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11 online subscription services that make great holiday gifts

Startups of the form "X, but for Y" ("Twitter, but for video!"; "Uber, but for private jets!") are eminently mockable, but some Xs are worth copying. Netflix, for example, sparked a thousand imitators applying its approach to everything from video games to kids' toys. Here are eleven subscription-based startups to keep in mind as gift-buying season approaches.

  1. Gamefly / EA Access

    GameFly is probably the closest analogue to Netflix's old, "we'll mail your movies and you can send them back whenever" business model out of any of these, with the possible exception of BooksFree. For $16 a month, you can rent out one game at a time for just about every modern console, as well as PC and Mac. For $23 a month, you can get two at a time. EA Access, by contrast, is more like Netflix's current streaming model, and lets Xbox One players use a library of Electronic Arts titles for $5 a month. Polygon's Chris Plante notes that limiting selection to one game company's products is rather constraining, but if you really love FIFA, Madden, and other EA games, it might be worth looking into.

  2. Moviepass

    "Netflix but for movies" was obviously taken, but MoviePass applies the model to films still in theaters. For a monthly fee (which varies by location; it's $30 a month in DC) you get free access to one 2D movie a day. That rules out all day, three-movies-in-a-row cinephilic binges, which is too bad, but especially in major cities where ticket prices easily exceed $10, it's quite a deal. Even casual fans who see three or four movies a month could save a bit. It doesn't work at all theaters, especially art house ones, but the big chains are generally on board.

  3. Marvel Unlimited / Comicsfix

    Marvel Unlimited gives you access to over 15,000 comics from the company, online, on your phone, or on a tablet. It's $10 a month, or $69 if you get a yearly membership. The big downside is that there's a roughly six month wait for new issues, so true comic fans could find themselves buying a lot of issues even if they subscribe. Comicsfix lacks that kind of selection, but is a similar $10 a month service, mostly for alternative comics.

  4. Oyster / Kindle Unlimited / Scribd / Entitle / BooksFree

    A whole lot of different sites are vying to be the Netflix of books. Oyster was one of the first on the scene, and offers a selection of over 500,000 ebooks for $10 a month. Entitle works on a similar model for the same price, albeit with a smaller selection and a two-books-at-a-time limit. Scribd, best known as a hosting service for PDFs and other documents, is transitioning into the ebook rental market at a slightly lower price ($9 a month). Kindle Unlimited, Amazon's service launched this summer, has the virtue of working on the company's e-readers, which the other services don't. It also offers more books overall (over 700,000). But unlike Oyster and Scribd, the big publishers aren't on board for Amazon's venture, so its selection is more limited in other respects. BooksFree stands out for offering a Netflix-like service for physical books; plans start at $16 monthly for plans without per-month limits.

  5. TurningArt

    Yep. "Netflix for art" is a thing. TurningArt sends you a black frame and a painting or print of your choosing, along with an envelope to send the art back when you decide to swap it. A basic membership — one painting at a time, of modest size — is $10 a month. If you can't decide, the company has a quiz to recommend pieces for you.

  6. Le Tote / Rent the Runway

    Tom Haverford's Rent-a-Swag is fictional, but it has plenty of real life counterparts. For $49 a month, Le Tote offers an unlimited stream of "totes": boxes containing three pieces of clothing and two accessories. You can swap totes at any point, as much as you want, and the contents are curated by a personal stylist. The much better known Rent-the-Runway doesn't quite adhere to a Netflix model — rentals have return-by dates, and are paid for à la carte — but it does offer a $49 a month unlimited subscription program for accessories.

  7. Rocksbox

    Meet "Netflix for jewelry." RocksBox members pay a flat $19 a month to receive three pieces of jewelry at a time (worth, the company says, $200 in total) which they can send back at any time. Members can also buy pieces they particularly like at a discounted price.

  8. FreshNeck

    Men's apparel is getting in on the game too. FreshNeck offers three ties at a time (four if you pay an extra fee), which can be shipped back and replaced whenever. The subscriptions are tiered, with those paying $55 a month for a platinum membership getting access to brands like Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, etc., while $20 a month silver members get Calvin Klein, J. Crew, and Brooks Brothers, among others.

  9. Sparkbox / KiwiCrate

    Sparkbox isn't quite Netflix for toys — you only get one set of four toys every eight weeks ($20 a month plan) or four weeks ($35 a month plan), rather than an unlimited stream — but it's close enough. There are no return-by dates (though you can't have more than one box at a time) and you can buy toys at a discount if you like. The toys are meant to be educational, and the boxes are curated to be age-appropriate. KiwiCrate also provides educational toys, and unlike most services on this list, you get to keep the boxes they send every month. Plans are $20 a month but can get cheaper if you commit to six months or a year.

  10. Pley

    Full disclosure: I'm a Pley subscriber, and can attest to its greatness. Pley is a Lego subscription service; you can get new sets as fast as you can build them. When you're done, just deconstruct the set and send it back. The membership options vary based on how many pieces you want in your set; if you're subscribing for a 7 year old, you might be fine with a $15 a month basic membership. But if you're an adult or teen with a serious interest in Legos, the $39 a month plan offers sets of arbitrarily large size, including 3,803 piece Death Star replica or a 3,152 piece Imperial Star Destroyer replica, which retail for $400 and $808 respectively. Naturally, problems with missing pieces arise from time to time but overall it's a pretty wonderful service.

  11. Classpass

    If you find yourself hopping from barre class to pilates to yoga to spin, Classpass might be up your alley. It's a $99 a month service that buys you unlimited sessions at participating exercise studios. There is a three-per-month limit for classes at a given studio, so you can't hit up the same one every week of the month, but if you value variety in your workouts, it's likely a lot cheaper than the classes alone would cost.

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