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It may depend on the complexity of your return. For those with complicated taxes, the answer is probably yes, especially if you are talking about TaxCut Deluxe, which is cheaper than many Web-based tax tools yet offers more useful advice.

But millions of taxpayers who earn modest incomes and have simple returns to file may want to consider using the Free File program from the Internal Revenue Service instead of buying off-the-shelf software. Established three years ago, Free File is a partnership of the I.R.S. and private tax preparation sites that typically allows taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of around $50,000 or less to complete their returns electronically � free.

But you will not be alerted to this program if you visit the individual Web sites of the Free File partners, which include giants like TurboTax and TaxCut.

Instead, you have to go first to www.irs.gov. There, you will see a prominent link to the Free File site. And once you pick a tax preparation service, the I.R.S. will link you to Free File.

What if you earn too much to qualify for the program?

In that case, taxpayers with simple returns might consider a free program like TaxAct Standard, a bare-bones offering that you can download onto your PC or use on the Web. Although there is a charge of $12.95 to buy the corresponding state program, the combined price for the most basic level of TaxAct is still cheaper than the most basic online tools offered by TurboTax and TaxCut. (It is confusing, but the same companies that sell boxed tax programs also provide Web-based tools under the same names.)

If you have a relatively complicated return � for instance, one that requires you to seek help in determining how certain capital gains should be treated or whether certain home-office deductions are legitimate � the traditional off-the-shelf programs are likely to be a better bet.

This year, the nation's two leading software programs �TurboTax and TaxCut � have bundled what previously were three different offerings into one.

At most retailers, TurboTax and TaxCut now combine their federal and state programs into a single box and throw in a free tax-deduction program at the deluxe level or higher. The bundled offers are only slightly more expensive than the previous cost of buying just the federal versions of these programs.

The deluxe version of TaxCut, for instance, sells for $29.99. This includes TaxCut for the federal return, one free state version and DeductionPro, which helps taxpayers find and maximize deductible expenses. The deluxe version of TurboTax, which also includes a free state program and the program ItsDeductible, costs $39.95. ( Amazon.com has recently been offering these two programs at $5 off their list prices.)

By comparison, if you prepared your federal and state taxes by using the equivalent Web-based versions of either TaxCut or TurboTax, you would have to pay $44.90.

Perhaps the best thing that TurboTax and TaxCut did this year was to get rid of most of their annoying rebate offers that required customers to buy separate federal and state programs � and then to mail in a form to get a refund for the cost of the state program.

Among full-service software programs, TurboTax Deluxe and TaxCut Deluxe are more expensive than TaxAct Deluxe. That program, when bundled with a state version, sells for just $19.95 through www.taxact.com. (If you choose not to download the program and instead buy the CD, you will be charged an extra $5.95 for shipping.)

But in a test drive of the three programs, I found TaxAct Deluxe to be much more cumbersome than TurboTax or TaxCut. For instance, to fill out basic W-2 information on TaxAct, you have to click through 13 separate pages. Because I had to fill out W-2's for myself and my wife, it would have been faster to have used a pencil.

This narrowed my choice to TurboTax, the nation's most popular tax software program, and TaxCut, which I preferred last year when I reviewed such programs.

This year, I again preferred TaxCut over TurboTax � and, again, the choice has to do with organization.

To be sure, the distinction is small, and both programs are good at answering basic questions. But in my case, I had numerous questions concerning home-office expenses and deductions, and I thought that TaxCut was a bit more intuitive.

When I reached the business income section, TaxCut immediately asked me about my home-office expenses, as well as questions about other business costs. These included both direct and indirect costs associated with utilities, repairs, maintenance and insurance for my home office.

When I was filling out the same information on TurboTax, I was first asked to list all my business expenses, which included a section on utilities. But then the program told me specifically not to include home office-related utilities because they would be handled later � several clicks away. The delay in getting to my home-office deductions made me wonder whether I had put the information concerning my basic utility costs in the right section. To figure that out, I had to toggle back and forth several times between two sections of the program.

Much to my surprise, I liked another thing about TaxCut: the short video clips at the start of every section of the program. Usually, I would skip through such videos. But TaxCut offered surprisingly useful reminders and warnings, including information on recent changes in the tax laws concerning contributions to individual retirement accounts, charitable gifts and issues related to home offices.

This is not to say that TurboTax is a bad program. In fact, it has made noticeable improvements. Last year, I found it difficult to navigate backward in this program. If I felt that I had not filled out a section properly, for instance, I sometimes got lost trying to get back to that page.

This year, it is not only easy to retrace your steps, but it is also simple to skip through portions of the tax form that do not apply to your situation.

But TaxCut has also improved. You can now fill out your personal information on one screen, instead of having to click through four pages. And after you answer a few simple questions at the start of each section, TaxCut will allow you to skip the unnecessary ones.

WHEN it comes to TaxCut, H & R Block is also leveraging something new: its nationwide chain of more than 12,000 tax offices. Starting this year, H & R Block will offer free personalized audit support for users of any version of TaxCut filed electronically. In other words, if you use TaxCut 2005 and discover nine months later that you are being audited, you can call H & R Block. The company will have a tax professional at a local branch help you in gathering the necessary paperwork. And, if needed, a tax specialist will go with you to the audit.

Of course, a major point of buying good software is not to be audited. But this is a nice safety net for a program that is solid all around. And to cap it off, TaxCut is around 25 percent cheaper than its main competitor. For me, that sealed the deal.


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