Hartford Courant from Hartford, Connecticut on March 12, 1998 · Page 58
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Hartford Courant from Hartford, Connecticut · Page 58

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Thursday, March 12, 1998
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F4 THE HARTFORD CO U RANT Thursday, March 12, 1998 PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY Software Programs To Help Ease Tax-Time Headaches By WALTER S. MOSSBERG ' Wall Street Journal As regular readers of this column know, I regard today's personal computers and software products as unacceptably complex. The instructions on how to use them are generally impenetrable, and the organizations that design them are unresponsive to their users. But there's another common "product" average Americans encounter every year that is even worse on every one of these scores: the federal income tax code. Compared with doing your taxes, hassling with a PC is a day at the beach, unless your taxes are very simple. This isn't a tax-advice column, and I am as hapless as any of you at figuring out the tax laws. But I have been using tax-preparation software for more than a decade to help me wade through the morass. And in recent days, I've been conducting my annual review of the leading tax 'Starfleet' Best As Shoot-Em-Up; Help Designing Your Own Home CD-ROM REVIEWS Title: "Star Trek: Starfleet Academy" Subject: 3-D action simulation Formats: Windows 95, Macintosh Manufacturer: Interplay Price: $45 Web site: www.interplay.com Devotees of the Star Trek phenomenon will often say they like the shows' optimistic vision of the future, the allegorical exploration of current social issues, the interesting interplay of characters. But however highbrow the interests they profess, some sneaky little part of them just gets a kick out of seeing a bunch of ships in space shooting at one another. Interplay's "Starfleet Academy" offers fans the action they've come to expect from "Star Trek": officers tensely report casualties as the ship shudders with enemy phaser fire and impossibly noisy space explosions flash on the main view screen, all with stellar graphics and to a pounding score. In the game, you are a cadet at Starfleet Academy, the interplanetary West Point of the 23rd century. As a hopeful for the captain's chair, you have to complete dozens of mission simulations while trying to get your mismatched crew to work together. Veteran "Trek" stars William Shatner, George Takei and Walter Koenig are aboard for yet another go-round as Kirk, Sulu and Chekov. They can perform these roles in their sleep, and it often looks as if they are. Similarly, the video segments of the arguing cadets play either as meaningful psychological drama or bad acting, depending on your opinion of similar stuff on the TV shows. But great acting certainly isn't the goal here. The action-oriented missions range from something as simple as shooting out a bunch of mines to making "first contact" with a newly discovered alien race. There are opportunities for character interaction, in which you get to pick a response from a list of options, but the right answer is usually a no-brainer. The game's emphasis is definitely on space battles. These battles, presented in a flight simulator format, are fast-paced, requiring you to master a score of keyboard commands to operate the weapons, tractor beam, transporter and other systems. But the learning curve isn't too difficult; most players familiar with action games should have little trouble picking up the commands. For those more interested in Star Trek's platonic side, the game has little to offer. Also, "Starfleet Academy" isn't the slickest fly-and-shoot simulator available, nor the most inventive. But most fans will welcome the opportunity to immerse themselves in their beloved "Star Trek" universe. - Lorraine Wang Title: "Design Premier" Subject: Home design Format: Windows Manufacturer: Expert Software Price: $30 Web site: www.expertsoftware.com Many of us know what our dream home looks like - in our dreams. But you can get a much more realistic picture on your computer. "Design Premier" can help. It gives you full access to home design, landscape design and computer-aided design in one affordable, easy program. Recently I used it to help a friend programs: TurboTax by Intuit Inc., and Kiplinger TaxCut by Block Financial Corp. 1 checked out the "deluxe" versions of these products, which contain video and audio clips in which experts offer tax advice, as well as more text help than the basic versions. I used the Windows versions of both, though each has a Macintosh version. As in the past few years, the two programs are nearly identical in design and functionality. Both interview users about their financial situations and then create a tax return, and both are inexpensive. They cost roughly between $10 and $35. depending on individual discount-store prices and rebates and whether you choose the basic or deluxe versions. Companion state-tax programs cost extra, usuallv about $25. Both products do many typical, and even moderately complex, tax returns competently. But neither is a good choice for people who have tax situations filled with gray areas. IS create a family room and kitchen, although I have no drawing skills. It was easy to design the rooms, landscape the exterior and then take a three-dimensional walk-through. The program not only lets you create your dream home; it also offers built-in loan-amortization and cost-estimating tools for your projects. You can use one of the existing floor plans as the "building block" for your home; design a floor plan in 2-D and simultaneously watch your creation come alive in 3-D. Select from more than 600 pieces of furniture, accessories and appliances; add columns, windows, doors and other design features to create a unique dwelling. You can design or create your lot with surface variations including ditches, mounds and ponds. Use the plant-care database to select the trees, plants and flowers best suited to your climate and place them in different locations throughout your yard. Add sheds, gazebos, patio furniture, swing sets and other garden accessories to your yard from the libraries of objects. Use the Landscape Preview feature to see how your greenery will grow over time. The computer-aided design feature allows the designer to have a "virtual workbench" to customize anything in "Home Design Premier." With this tool, individuals can design and build objects that do not appear in the program's extensive libraries. Take on projects such as building a deck, creating custom furniture or adding custom win-' dows and doorways. Expert Software commissioned Steve Davis, a free-lance software developer with a background in 3-D graphics and computer-aided design, to create this program. While taking on that project, Davis took on another one - building his own home, in Oklahoma. Buy at Wholesale pnces light, at the show from the experts: Up to 50 companies. We feature the IBMPC compatible market From full systems to libanes of CDs, it s aU here. Adm $7 ea. with ad $5 ea. Alter t :00 pm $4 each wad ONLY. 1-91 North turn right oil exit 36, heading East on Rte 178 toward Windsor Fourth left onto Sage Park Oust before 2nd stop sign right onto school properly. l-91South: LEFT off exit take fourth left onto Sage Pa. jv2H DISCOUNT TICKET I jyfl COGAN FAIRS 10:00 AM -4:00 PM Mr requiring legal advice or professional judgments on how to comply with the often vague and arcane tax laws. For such people, an accountant is far preferable. I give a slight edge to TurboTax because of an interface that is a little nicer, has a few minor features I prefer and a 84-page manual, while TaxCut has only a small quick-start brochure. Another point in favor of TurboTax is that it computerizes all state income taxes. TaxCut only handles 24 states in its Windows version and a paltry five states in its Mac version. (Connecticut is available in Windows.) But TaxCut is usually less expensive, so if you have Windows, or don't wish to do your Connecticut taxes by computer, you won't go wrong by choosing it. Although TurboTax still dominates the market, TaxCut has improved a lot in recent years and has gained market share impressively. There are three big changes in tax software this year. First, you "I had purchased a one and a half-acre plot and was ready to begin building," said Davis, 31. "So it was quite a coincidence when I ended up creating 'Home Design Premier' and my own home at the same time." By experiencing the home-building process firsthand. Davis said, he was able to make enhancements to "Home Design Premier" based on his personal experience. "We made most of our design decisions based on what we created using the program, and that saved us time and money," said Davis. Roy Bassavic Miami Herald Title: "Movieoke" Subject: Movie version of karaoke Formats: Windows, Macintosh Manufacturer: Bandai Digital Entertainment Price: $30 At first glance, it might look like Dennis Miller has made another questionable career decision in hosting this CD-ROM, like those dopey M&M commercials last year. But "Movieoke" is actually a lot of fun, showcasing Miller doing what he does best: being wittier than you. The concept is pretty self-explanatory: You (and friends) pick one of the available movie clips from flicks like Ed Wood's legendary stinker "Glen or Glenda?" or "Planet of Blood," a sci-fi flick featuring a younger-but-still-creepy Dennis Hopper - and rerecord the dialogue. As you emote away into your computer's microphone, the manic Miller cheerfully prods you along ("Let's hit it this time!"). Play it straight or ham it up; either way it's a hoot - although it would be easier to time your delivery if the script advanced a line at a time instead of paragraph-by-paragraph. But with only a dozen scenes to play with, there aren't nearly enough film clips, and none exactly ranks as classic. Maybe the people who put this together are hoping that people will fork over more cash for the inevitable "Movieoke" expansion discs. Bottom line: Perfect for your next "Mystery Science Theater 3000" get-together. - Mike Musgrove Washington Post Energy Conservation $ Improvement Thermal Windows and Doors Become one of the thousands Ty V 1 of satisfied fth st a I customers. K , ; f , Lower Fuel Bills Reduce Maintenance I s 1 .On iM Vn, ir ynmn .I XnKmn TtnnfWiWft Wnrmntll E . K' r usuuiiiy ivui yuuic r uicuiuc nui laiciuuic WINDOW & DOOR SYSTEMS, LTD. 20 RAILROAD AVtY-r " WEST HAVEN, CT 06516 203-933-2201 800-682-9888 40-50 OFF CUSTOM TABLE PADS Dept. Store Prices ASK ABOUT OUR SPRING SALE SPECIAL GUARD YOUR TABLE AND SAVE! Order with confidence from Amerii a's oldest and largest table pad company. Our free measuring service assures an exact fit. No advance deposit or messy C.O.D. You pay nothing until you receive your table pads and are completely satisfied. 30 year limited warranty. 724-5311 -Ext. 136 OUTSIDE METRO 1-800328-7237-Ext. 136 can now file your return electronically free, a privilege that once cost more than $20. TaxCut offers free filing of the first return in both basic and deluxe versions. TurboTax has free filing for your first return only in the deluxe package and requires you to send in a rebate coupon to avoid any charge. Second, both programs now have scads of information about the effects of the complex 1997 tax law on both your 1997 and 1998 returns. One reason I give the edge to TurboTax is that it does a better job of presenting such tips at relevant places when you are providing information about your financial situation. Finally, each allows you to do your taxes directly on the Internet and file electronically without having to buy any software. But they follow differing approaches. TaxCut's on-line version, which costs $19.95 including electronic filing, is essentially the same as the internet Hour Explore Comics And Animation Like so many other Web publishers, Marvel Comics recently announced it's going to start charging for its content. But what it has to offer is more than standard magazine fare. Marvel is charging visitors to view its CyberComics: dynamic, animated versions of the classic comic book favorites like Spider-Man and the X-Men. And their popularity may prove profitable. Meanwhile, you can spend an hour getting your daily dose of Dilbert and other comics in multimedia formats for free. Stay tuned to see which sites get the last laugh. MARVEL ZONE PREVIEW, 15 MINUTES www.marvelzone.compreviewzonepreview.html Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man continues to swing across the Web for a fee. You can preview a Marvel CyberComic for free to see if the animation is worth your cash. The color, of course, is really saturated and the sound effects are pretty cool. A great site for diehard fans and collectors, the Marvel Zone also has an excellent example of Web animation. DILBERT 3DZONIMATIONS, 5 MINUTES www.unitedmedia.comcomicsdilbertvrml View comic vermin in VRML. Well, OK, Ratbert isn't featured yet. So far there are three of Scott Adams' strips rendered in virtual reality, all of which show Dogbert pitching the pointy haired boss some scam. Though it's always interesting to hear characters come to life, the Dilbert Zonimations lack the three-panel punch of comic strip timing. View one and you get the idea. MACROMEDIA SHOCKRAVE TOONS, 15 MINUTES shockrave.macromedia.commemberstoons Macromedia presents a gallery of ShockRave toons. Most of these are not for the squeamish, though "South Park" and "Ren and Stimpy" fans won't be disappointed. Even the seemingly innocuous "Peanuts" cartoon has a sorcerer's apprentice Snoopy manipulating Woodstock's winged parts. The "Dilbert" animation works better in this format, IMHO, and may be a glimpse of the upcoming animated TV show. The best of the bunch, though, is "YukYuk." Be sure to check out the Zen kitty litter box. YUKYUK.COM, 10 MINUTES www.yukyuk.com YukYuk's creator, Chad Frick, has a nice animation style. His comics are a bit more interactive than others. They're not really comics, per se, but weird little creatures oddly drawn and animated. For instance, you can mix and match the dance moves of his ravers or interact with The Amazing Flippo. There are also some bizarre marine inhabitants of GIF Animation Reef underwater world. C0MEDYCENTRAL.COM, 15 MINUTES www.comedycentral.comsouthpark "South Park" fans will appreciate the loads of games here based on the Comedy Central TV show. Direct Cartman around a maze to eat all the Cheesy Poofs while running from anal-probing aliens. Play Tetris with Kyle, Chef and Ike. And of course, there's trivia and cool downloads. LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE l)c Jtartforft aufant vnunuiny J . , -j, I mm f nr TABLE PAD CO. e sr niry, m SINCE W11 disc version and requires a tedious download if you have a typically slow modem. But it stores all your financial data on your own PC, for maximum security. Turbotax charges only $9.95 for its on-line version, including filing, and requires no download time. But its on-line product is a limited version, incapable of doing most complicated returns. And your sensitive financial data are stored on Intuit's computers for four years, where it could be more vulnerable to a subpoena or a hacker than if you kept it at home. For this reason, I'd be hesitant to use it. A third company, Universal Tax Systems, which doesn't sell a traditional tax software program, also now offers tax preparation and filing for $14.95 through an Internet site called SecureTax. But I found its design cluttered, and it crashed on me using the latest versions of both Netscape's Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. When you use SNET' as your long distance carrier. Choose SNET All Distance for your long distance calling and get unlimited Internet access for only $17.95 a month. That includes free browser software, a free personal home page, 5 e-mail boxes and local access from .ff3Ss anywhere in Connecticut. So sign up now and start saving with SNET. jjSr WWW.SNET.NET 1 - 8 0 0 -4 0 8 - 8 2 8 2 Mm and MimWions snplv Software mwifltl u sultd to CKrtmft minimum sywro reQuupment wm W nil ifti i il ii One reason vjSiy Rensselaer is the est choice for your graduate degree! Reason 1 OUR REPUTATION We are proud of our national reputation as a top-tier technological university and our one hundred seventy-four year history of educating the leaders of tomorrow. For even more reasons why Rensselaer is the right choice for you, or for additional infoniiation about our Master's Programs and other courses offered, call Enrollment Management at (800) 433-4723, Ext. 480. 275 Windsor Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06120-2991 (860) 548-24(00 One big problem with both TurboTax and TaxCut in the past has been errors in the programs. This year, the errors seem minor, so far. in rushing to ship TurboTax, Intuit left out a number of forms, which must now be downloaded from the Web. TaxCut left the Mac version entirely out of its first batch of CD-ROMs, promising to supply it free later. Also, Intuit screwed up the electronic filing of about 100 customers who used its on-line version and is now fixing these returns and offering rebates to the victims. TurboTax has an "update assistant" built in that automatically checks a Web site for any fixes that have been issued to correct or update the program, and TaxCut also directs you to check its Web site for such changes. You need access to the Web, obviously, and both companies offer 30 days of free access. These packages won't make the tax code simpler, but they can limit the damage it does to your nerves and your wallet. illllMIl J

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