Have a Merry e-Christmas! Consumer’s Guide to Downloadable Gifts

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There’s nothing like opening a present, but in a world of computers and smartphones, digital gifts are becoming increasingly trendy.

Gift cards, e-books and apps may not have the charm of something wrapped up with a bow, but they’re popular alternatives and can be bought on the go.

Here’s what you need to know to navigate a holiday shopping season without wrapping paper, envelopes or even little plastic cards.

E-books

You can still buy bestsellers for loved ones who have swapped their paperbacks for an e-reader such as Amazon.com’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Sony’s Reader.

Of the three, Amazon is the only one that lets you choose a specific Kindle e-book to give as a gift.

Barnes & Noble and Sony direct you to purchase a physical gift card or send an electronic one via email, either to yourself to print and present, or directly to the recipient.

To buy a book for a Kindle owner, head to the Kindle e-book store on Amazon’s website.

Click on any book title, and you’ll see an option to ‘give as a gift’.

Amazon will send an email to the recipient once you finish checking out.

When the recipient gets the notification by email, he or she can click on a link to accept the gift and send the title to her Kindle device.

This works the same way for people who use Amazon’s Kindle software to read books on smartphones and computers, too.

If the recipient loses the notification email, you can go into your own Amazon order history and resend it, for no extra charge. And if it’s a book the recipient has already read, she can exchange it for Amazon.com credit.

One downside if you like to get all your holiday shopping done early: Anything you order is instantly delivered.

iTunes apps

For the uninitiated: Apple’s iPad tablet computer and iPhone smartphones can be loaded up with music, movies, games, books and useful (or frivolous) programs called ‘apps’ through Apple’s iTunes store.

You can buy a plastic iTunes gift card where gift cards are sold, but you can also send almost all of those types of media as gifts.

You’ve got to download the iTunes software and create an account if you haven’t already. Then, in the iTunes store section, browse for the album, TV series or game of your choice. Next to the button prompting you to ‘buy this album,’ there should be a little arrow.

Click it and pick the option to give as a gift instead.

There is one major exception: Apple doesn’t yet allow you to give e-books as gifts via iTunes.

And as with giving Kindle e-books, gifts from iTunes are delivered when you pay for them, making advance holiday shopping a challenge.

Group-discount sites

Some of the most-talked-about start-ups are group-buying sites, and Groupon, which just went public, is king of the heap.

These companies send emails to their members every day advertising a special deal at a local shop, restaurant, spa or other business.

Once you buy a deal, it’s stored in your account. When you’re ready to use it, you can either print out the voucher and turn it in, or you can pull it up using a smartphone app once you’re in the store.

The number of Groupon-esque sites is growing by the day.

If you’re interested but don’t know where to start, you can sign up with a deal aggregator like Yipit, which collects all the deals in your area in a single email.

If you see a deal that will make a perfect gift, Groupon and LivingSocial make it pretty easy.

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