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Adam Engst No comments

MacInTax review

MacInTax Federal 1990

1721 Pacific Avenue
Suite 100
Oxnard, CA 93033
76702,1174 at CompuServe
SOFTVIEW at AppleLink
[email protected] (Internet format)


9 Penguins out of a possible 10

Summary: — MacInTax is the tax-preparation program of choice, with its intuitive interface, excellent screen display, and accurate printouts. MacInTax makes the task of preparing tax returns almost fun and the program allows you the luxury of being able to try numerous different options in the search for the best result. Marred only by a high upgrade price, MacInTax is a necessity for anyone who prepares his or her own taxes.

User Evaluation: (on a scale of 0 to 10)

Number of responses: 13
Ease of installation: 8
Ease of learning: 8
Ease of use: 9
Power & usefulness: 9
Documentation: 8
Technical support: 8
Overall evaluation: 9

Price and Availability: — Being one of the most popular Macintosh programs ever, MacInTax is widely available from dealers and mail order firms. MacInTax has a list price of $99 and a MacConnection price of $59 (note that we quote the MacConnection price in recognition of the company’s industry-leading efforts to use ecologically-conscious packaging and its overall excellent service). For those upgrading from last year’s version, the price is $50.


Adam C. Engst, TidBITS Editor

Adam Engst No comments

MacInTax Introduction

I first had to pay taxes years ago (OK, four years ago) when I was a junior in college. Before that time, students were more or less exempt from the annual ritual unless they were used as tax shelters by too-wealthy parents (i.e. I didn’t have to worry about that problem). Then all of a sudden, as is so common with proclamations from the IRS, it was decided that students, or anyone over 14, I think, who earned more than $400 had to pay taxes on it. I was incensed, not because I expected to have to pay much of anything, but because I had to fill out the forms and their byzantine instructions (Subtract the value on line 23 from the lesser of the two values on lines 17 and 43, and multiply the result by the number of parrots in New Guinea during the rainy season. That sort of thing.). Although I’ve always done well on tests of all sort (except college Chemistry tests, but that’s another story), I’m fairly bad at following directions. I’ve always gotten by on just figuring out what answer goes where, and usually ended up looking foolish on those tests in high school where the teacher includes in the instructions that you only have to answer odd-numbered questions. I was petrified. Luckily, scanning the nets one day, I came across a shareware program called 1040 Share-Tax, or something like that, from Bammel Software in Texas. It only ran on PC-clones, but at the time I had a PC emulator for my Atari 1040ST (aha, to judge by the model number, the IRS has infiltrated Atari. No wonder the machine did so poorly!). So I downloaded all 300K of the program on my 1200 baud modem (not a pleasant task) and checked it out. Joy and rapture, it really could do my taxes! So that first year I typed in all the numbers that the program asked for and hoped that I wasn’t missing anything. I paid my $20 shareware fee with pleasure, but avoiding ordering the tractor-feed forms the company sold as well – I was still a poor student even if I had earned more than $400. So I printed the draft out, sat down with a pencil, and copied everything over, checking to make sure the program hadn’t made any grievous errors, which it hadn’t.

The years rolled by, and even though Share-Tax did the job, I decided to switch to a Mac program, since I had moved to the Mac exclusively. Testing the 1990 version of MacInTax for this review, I’m reminded of how primitive Share-Tax seems now, but I also remember that the main reason to use a tax-preparation program is to avoid having to do all the calculations, something which Share-Tax did fine.

Originally, the decision about which Mac tax program to buy was trivial since there was only one, MacInTax. This year MacInTax has been joined by ChipSoft’s TurboTax, but from what I’ve heard of TurboTax, MacInTax doesn’t have much to fear yet. Softview knows it owns the Macintosh market, as evidenced by the subtitle on the manual’s title page: "The Income Tax Program." Still, it doesn’t seem as though Softview has let its popularity go to its corporate head, considering its ever-growing number of tax-preparation products (Softview publishes a whole line of tax-preparation products for individuals and businesses) and its forays into the Windows market. So anyway, on with the show…

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MacInTax comes on two disks and requires that you use its installation program to copy the files to your hard disk. The installer program is a special version of StuffIt (but not StuffIt Deluxe) and it isn’t terribly capable – all it does is ask you which folder to copy the files to. The manual tells you to create the folder by hand before starting the install procedure, which I didn’t do in favor of creating a new folder with Super Boomerang when I was in the Save dialog box. The StuffIt installer program is not smart enough to ask for the second disk (I suspect that StuffIt Deluxe-based installers would be quite a bit more intelligent), so you have to insert that disk, run another installer, and make sure to select the correct folder again. It is important that you follow the instructions, though, since the Forms folder and the Instructions folder must be located in the same folder as the MacInTax application. Although this process is a pain, I hear that earlier versions of MacInTax required the user to create all the folders in the proper hierarchy and copy all the files manually into the right folders. The installer is an improvement over that sort of process.

The installation process isn’t done yet, though. To achieve MacInTax’s excellent screen display and accurate printing, you have to install a bunch of fonts, basically various sizes of Geneva and Courier. Softview includes a copy of the Font/DA Mover, but they never mention what you should do if you use Suitcase II or Master Juggler and don’t wish to copy the fonts into your System file. And while the manual does state specifically which sizes you will want depending on which printer you use, it’s too bad that this has to be done manually at all. My feeling is that if an install program should be complete and not force you to run two programs on two disks or install fonts by hand. So while I certainly didn’t have any problems with the installation, I found it a time-consuming, relatively tedious process. Perhaps Softview will switch to StuffIt Deluxe next year and fix up the installation process.

If you don’t have a hard disk, get one. If you want to install MacInTax on floppy disks, the manual includes specific instructions on how to do so. You will end up with a special startup disks with the appropriate fonts, a MacInTax Program disk, and a MacInTax Instructions disk. The manual assumes that you have two floppy drives, which isn’t necessarily true. If you only have one drive, I suspect that installation is possible, but the manual won’t help and it won’t be a pleasant experience.

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The Dirty Work

When you start up the program for the first time, it searches for all the forms (which it does on each startup – kind of irritating) and then displays a window explaining the difference between the various 1040 forms (1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, 1040X for amended tax returns, and 1040-ES for estimated taxes) so you can figure out which one to file. When you select the proper form (1040 is the most common and complex one) from the Formsets menu, that menu disappears and is replaced by Forms, Forms-2, Schedules, Worksheets, and Statements. A rough estimate of the numbers comes up with some 42 forms, 12 schedules, 28 worksheets, and 18 statements. Frank Malczewski, who responded to our user survey, mentioned that one useful form that is missing is Form 5329 (succinctly named "Return for Additional Taxes Attributable to Qualified Retirement Plans (Including IRAs), Annuities, and Modified Endowment Contracts"). This is the form you use if you withdrew money from a retirement plan for one reason or another and have to pay the 10% tax penalty for early withdrawal. Other than this omission (which I hope is rectified next year), MacInTax is quite complete. I’m quite sure that the IRS has more forms in hiding, but those are reserved for individuals that they want to harass for real. After all, the IRS works on a different system from the justice system in the US. With the IRS, you are guilty until proven innocent, and a friend once told me that IRS records are completely confidential, so if you include that income you got from embezzling (as the IRS instructions tell you to), the Justice Department can’t come after you on that basis alone. Of course the IRS can put anyone away for less provocation than that, so I’m not sure the confidentiality of tax returns should be of much comfort to the hardened criminal.

Using MacInTax to fill in the forms (which look almost exactly like the real ones) is ridiculously easy. I’m somewhat embarrassed about the amount of fun I have filling in forms in MacInTax. Basically, you just go through and wherever there is a blank that needs filling in, type into it. If MacInTax doesn’t want you to type into the field because the value is calculated somewhere else, you simply aren’t allowed to type in the field. It would be nice if they would indicate which fields were calculated for you in some unobtrusive manner as well, but it’s not a big deal. The only slightly confusing part of all this arises with some fields like the one reporting wages from W-2 forms. You can enter that number directly if you want, or you can double-click on the field while it is still empty to bring up a worksheet that where you to fill in MacInTax’s facsimile W-2 form. I prefer the second method, because it makes modifications easier (well, what if I had another deduction and they only deducted X from my salary? That sort of thing.), but straight data entry is fine too. In many instances, MacInTax will not allow you to enter incorrect data (unlike ChipSoft’s TurboTax), so you don’t have to worry about accidently entering a capital "O" instead of a zero, or anything like that. Similar nice touches include entering the dashes for you in your social security number, and allowing you to click in check boxes if you don’t want to tab down to the box and hit the X key or type the appropriate number key when you have several choices. What all this boils down to is that Softview has done an excellent job making the process of filling in the forms as painless as possible. One feature that I personally had no use for this year is the ability to enter questionable values, estimates, and unknown values. Entering a "?" after a value marks it as questionable, entering an "e" after a value marks it as an estimate, and entering a "?" instead of a value marks it as unknown. The program treats these numbers as errors (see below, under Help!), so you can easily find them later and correct them when you know the correct numbers. It’s still a nice idea.

One popular feature of MacInTax is its ability to itemize most lines. So if you need to add a bunch of numbers to come up with the value for some line item, double-clicking on that field will bring up an itemization form that lets you enter the item name and the amount that goes with it. You can enter a up to 15 items (each of which can itself be itemized), and the program will total the final amount and display it in the proper field. This is extremely useful for deductions like travel expenses, when there are a number of items that must be considered together to come up with the final result. The only limitation to the itemizations is that you cannot insert or delete a row, as you would in spreadsheet. As such, if you don’t like the order of your itemization or wish to add a line, you have to do all the work manually. Still, that’s nitpicking.

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Converting & Printing

So what’s left? The numbers that you enter into your tax forms come from a number of different sources, and MacInTax doesn’t help a great deal here, although it will let you import data from other applications (the manual doesn’t say which ones are supported) and from text files. If you import a text file, you merely have to select the bit of data to import and then click on the appropriate field in MacInTax. It is no different from copying and pasting, but is significantly faster. I personally use MacMoney from Survivor Software, which doesn’t appear to be one of the supported applications. That didn’t matter much in the end though, because I had to run a bunch of reports in MacMoney to get the appropriate data out. Then I just typed it into MacInTax manually, which wasn’t difficult. If you plan on doing much of anything fancy on your taxes, I highly recommend a program like MacMoney (I believe similar ones are Quicken and Managing Your Money), because such a program turns the yearly chore of tabulating all your receipts and pay stubs and that sort of thing into child’s play. The only trick is that you must keep your financial management program up to date, which isn’t hard, but can take some getting used to.

The other option for getting data into MacInTax is to use the included Convertor application, which can do a number of things. It can convert 1989 data to 1990 data, or at least all that it makes sense to convert (which isn’t much). If you’ve been trying to estimate taxes all year by entering data into the 1989 version, the Convertor will allow you to save the result of all that work by converting the 1989 file format to the 1990 format. If you suddenly realize that you’ve started working in the wrong form 1040 (1040A instead of 1040, for instance), the Convertor will convert the file to a different form, preventing you from having to enter all your data again. Finally the Convertor can convert a Softview Tax Data (STD) file from another program (apparently other programs do support this format, but it would be nice if Softview mentioned which ones specifically) into a MacInTax file.

When you’re done with everything, MacInTax gives you the option of printing the entire tax return with forms and data, just the data (if you are printing on pre-printed forms, I assume, or individual forms. MacInTax’s printing abilities are underrated in my opinion because you don’t have to go out and find any strange forms that you may need for one reason or another. Since all the forms are IRS approved, you just ask your ImageWriter or LaserWriter (I suspect that the new printers and the DeskWriter work equally well) to spit out the form, complete with nicely printed data.

Of course, in this technologically advanced age, you don’t even have to print out your tax return. You can file electronically through a company called SPEED>S, but it will cost you $29.95. As far as I can tell, you have be expecting a large refund for this to be all that financially worthwhile. It also looks like it would as much of a hassle as the normal method of filing, because you have to fill out a couple of extra forms and mail them, unfolded (remember the "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate!" warnings?) in an 8.5" x 11" envelope to SPEED>S. The rest of your forms can be mailed in paper form, sent via fax, or mailed in disk format. Blech. If they’re going to do this right, they should have an 800 number that you can call with your modem as well. There are two advantages to electronic filing – faster refunds and more accurate returns (the latter because SPEED>S checks for accuracy before giving the return to the IRS). SPEED>S can speed up the refund even more, by giving you a Refund Anticipation Loan for the amount you expect to get back from IRS eventually. The loan costs another $39.95, so you’ll be spending an extra $70 to file electronically and get a quick refund. I’d definitely figure out the amount of money you can earn in interest if you opt for that route, because it very well may not be worth it.

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This is probably the most common word associated with tax preparation, and although MacInTax does a good basic job at helping you fill out the forms, it doesn’t do much more. As I said before, MacInTax provides excellent and simple methods of entering correct data and even performs rudimentary error checking along the way. I gather the main lapse is with Section 179 (that’s the form for taking a deduction of something that would normally be depreciated). MacInTax can check for errors with a single Form 4562 (that’s the form you where you elect to take a Section 179 deduction), but if you have more than one Form 4562 or a Form 2106 (I guess a Section 179 deduction works there too, got that?), MacInTax won’t alert you if you go over the maximum allowable Section 179 amount. Oof, that’s confusing stuff (and I know, because I had to deal with it this year). Help comes in three other forms in MacInTax. First, there is a Help Topics… item in the Apple menu that provides help using the program and explains what the menu items do and that sort of thing. Useful, but not exciting. Second, there’s the manual, which is unfortunately necessary reading for certain actions, such as accessing the statement for depreciation calculations on Form 4562. Unless you read the manual, you’ll never find out that the only way to bring that statement up is by double-clicking in either column h or i on line 13. It took me a good two hours to find out what I was doing wrong. The third sort of help is what I was relying on and was what let me down. Whenever you double-click on the instructions or label for a line in MacInTax, the program will display the IRS instructions for that line, if there are any. This is perhaps the main feature of the program, because it eliminates all that nasty page flipping in the IRS booklets trying to figure out what they want you to put where. It also references other IRS publications, so you can collect them all and trade them with your friends. Just call 1-800/TAX-FORM and be nice to the poor operator.

The internal instructions could go farther, as I said, and incorporate some of the information that is otherwise buried in the manual. That would have made my life easier and can’t be all that hard to do. What MacInTax does not provide, other than the occasional exception, is tax hints. Heck, I’ll admit it. I’d like it if the program told me that I should do this or that to save money. In theory, TurboTax does a lot of this sort of thing, but the demo of it that I saw left me completely unimpressed. TurboTax’s interface was terrible, and none of the help looked all that helpful. I guess I’ll just have to make do with what Softview gives me, but I would like some simple tips. Maybe if we all ask nicely? Of course Softview has to be careful not to mislead or provide damaging hints, which may be part of the decision not to include tips.

MacInTax does have a few more pleasant features that will help you complete your tax returns with a minimum of hassle. I am always concerned that I haven’t filled everything in correctly or that I’ve missed something completely. If you miss something, MacInTax will notify you of it before you print, and if you choose Open Forms… from the File menu, you can see a list of forms to open, and the ones that you have started but not finished are marked as "Not Done." If you wish to find the omission, MacInTax will search forward for the error if you type Option-Return. Shift-Option-Return searches backward for errors as well. It’s a tad limited, since it won’t find errors on forms that aren’t currently open. Still, it’s easy to use Open Forms… to open the forms that aren’t complete and then use the Option-Return to search for the error. Finally, there is a Forms Guide feature that will help you to figure out which forms you’ll need from the very beginning. It’s not amazing, but for those who aren’t sure which forms they should file, the Forms Guide will clarify matters somewhat.

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The MacInTax manual is good, but not great. There is an introduction, eight chapters, seven appendixes, and an index. The introduction is just that, and the first two chapters walk you through installation and basic usage. Chapters Three through Six deal with specific ways in which MacInTax deals with the tax forms, and these chapters are the ones that you have to read and reread (don’t rely on the index). Chapter Three is a reference for the 1040, Chapter Four deals with depreciation, Chapter Five covers Passive/At Risk Activities, and Chapter Six handles the 1040-ES form. You are unlikely to need to pore over all four chapters, but Chapter Three is necessary, and the others may or may not be, depending on your situation. I had to read the section on depreciation a number of times before I found all the information I wanted. Chapter Seven covers printing and filing the return, and is probably another good one to read carefully, though I suspect most people will be able to skip Chapter Eight, which covers electronic filing. The appendixes are useful little blurbs on specific subjects, such as importing data or using the Converter application. They certainly aren’t necessary reading, but be aware that some information is only mentioned in the appendixes. The index is mediocre. It’s very specific, which is fine if you really know the tax code well, but in most cases, you only know the generic name of the subject you’re interested in. Softview could easily improve the Index by making it more complete and categorizing better – most of the entries have no sub-entries.

Some of the problem with the manual is that MacInTax itself is so easy to use that few people will feel the need for the manual until they hit a sticky point. Then the manual is a much clumsier method of finding information than the program’s intuitive method of double-clicking on the item in question. I think that Softview should seriously consider duplicating all the documentation online so that the manual is merely for those people who are more comfortable with printed documentation.

Adam Engst No comments


If you still do your taxes by hand with your Macintosh turned off on the desk in front of you, buy MacInTax. If you call MacConnection before 3:15 AM, you can go to sleep and they’ll have it at your door the next day so you can save an incredible amount of time in preparing the stupid tax return. And after you finish the real thing, you can make a copy and start having some fun. We always figure out what the difference would be if we were married (it’ll happen sometime, don’t worry) or if we earned a lot of money (not betting on that one anytime soon). I should mention that if you buy the program when it first starts being advertised, it doesn’t come with all the forms. That’s because Softview hasn’t quite finished programming all of them but wants you to have something basic to work with. When the forms are done (usually by late January or February, I think), Softview sends the updated package to you free of charge if you’ve sent in your registration card. That registration card also entitles you to a less-expensive upgrade the next year, although the price of the upgrade is not much cheaper than the discount price of the new package, a policy about which numerous people have complained to Softview. I’ll just say that I think the upgrade should be cheaper and leave it at that.

Softview also sells forms to prepare a number (I think 14, offhand) of state tax returns as well. However, almost no one who responded to our survey was pleased with the state forms. Apparently, the Pennsylvania forms shipped very late (in mid-March), making several people nervous, and one person said that the convertor did a terrible job of importing data into the Maryland forms. Another person (don’t know which state) agreed, saying he didn’t think MacInTax did a good job of importing data from the 1040 into the state forms. I didn’t get the New York forms to test, so I can’t comment on this, but it is something to keep in mind.

Oh, if you were wondering, as with all the tax programs, professional tax preparers, and the IRS itself, the company tries to make the program as accurate and correct as possible, but in the end, you are responsible for your own tax return. That’s one major reason why I like MacInTax – if I’m going to be ultimately responsible for my tax return, then I want to know what went in and what’s coming out.