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Last-minute gift guide: iTunes, Amazon and Flickr to the rescue

Thanks ubiquitous nature iTunes - iTunes gift card - you've always got this optias last-minute gift.

Thanks to the ubiquitous nature of iTunes - and the iTunes gift card - you've always got this option as a last-minute gift.

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Updated: January 1, 2011 10:52AM



By the time you read this, you will be dead.

As in: “It’s too late to do any more Christmas shopping and you’ve only just now realized that you’ve left out your cousin Walter, and when his mom tells your mom, you’re a dead man.”

You have one obvious option: the drugstore that’s open on Christmas Day. I’m not certain that you can make a Val-U-Pak of 40 off-brand AAA batteries look like a thoughtful and considerate gift, though.

Fortunately, the same world of high technology that does so good a job at isolating you from social contact 51 weeks out of the year can also rescue you from an awkward social situation. Yes, it’s time for my annual list of Last-Second Gifts. You can get any of these presents put together in the short time you have between the phone call that informs you that (whoops) it turns out that your Uncle Gob isn’t too drunk to attend the family Christmas party after all, and the moment when he picks a fight with the inflatable Santa during the walk up to your front door.

Xbox and iTunes Store gift credits

Digital entertainment devices run on three things: electricity, self-destructive obsession, and money. If someone has an Apple mobile device or an Xbox, you can give them something just a little more focused than a couple of Twenties stuffed into an envelope. A gift voucher can be redeemed in seconds and it’ll immediately apply towards all on-device digital purchases, such as games, movies, and apps.

Microsoft, accustomed to thinking of itself as a nation-state, has created their own form of money in the form of Xbox Live Points. Visit Amazon.com to purchase a digital gift card that can be printed right at your desk. Apple makes it just a little more difficult to buy something for an iPad, iPhone, or iPod owner. You can only buy iTunes digital gift cards via the iTunes desktop app. Visit itunes.com for the free download.

Books, music, and movies

Game and music store vouchers go over exceedingly well. But sometimes you’d like to either (a) indicate that you put some specific thought into what this person would enjoy, or (b) inflict your tastes upon someone else.

Amazon and Apple are happy to help you articulate either objective. The Kindle ebook reader is a big gift in 2010; hop on over to Amazon.com and browse through hundreds of thousands of ebooks that can be Gifted electronically. Your recipient will receive a code that will gift them with that exact item.

The iTunes Store goes one better: nearly anything in any department can be Gifted. Music, movies, TV shows, apps, games, books ... it’s all up for grabs. As with the Amazon Digital Downloads store, you can either print up something that you can lovingly fold and put inside a card, or else iTunes will just email a redeemable code to your recipient.

Amazon offers you some extra ammunition in the Hunt for the Perfect Last-Second Gift. Instead of just guessing at what they’d like, click on the “Wish Lists” link at the top of Amazon’s main page and search for the recipient’s name or email address. If they’ve made their wishlist public, you’ll be able to pick and choose something cheap(er) ... ”tasteful” ... and they’ll have abdicated any possible right to complain about it.

Comics

Shopping for electronic editions of books, movies, and music is little different from shopping for the kinds made from old-fashioned, tawdry molecules. Amazon and iTunes have become so successful that there’s little you can’t buy electronically. But one form of mass-entertainment is still just outside of their reach: comic books.

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited isn’t perfect. It’s a web-based reader that doesn’t allow you to download comics to your desktop or a mobile device. And it mostly offers back-catalogue issues. But what a catalogue! It’s like having a friend with a 9,000-comic collection, who’s extended an open invitation to paw through them whenever you want.

Visit this Marvel site to arrange yearlong access to the service. It’ll run you $59.88. That’s a bargain; it’s about half the cost of the pizza that I used to guilt-trip myself into paying for, back when I was regularly abusing a friends’ comic collection.

Music Subscription Services

Gluttony is underrated. Why would you want to hear only a fraction of the millions of songs available from Amazon or iTunes?

Fortunately, Pandora agrees that the Seven Deadly Sins go one step too far. Pandora is the hugely-successful 21st-century revamp of radio. The streaming music service — available via just about any desktop or mobile device — has millions of songs but more importantly, Pandora knows how they all relate to each other. If you give it any single song as a starting point, it’ll program a virtual radio station that streams hours of music that it thinks you’re going to like as much as your first selection.

The service is free. But if you gift someone with a $36 “Pandora One” subscription, they’ll get all of this music at higher quality, without any of the ads, and without the “40 hours a month/5 hours at any given shot” time limitation. Hit Pandora’s gift site to get the ball rolling.

Netflix

Netflix had a great year in 2010. And with the availability of the Netflix app on just about any home or mobile-media device with a pulse — including any PC or Mac, all Apple iOS devices, Android phones (in 2011), and many disc players and set-top boxes — a subscription to this video service seems to be edging towards something essential. If Netflix gets any bigger, signing up for the service will be a box you can check on your driver’s license renewal, along with organ donation.

If someone doesn’t already subscribe, you can correct this situation with a gift subscription. Head on over to Netflix.com/gift to set someone up with their own prepaid account. If you just want them to have access to the streaming content — which includes tens of thousands of movies and TV shows online, but no physical DVD deliveries — the service is just $7.99 a month.

Flickr

Speaking of services that everyone should have: when I learn that somebody doesn’t use Flickr to backup, host, and share their photos, my immediate reaction is “Why on earth not?” I feel as though the answer will teach me something about this individual. Maybe they still shoot film (warning to self: prepare for the 20-minute lecture about “the presence of the moment” and “previsualization”). Maybe they’ve never heard of it (Why the bloody hell not? Aren’t they reading my column?). Or maybe they just ain’t right in the head.

OK, admittedly, that last thing is an irresponsible snap-judgment.

But I still insist that no other photo service is anywhere near Flickr’s league. It presents your photos in full, lush glory, and allows you to be as quick or as elaborate as you wish in telling the stories behind them. You can add photos to your galleries via whichever mechanism you find most convenient: export them from your desktop photo apps, upload them through Flickr.com, or send them directly from your phone. And you can exert very fine control over who gets to see which parts of your Flickr feed. There are separate levels of access for Friends, Family, and Strangers.

Basic access to Flickr.com is free. A “Pro” account allows the user to show off as many images as they wish. Go to Flickr’s gift site to buy someone a year of enhanced access for $24.95

Admittedly, it’s like buying and hand-delivering a box containing way more Godiva chocolates than they can ever eat on their own. It’s a selfish gift that benefits you as much as it benefits them. If someone has a Flickr account, they’re going to post and share more photos, for sure.

Or how about a real photo?

There’s a certain charm in sitting down at your computer for a half an hour and then getting up with all of your shopping done and all of your gifts in hand, either in the form of a redeemable code in someone’s Inbox or as a nifty printed card that you can then fold up and tape to the side of a box of Limited Edition Gingerbread Pop-Tarts.

But don’t overlook the valuable treasures that are sitting in your photo library. Whether it’s a cracked old photo on your wall or a fresh JPEG in your photo library, images are the repository of a flood of good feelings and kind thoughts.

Whether you’re reading this early or late, think about someone you truly love and care about, and then remember that almost every drugstore has a photo printing kiosk and a selection of tasteful frames.

They also have tacky calendars, off-brand chocolates, and MP3 players made by companies normally associated with windshield wiper blades. I think you’ll agree that any of those things are substantially less likely to be kept, and cherished, as a keepsake snapshot of a moment — or a person — that’s long gone but fondly remembered.

But if none of these gift ideas seem promising, don’t be afraid to park your car out back and spend Christmas in the basement with the lights turned out. The holiday is supposed to be about spending time together as a family, after all. If your spouse or kids complain, it just proves that they’re a bunch of damned hypocrites. You can use that as ammunition in any future argument.



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