Friday, 8 April 2011

Review and Ratings of Canadian Online Tax Software: 2010 Taxes Edition

It's here again! For the 5th year running, these are my ratings and assessments of the best and the worst of the online tax preparation programs available to Canadian taxpayers for 2010 tax returns. As before, I've gone through all the packages certified by the Canada Revenue Agency for electronic submission of a return through NETFILE. The same ratings method has been used but the results are a bit different. Some packages are better, some just the same as last year and there's one new entrant.

Ratings Method: total score out of 45 max points on 5 factors
  1. Privacy and security (10 points) - How well does the online tax prep company protect your data and your privacy? What do they promise and what evidence is there of their capability to deliver? Unfortunately, this is the weakest area of the ratings - my numbers could be fairly wide of the mark - since it is hard to get much tangible proof of the reality vs the promises made, even compared to the minimal promises as are publicly made on the websites. Only one company (Acetax) actually claims to have been audited by an external party. CRA does not do anything, as they woefully admit in the disclaimer on the webpage with the list of packages, to check up on the companies and how they handle our data, which I think is shocking and unacceptable, given that a lot of people likely believe that NetFile certification somehow gives assurance of security protection.
  2. Flow, readability and layout (10 points) - How does the appearance and the flow of the program guide the taxpayer through all the steps, ensuring that everything is entered correctly in the right places? Is it easy to go back and forth, to review results and check one's work or make changes? The programs vary enormously on this factor, from simple on-screen versions of the paper forms, which merely do the arithmetic correctly and transfer amounts (or are supposed to!) between forms, to sophisticated interview processes akin to interaction with an accountant, asking questions to uncover all income and deductions and credits.
  3. Help (10 points) - How much access to explanations about tax rules is provided and how well placed is it? One of my on-going pet peeve test items is the infamous T1135 Foreign Income Verification Statement which a taxpayer with foreign property over $100,000 in cost must fill in, sign and send in to CRA. Does the program tell you, ideally at the point when you have to tick that box, that it is not required for foreign holdings within registered accounts like RRSPs? Some do not say so and others do not say that the T1135, if required, cannot be done online and that it must be submitted by mail on paper.
  4. Responsiveness (5 points) - How fast is the online application at saving data and refreshing the screen? slow = frustration! A couple of programs either went haywire on me or were unavailable for login - not good if you are in the final throes of meeting the April 30th deadline.
  5. Accuracy (10 points) - How good a job does the program do at calculating your taxes and helping you legally pay the least amount? For those who think that NetFile certification means the programs will all come up with the same answer (as I believed myself before starting to look at all these packages a few years ago), it is time to recognize the reality. As I commented two years ago, CRA's certification only means the program is correctly including all the revenues. the programs differ enormously in their ability to automatically detect and claim all deductions and credits to which you are entitled. As a result, in my own case with all the packages my total income on line 150 was identical but balance owing on line 485 showed different amounts, anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars apart. In the cases where I had thousands less to pay this was the result of incorrect eligibility for deductions that the programs did not prevent. It is only because I used them all that I got to learn what should be the correct result. Some are much better than others at preventing incorrect input but it is always worth the time to use a couple of the programs to enter your data and compare the results. They all allow you to see the bottom line in much detail, if not actually to print or submit the completed return. The very best package (TaxChopper) at using deductions and credits for an individual and/or shared amongst family members is almost like having a skilled accountant doing your taxes - it is essentially an expert system for income tax. Three examples tested the packages' ability to optimize using age amounts and pension splitting, tuition and education transfers, foreign tax credits with inter-provincial residence thrown in for the trickiest rule. In no case did any other package beat TaxChopper - it always found deductions, transfers and credits to use and end up with the lowest taxes to pay. The difference on a potential $4700 tax bill was over $300. Optimization can be very worthwhile.


Highly Recommended
#1 TaxChopper - 39 points -
"A tax expert system – Delivers on the biggest refund / lowest tax to pay promise. Best value for money."
Alone in first place this year by dint of considerably beefed up help and continued clean-up of appearance and language.

#2 UFile - 38 points
"Polished, easy to use and handles all but the more sophisticated tax reduction optimizations"

#3 H&R Block - 34 points
"Technically, it's Ufile but it has a few less desirable privacy features"

#4 TurboTax (formerly QuickTax) - 33 points
"Guidance every step of the way with plenty of questions, reminders and some useful suggestions for future tax planning"

#5 AceTax - 29 points
"Just fine for those who need minimal help and are familiar with tax forms"

#6 eTaxCanada - 26 points
"Takes some getting used to but if you know what you are doing and which forms to use, works very well"

#7 Taxnic - 25 points
"OK package if you know what forms to fill and credits to claim. What CRA would give us if they created a NetFile package – no error checking or optimization, just the forms and correct transfer of amounts from box to box and form to form."

#8 WebTax4U - 24 points
"For those who know where things go and are familiar with tax forms"

Merely OK
#9 MBOTax - 20 points
"It's like working with the paper forms except amounts get transferred automatically and arithmetic is done correctly."

#10 EachTax - 18 points
"Looks like the forms. Not much more than a spreadsheet with colours."

Not Recommended
#11 (tie) - FileTaxOnline - 13 points
"Not recommended – too many weaknesses, some fatal"

#11 (tie) - EasyCTax - 13 points
"Chinese language version is unique on the market but not a lot else going for it. New entrant, looks like beta version."

#13 5DollarTax - 2 points
"Crude, half-finished effort, not worth using."


larry macdonald said...

Thorough review. Timely for us -- my wife is looking for tax software after years of using the calculator. Thanks.

Frog of Finance said...

What about StudioTax?

It's available for free (donations accepted) at, but I'm wondering how it compares to the others.

CanadianInvestor said...

Hi Frog,
I did not test any of the PC download packages only the web programs. StudioTax is not one of the web programs. Just too much time involved.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Thank you for your testing but Taxnic has delete function on profile page and also has error checking before printing and download .tax file on 2010 program.

Anonymous said...

Easy CTAX progtram is so terribly workinhg that I don't understand how it could be certified by NETFILE at all. Do they check the programs at all? First, there was no box to enter child care expenses. Then, when I finally found out how to add dependants (my children), there was no fitness and activites tax credit, when I filled out T4 for my older son, the propgram didn't save showing me a picture asking if it looks nice... I returned back, went through my son's profile again - and the same... If I click on review, it shows that there are not complete questions about my tax and about income of my son plus not answered questions for my son, but it is not shown what they mean - I didn't find anything not answered... Even though everything is answered, the program insist that something is not... That's weird. I was upset that there is no option in some questions to transfer the amount to the next year, even though some programs like Turbo tax gave it to me (donations, interest on loans), also Turbo tax gave me and advice to keep medical expenses for the next year, but this program wouldn't give it - they don't have such advices. Terrible program, don't even open it :(

Anonymous said...

I have been using some NetFile certified tax return programs (not TaxChopper) for a few years. From my understanding, while some pacakges set up optimization as default in their programs, others require uers to choose to optimize. Was the difference in your tested result due to such different setup? I was wondering if you can kindly release the details of the three examples you used to test the packages' ability to optimize. In this way, I would be able to test the accuracy among those packages by myself as I totaly agree with your suggestion on "it is always worth the time to use a couple of the programs to enter your data and compare the results."

I also think that your review on accuracy of tax return programs will convince more people and be fair to make judgement on packages' ability to optimize only when your testing is transparent to the public.

patricat said...

Detailed analysis, well done! Together with some useful tips it makes tax issues much easier. I would also recommend Studio tax, though as you properly explain it is not the online tax software. But worth of downloading.

MBA in real estate said...

Thanks for this..The review has come out well.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I just bought the H&R Block At Home Deluxe software and have been very disappointed by the customer support. I may resort to paper.

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