Spot the Signs. According to Alison Green, who writes the blog Ask a Manager, this is common practice for some industries, especially if you're leaving to work for a direct competitor. However, in those situations, you'll likely know it's coming and can prepare accordingly.
And sure, this could be an email (all of the same principles would apply), but a letter makes things official in every sense. It also gives you a prop to take along to the face_to_face meeting with your boss, when you let him or her know that you're leaving.