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Last-second personal technology holiday gift guide

Netflix has had some interesting ups downs lately but streaming movies are still grelast-second gift.

Netflix has had some interesting ups and downs lately, but streaming movies are still a great last-second gift.

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Updated: December 23, 2011 11:41AM

Where do you suppose my annual Holiday Last-Second Gift Guide falls on the spectrum of beloved mass-media Christmas traditions? If we place Darlene Love singing “Christmas Baby” on the Letterman show and the “Peanuts” special at the top of the spectrum, and “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” playing in any commercial and the soulless, serial-killer eyes of Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express” at the bottom, I suppose my little contribution would land somewhere around the bottom of the middle fifth ranking.

(That is: I think people recognize and enjoy it when they see it, but wouldn’t notice if it didn’t show up. In that sense, it’s like your Uncle Leland at the family holiday party.)

Once again, I address that worst-case scenario in which you need to come up with a good gift for someone and you don’t even have enough time to run to the convenience store and assemble a bouquet of beef jerky. Here I present my annual list of great electronic gifts that can be purchased online and immediately turned into an email or a printed card for purposes of presentation.

Streaming Movies and TV: Netflix

Netflix is a perennial favorite last-second electronic gift. If your loved one don’t already have a subscription, he or she will enjoy access to tens of thousands of movies and TV shows that can be streamed (via apps) to more or less any device in your house with a color screen and a pulse. If they already do . . . then they’ll enjoy not having to pay for it for a few months.

Go to to state the parameters of your generosity (ranging from as little as one month of service to as much as a whole year) and print a gift card.

2012 promises to be an . . . well, an interesting year for Netflix. Their deal to license content from the Starz cable channel expires in February. It’s not as though Netflix was getting most of their movies and TV shows through that deal -- Netflix says that the content accounts for 8% of its subscribers’ viewing time -- but Starz provided the most attractive first-run movies (like “Toy Story 3” and “The Social Network”) from Sony and Walt Disney Studios.

To be fair, it means that subscribers will also lose all of the movies Jerry Lewis made at the end of his film career as well as lots of made-for-TV flicks based on books written by William Shatner. I mean, who cares about those movies. It’s not the end of the world or even the end of Netflix . . . but it’s worth noting.

Netflix is still a better bargain than Hulu Plus. You can gift a subscription to this premium streaming TV service, but most of Hulu’s subscriber content is either already available on Netflix or can be streamed for free from the individual shows’ websites.

Streaming Video. free eBooks, and Free Shipping: Amazon Prime

There’s a third option for Giving The Gift Of Great Streaming, but it involves a considerable downside and a considerable upside. The value of an Amazon Prime membership has increased dramatically over the past year. Initially, Prime only brought you free two-day shipping and discounted next-day shipping, and that was enough to justify the $79 annual fee.

In 2011, however, Amazon added Prime Instant Video, a service similar to Netflix that streams thousands of popular movies and TV shows. The catalogue isn’t as deep as Netflix’s, nor is it available on mobile devices (except the Kindle Fire, of course). However, there’s plenty of great stuff in there and it works with a large range of TVs, Blu-ray players, and set top boxes (most notably the Roku).

Amazon has also added the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. Owners of actual, physical Kindle devices (Android and iOS app users needn’t apply) can borrow any of 50,000 copyrighted titles at no charge. The book you already borrowed goes away when you borrow another one, and you can only borrow one title a month. But it’s an impressive list of books. It even included a very popular book that I was considering as a gift. The Lending Library let me download it for free and confirm that (oh, dear, no) this wouldn’t be appropriate for a young’n.

The bad news: Amazon doesn’t allow Prime memberships to be given as gifts.

The good news: well, isn’t this exactly the excuse you were looking for? “I know you have a Roku box, and I knew you were getting a Kindle,” you explain to Aunt Mimsy. “And I just know you’ll love the Lending Library and Instant Video. But alas, I’m forced to ask you to sit down and log in to Amazon and then let me make the purchase and charge it to my Visa. Otherwise, I’d have had it boxed and under the tree for you this morning. It’s totally not my fault, I swear.”

Making Photos Sharable and Meaningful: Flickr Pro

Flickr Pro membership continues to be a great gift for the recipient that also pays off for the whole family. Facebook is by far the largest webhost for photos. I say this with regret because Facebook kind of stinks at it. Flickr has better privacy controls, presents photos at much higher resolution, allows for more than a text-message’s worth of description, and even allows friends or family members to download full-resolution files and order prints. All while keeping everything hidden from public eyes if you wish.

I will also point out that if your goal is to share photos with family members and friends, and you don’t wish to share this stuff with the great unwashed Internet public, forcing your social circle to sign up for a free Flickr account is far less irksome and obnoxious than making them sign up for Facebook, and leads to far fewer consequences for them.

The basic Flickr service is indeed free. For $25 a year, however, there are no limits to how many photos you can post, there’s access to full-resolution images, and there are no ads. I’ve been a Flickr user for years and I’m still convinced that it’s the best way to share images, video, and stories within a private and trusted group. Go to to purchase a Pro subscription; it works whether or not the recipient is already a member.

Direct Purchases of Books, Movies, Music, and Apps

Things have changed since the first year I presented my Last-Second Holiday Gift Guide, though. Electronic gifts that you might have once bought out of a sense of obvious last-minute desperation are now simply thoughtful. Every year, more of the people on your gift list would feel silly carrying around an iPad and a hardcover, no matter how much time and thought you put into finding and buying an actual book.

Both of the largest online retailers of digital content now let you “gift” anything in their downloadable catalogues. Both Amazon and iTunes prominently plant “Gift This Item” buttons on every buying page.

(Pro tip: if you know that your cousin is buying her Mom a Kindle but your aunt doesn’t . . . perhaps you shouldn’t allow your Kindle book gift notice to land in her Inbox until you’re sure she’s already opened her presents.)

iTunes goes one better and allows you to gift a custom playlist of music, which will win you points for extra thoughtfulness. Just assemble the playlist in iTunes and then select “Share Playlist . . .” from iTunes’ “Store” menu. Remember, an iTunes playlist can even contain tracks you don’t actually own; just drag tracks from any Store listing straight into an existing playlist.

You’ll need to download and install iTunes before you can access the store and purchase anything, though. Visit to get the app.

(Of course, you could say that Amazon goes you ten better by letting you choose an item from an Amazon user’s Wish List. You can find anyone’s Wish List -- assuming they’ve actually made one, and have made it available for public view -- through

Streaming Music: Pandora

Don’t forget about music streaming services, either. Pandora holds its spot as the essential Internet music streaming radio service (give it a song or a band as a starting point and it’ll “program” a station of music in that same vein...and its choices are usually uncannily good). The service works via both the Web and a wide range of mobile devices. $36 buys a year without commercials, the ability to skip past the songs you don’t like almost as often as you wish (instead of 6 times a day), a higher-quality stream, and a desktop app. Visit to make a gift purchase of Pandora One.

It breaks my heart that it’s not possible to buy gift subscriptions to Spotify. This music service is the closest we’ll ever come to the ideal of “an iTunes where you never have to pay to download anything.” That’s almost exactly how Spotify works, plus it’s almost trivially easy to share your playlists with friends, family, and strangers. And it even lets you stream or install music on mobile devices, via Spotify’s mobile clients.

The Free iTunes Store: Rdio

Of all of the countries in the world that have a stable (-ish) currency, the USA is the only one where gift subs aren’t available. If you’d like to give the gift of all-you-can-eat on-demand music from an enormous commercial library, Rdio is a fine second choice. Visit to purchase a gift subscription; rates vary according to level of service and length.

The great thing about streaming music is that it cuts through the Gordian knot of trying to figure out what music, specifically, someone will enjoy. Don’t buy them one album . . . buy them access to thousands of albums.

Access to a Streaming Game Library: OnLive

The same principle is available to gaming. The OnLive service has a radical approach to running popular, commercial console games. OnLine’s servers actually run the game; a simple, streamlined client app running on a PC, a Mac, or even an Android device (iOS support is waiting for App Store approval) simply sucks down the HD game video and sends up the player’s controller inputs. It’a wonderfully egalitarian system that brings more than a hundred current, hit games to subscribers . . . many of which simply aren’t available for every platform. You’re certainly not going to be able to play “Arkham Asylum” on your Android anytime soon without OnLive.

Visit to learn more about OnLive and to purchase gifts. You can either purchase individual games or monthly access to the whole library. The recipient doesn’t need to be an existing OnLive member.

Digital Comics from Comixology

2011 saw the arrival of a marketplace for a newly-viable form of digital media: comic books. Comixology existed well before this year. But it functioned less like a fully-stocked, high-performance digital comic book store than it does now. They’ve got every major publisher on board . . . and even more importantly, every major publisher has committed to publishing digital editions of their entire comics line on the same day that the print editions hit the stands.

Comics purchased through Comixology can be read on mobile devices (via apps for every platform you can name, including the iPad and Kindle Fire) or on the desktop. And everything you’ve bought can be downloaded and installed on all of the devices you own.

Comixology’s gift purchasing is still in its early stages. It’d be great if you could buy someone a 12-issue subscription to “Justice League,” for instance. But you can visit the online store at and gift any individual issues you see in the store listings. Your giftee doesn’t need to be an existing member of Comixology, nor, incidentally, does he or she need to place a credit card number on file to redeem your gift.

Sometimes, digital cash really is the most thoughtful thing

Finally, let’s acknowledge the shift that’s taken place in how people react to simple gift cards. I wouldn’t say that they’re universally considered thoughtful yet, but there are definitely circumstances in which they’re better appreciated than something that might have cost you a lot more time to obtain. These devices that people own -- their phones, book readers, and game systems -- they burn through expensive content like a furnace burns coal. A gift card from Amazon ( or iTunes (via the iTunes app) might be exactly what they want, particularly if they unwrapped a new tablet or phone in the morning. By the time you show up for the party, they’re probably already twitching to buy something new and pretty to install on it.

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