Are you among the intrepid tax filers who prepare their own returns online? Then you’re probably using tax preparation software from H&R Block, TaxAct, or TurboTax, the three leading do-it-yourself tax products.

To figure out which might be best for your purposes, we evaluated the web-based versions of all three. (You can do the same; you pay only when you file.) All of these products are aimed at people who itemize.

We considered how easy the systems were to use, including navigation and data entry. We looked at special features that the software programs offered, and we examined the depth of information each program provides, such as how it defines a dependent—a big question among taxpayers, according to the Internal Revenue Service. (The IRS also has its own tool to help you figure it out.) 

The Basics

The prices for the programs vary. H&R Block Deluxe costs $34.99 to prepare and file a federal return and $36.99 per state return. TaxAct Plus costs $27 for a federal return and $33 per state return. TurboTax Deluxe runs $54.99 for a federal return and $39.99 per state return. (Some prices were lower earlier in the season.)

Each allows you to import your earned income (W-2 form) from thousands of employers. You can opt to have the tax-prep programs guide you as you answer their questions or you can skip sections that don’t apply. And all three offer “trackers” as you go along that constantly update the amount of tax you'll pay or the refund you will receive.

Got a tax question? They all let you input queries or search their databases for answers. They all offer free, live advice from tax pros online or by phone.

Preparing and Filing by Smartphone

If you’re inclined to do your taxes by smartphone, the mobile versions of H&R Block and TurboTax let you prepare the “long form” (IRS Form 1040) as well as the “short forms” (1040-A and 1040-EZ) on their apps. TaxAct’s mobile version only handles short forms.

The apps all automatically transfer any data you input into their programs so that you can access the information from multiple devices, such as your phone, iPad, or laptop computer.

All three programs let you take a photo of your W-2 using your phone, and upload the information into your return. However, TurboTax wouldn’t give us the option to photograph W-2’s during our evaluation. When we typed in the employers' tax IDs, TurboTax determined that it could import the W-2s directly, so photographs weren’t necessary.

CR's View

All three tax-prep services do a good job of handling simple returns. They all guarantee that their math is accurate, so if there's a mistake, they will refund you the penalties you are charged along with any interest. H&R Block and TurboTax have also simplified the language they use, making their explanations a tad easier to understand than those from TaxAct. We found all relatively easy to navigate.

But each tax-preparation program has features that put it one step ahead of the others:

Help. We liked that TurboTax had a “Talk to an expert” tab at the top right of every page. Clicking on that tab took us to three different ways to get answers to our questions: a search box, a list of questions and answers related to the topic at hand, and a link to reach an expert.

Access to IRS information. Using TaxAct, we found it easy to access (on the right side of your screen) a trove of tax information, including IRS forms. Although the explanations in TaxAct are somewhat more complex, we found it to be a good value: a less costly choice for consumers.

Using your smartphone. If using your smartphone for any portion of your tax preparation is important to you, H&R Block's service may be the best choice. When photographing W-2s, it captured more earnings information than TaxAct, so we didn’t have to fill in blanks afterward. (We could not compare this feature in the TurboTax app because the program automatically imported the W-2s directly, so it didn't offer the option to photograph them.)

We also found the "up" and "down" navigation and “back” and “next” buttons at the bottom of screens easier to use on H&R Block's mobile system than TurboTax’s mainly left-right swipe navigation. With TaxAct’s app, you move to the next panel mainly by clicking on an answer to a question; because it’s a simple program, it doesn’t have many explanations or require much navigation.

Each also has limitations. While TaxAct Plus Online provides step-by-step guidance for investors, for example, H&R Block Deluxe and TurboTax Deluxe require that you upgrade for that feature. Another limitation: If you’re self-employed and need to fill out Schedule C, all three require that you upgrade. 

Finally, the TaxAct app can only be used to prepare and file state returns for California. If you want to prepare and file another state’s return, you’ll have to revert to the web-based TaxAct product.

How the Big Online Tax Preparers Stack Up

H&R Block Deluxe OnlineTaxAct Online PlusTurboTax Deluxe Online
Price$34.99 federal, $36.99 for each state$27 federal, $33 for each state$34.99 federal, $39.99 for each state
Additional fees

Tax Identity Care, $14.99; Worry-free Audit Support, $19.99; both services bundled, $24.99; refund processing fee, $34.99

Refund processing fee, $25; import last year’s tax return from another software provider, $5; audit support, $50

Audit Defense, $49.99; refund processing fee, $34.99. You must upgrade to TurboTax Self-Employed ($89.99) to create a Schedule C.

Navigation and designGood navigation, though not quite as easy to skip between sections as TurboTax.

Good navigation. Nice "quick entry" option for W-2 information if you can't download it. The form looks exactly like a typical W-2 form.

Easiest to navigate between sections, such as from "Deductions and Credits" to "Income."

Data entry

Convenient document capture: drag-and-drop PDF of prior year's returns into this year's program. Import W-2s, 1099s. Upload W-2 or manually enter info. Or, photograph W-2 on your phone.

Import W-2s and 1099s: upload or manually enter data; or photograph W-2 on your phone.

Import W-2s, 1099s, and other income documents: upload; manually enter information; or photograph W-2 on your phone.

Human help

H&R Block experts are tax attorneys, CPAs, enrolled agents, and preparers who have at minimum completed the company's training. Unlimited live tax advice for paying users is available from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern on weekdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern on weekends. Pro help not available to users of Free Edition.

Free, unlimited email and phone support on tax and technical questions within all TaxAct versions Mon. through Fri. 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat. 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sun. 10.a.m. to 5 p.m.

Users can connect to a TurboTax expert, CPA, or enrolled agent via a one-way, live video that only shows the tax pro. If needed, the expert can draw on the customer's screen to illustrate a point. Help is available from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Pacific time, seven days a week. Audit support guarantee included in price.

Features/explanations

Simple explanations appear at the bottom of every screen, making it easy to get answers to common questions. Easy-to-understand explanations of simple questions, such as the difference between an adjustment and a deduction. Links through Help Center to additional, categorized layers of explanations.

Impressive FAQs in its Answer Center; for instance, 11 sections on filing status. Click on highlighted word to reach a glossary. Users can access Tax Tutor Guidance feature (FAQs) by clicking on the Help link located in the right-hand navigation bar. Links to relevant IRS forms always available on the page. No fee to access three years' prior tax returns prepared through TaxAct Online.

An "Explain Why" link at the bottom of the screen takes the work out of digging for answers to common questions. Links easily to additional layers of explanations; most are expressed in simple, easy-to-understand language. Shows estimates of both federal and state refunds throughout the process.

Valuing donations (all items entered as "excellent" or "like new")

DeductionPro tool is free to use, but you have to enter it through the tax-prep program. Includes baby car seats among its list of items that can be donated, though reputable charities don't accept them, and Consumer Reports advises against their resale.

Donation Assistant produced the highest value for most of the 17 random household and clothing items in our test. Free to use, but you have to enter it through the tax-prep program.

ItsDeductible is available free even to those not using TurboTax for tax prep, but the tool requires registration. Easy-to-navigate search tool to identify items you've donated. Lots of ways to search for and enter item names.
Information on dependents

Guide uses easy-to-understand language, with clear, pop-up explainers. Q&A to common questions. Leads to live chat with a tax expert if you need more help.

Dependents Tax Assistant pop-up guide is more comprehensive than the other two programs. The wealth of information may overwhelm less-experienced users.

Guide uses easy-to-understand language, with clear pop-up explainers. Most user-friendly language.
Mobile version experience

Prepare long and short forms. Lets you start your return without creating an account. Up-down navigation. Frames W-2 for photo capture, then takes the photo for you. Captured much more info from the W-2 than TaxAct. Allows for upload of prior-year return on mobile. Scrolling explanations appear on a pop-up screen. Exiting pop-up explanations and app itself is not intuitive.

Prepare only simple returns. Photographing W-2 is cumbersome. We had trouble viewing some items in the smaller format (reviewing uploaded W-2, for instance). When we backtracked in the app too fast while erasing some input, we were shut out of the app and had to start over. But app required more ID verification than other apps, a security plus.

Prepare long and short forms on your smartphone. On the phone we used, the program hesitated when we clicked on a highlighted word or phrase before moving to a new screen with explanations. If TurboTax has automatic W-2 upload with your employer, it doesn't offer the option to photograph your W-2.