Tax software buyers' guide.
While these changes are under way, the industry is going though a period of consolidation--buyouts and mergers--generating intense competition among the surviving vendors. Such moves generally are good news for users because they typically result in lower prices and better products.
THE HIGH PRICE OF CHANGE
However, mergers can cause problems. Prentice-Hall, which was acquired by CLR/Fast-Tax, is inviting its users to convert to CLR's GoSystem or Easy-Go. Tax Resources was purchased by Lacerte and FlashTax announced that it has quit the tax software business.
This consolidation trend alarms some users, especially those who use the smaller, lesser-known vendors that are more likely to be acquired or go out of business, leaving their customers as orphans. Small vendors face particularly difficult obstacles these days. First, in order to stay competitive they have to convert to Windows--and that's an expensive investment. On top of that, if Congress approves a major change in the tax law, they will have to revamp their software--adding another expensive burden.
Windows is now nearly universally accepted. In 1994, 5 of the 19 vendors we reviewed ("Spotlight on Tax Software," JofA, Oct. 94, page 49) offered Windows versions (Veritax, ProSeries, Tax Relief, ProSystem fx and GoSystem). This year, TaxWorks and Package EX have tentatively announced Windows versions for the 1995 tax year and eight additional vendors are committed to launch Windows versions next year.
Unlike other accounting software users, tax preparers generally have been less interested in switching to Windows tax packages. Yet despite the cool reception, vendors believe they see the handwriting on the wall: While many of these tax preparers may not want it now, they will be eager buyers soon.
Another factor is the drop in hardware prices. Many CPA firms have been hesitant to switch to Windows because some of their computers aren't able to handle the operating system's hardware needs. But that's changing: The continual drop in computer prices has led many to junk their 286 and 386 models and upgrade to 486s and Pentiums.
In addition, the introduction of Windows 95--the new Windows operating system--is luring more CPAs into the Windows camp. Because of this, few software packages, except for a handful of unique industry-specific applications, are committed to further enhancements of DOS applications.
The relatively high cost of tax software has long been a deterrent to tax preparers. In fact, some small CPA firms and those who prepare few returns often substitute inexpensive personal tax software. That may be changing this year as prices drop for the professional products. Of the 19 reviewed, 5 high-powered professional packages now carry renewal prices for 1040 software (including one state and laser-printing software) of less than $1,000. Most also offer attractive limited-use pricing for both 1040 and business returns.
THE SUITE SWING
Accounting software developers, recognizing that CPA firms provide many services in addition to tax preparation, are beginning to follow the lead of the major software vendors--Microsoft, Novell and Lotus--by working toward suites of integrated applications. The move makes sense. After all, CPA firms often use software from different vendors for tax preparation, planning and research, accounting, write-up, audit and time and billing. Since individual applications generally generate their own databases, staff members must learn how to use each--which makes for lots of extra training. Integrated suites simplify things: They provide a common approach to data entry since each application works off a common database. In addition, they link easily to other popular software, including CPA firms' clients' general accounting packages and tax planning and electronic tax and accounting research programs. And they provide enhanced practice management tools.
CLR, publisher of GoSystem and Easy-Go tax software, took a big step in this direction last year by purchasing Prentice-Hall and Sequel-McGladrey, adding accounting, write-up, payroll, fixed assets and audit packages to its growing family of products. Additionally, CLR now markets electronic tax forms, sales tax and other software to both accounting firms and corporate tax departments. A new Micro Vision suite includes Excel, Timeslips, BusinessWorks, Laser Librarian and its own business tax software--all for $995. Creative Solutions, Intuit, SCS/Compute and TAX$IMPLE also have taken steps in this direction.
Since the Windows operating system lends itself to such integration, expect to see this trend accelerate.
Because of the fierce competition, deep price discounts, especially for first-time users, are common. As a result, instead of listing first-time prices in this article, we show the more stable renewal prices.
To make this guide easier to use, we've broken the listings into three segments along natural marketing lines: (1) 1040 software priced under $1,000, (2) software suitable for both multistate regional and national firms and (3) tax software for the mainstream tax practice.
There are many choices available for under $1,000, including both DOS and Windows products. Of the five in this category, three--Intuit's ProSeries, Micro Vision's Tax Relief and Cold River's Veritax--are available in Windows versions, with TAX$IMPLE promising a 1996 release. Except for Veritax, all are available for DOS as well. In addition, ProSeries has a Macintosh version. Despite their low prices, many software packages in this category compare quite favorably, feature for feature, with the more expensive products.
ProSeries Intuit Phone: (800) 934-1040
DOS Mac Windows
Intuit's ProSeries 1040 is designed for the small and medium-sized tax preparer. The program is available for all 44 states that impose income tax. Features include an integrated tax-planning worksheet to explore what--if scenarios, an integrated married-filing-joint vs. married-filing-separate (MFJ-MFS) worksheet, a comprehensive online help system, a client status screen showing completion-review dates and free-form comments and a final review that includes diagnostics, tax savings suggestions, Internal Revenue Service audit flags and a list of overrides and file notes.
New for 1995
* Interchangeable client files allow both DOS and Windows users to access and work on the same material.
* Forms now dynamically expand for data entry, eliminating the need to create and access supporting worksheets.
* Unlimited copies available for all IRS forms, K-1s and assets.
* Pull-down pick lists added for each form to improve data entry and accuracy.
* Federal and all related state returns can be printed at one time.
* Data import capabilities for 1040 expanded to include Quicken and Managing Your Money as well as Quick-Books, Accountant's Trial Balance, ACCPAC, DacEasy, Peachtree and other popular business accounting software.
Tax/Pack Professional Alpine Data Inc. Phone: (800) 525-1040
Alpine's Tax/pack Professional is a Windows release for 1996 is planned.
New for 1995
* Full mouse support for aH schedules.
* Transmittal letter now handles federal, resident and nonresident state and local information.
* K-1 information automatically transfers from the partnership and S corporation return to appropriate 1040 returns.
* The program can automatically duplicate an MFJ return into two MFS returns.
* Quick access for default state resident return.
* Includes checkboxes with a notepad and custom forms to indicate whether to include with federal and state returns.
* New batch printing capabilities for federal and state extensions.
* Multiple state processing for 1040 preparation.
Veritax Cold River Software Phone: (800) 837-4829
Available only for 1040, this new Cold River Software Windows program is the lowest-priced tax-preparation package included in this review ($495 renewal for federal and state), making it competitive with the popular personal tax packages. Despite its low price, it is feature-rich, including automatic calculation and TrueType fonts. It allows unlimited simultaneous multistate processing and automatic calculation of MFJ-MFS, including a calculation of the state tax impact. Fixed assets can be shared by multiple activities.
New for 1995
* Sales of assets automatically carried forward from the depreciation module.
* Systems diagnostics expanded and print speed enhanced.
* Interface navigation options improved.
* Support for both asynchronous direct and indirect electronic filing.
* Filing instruction letters and invoicing capabilities.
SOFTWARE FOR REGIONAL-NATIONAL FIRMS
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the lower-cost alternatives are software packages marketed for use by offices of national and large regional firms. These programs include practically every conceivable tax form and schedule required for a business. They provide support for individual, business and estate packages for practically every state. And they can handle the most complex returns and offer practice management features required to track return status in large offices.
This high-end group includes A-Plus-Tax by Arthur Andersen, GoSystem by CLR and ProSystem fx by Commerce Clearing House. While these packages may not be the only tax software used by national and international firms, they are the only ones that can handle the diversity, complexity and scope of the large national and international firms.
As with the lower-cost packages, Windows is definitely the operating system of choice. Both ProSystem fx and GoSystem offer Windows versions, and A-Plus-Tax plans a 1040 version for 1996 release.
A-Plus-Tax Arthur Andersen LLP Phone: (800) 872-1040
A-Plus-Tax offers a comprehensive DOS product line achieving integration between the federal and multiple state modules by requiring the user to code specific data on the federal screens. Data entry supports both batch and interactive input. Underlying schedules during interactive input are accessed by drilling down. Users are frequently required to enter multiple, application or sequence codes (including state coding)--all of which require a sound knowledge of the program because look-up information often is sketchy.
The 1040 software supports all taxing authorities with the exception of Puerto Rico. Business and estate modules, which offer some support for 28 states, provide the least coverage of any product in this elite group. The program provides interfaces to Bureau of National Affairs tax planning and to tax research products of CCH, BNA and RIA (Research Institute of America).
A-Plus-Tax requires a significant time investment to fully understand its capabilities. It does not have some of the practice management features that its competitors include, such as processing status of returns and preparer-review notes. Nor does it include features such as MFJ-MFS comparisons and what-if analyses, which are included in low-cost and mainstream products.
New for 1995
* A Windows-based 1040 version to be released in January.
* Three additional states added to business modules.
* All federal and state documentation added online.
* Modem support available for all DOS program.
GoSystem Computer Language Research Inc. (CLR/Fast-Tax) Phone: (800) 327-8829
GoSystem for DOS (called GoSystem 2) and GoSystem for Windows provide the comprehensive forms, national state coverage, products and features needed to meet the needs of large national practices. Both batch and interactive processing are fully supported.
Interactive data entry is made to its Electronic Organizer screens, arranged by category (lowest level of detail). After entering all the data and computing the return, users can view data and extensive diagnostics in IRS-form format. Changes may be made at any level. Prompts and special coding can allocate income and expenses to resident and any nonresident state and for passive, at-risk and expatriate calculations. An extensive help system includes instructions for IPS forms and publications, the Internal Revenue Code, Treasury regulations and RIA's Federal Tax handbook. Direct links also are provided to BNA and RIA Onpoint. As with other high-end products, the learning curve is extensive.
GoSystem, as well as EasyGo--CLR's DOS product marketed to smaller firms--has extensive practice management tools. The program provides for assignment of returns to staff members, due-date scheduling and tracking, a comprehensive status tracking (with up to 16 levels) and time logging for all work, broken down by tasks. Additionally, GoSystem provides space for preparer and reviewer notes, as well as footnotes to be included with the return. Color symbols identify existence of notes and underlying detail. E-mail capabilities are included, too.
New for 1995
* Input capability added for state estimated payment made after yearend.
* A reason for a second extension request can now be added.
* Navigation streamlined and custom letter capabilities enhanced for Windows version.
ProSystem fx CCH Inc. Phone: (800) 457-7639
GoSystem fx, whose DOS and Windows versions are shipped only on CD-ROM, is a comprehensive program that provides support for all states (for residents, part-year residents and nonresidents) in all modules, as well as a number of cities, counties and municipalities. (CD-ROM, which stands for compact disk-read-only memory, is an efficient method for storing huge amounts of information on a disk the same size as a music compact disk. The information can only be read, however; it cannot be changed as if it were on a standard floppy disk.
To support the complexities required for the most difficult returns, the system has extensive special coding options for allocation between schedules, for state and city purposes and for passive, at-risk and expatriate calculations. In many instances, although the program defaults to normal treatment if special codes are not entered, the software requires training to become proficient in it.
The Windows program, based on the DOS product, offers the advantage of multiple windows and improved printing and facilitates use of ProSystem fx's extensive help system. The software tracks status of returns in progress and allows review notes to be attached to individual files.
New for 1995
* General ledger and time and billing interfaces established for Windows.
* Interface for CCH Tax Assistant for S Corporation.
* Improved installation and print capabilities.
* State modules for exempt organization and estate tax returns added.
* Electronic filing for states added.
TAX SOFTWARE FOR MAINSTREAM PRACTICE
These packages are marketed to mainstream firms. While they do not try to be all things to all users, they generally are designed to be easy to learn and use. Most have more powerful state packages than their lower-cost alternatives and provide sound technical support. Some have a strong national presence; others are more regional.
These 11 products, unlike the software on either end of the spectrum, were all sold only as DOS products in 1994 (CPASoftware and TaxMachine also offer Unix versions).
Two vendors have promised 1995 Windows versions: Package EX and TaxWorks; six others are promising Windows next year. The remaining three have not announced plans to convert.
CPASoftware CPASoftware Phone: (904) 434-2685
CPASoftware is a sound character-based tax product with primary 1040 support for batch input-sheet data entry. Screen layout, help screens and manuals are designed for easy learning; it uses consistent commands throughout the various screens. State support is strong for both 1040 and business packages.
While the product does not offer estate software, its fixed asset depreciation calculation is comprehensive and allows for multiple asset sales within one transaction. The package does not include MFJ-MFS comparisons, and automatic multistate processing is limited to two states.
New for 1995
* Forms-on-screen, an interactive entry method available for 1120, 1120S and 1065 products, is available for individual returns as well. Additional questions needed to compute the return, but not on the form, can be accessed through pop-up screens.
* Online help expanded to include the entire preparer's manual as well as some IRS instructions.
* All tax products can access research materials on CD-ROM from within the software.
* Fixed-asset entry, within the depreciation module, simplified to improve data entry.
* Automatic multistate processing expanded to include at least three states. Digitax Cold River Software Inc. Phone: (800) 432-1065
Digitax is a strong regional tax package, providing support for major eastern states as well as California, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The program supports only interactive input. Input screens are organized by type of income expense category rather than IPS form sequence. When entering data, the user is asked to select the categories needed for the client and then pages down to bring up each selected schedule in sequence to simplify calculations. Additional schedules may be added during processing. State forms and instructions are comprehensive. Documentation and screen layout make learning easy. Updates may be obtained at any time from the company's bulletin board.
Simultaneous multistate processing is limited to California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia. There are no what-if analyses or practice management features.
Its sister package, Veritax, is Cold River's Windows tax product.
New for 1995
* Seven additional forms to 1040 federal program.
* Multiple recipient distributions for federal and state 4972 computations supported.
* MFJ-MFS computation extended to calculation of total tax, including proper allocation of itemized deductions in noncommunity states.
* All manuals are now available electronically, allowing complete search, browse and print features.
* Rhode Island and South Carolina added.
Lacerte Tax Software Lacerte Software Corp. Phone: (800) 765-7777
While integration may be in vogue, Lacerte remains committed to tax software as its only business. This year it added Tax Resources customers to its fold; last year it added jet-tax and Diamond customers.
Interactive input is by type of income and expense, rather than the conventional IRS forms approach. The screen layout, help screens, well-written manuals and support are effective in reducing learning time and improving efficiency. The software supports unlimited multistate processing and links to BNA for tax planning. Lacerte now supports all states with an income tax for 1040 preparation and 26 states for business purposes.
While many vendors now offer software on CD-ROM, Lacerte's approach is particularly noteworthy. New customers in 1994 received two additional CD-ROMs, including the complete Lacerte software for 1990 to 1993. Thus, all programs can be accessed from the CD-ROM drive, eliminating the need to maintain prior-year programs on the hard disk. Users may choose which software to load onto the hard disk. Seldom-used programs can be accessed from the CD-ROM. The Updates module checks file dates on the hard disk to determine what files must be uploaded, making regular updates quick and painless.
New for 1995
* Support provided for 15 additional states for business tax packages.
* 706, 709 and 990 federal return programs distributed on every CD-ROM, available as needed on a pay-per-return basis.
* Self-study continuing professional education courses are expanded, including product tutorials and t-related topics.
* A Windows 95 version being beta tested in 1996 release.
LMS/Tax SCS/Compute Inc. Phone: (800) 488-0779
LMS/Tax typifies the midrange tax product. Offering sound national coverage for both 1040 software and business packages, it supports both batch and interactive input. Input entry can be made either by IRS form or by income-expense categories. Batch input is designed for fast heads--down entry.
The help system is comprehensive for both federal and state forms and there are program updates on the company's toll-free bulletin board.
LMS/TAX includes a one-year tax planner and what--if analyses. The program offers more than 50 optional worksheets and extensive diagnostics. it integrates with Datawrite, ATB and the add-on Taxi bridge to reduce the need for duplicate data entry for business returns.
Practice management features include statistical reports, client tracking and the ability to export to word processors and spreadsheets. Screen layout, documentation and help screens all create a user-friendly product.
New for 1995
* 1995 programs available on CD-ROM.
* Customizable description lists to speed data entry for common names.
* Label printing capability for K-1 recipients.
* Five additional states and one city for 1040; one additional business state added.
* Additional forms for power of attorney, foreign income exclusion, net operating loss carry forward and schedule B worksheets.
Package EX ExacTax Inc. Phone: (800) 352-3638
A new entry in our roundup, Package EX covers many western and eastern states for both 1040 and business products. The software supports both interactive and batch processing, with input to IRS form schedules.
A "quick code" feature allows substitution of short numeric codes for some input text, ranging from common charities and banks to frequently used tax return phrases found in the forms. Help is line-sensitive, covering all federal schedules. Users may hotkey to their tax research package. While the software will run on older PCs, slow calculation and processing routines make 486 or Pentium machines highly desirable.
Status codes provide a quick summary of work in process. Multistate processing is provided. Any two 1040 state returns and up to nine business returns can be processed simultaneously. Tax planning features are limited. Some note capabilities are included. The product is available on CD-ROM.
New for 1995
* Windows version to be added.
* Improved network and communication setup.
* A letter requesting missing client information added.
* The output view now includes both graphic and text modes.
* Seven additional 1040 forms and states added plus federal schedule H.
* Time and billing manager added.
Pencil Pushers Tax Software Damirus Corp. Phone: (800) 370-2500
Pencil Pushers, starting with its New England base, has expanded its 1040 software to all tax states and widened its business and estate support to key states such as California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio.
Pencil Pushers' character-based software provides for complex returns, supports multistate processing, automatically generates MFJ-MFS comparisons and supports tax planning (with an add-on module) and what--if analyses. It handles both batch and interactive processing. Input is by a combination of income-expense category and IPS form. Use of function keys and commands are unique to the product, which makes learning a little slow. The complete instruction manual is accessible online, using occasional humor to make learning more enjoyable.
The current package includes a bonus CD-ROM disk of all 1991 to 1994 software (federal and state) so prior year tax software can be accessed easily. Pencil Pushers' "Lite-Pay" option offers a lower-priced alternative for smaller firms.
New for 1995
* Forms added for unlimited foreign tax credits, recapture of federal mortgage subsidiary, qualified electric vehicle credit and credit for FICA taxes paid on tip income.
* 1040-V payment voucher now included.
Professional Tax System Tax and Accounting Software Corp. (TAASC) Phone: (918) 493-6500
Offering strong national coverage for both 1040 and business products, the Professional Tax System is a strong entry for mainstream tax preparers.
The package is designed for interactive input, using conventional IRS form input. While calculation is on demand, the user may view a tax summary at any time during data entry to check accuracy. Diagnostics not only point out missing data but describe assumptions made by the software for potential gray areas and as an error-detection safeguard.
Corrections can be made directly in form-view mode before printing without re-entering the input mode, as most other tax packages require. The program includes an integrated tax planning module and what-if analyses and supports unlimited multistate processing. MFJ-MFS comparisons are not available. It provides seamless integration with TAASC's accounting and depreciation software.
New for 1995
* Data files stored in compressed format.
* Prior-year data transfer rolls forward to applicable state information.
* Improved flexibility for printing supplemental schedules.
* Depreciation asset capacity increased to 999 assets from 500.
RAM RAM Software Inc. Phone: (800) 888-6217
Although RAM is one of the smallest of the software vendors covered in this roundup, it's a company on the move, with individual tax support for most taxable states. Business software is limited, however, to California, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
Data entry is made by income--expense categories. Screen layouts, available commands and help screens make learning and use easy. Data entry is among the fastest of any product tested.
The software includes automatic MFJ-MFS comparisons, permits multistate processing for two states, performs what-if analyses and tax planning and allows notes and supporting schedules to be attached to every input field.
New for 1995
No appreciable enhancements were noted.
TaxWorks Laser Systems Phone: (800) 230-2322
TaxWorks is a well-designed, full-featured program that includes network support, laser forms and electronic filing capabilities in its base price. The 1040 product offers national coverage for many states, and the business and estate software covers 15 large states.
The integrated individual and business screens support both batch and interactive processing, using an IRS form view. The program handles multistate processing for all states automatically, what-if analyses and tax planning (although not integrated with tax preparation). It's possible to attach supporting schedules to any one within the tax return directly from the input screen. Totals carry forward to the screen in red to indicate the presence of the underlying schedule. A complete IRS help system is line-sensitive and includes reference to federal regulations. State help is sketchy.
The view and print options are very flexible. After calculating the return, the user may view any schedule, print single or multiple copies of selected schedules, federal, state or complete returns.
New for 1995
* A 1994 CD-ROM version includes the entire Taxworks library. Software not purchased now can be accessed from the CD-ROM and printed after obtaining "pay-per-return" authorization.
* K-1 viewing and printing options improved to allow access and printing from tax return view screens.
* Status codes can help track redturns.
Tax Machine SCS/Compute Inc. Phone: (800) 326-1040
Tax Machine is a feature-rich package well suited to both medium-sized and large firms. It's especially good for use with complicated tax returns. Extensive setup options allow customization of the software based on each firm's practice.
While both batch and interactive data entry are supported, screen layout and prompts favor interactive input: Data can be accessed from IRS schedules or directly to the 1040 form by calling up supporting schedules from each line. Line-sensitive help screens are available for both federal and state forms. The company claims support for every line of every form. Support is also provided for automatically generated MFJ-MFS returns, unlimited multistate processing capabilities, what-if analyses and a fully integrated tax planning module. Practice management features include a status tracking system and user notes.
The program is integrated with Datawrite and ATB, and the add-on Taxi bridge supports imported trial balance data in both the 1040 and business packages from virtually any accounting or write-up software. Well-designed screen layouts and the extensive help system make this comprehensive package easy to learn and use. SCS/Compute provides toll-free modem update capabilities.
New for 1995
* Available on CD-ROM.
* Customizable description lists to speed data entry for common names.
* Label printing capability for K-1 recipients.
* Optional worksheets include NOL carryforward, depreciation in order entered and schedule B to tie back state and federal exempt interest. Foreign tax credit added to the 1041.
* Client letters allow up to 50 standard paragraphs.
* Two additional 1040 and three business states. Also added: pro formas for 1041 and 5500 returns, and the 709, 990 and 5500 returns.
Ultra Tax Creative Solutions Inc. Phone: (800) 968-8900
Ultra Tax offers a strong national tax product, with coverage for the majority of 1040 states and for most major business modules. However, 1041 support is available only for Florida, Indiana and Michigan. Both interactive and batch processing are supported, and the user may choose to input data in either the IRS form or by income-expense category. It's possible to call up a tax summary at any time during data entry to validate entries made; these data can be viewed as a separate window. Conventions used within the program, while consistent with Creative Solutions's other products (Write-Up Solution 11 and Office Management Solution), do not follow standard practices, leading to a longer-than-average learning curve. The manuals, video and tutorial provide sound training aids.
Ultra Tax offers unlimited multistate processing. It automatically calculates MFJ-MFS and supports both what--if analyses and integrated tax planning. Business software accepts input direct from Write-up Solution 11 and from ATB.
New for 1995
* 990 and 5500 programs added.
* Support included for oil and gas schedules for 1040 and 1065 programs.
* Expanded state and local tax preparation programs now total more than 100 programs.
RELATED ARTICLE: Why You Find Bugs Among the Bytes
Hardly a software package is introduced without some programming errors--or bugs, as they are called in computer parlance. But tax software is unique in a couple of respects--and more vulnerable than most other packages. Here's why:
Each tax package actually contains many integrated software products--federal and several states and cities. A federal package that supports all 44 tax states actually has over 44 different software applications. In most cases, each must be revised every year.
Even if the tax law does not change, most of the taxing authorities make numerous modifications to forms, which also means revisions must be made in the software. On top of that, the vendors make their own updates--to improve user--friendliness, add features and improve processing. After all that, software companies must submit their individual programming interpretations of ail changed forms to various tax authorities for approval--further complicating the situation. Some vendors must change as many as 300 programs.
While the IRS is generally prompt at approving each vendor's programs, many states are slow to respond, which delays shipments of some state programs until late January. While such delays and errors are often unavoidable, the vendor's response to them is what's important to users. Many customers measure a vendor's value by determining how a buggy program was corrected. Were the errors reported immediately? Was a fix made quickly? These are questions that many customers should ask before switching to a new product. Where can they get that information? The best place is from current users. Ask the vendor to supply a list of 10 or so users and check them out. The process may not be foolproof, but it should provide key data for a buying decision.
SAM W. STEARMAN, CPA, is the principal of an accounting and management consulting firm bearing his name, with offices in Oceanside, California, and Carson City, Nevada. He is a member of the American Institute of CPAs.
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|Author:||Stearman, Sam W.|
|Publication:||Journal of Accountancy|
|Article Type:||Product/Service Evaluation|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1995|
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