(Terry Wilson II/Flickr)
If you’re as big a shopping doofus as I am, then this is the time of year you start to sweat. The holidays are breathing down your neck, yet you still haven’t bought gifts for the people you love (not to mention those you loathe).
Praise the Internet, many of the best gifts — like music, books, games, and movies — are available in digital format, which means they can be both bought and given electronically.
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In other words, you can shop right up until the moment the reindeer hooves hit the roof, and still have your presents delivered before Saint Nick shimmies back up the chimney.
There are a few things you need to know before you let your fingers do the shopping. Is your giftee an Apple fanboy or an Android acolyte? Does she own an Amazon Kindle or a Fire tablet? Does he play games on a PC, an Xbox, or a PlayStation? Some digital content travels easily across multiple devices, but most is specific to a piece of hardware or an operating system.
Ideally, you want to buy a gift that’s personal — a book or a song or a game you know that person will enjoy. Whether you can actually do that, though, varies widely depending on the online store. In many cases, your only option is to buy a gift certificate and let her make the choice.
If your giftee is part of the Apple cult, you’re in the best shape, as Apple is at the top of the heap for digital gifting. Google is surprisingly lame. Here are your options for digital gifts, from best to worst.
Apple iTunes Store
Got an iPhone or iPad aficionado on your list? Apple makes giving him media or software amazingly easy — provided that you have iTunes installed on your own computer. Launch iTunes and find the item you want to give. Click the down arrow next to the price and select Gift This Movie (or Album, Song, App, and so on).
Add the email address of the recipient and a message, and then select the day you want it to be delivered. On the next screen, choose the theme for the email message (like Holiday — duh). Click Buy Gift on the confirmation screen, and you’re done.
If you don’t have iTunes software or an Apple ID, you can still buy a gift card directly from the Web. Visit the iTunes Gift Card site, and select Buy from the Apple Online Store. Pick the value of the card ($25, $50, or $100) and then Add to Cart. It really doesn’t get easier than that.
Want to buy your spouse an ebook? Go to the title you want, and pick Give as a Gift under the Buy now button. Enter her email address and the delivery date. She’ll receive an email with instructions on how to download it. If she doesn’t own a Kindle ebook reader, she can still read the book by downloading the Kindle app to her phone, tablet, or PC.
Digital music takes a few more steps. Get to the music you want to give, select More Options, and then Give Album or Song as Gift. Fill out the recipient’s info and place your order. He can listen to it using Amazon’s music player or just download the file to his computer.
Want to give someone a digital copy of Elf or A Christmas Story to spread some holiday cheer? Sorry, Charlie. You can’t gift instant video. But you can buy a year’s worth of Amazon Prime ($99), which includes full access to a library of (mostly older) TV shows and movies, as well as two-day shipping on Amazon orders.
You also can’t send a game or app for someone else’s Fire tablet or TV. But you can buy Amazon coins (1,000 coins for $10) to buy apps, or gift cards for any amount from 50 cents to $2,000, which your loved one can exchange for the item of his choosing.
Is there a PC or Mac gamer in the house? The king of downloadable games for desktops and laptops makes it really easy to buy games for others. Just find the title you want, click Add to Cart, and then Purchase as a Gift.
You then get the option of emailing a link where the recipient can download the game, sending it directly to her Steam account (if you’re friends with her on the service), or storing it in your account to deliver it later. You’ll have to create a Steam Community account to do the latter. Steam purchases are not refundable, and there are no gift card options, so choose wisely.
So your son is a total Halo junkie, and you want to get him the downloadable version of Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Unfortunately, Microsoft won’t let you gift individual games or any other digital goods by name.
You have two options: You can buy an electronic Xbox Gift Card in any amount from $5 to $100. But the 25-digit redemption code will be emailed to the address you use for your Microsoft Live account; you’ll have to forward the email or print it out to deliver it.
Option two: Order a digital gift card for anywhere from $10 to $100, which he can spend anywhere on the Microsoft Store, including on games, apps, movies, and more. Visit the digital gift card site, pick your design, enter the recipient and delivery date, and then your payment information. Both you and your recipient will need to have a Microsoft account in order to spend it, naturally.
Your niece has a PlayStation 4, and you want to buy her one of those groovy indie games like Entwined. You can do it, but you’ll have to jump through a few hoops.
Start by visiting the PlayStation Digital Content store on Amazon and searching for the title you want. When you find it, click the Buy and get code button.
Once you complete the purchase, Amazon displays a voucher code that lets your niece log on to the PlayStation Network and download the game. But you’ll have to print out the code or paste it into an email — there’s no gift card option.
And you’re out of luck if you change your mind; there are no refunds or exchanges. That’s why a safer option may be a PlayStation Network Gift Card, which you can also purchase via Amazon in amounts from $10 to $100. Again, though, you’ll have to figure out how to deliver the code yourself.
The makers of the Wii U console and the 3DS handheld player don’t make it very easy to give presents to the Super Mario fans in your household. Not all titles are available for download; you’ll have to look for them on Nintendo’s digital e-store.
When you find one you want, click the Buy digital button and fill out your information. A download code will be sent to your email address; you’ll then need to forward it to the recipient.
Google Play Store
Google’s digital gifting scheme appears to have been designed by the Grinch. If you want to give someone an app, book, song, or video from the Play store, you have to go into a brick-and-mortar establishment like Target or Walmart and buy a plastic card. Yes, really.
“You can only buy the gift cards in physical retail stores and at this time you can’t gift digitally,” a spokesperson confirmed via email.
To quote another famous Christmas crank: Bah! Humbug!
Send holiday greetings and spiked eggnog to Modern Family columnist Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.