Explainer: Last-minute gifts that take seconds to deliver
One of the nice things about living in the future is that you can give meaningful gifts without ever getting up from your computer. No, we're not talking about gifting FarmVille livestock in Facebook — though those might get some people choked up with gratitude. But we're also not talking about anything you have to ship in advance or anything you even have to go to the store to buy.
If you are in a ridiculous hurry, but you still care what your cherished friend or family member thinks about you, look into the following gift ideas. These are gifts that can be delivered in a matter of minutes or even seconds. And while they may be digital gifts, they'll mean as much as something tangible — and hopefully a whole lot more than some old virtual pig.
Just be sure to follow up. If the e-mail notifying your loved one of your gift gets lost in the spam filter or some other back channel, all those generosity points will go to waste!
This year, Amazon is allowing shoppers to give any of the 750,000 Kindle books (that is, the ones that aren't free) to anyone with an e-mail address. "But what if they don't have a Kindle?" you ask? If they have a Mac or PC, if they have an iPhone, iPad, Android phone or BlackBerry or even Windows Phone 7, if they have any of those devices — or a Kindle — they can read the book. It may be a little cruel to make someone read Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" on a tiny iPhone screen, but all of those apps are free. Once they get the book, they can decide how to read it.
You can buy an iTunes gift card in any grocery store, but its convenience makes it, let's face it, pretty uncool. Proving your love is greater than $15 while spending about that same amount can be done by building your own playlists. To do it, you just build your song list in iTunes, name it something, and then click the little right arrow next to its name in the Playlist menu. You'll be asked if you want to publish or gift the playlist. The rest is pretty self explanatory, just be aware, if you send a $12 playlist to four different people, you'll be out $48.
One more caveat: The order of the songs can get messed up in the process, so spend your time on the selection, not the arrangement. But if you're worried about giving tracks or albums they might already have, if they bought it through iTunes, the system will let you know of the duplication.
If you know someone who owns a computer and likes to play games, then sending them a game through the online Steam service is a fantastic option. Steam is a digital game distribution service that offers more than 1,100 games that can be played on most computers. There are big-name hits like "Call of Duty: Black Ops," casual games like "Bejeweled 3" and great indie games like "Death Spank." They also offer packages of multiple games for one affordable price.
Meanwhile, each day Steam is offering deep holiday discounts on some great games. For example, as of right now, you can find this year's excellent game "Assassin's Creed II" half off — $15 rather than $30. You will have to create a Steam account of your own to send a gift, but it's no more difficult than setting up an iTunes account. And here's a handy-dandy guide to gifting games through Steam.
Hulu Plus subscription
Giving the gift of Netflix was cool when nobody had Netflix, but now everybody has Netflix. What are you supposed to do? How about a Hulu Plus subscription? Though there's some overlap, the two video services actually complement each other nicely.
You can be a loser and buy a $7.99 1-month subscription, but then you're basically acting as a Hulu pitchman. Step it up to 3 months for $23.97, or be a real mensch and get the 12-month for $95.88. If you're good at math, you can tell Hulu's not doing anyone favors for buying in bulk, but all the more reason that the bigger gift should be respected.
You can deliver your gift via e-mail, or in an attractive printed card. (OK, a printed sheet of paper is never that attractive.)
Humble Indie Bundle (with charity bonus!)
Another great gift option for the computer owner/gamer in your life is the Humble Indie Bundle 2. Right now, through Dec. 25 at 3 p.m. PST, you can pay whatever you like to send five truly superb, independently produced games to anyone you like.
Simply go to the site, decide how much you want to pay for the excellent games "Braid," "Osmos," "Machinarium," "Cortex Command" and "Revenge of the Titans," and they will send you a gift download link that you can e-mail to the gamer on your list. Your money not only goes to some of the most talented indie developers out there, it also goes to two charities — the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child's Play (which helps sick children). And you even get to decide how much of your money goes where.
But the deal gets even better. If you decide to pay more than the average amount of money that others have paid for this bundle (right now that's $7.47), then you will be able to gift 11 games total. The additional package includes award-winning titles such as "World of Goo," "Aquaria" and "Gish." (Here's more on the Humble Indie Bundle.)
Beatles Box Set
If you're too lazy to build a playlist, you can always gift albums, movies or even apps (assuming the recipient has an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch). But again, don't be predictable. If it's someone you really care about, go big. There's so much extra material crammed into the Beatles Box Set that even Beatles lovers who have most or all the studio albums would love getting it, even if they wouldn't spend the $150 themselves. It may be a bit of a "Hail Mary" gift, cost-wise, but hey, if you're in the doghouse and want to get out fast, without a trip to the mall, that's an option. Just sayin'.
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