University Life So Far

13 Nov

I’ve been going to University now for a little over a month, so I feel it’s a good time (and a good excuse) to write a blog post about it! Suffice to say I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself the whole time.

Accommodation And Flat Mates

My Accommodation, while small, is quite cozy and includes an en-suit shower. I’ve adapted completely to it and feel completely comfortable living here. Having accommodation that’s good is a nice first step into University. Fortunately, I get along really well with my flatmates as well, which makes living at University easy. Moving in didn’t take long at all and the shared kitchen includes everything I hoped for, including a kettle, ironing board/iron, microwave, toaster, stove/oven/grill and a fridge/freezer. That does mean that I spent a little money I didn’t need to (on an iron, a toaster and a kettle (actually, the kettle was a gift)), unfortunately. Maybe I should have read the accommodation information more closely…

Alcohol

Before coming to Unviersity, I didn’t drink alcohol at all, so I decided it was about time to experiment. Lager is just foul. I do enjoy ciders, as well as Guiness, though not often out to get blind drunk I usually just buy a couple of bottles of Bulmers or Kopperberg. There has been exception, of course – one night, I drank a shot of vodka, 4 shots of Jagermeister, and a couple of bottles of cider, since everyone wanted to see whether I could still juggle drunk. Not only can I, but I could still ride my 5-foot unicycle. That was a good night.

Friends

I’ve made a lot of friends during my time here, most from the course I’m taking and quite a few from societies too – but all at least as crazy as I am, which is comforting.

IsabelYarrowSam
A few of my friends – they ARE representative of my other friends as well. Scary.

Because so many of my friends are so interested in computers, bouncing ideas and asking them what’s going on is a good way to learn – and helping people that don’t understand what was coverred in a certain lecture is a good way to understand them. Talking about programming languages, recent technology news and computers is pretty standard for us, which isn’t something I’ve ever really encounted before. It’s awesome.

Lecturers

I’ve enjoyed my lectures a lot, and it’s thanks in no small part to the lecturers, all whom I’ve become fond of (though they see me, perhaps, as an incessent prat who can’t keep his mouth shut).

A Lecturer in a funny hat
Just in case there was any doubt that my lecturers are as crazy as I am…

The main difference between my lectureres here and my tutors in college/high school is that you can tell the lecturers are enjoying themselves in their work, and really know what they’re talking about. I’ve noticed the same thing with students coming here, too – they’re all bright people who really enjoy the course. Far more motivating than my past educational career.

Lectures

Lectures are a very different beast to the classes I had in school and college. While the lecturers do tend to take questions, give answers and encourage participation, little time is wasted on making sure everyone understood what was coverred: the onus is very much on us to pay attention, keep up and leave whatever we don’t understand for further study later. Because we’re surrounded by people who all love the subject, picking up on anything that we missed later is easy – we’ll likely be talking about the lecture after anyway. It’s encouraging to be surrounded by people who enjoy it, as we all love to talk about it. I had the opportunity to take a much cheaper course with the Open University, live at home and find work, but I chose to come to University instead – my main reasoning being that I would be surrounded by people doing the same thing as me, and that are as interested in the course as I am. That is absolutely the case, and I certainly think I made the right choice.

Verdict

I used to doubt other people when they said University life were the best years of their lives, or at least that it would be for me (given my track record in education). Now that I’m here, I absolutely understand where they were coming from. I may not have been here long, but on the other hand I’ve never felt as comfortable where I am as I do now. Looking forward, I’ve a good feeling about University.

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Re: Improving the Linux Ecosystem From Within

19 Jun

Writing this blog post as a reply to this one – it’s worth a read. I’m going to comment specifically on this paragraph:

I think what these reveals is that, When we make the applications on the Linux ecosystem rock. (The Amarok, the Gimp, The Libreoffice etc) More people would find reason to use and stick to Linux on the desktop, when they see a reason to use Linux, The ecosystem would increase to a point where even the big application vendors might take notice and decide that the Linux ecosystem is perhaps worth giving a try. Even if it doesn’t turn out like this. Then at least we would have applications which are comparable (if not better) than the alternatives in other platforms.

This feels like quite the contradiction to me. I’ve always been firmly of the belief that Adobe hasn’t ported Photoshop to Linux because we have our own ecosystem already.

If you’re creating graphics, you likely already have the Gimp and Inkscape installed. If you do a lot of painting, you may also have Krita installed. If Adobe were to move into the Linux market, they would already have to compete against these three and more, other applications to get any real market share or profit, and the applications we have created already have two strong unique selling points that Adobe would have a hard time beating: they’re free, and they integrate very well with the system (meaning not just the toolkit but also the use of the repository system for updates, for example).

A similar story can be told of video editors. Sure, none of the one’s we’ve created are quite finished yet (I personally have my eye on KDenLive), but we have ~3-5 different video editors we can install straight from the Software Centre (or other repository systems/package managers), and any attempt to enter this market would have to compete with these existing video editors.

The reason Adobe is still around to make Photoshop at all is because Photoshop has become the de-facto image editor of the industry, and of the Windows world. The Adobe suite on Windows is their cash cow, and it is the go-to solution for many companies and individuals for image editing, website design and video editing. However, on Linux, Adobe would face pretty fierce competition for a relatively small number of sales. What we have done to attract them to the Linux platform is very little, and what we have done to deter them is a whole lot.

The same can be said of twitter clients, office suites and the like – Ubuntu comes with a Twitter/Facebook client built-in, with pretty notifications and good integration with the system. It also comes with a free Office suite. In terms of software, we have a very, very wide ecosystem, from electronics to Lego, making it difficult for many companies to sell software in a traditional brick-‘n’-mortar style to Linux users. I believe it’s for this reason, most of what you can buy for Linux has been reduced to online services (Dropbox, Ubuntu One) and games (Humble Indie Bundle, mostly Inidie games to be fair). And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t consider that to be an entirely bad thing.

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What Is Gnome 3?

2 Jun

I’ve been trying out Fedora 15 to give Gnome 3 a good run-through, and let me tell you guys, it’s a vast improvement over the last time I reviewed it. However, one question keeps running through my mind: why?

I don’t really understand what was, “wrong” or, “broken” about Gnome 2 that warrants the existence of Gnome 3, or the design of Gnome Shell. Do the Gnome developers think the work-flow was somehow flawed in the default Gnome 2 experience, and if so, what made them think that? What caused them to consider Gnome Shell as a good replacement in the first place?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very impressed with Gnome 3 – almost all the problems I have with it are the looks (seriously, the default GTK theme looks like ass and the icons are in serious need of replacing). You can quickly get used to the workflow, the menu has been fixed (it now uses the sensible catagory view that has existed in desktop Linux since forever) and the overlay is quite sensible in terms of work-flow.

The problem – the over-arching problem, the elephant in the room, not a problem in terms of the software or its design or missing features – is that it’s different. It’s very impressive, but after a while of using it, it doesn’t feel particularly better or worse than the default Gnome 2 experience. Gnome 2 had a very simple and very fast work-flow, and Gnome 3 now has a very simple and, arguably, fast work-flow, but it doesn’t feel like an improvement. It’s different, but that’s all it really is.

After a lot of thought, I think I have an answer: the difference is touch. It’s no secret the industry is moving towards portable devices, and touch-screen devices have become wildly popular. Which is ironic, because Microsoft have been trying to push Windows tablet devices since the turn of the century. Gnome 3 seems to want to be a touch-device-ready environment: everything’s big and chunky for fingers, and making everything click-accessible from the dashboard (open windows, the menu, virtual desktops etc.) seems specifically catered to our finger-prodding buddies of the future.

The thing is: pretty much everyone knows that a mouse-pointer-keyboard-driven interface is unappealing on a touch-screen device – the question Gnome 3 represents is, is putting a touch-screen interface on a desktop computer more sensible, or sensible in general?

I’m not convinced.

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Ubuntu 11.04 Unity Review

29 Apr

So Ubuntu 11.04 has finally been released and, for many people, the deciding factor will be Unity, the brand-new dock/launcher/panel combo that Canonical are pushing in favour of Gnome 3. So how does it feel? What quirks make it better or worse to use? Why am I asking you all this?

Just to make clear, I’m not going to go on about its stability. If you must know, it worked mostly fine for me on my AMD HD 5450 with proprietary drivers, albeit with an odd graphical hickup when opening menus. But anyway, I’m going to write this as if the code itself is perfect and unbreakable. It’ll give you an idea of whether you’d like it under ideal conditions, and possibly if you’d like to use it in the future when bugs are squashed and performance improved.

The Dock

So the dock on the left side of the screen has been subject to quite a bit of controversy, given that it was already present in Ubuntu 10.10 courtesy of the Netbook remix, and was a little clunky in the usability department. Good news, ladies and gentlemen: it autohides! Netbook users will be glad to hear that it doesn’t break web-page displaying with a horizontal scroll bar any more. It uses an intelligent auto-hide behaviour: when unobstructed, it displays in full; when a window is moved across it, it auto-hides and auto-shows depending on whether it’s obstructed; and it auto-hides completely when windows are maximised. It’s quite clever and won’t annoy many users on its own, given that its behaviour makes sense. When it is hidden, holding your pointer to the side for a second or so will show it, and moving your pointer to the top-left Ubuntu logo will show it instantly. This threw me off for a bit, since I’m used to panels that reveal immediately. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve chosen that behaviour, either: to accomodate accidental edge-hitting? Doesn’t seem that big a problem to me…

Another clever trick is the use of the Meta (Windows) key for instant-access shortcuts. You can quickly press Meta+1 for the first icon, Meta+2 for the next etc., or alternatively hold Meta to reveal all the shortcuts for the dock. Another neat Meta shortcut is Meta+W, which shows all non-minimised windows in a grid courtesy of Compiz.

Shortcut numbers. Neat.

Also interesting about the dock is the right-click menus – gone are most of the window-management-related options, like moving windows to a different workspace, and in comes some flash-bang and application integration.

Only Evolution features this so far, but it’s still promising

Window Management

Window management is quite altered from previous versions of Ubuntu: instead of using a bottom panel for all your window-management needs, it’s now integrated into the sidebar. Virtual Desktops now use a button instead of that buggy gnome-panel applet (buggy in combination with Compiz, that is), which simply scales down the desktops into a grid, which we’ve been doing with Compiz since forever. It’s nice to see proper integration, at least.

The desktop grid that’s been thrashed to death on Youtube

More interesting, perhaps, is the integration of window management with the top panel. First, that’s where the focussed window’s menu will appear after hovering your mouse over it – at first, I didn’t realise this and ended up looking for it for quite a while. Hey, Canonical, how’s about not hiding it? Like, ever? It can be quite confusing.

Moving on from that little knick, dragging the window’s titlebar to the top panel or clicking the traditional maximise button will maximise the window, putting the close/minimise/maximise buttons in the panel and hiding the titlebar completely. From there, dragging an empty area of the panel down or clicking the restore button turns it back into a window. Clever.

What seems less clever, though – and yes, I know this has been beaten to death on every blog everywhere ever – is putting the close button right next to the menu button. What can possibly go wrong?

Uh… yeah… how is this not a problem?

On the other hand, I suppose that there’s more chance of accidentally opening the menu than of accidentally closing your window, but still…

And, just like everyone else, Canonical is aping Microsoft’s latest gimmick: pseudo-window-tiling. Dragging a window to the side of the screen will make it fill that side of the screen, a practice which has always proven completely and utterly worthless in my everyday experience, especially given that we’ve got big screens and Always On Top right-click options. Hey, Canonical! I know what you can use the other side of the titlebar for now!

The Main Menu

Now, despite using them for roughly two decades, we still can’t seem to get our heads around menus. I’m likely not the first to say Microsoft’s Start menu is completely fundamentally broken, and I likely won’t be the last. I prefer Plasma’s menu, but others like Lancelot for Plasma, some prefer Gnome’s traditional menu and others still like the way Gnome 3 handles it, so it’s not an easy thing to approach.

First, I’ll discuss the Search function. It works. Great!

OK, OK, I’ll do it properly. Typing, “Firefox” shows Firefox, so the fundamentals work well. Typing, “Web Browser”, “Email”, “E-mail” and, “Chat” show appropriate programs well, but some search terms seem broken: “Instant Messenger” only shows Kopete; “Video” shows PiTiVi but not Totem; “Movie” shows Totem but not PiTiVi and it doesn’t deal well with incomplete words/spelling mistakes, such as, “We Browser” (which finds nothing, even though we clearly meant, “Web Browser”). Also slightly annoying is that there isn’t a shortcut for the search functionality: Retraction: actually, just hitting the Windows/Meta key will show it. D’oh! Alt+F1 highlights the dock and lets you navigate around it, and Alt+F2 opens a similar-looking-but-stripped-down Run Command dialogue, which doesn’t feature the search functionality but is purely for command-line-style syntax. Why separate them? Just make Alt+F2 open the default menu!


Although it’s quite nice that typing in an URL and hitting enter goes straight to the address

OK, so now I’m going to move onto the menu itself. Personally, I think Gnome’s/KDE 3’s traditional menus aren’t the best way to do things: they bombard you with noise and can be confusing to some users. However, one thing I do think they get absolutely spot-on is their catagorisation: E-mail clients, web browsers, IM clients and IRC clients in Internet, an office suite in Office, music/video players in Multimedia and photo album viewers/painting/drawing applications in Graphics. Oh, and games. Don’t forget the games. This structure reduces the amount of noise the user is exposed to at any one time and provides a nice, step-by-step method to finding and launching what you want. This is great for pure mouse navigation and spatial association between mouse movement and applications, two important features to consider when approaching Canonical’s target market.

So, how is mouse-only navigation? Awful.

To help demonstrate the issue, I’ll perform a simple test: lets take an application I don’t open often – Krita – and get to it using only mouse-clicks.


The first menu we see


After clicking, “More Apps”…


Clicking the tiny text to select the category, because no, I don’t want to scroll through every application everywhere


The Graphics menu. Still not there? Oh.


After clicking, “See 8 More Results”… Ah! There it is.

Um, ouch. That seems like a rather clunky introduction for new users, clicking in various menus in various different places to get to a mildly obscure application, and heaven forbid I want to view my game library!

Enhancing the issue is the fact that the extended, “Installed” section in the, “More Apps” menu displays every application on your system in alphabetical order. If that sounds familiar, it should: it’s exactly the same problem with Gnome-shell’s menu. Guys, our neatly catagorised application menus were already vastly superior to the Start menu to navigate, and here you are throwing it away, only to come up with something worse. For the love of God, fix it!

*Sigh*… moving on, it actually appears that the menu is extendible through plug-ins, though because of how early it is in development, there’s no way to currently install them easily. The plug-ins are installed as icons sitting at the bottom of the dock and are activated when clicked, opening a main-menu-like overlay that populates with content. This is quite exciting, since it could open the way for things like Bookmark, Facebook, E-mail and other kinds of integration straight into the menu/dock.

And finally…

To bring up some configuration options, hitting Alt+F2 and typing, “about:config” brings up the appropriate Compiz configuration module. At the moment, there’s not much there, but it’s worth a look all the same.

The Verdict

Unity, as it is right now, is quite solidly built and certainly useable, but whether it’s an improvement over Gnome 2 is a matter of preference. Off its own merit, I quite like it, but there is still evidence of growing pains and examples of concepts that aren’t quite fully fleshed-out yet. It’s an exciting time for Canonical, regardless.

Painkiller: Black Edition Review

20 Apr

On a gaming landscape consisting highly of pseudo-realistic first-person shooters, Painkiller’s nudge-nudge wink-wink back to more old-skool first-person shooters like Quake and Doom is both unusual and refreshing. It’s strange to see a modern game herald back to the 90’s so much and yet be as surprisingly fun as Painkiller has been. You’ll either find the fast-paced shooting exciting and fun or, if you’re maybe younger than 12 years old, find the unconventional gameplay frustrating, but for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Old-skool right down to the floating armour pick-ups

Story

I’ll start with the shortest and simplest bit, the story. Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here, because for all intents and purposes, there’s no story. Or, what’s there is pretty laughable.

The story is, you died and have been sent by God to end a war between Heaven and Hell with his most divine of heavenly instruments. That is, a chainsaw and a shotgun. Whoever it was that imagined this version of God up needs a gold star: I like Him already. You’ve been sent to cut through Hell’s hoards to kill Hell’s generals, and… well, that’s pretty much all there is to it. There was also something about a girl you love, but it didn’t seem important enough to dwell on.

Gameplay

Singly Player

So when you start your first game, it shows a cinematic scene to explain the dead-simple story above, which can thankfully be skipped. You select your level, the level loads and you’re ready to gun.

When you move, jump and shoot you’ll likely be struck by nostalgia. You run fast, don’t have to reload, can’t crouch, strafe-jump to slightly lower than the speed of sound and don’t have to ram the butt of your gun into your cheek to shoot. The mouse sensitivity is nice and high and, straight away, you get to start blasting away your first hoard.

One of the first things I noticed was that Hell wasn’t feeling very creative and decided that, instead of mutants or horrors from beyond imagination, they went with skeletons with swords and armour. Cliché, perhaps, but for all I care they could have been bunny rabbits that fart rainbows when they hop: blasting them away with the shotgun is made satisfying by ragdoll physics, bodies being blown apart and blood splattering everywhere, rather than because of any real challenge. They do also drop Souls, represented as little green floating blobs of light, which heal you up one point each. Talk about harsh.

2011-04-21_00002

So you’ve killed about 20 skeletons and a wall slides down, letting you proceed. You move past the wall, it slides back up and more monsters spawn.

Level progression is pretty similar all the way through, onslaught after onslaught of hoards of enemies with nearly every new encounter introducing some new enemy with some new feature that makes things more challenging. This makes the first few rooms pretty boring, but it does give the game pacing and you find yourself moving, jumping, shooting and twitching more after the first level. You end up finding a weird flow, a kind of rhythm during the fights thanks to levels that aren’t broken up by overly-long loading screens or drab dialogue. You do also end up finding a crossbow which shoots wooden stakes and explosive shells because screw realism blowing up hoards of demons is fun. Other weapons include a chain gun/rocket-launcher combo and a lightning gun.

The music switches between spooky for out-of-combat and awesome rocking guitar riffs for you to blast stuff away to, and I did jump more than a few times when someone spoke to me thanks to the ambient music and artwork. Though, you won’t be some of the artwork very well or very often because they’ve gone for quite a few dark levels with Scooby-doo style torchlight. It sounds like a knock, but it’s quite tastefully done and, combined with the ambient music, sets a good atmosphere for making you cack yourself at every corner.

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The levels are nicely varied, often taking multiple floors and a good mix of multiple corridors vs. wide open spaces. The variety of the monsters, including monsters with exploding barrels, knife-throwers and monsters that slow you down when they hit you, mean you find yourself switching your priorities, tactics and weapons quite often, and quite quickly. Or, dying, though the game doesn’t really seem to acknowledge that too well. Less, “You plonker! What did you go doing that for?” and more, “Oof, sorry about that. Here, I’ll just spawn you back in that room again.” The fact that you can so quickly resume the killing tells of the game’s greatest strength: it doesn’t waste time. Oh, and those Souls I mentioned earlier? Turns out, if you collect enough, it’ll put you into, “God-mode”, where the screen goes all grey, highlights enemies in red and gives you a super-powerful one-hit-from-any-distance-kill blast. Why God didn’t just let you stay in God-mode to destroy everything is beyond me, but whatever.

2011-04-20_00001

The bosses are also quite creative and varied, some requiring the simple blast-it-until-it-goes-boom method where others require a more specific strategy.

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This guy, in particular, was a pain.

Then finally, when you reach the end of the chapter, you get to the final boss and your jaw hits the ground. Killing it is a damn-sight more difficult and satisfying than any of the challenges in any number of military-style shooters, and these bosses are worth buying the game for alone. Seriously, they’re that good.

Spoiler:When you defeat it, you complete the chapter and get a cut scene in which a beautiful nude woman caresses you. Eh? Stop looking at me like that, it’s true!

Multiplayer

My multiplayer experience, on the other hand, was bananas awful. The strength of the single player is that you’re fighting hoards of dumb AI that just run vaguely in your direction and predicting their movements is easy enough that you can get used to the half-second-long-or-so delay between shooting the crossbow and hitting the target. It makes it challenging but fun. It also helps that they’re not breaking the sound barrier while Sir Strafe Jumper VII can.

Against other players, though, the delay makes the gun completely worthless, and given that it’s your starting weapon until you pick up more it’s just plain stupid. No, I don’t have clairvoyance enough to know where the other player is going to be a full second in the future, especially given that they haven’t even decided themselves, and I don’t have the patience to train long enough to be able to cope. As if simply keeping your aim on them long enough to kill isn’t hard enough itself, given how fast people move.

Talking of speed, the issue was enhanced massively by the fact the game ran at something like 10x the speed it did in single player. When I can’t navigate through a doorway because my character moves too fast, it’s time to tone it down a notch. This seemed to be a result of the world’s worst network compensation method rather than design, but it was still completely breaking of the multiplayer.

Besides the broken stuff, it was just Quake Live CTRL+C/CTRL+V. Running Strafe-jumping around, grabbing guns, armour and life, shooting at targets that are too fast for you and getting destroyed by some comp player. Winning a battle felt completely token: a result of sheer dumb luck rather than skill, given that learning to kill skilfully would take more man-hours than most people have spare in their lives, and in the end the only people that might possibly enjoy it are Quake veterans, and they’ve all subscribed to Quake Live.

Conclusion

This game isn’t going to be winning any awards for creativity any time soon, and it won’t blow the doors of your heart open or make you question your very existence, but then, it’s not really trying to do that. The single-player is refreshing and fun, and for £6 on Steam, it’s been more satisfying than more expensive games in my game library. The multiplayer, however, is infuriatingly broken and made me switch off the entire game. If you want to replicate how I felt, try clipping your toenails with a hammer. If you decide you like that, play Quake Live for free instead. The single-player alone is enough to warrant buying this game, but if you’re looking for a good multiplayer game, walk right along.

Blogging from Windows Live Writer

18 Apr

So because I’ve been using Windows Vista more often because of my gaming rampage (you can blame Steam for that), and because I can’t find a way to install Blogilo as a stand-alone application, I’m now using the comparatively… well, OK, so Windows Live Writer is not awful, but it does use the silly ribbon interface I can’t dislike enough and seems to be missing a few features as well.

Since I’ve been going on a gaming rampage, and have both enjoyed and been disappointed by various games (sometimes at the same time), I might start writing up some game reviews too.

Finally, I feel like I should explain why my blog’s been so vacant all this time. The internet is a big place, and I usually think of a blog post in terms of, “If I’ve thought about [some clever thing], someone else has probably already thought about it and blogged it”, so I tend to start up conversations on other people’s blogs rather than writing an entirely new blog post. I usually comment under the names, “Madman” or, “the_madman”. Keep the internet tidy, people!

3 Things That Ubuntu One Should Sync, That It Doesn’t

28 Dec

Ubuntu One a syncing service that Canonical bundles with Ubuntu. I think it’s great that it’s bundled with the OS, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being extended to its full potential (or even most of it). Recognize that I’m talking about the syncing service alone, as opposed to syncing+music store+[insert new feature here]. As of right now, it seems just to be Dropbox++. Since it’s bundled with the system, there are a few life-saving ways that it could be integrated into the system as well:

1. Desktop Wallpaper, Icons & Panels

This one’s as basic as it sounds: just sync the Desktop folder, the Desktop background image and the panel set-up. The user starts up their brand-spanking-new Ubuntu system and finds their familiar set-up ready to go. No looking for a pretty desktop background image, no re-creating application icons on the desktop, no fiddling with the panels to get them just right: they’ve done it all once, now sync it so it doesn’t have to be done ever again.

2. Installed Applications

Put this in the Software Centre, please. Automatically record and sync installed applications to Ubuntu One, then install them all on your laptop and/or that new computer you just bought. Obviously, the actual installation shouldn’t be automatic: I don’t want all my desktop apps on my netbook or work computer, for example, but make it easy please.

3. Online Accounts & Wallets

Ubuntu’s recent push towards social networking and the like is great, as is their indicator applet, and Gnome’s built-in password storage implementation is fantastic for when I only want to remember one password, but it’s for naught if I have to set it up on every computer I need them on. Sync E-mail accounts, Broadcast accounts, Instant Messaging accounts and the login wallet for passwords so I don’t have to go through these set-up steps several times.

There you go: 3 things (well, technically 6 (or 8 depending on how you’re counting)) that Ubuntu One could (and maybe should) sync to make it a totally kick-ass service, compiled in a teeny-tiny blog-post.

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