It's February, and your mailbox has already been filled with year-end statements, W-2 forms and 1099s. You know what that means ... time to start thinking (at least) about doing your taxes.

So in the interest on discouraging procrastination, we're going to provide an overview of your tax-preparation options.

Clearly, you can always opt for professional help. (For some encouragement to do your own taxes, see Why Aren't You Doing Your Own Taxes?). But if you're game for preparing your own return, tax software is the best way to go for many people.

The two top software packages are Intuit's TurboTax and H&R Block's TaxCut (formerly Kiplinger's TaxCut). For the most part, these packages have had the same tried-and-true formats for several years. Both use a question-and-answer format to garner the needed information and ascertain eligibility for a wealth of deductions and other tax breaks. Both offer access to more information wherever needed. Both offer Web versions of their products, electronic filing, and they come in a range of versions that very well might be more than you need.

TurboTax offers its standard Basic ($19.95, includes one free federal electronic filing after rebate) and Deluxe ($39.95, includes one free federal electronic filing after rebate and one state product). New this year is TurboTax Premier, which includes the same perks as the Deluxe as well as two new products -- its Deluxe retirement Planning and Deluxe Investor, both of which can also be bought separately.

The investor edition offers useful tools like a cost-basis calculator, 401(k) "maximizer" and an "IRA Analyzer." The retirement edition provides similar tools, such as the "Retirement Planner" and "Retirement Age Analyzer."

While there's little to critique about TurboTax's format, there is a caveat in its installation. In an effort to prevent customers from passing the software around, it can only be "activated" (read: used) on one PC. The software comes with an anti-piracy product called SafeCast (made by Macrovision) to ensure proper use. There's been some consternation over a hidden program that's a part of this product. Called C-dilla, this program constantly monitors your PC, ensuring that whenever TurboTax runs, it matches the activation code on the PC. (This program isn't included on the Macintosh version.)

The anti-piracy measures Intuit has taken to protect TurboTax are understandable, but can make its installation a bit inconvenient. As for C-dilla, Intuit has responded to concerns in no uncertain terms, saying that the monitoring software does not transmit any information from your computer to Intuit. To uninstall SafeCast or learn more about the product, see the Q&A at Intuit's Web site

H&R Block's TaxCut also provides a variety of packages, including Standard ($14.95), Deluxe ($24.95, includes one free federal electronic filing and one state product) and Platinum ($39.95, includes everything in the Deluxe version, plus additional research and one "Ask a Tax Advisor Service" after rebate).

TaxCut Platinum allows households to complete multiple returns from different computers. It also includes a variety of tools to help calculate the tax consequences of stock options and other investments, as well as home-business issues.

New Game in Town

There's a new kid on the block this year -- the Web-only Taxbrain. Taxbrain's pricing depends on the form you file. The 1040EZ will cost just $19.95, the long form costs $39.95 and state returns are $12.95.

Taxbrain has teamed up with John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the ubiquitous J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 2003, to provide comprehensive aid in filling out the forms. Taxpayers can file electronically or print out the documents and mail them.

Whether you choose to use Web-based software or install it on your computer is entirely a matter of preference. All three provide ample security for the information kept on Web clients, which is typically held for seven years. Given the chaotic pricing and plethora of package options all these companies offer, make sure you know how long your information is held and how you can access it before you purchase the software. Always keep a hard copy of your tax return and related documents, no matter what type of software or method of filing you choose. has a revenue-sharing relationship with under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from