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Ask TUAW: Reducing distractions, sharing drives, Activity Monitor, winmail.dat and more

In this episode of Ask TUAW we'll be looking at questions about sharing drives from a Mac mini to a portable Mac over the network, watching iPod video in a car, distraction-reducing software, Activity Monitor, dealing with "winmail.dat" attachments from Windows users and more.

As always your suggestions are most welcome, and questions for next week should be left in the comments. When asking a question please include which machine you're running and which version of OS X, as certain answers will vary between different Macs and Tiger vs. Leopard, etc. (we'll assume you're running Leopard if you don't specify). And now, on to the questions!

Josh asks

Is there a way to darken the desktop behind a window without making the wallpaper black? I basically would like to be able to press a hotkey and have the background darken as it does in Expose when you only have one window open in that space. I would just use this but I can't interact with the window when you do that.

A couple of readers had good suggestions: Steve pointed to Isolator and Tomahawk suggested Think. In addition to these, there are various applications that can hide the desktop. I personally use Backdrop but we've covered others like Desktopple Pro ($17). The advantage of using one of these is that you can simply hide everything on your desktop with a solid color without altering your wallpaper settings. Personally, I would find that less distracting than just dimming, but there are solutions out there either way you want to go.


petey asks

I just got a new car and have been debating on whether to put in a Mac Mini or iPod, both of which have a max capacity of 160GB. I plan on getting an in-dash touch screen display and I know that some of them allow you to plug in an iPod and control the menus through the display. But do you know of any display that will show video from the iPod? My hunch is that it would be possible with the 5th gen iPod (which is 80GB max) but not the new iPod classic. Any thoughts?

Being a fan of carputers I'd recommend going with the Mini for the additional functionality (GPS mapping, etc.) That said, you should be able to display video from the iPod (including the iPod classic) to any screen that has composite input using the Apple Composite AV Cable ($49). Unfortunately, Apple has introduced new restrictions with the most recent iPods requiring you to use their first-party cable. A variety of car compatible displays have composite inputs. Erica even posted a guide on this a while back.


sDawkins78 asks

Is there a Mac equivalent to the Windows Task Manager? I keep this thing up and running in the system tray all the time, and it's one of the last concerns I had before I made the big jump.

The most direct equivalent is the Activity Monitor which you can find in /Applications/Utilities. It will display all your processes as well as stats on memory usage, CPU load, etc. I believe that Activity Monitor is basically a pretty GUI front-end to the Unix ps command. So if you have some terminal chops you can open a terminal window and view and interact with your processes directly using ps. If you want a more comprehensive (and pretty) system monitor, check out Iconfactory's $13 utility iPulse.


Ellie asks

I have a mac mini and a macbook pro which are networked using a wireless router (Linksys 54g). Wireless printing from the MBP works just fine, but I have 3 USB hard drives connected to the mac mini. I was wondering if there is a way that I could mount these hard drives wirelessly on my macbook pro. I can stream some of the music and movies through itunes, but there are many other files on these hard drives that I would like to use.

Absolutely. All you need to do is turn on File Sharing in the Sharing Preference Pane and then add the drives to your "Shared Folders" list. You should then be able to browse to the Mac mini from the MBP using the Finders "Connect to server..." command (⌘+K).



Rainer asks

I have a Mac Mini at home working as a HTPC and a file server for my LAN. I just picked up a new Macbook Air and would like for it to "see" the iTunes folder from the Mini as if it were a folder on the Air's hard drive. In other words, I want my (60GB+) iTunes library folder on my Air without it actually taking up all the space. And I want to access it from anywhere. I think I'm on the right path looking into VPN, but I'm not finding anyway to "automount" folders from my Mini. I don't want to just stream music, I want to be able to sync my iPod from either machine.

On a local network the answer here is basically the same as the previous question; mount the mini's drive on the MacBook Air and point to it in the iTunes preferences. However, you should keep in mind that running an iTunes library on an external drive poses certain problems. Have a look on our guide about it. Now, this may not practical across the internet; the bandwidth is a limiting factor. iPod syncing remotely is probably not going to happen, but you might try using Simplify Media to play the music from your source machine. To automount the mini's drive, just add it to the login items as described in this post.


ehm_jay29 asks

I'm really glad that SuperDuper has been updated for leopard, and am even more excited that the clones can be stored alongside my time machine backups... having said that: how the heck do I do it? there is no mention of how to do so on their site, nor in the documentation.

This is a built-in feature of Smart Update in SuperDuper! As explained here if you use the Smart Update option it will just ignore Time Machine backups on that volume.


Jim asks

In what may be an entirely stupid question, what is a sparse image file and why is it taking up 2/3's of my hard disk? I do not use Time Machine (I know, I know), but I discovered this file when I used WhatSize to what I might be able to offload to free up some space.Do I need to keep this file? I'm running 10.5.2 and am using FileVault.

The sparse image is the FileVault. If you delete it you'll lose everything in your FileVault-encrypted home directory. So, basically, don't touch it!


Drew asks

So I use mail.app in leopard 10.5.2. A person I receive emails from weekly was just upgraded to the latest version of outlook on the web (not sure of the official title). In each of these emails i receive several attachments. All of the attachments came through great, even after upgrading to leopard. However, all of a sudden instead of seeing 6 attachments I see winmail.dat which i understand is the Outlook file format. I thought the issue was w/ her outlook, but gmail is able to read her emails fine. Any suggestions? Could 10.5.2 have broken mail.app?

I have no idea why this problem only manifested itself with 10.5.2, but I think I have a solution for you. TNEF's Enough (donationware) should allow you to extract the attachments. According to the FAQ, it seems that this problem is caused by her address book listing you "as a person who can receive 'Rich Text'." So, if you communicate with her that often you might be able just to ask her to open her address book entry for you in Outlook and turn that option off. I don't know exactly how to do that since I never touch Outlook, but this MS KB article suggests setting the recipient to "Receive plain text only."

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