Like many of you, Ive been avidly following the DRM dust-up between Intuit and unhappy TurboTax customers. And because I edit ExtremeTech, Ive had a professional as well as a personal interest in the outcome. While I shared the outrage of ExtremeTech members, I knew it was important that we do a thorough and impartial job of separating fact from fiction.
But along with my technical interest in how Intuit did (or did not) implement Macrovisions SafeCast, Ive had a more personal stake. For the last seven years Ive been a faithful user of Intuits Quicken and TurboTax products. I live my financial life mostly through Quicken, and then every year I feed my tax data right to TurboTax – it makes filling out those IRS forms a breeze. But as the story developed, I wasnt so sure about this year – could I have turbo-ed my last tax return?
Before my recommendations on what you should do, its probably worthwhile to review how we got where we are today – with hours and hours of exhaustive lab testing, thousands of angry messages from users, and finally, significant changes from Intuit in how TurboTax is protected and used.
Turn the page for an in-depth time-line of how the TurboTax / SafeCast problems first surfaced, and what Intuit has done so far to address the problems. If you just want to know whether to use TurboTax or not, head right to our What Should I Do section.
TurboTax DRM Timeline
January 7, 2003: PC Magazine publishes its annual round-up of tax software, giving both TurboTax Premier and H&R Blocks Taxcut an Editors Choice award. The TurboTax review mentions the addition of DRM in passing, but doesnt make a big deal of it.
January 7, 2003: The first of many angry notes are posted in PC Magazines on-line discussion area. Many postings accuse TurboTax of hijacking CD burners, crashing systems and other nefarious behavior. Many users focus on the fact that the DRM software cannot be uninstalled, even after TurboTax has been removed.
January 9, 2003 : ExtremeTech posts a news story that covers user discontent with the DRM implementation inside TurboTax. ExtremeTechs discussion boards overflow with rancorous comments from disgruntled users.
January 10, 2003: PC Magazine adds a news story about the user flap, expanding on its review and detailing both sides of the issue.
January 10, 2003: Community manager Jim Lynch fans the flames with his opinion piece about the TurboTax situation.
January 13, 2003: Intuit responds by adding a SafeCast uninstaller routine on its website, to help address some of the problems. Many users remain unconvinced.
January 15, 2003: Macrovision provides ExtremeTech with more details on how the SafeCast DRM used by TurboTax, and its SafeDisk technology work.
January 17, 2003: Nick Stam, head tech honcho at both ExtremeTech and PC Magazine writes an open letter to Intuit, imploring them to listen to customers and to explain more about how the copy protection scheme purchased from Macrovision really works. At the same time, PC Magazine Labs and ExtremeTech begin what would turn into three weeks of testing to find out whats really going on with TurboTax and SafeCast.
Mid-January, 2003: Intuit updates its software to add enhanced form entry and viewing capability to un-activated versions of TurboTax. Intuit also announces that it will release a completely un-protected version of TurboTax in October 2003, to safeguard customers who may want to view and print returns in the future.
February 4, 2003: ExtremeTech posts Part One of its test results, detailing some of the issues involved in installing the software, and setting up Part Two of its test results to be posted a few days later.
February 7, 2003: Based in part on the user backlash in the ExtremeTech forums, Arcsoft begins to evaluate other DRM offerings to replace SafeCast in its trialware.
February 10, 2003: ExtremeTech posts the final results of all the testing, which details some of the problems other users have found, including system crashes, disabled software, and sneaky disk writing to the undocumented Sector 33 of the boot track.
So What Should I
So what should you do? If youre a long-time user of TurboTax, or of Quicken, is it safe to use TurboTax this year? Are there other alternatives?
Well first of all, Intuit has made some major changes in its approach to SafeCast – in part, Id like to think, because of our dogged coverage of this important issue.
You can now upgrade a store-bought version of TurboTax to get a complete SafeCast uninstaller. That upgrade also gives you more flexibility when using the product on an un-activated computer. And by offering a completely unlocked version of TurboTax in October of 2003, Intuit has blunted another whole set of concerns about access to returns in the near and distant future.
As I said at the top, Im a long-time Quicken and TurboTax user. The tight integration between Quicken and the tax software really does make filing taxes much easier. For me, it would be a huge liability to move away from TurboTax, even to another fine product like TaxCut.
Im Staying With TurboTax: (check prices) Had I been forced to use the first version of TurboTax, I would have jumped ship. The inability to uninstall SafeCast, along with potentially losing access to my return down the road would have simply been too much to bear. But with those two items fixed, Im grudgingly going to stay with TurboTax this year.
Im still not happy about the problems reported by some users when they attempted to change a hard drive, or move an activated installation. Im also very concerned about the use of Sector 33 on the hard drives first track. So I plan on installing and using TurboTax on my second machine at home – the one my wife usually uses. That way if it breaks, I wont be completely out of luck.
If youre a long-time TurboTax and Quicken user like me, you have a complex return, and can put up with some of the possible annoyances, Id recommend sticking with what you know. The ability to integrate with prior year returns, along with all your Quicken-based financial data outweighs the possible problems. But there are other options.
Use Common Sense: If youre an enthusiast who enjoys building and modifying machines, dont use that machine for your taxes! Set aside a stable machine that wont set off Intuits DRM alarm bells. Thats what Ive done with my wifes machine. You dont need 3D graphics and 3 GHz to do your return.
TaxCut Premier: (check prices) Remember that PC Magazine also gave H&R Blocks tax software an editors choice. If youre at all wary, and youre not concerned about integration with past returns, or Quicken, TaxCut offers a very viable option. It works well, and lacks DRM-style product activation.
Tax Act: Although it didnt win any awards at PC Magazine, many of our readers have suggested it as a lower cost alternative. At around $10, it certainly is priced right! Weve got a complete review if youre interested in this alternative.
Go Online: If your return is reasonably simple, and you have a broadband connection, dont forget the online options! Both H&R Block and Intuit offer robust websites where you can add all your return information. Beware, though, because prices rise on both sites after April 1st. A less expensive way might be to use 2nd Storys site, which costs less than $10 to file a return. For more details, take a look at our story detailing online options. In any case, make sure you print out a copy of your return for your records.
Free Filing with the IRS: Finally, if you meet certain eligibility restrictions, mostly concerning total salary, you can file for free! Head over to the IRS site for more details on eligibility and how to get started.
Get a Refund: I hope you will on your taxes, but if youve already purchased TurboTax and all these problems now deter you from using it, you should be able to easily get a refund from either the store where you bought it, or directly from Intuit. Nick Stam decided against using TurboTax this year, and received a prompt refund right from Intuit!
Last Word: Lets face it. Doing taxes is hard work enough! Why does Intuit have to add all this fear, uncertainty and doubt into the mix. Change your tune next year Intuit, or I just may have to switch to Microsoft Money!