As this year’s tax filing deadline draws closer, millions of Americans are struggling to figure out which rules have changed—and which haven’t—under the new tax law. To get personal advice, many filers turn to CPAs and other tax experts.

But some 40 percent of electronic filers prefer to prepare their own returns, and for them, do-it-yourself tax software is all the help they need. Most rely on one of four leading brands—H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, or TurboTax. All four offer web-based products, as well as mobile apps.

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But choosing the right tax software for your needs can be tricky, because these companies regularly tweak their products and services. This year’s changes include new or updated versions to provide guidance for freelancers (H&R Block, TaxAct) and live, real-time tax advice by one-way video (TurboTax).

To help you sort through these different software products, Consumer Reports tested the online and mobile offerings for each of the four major tax-prep companies. We found some major difference in these products. We present the highlights (see the at-a-glance chart below); and for more details on how these different products stacked up, keep reading. Our results can help point you toward the right product for your tax needs.

How We Tested

We tried out these four products between January and February 2018, using a CR staffer’s tax situation. (Each product lets you try it for free and pay when you’re ready to file.) The staffer’s household has two W-2s, a mortgage, a home-equity line of credit, charitable contributions, and a few other potential miscellaneous deductions. In the past, the staffer has been subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax.

We chose the least-expensive versions of each brand that handles the "long form" 1040, includes help from a tax professional, and can value donated goods—a feature where the products differ. (TaxSlayer was the one brand that didn’t offer a donation valuation tool in any of its versions.) See “More on how we tested,” below, for additional details on CR’s process.

CR's Findings

All four tax-prep services do a good job of handling simple returns and are generally easy to navigate. All guarantee accurate calculations. Each product allows you to import wage and tax statements (W-2 form) from employers. And in all the programs, the amount of tax you'll pay, or the refund you will receive, is updated and displayed automatically as you fill out your information.

For mobile users, all four products let you prepare the “long form” (IRS Form 1040), as well as the “short forms” (1040-A and 1040-EZ), from your device. All of the apps let you take a photo of your W-2 using your smartphone, which can be used to automatically populate your return with your data. You can input data through one device, and it will sync with your other devices and computers.

Beyond those similarities, there are key variations in the products and services, which give an edge to some offerings, depending on your needs. Here’s our take on which products are best suited for different tax situations:

Four Leading Tax-Prep Products at a Glance

Tax product

It’s best for you if:

General comments

H&R Block Deluxe

$34.99 federal, $36.99 for each state. Prices can rise in late March.

You’re new to DIY tax prep and may use your smartphone in the process.

Simple design and useful explanations on every page of guided experience. App is easy on the eye, with good navigation. A tax pro’s answer to a tax question, provided through chat, was not accurate.

TaxAct Plus

$29.95 federal, $37 for each state. Price guaranteed, regardless of when you file.

You’re new to DIY tax prep. You like lots of details and explanations.

Lots of ways to access information and explanations. Donation Assistant most often gave highest values for donated goods. We got no phone or email responses to tax questions. 

TaxSlayer Premium

$35 federal, $22 for each state. Prices can change in late March.

You can give up some conveniences to save a bit on tax prep. You want help from a tax pro.

Lots of good tools and explanations, though sorting Q&As for relevant answers wasn’t intuitive. Our tax question was answered quickly and accurately by chat. Good mobile app, but overall the program misses some useful features.

TurboTax Deluxe plus upgrade

$59.99 federal plus $59.99 for live expert tax advice; $39.99 for each state. Prices can rise.

You’re okay paying a premium for lots of features and some more-detailed processes. You have a more-complex return.

Easy navigation and lots of tools. Our tax question was answered inaccurately by phone, but a follow-up email was accurate. Free ItsDeductible feature for donated goods. App offers trove of tools and tax information and mostly smooth navigation.

Sources: H&R Block, Intuit (TurboTax), TaxAct, TaxSlayer, Internal Revenue Service, Howard Milove, CPA.

You're New to Do-It-Yourself Tax Prep

Best choices: H&R Block Deluxe or TaxAct Plus

With simple explanations that are clear and easily accessible, H&R Block Deluxe is a good introduction for tax newbies. Given its price and features, the product offers good value. In the early part of the online program, however, you can’t skip around—a minus, in our view.

TaxAct is a little easier to find your way around, which makes it another good choice for beginners. It offers numerous ways to get answers and information, plus useful tools such as Dependents Tax Assistant, which helps identify who you can claim as a dependent. TaxAct uses 2-factor authentication frequently, a plus for security. 

You Need Fast Help From a Tax Pro

Best Choice: TaxSlayer Premium 

A tax pro from TaxSlayer responded quickly—and correctly—to our tax query asked through chat. (Question: Are financial advisory fees paid to manage an IRA deductible? Answer: Only when paid out of a taxable account.)

TurboTax Deluxe’s live tax help cost us $59.99, in addition to the $59.99 base price—not a bargain. A tax pro called us on the phone within 5 minutes of posting our online question but gave an answer that was not entirely correct: Investment advisory fees on an IRA are a deductible expense. Later, we found an email from the TurboTax rep confirming our conversation and clarifying her answer. The clarification was correct. But if we'd missed that email, we would have been led astray.

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The instructions for accessing H&R Block Deluxe’s online expert tax help were confusing. We had to contact a rep in the company’s call center to learn the right process. And the tax answer was not accurate—the tax pro said fees to manage the IRA would be deductible if they came directly from that account.

With TaxAct, we waited in vain for more than an hour one weekday for the company’s tax help reps to respond; our emailed tax questions also went unanswered. 

You Want a Big Deduction for Donated Goods

Best Choice: TaxAct Plus 

TaxAct's Donation Assistant provided higher valuations for more donated goods than H&R Block’s DeductionPro and TurboTax’s ItsDeductible. Among 18 random household items—including sporting goods, baby products, and furniture—it gave higher valuations in 10 instances. One caveat: The tool isn’t available in the mobile version.

TurboTax’s donation feature gave higher valuations in six instances. And ItsDeductible is available free to anyone, not just paying customers of TurboTax. It’s also available as an app in iOS.

Incidentally, H&R Block, TaxAct, and TurboTax all use software or services that analyze prices of donated goods based on fair market value, a definition that satisfies the IRS' criterion for claiming a deduction. (For donated items valued at more than $500, though, you'll need to back up your valuation with an independent appraisal.) 

You Use Your Smartphone for Tax Prep

Best Choices: TurboTax or H&R Block

Apps from all the companies made it relatively painless to photograph W-2s and import them into the tax programs.

We especially liked TurboTax’s “Virtual Assistant,” which smoothly guided us to help sources. But the app’s left-right swipe navigation was confusing. By contrast, H&R Block’s “back” and “next” buttons were easier to work with. However, we had to scroll through long pop-up explanations, which wasn’t ideal. 

You Have a Complex Tax Return

Best Choices: TurboTax Deluxe or a human tax pro

Of all the programs, TurboTax asked the most questions and provided the most insight into how it calculated our tester’s Alternative Minimum Tax liability. That gave us some confidence about how it handles more-complex tax issues—assuming you don't have to ask its tax pros any questions.

In general, though, if you have a complex return—say, a small business or foreign holdings—you’re probably better off getting your taxes done by a tax pro. Of course, hiring a CPA or other tax expert is likely to cost you more, and under the new tax law, you won’t be able to deduct those fees next year. Still, you can also turn to these different sources for free tax assistance. 

More on How We Tested

We considered how easy the systems were to use, including navigation and data entry. We looked at special features and depth of information that each brand provides. We posed—or attempted to pose—a question to a tax expert from each service in order to test accuracy and response time. We looked at navigation and ease of use for each product’s mobile version on an iPhone 8 and Samsung Galaxy S8.

For privacy, we used phony Social Security numbers throughout each product’s guided tax-prep experience. Only when we had to call a TaxSlayer tax pro did that ploy almost backfire; the representative wanted a real SSN as an identifier.

One more note: We did not include Credit Karma Tax, a relative newcomer to DIY tax prep. Credit Karma makes newcomers submit their Social Security numbers, which our tester found off-putting. Even after she relented and provided her SSN, Credit Karma said she had to unfreeze her TransUnion credit report before she could use the tax service. She balked. For that reason, Credit Karma is not part of this tax-prep software test.