can save a few steps by importing last year's data; you can also import from Quicken or Quickbooks, as well as HomeTax and CanTax, two applications that have decided to abandon the Canadian consumer marketplace.

Fortunately, the software (we had the "Personal Deluxe" version) still has the "sliding scale" RRSP analyzer that reflects how different contribution levels would affect the kilos of flesh extorted. This is wonderful; it'll even tell you how much to borrow for RRSP's to ensure your tax refund can pay off the loan!

QuickTax is even more streamlined this year. My wife and I rattled off the return for our university student son (you'd think, if he's so educated, he could do his own!) in about 20 minutes. My wife's took a little longer, what with her RRSP contributions, charitable donations, etc., but it was still relatively painless.

We always choose the "Easy Step" interview process, which holds your hand and walks you through the ordeal step by step. The interview questions are easy to understand and the process is logically laid out from start to finish.

If you're tax fluent you can head off by yourself, but I think you'd have to be some kind of nut - or masochist - to attempt that.

Easy Step explains things as you go along, and the resident tax gurus - Marshall Loeb & Gena Katz - pop up regularly in video windows to offer advice. Even this video window thingy is improved. I believe the gurus used to pop up in front of your work, causing you to click them out of existence if you didn't want to hear them; the new window is tucked away in the main window, where you can simply ignore it.

Actually, the videos can be quite informative; Loeb or Katz put the task in front of you into perspective, which helps you understand the Big Picture.

QuickTax is almost bozo proof, too. Where a form has a box into which you're supposed to enter data, it draws a big red arrow or circle, pointing to where you need to enter information. It's so plain it's almost insulting…

Once you're done, the software can analyze your return for errors or omissions, even offering a chance to add in deductions it thinks may help you save some hard-earned disposable income.

I also liked the "instant update" feature that pops up when you load the program. If you have Internet access, it'll sally forth into the virtual world looking for RevCan forms that have been updated since the CD-ROM was burned. When I did this it downloaded several hundred kilobytes of stuff, which made my life flash before my eyes.

The main welcome screen (once you get by a couple of opening videos that rear their ugly heads), gives you access to your tax return, "planners and analyzers" (from loan planner and car lease vs. buying options to an RRSP analyzer and a doohickey that looks over your stuff to see if you should think about incorporating your business). There are also a bunch of publications, including "Jacks on Tax," "So You Think You Need a Lawyer," and "Smart Marketing on a Small Budget."

QuickTax even contains a provision by which you can screw Canada Post out of a couple of stamps. It's called "WebFile," and allows you to upload your return to those wonderful people at RevCan via the Internet. Intuit says this means you can get your refund - or assessment notice - in only two weeks.

You can also print out your form and file it the traditional way, of course.

One thing QuickTax doesn't do is support long file names; we had to truncate "Christopher" before it would save.

On the whole, however, Intuit's QuickTax "flesh extractor package" does a nice job of turning the annual nightmare into something that, if not exactly pleasant, isn't particularly onerous either.

Intuit also offers abundant financial advice via its "" website, which you can access right from QuickTax if you have Internet service. It's a reasonably fully-featured financial infocentre, including free personal finance and investment tools and RRSP calculators.

Visitors to the site can build a personalized RRSP portfolio, starting with the answer to the warm and bubbly question "When Will I Die?" (It appears that I have a life expectancy of 784 years, give or take a decimal point). You can find advice on why, how much and where to invest to save taxes while building a big enough nest egg to not become a burden on the grandkids down the road. There's also a targeted list of mutual funds which you can match to your own criteria (including performance, fees and price.)

Another of Intuit's popular products, QuickBooks, now lets its small business customers take their corporations into cyberspace. Version 2000 of the bookkeeping application includes QuickBooks Site Builder, a module with more than 200 templates from which you can file the serial numbers and create your own on-line brand presence.

The catch, and it's a small one, is that the site is hosted by Intuit and after your initial "free" four months you pay $14.95 per month, plus tax. This is pretty cheap in the grand scheme of web hosting, however.

The service could be a good way for "technophobic" (or just plain busy) businesspeople to carve a niche in the virtual marketplace without having to learn html (or, worse still, paying someone to do it). It also lets you choose and register your site's name (assuming it's available) and will offer e-commerce solutions in the future.

While you can bet your site is fairly generic, that may be all your business needs.


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January 31, 2006