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Ask TUAW: Photoshop alternatives, Windows and Mac file sharing, application switching and more

Welcome back to Ask TUAW, our weekly troubleshooting Q&A column. This week we've got questions about Photoshop alternatives, Windows and Mac file sharing, graphics problems in Snow Leopard and quickly switching between applications, and more.

As always, your suggestions and questions are welcome. 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 Mac OS X (we'll assume you're running Snow Leopard on an Intel Mac if you don't specify). And now, on to the questions.

Matt asks:

I don't have the money for something like Adobe Photoshop. What's the best, cheaper alternative?

For my money, the best Photoshop alternative at the moment, and one I use every day, is Pixelmator. It has many of the same features as Photoshop like layers, masks, level and curve adjustments and a whole lot more. Plus, it's a relatively simple program to use and is written to take advantage of your Mac's GPU when doing image processing.

It also supports most image file formats including Photoshop PSD files and has many useful Automator actions built in. Actually, because Pixelmator is such a good app and takes care of most of my needs, it's pretty rare that I ever open Photoshop anymore. Sadly, Pixelmator is not free, but at US$59.00, it's a heck of a lot cheaper than Photoshop.

Some other alternatives include the open source GIMP and its more Photoshop-like cousin GIMPShop. You can also check out Acorn, or if you need very minimal tools like crop and resize, ImageWell. Of course, Apple's built-in Preview.app can handle many of these low-end tasks as well.

Alexandre Strube asks:

When I'm copying a file, the Finder tells me how long it will take to finish. Is there a way to make it show the transmission rate too, like in Windows?

I wish there was. I've always found that a pretty useful bit of information when I have to use Windows. Sadly, Apple has not seen fit to include that feature in OS X. Maybe they will some day.

Crobex asks:

I'm new to MacOS. I have a Win XP notebook and a Snow Leopard iMac, both are connected to my broadband connection over a wireless router, but now I'd like to share files between the two computers over the Wi-Fi router. Do I need special software or is it just about network setting on the two machines (and router)?

File sharing between Mac and Windows should be a simple matter as long as both machines are set up correctly. The easiest way to start off is to have the exact same user account and password on both machines. Since these are your machines I'm going to assume you are an administrator on both of them so that will make things easier as well.

To enable File Sharing on the Mac, go to System Prefs>Sharing and check the box next to "File Sharing." Next, select "File Sharing" in the left column and then click on "Options" on the right side. This will allow you to enable file sharing for Mac users only, for Mac and Windows users and for FTP users.

If you want to access your computer from Windows and a Mac, make sure both boxes next to those are checked. Next, make sure both of your computers are turned on and connected to your wireless network. Now that they both are, you should be able to connect to your Mac from your Windows machine.

Probably the easiest way to accomplish this is to "Add a Network Place" on the XP machine. To do this, just go to "My Network Places" and click to add a new one. Then, follow the prompts to enter the IP address of your Mac (which should be displayed on the File Sharing preferences screen once it's active). Once you enable the Mac in "My Network Places" you should be able to share files with it and enjoy the experience.

For even easier connectivity to shared Mac network resources like files and printers, you might consider installing Apple's Bonjour for Windows to allow 'zero-configuration' discovery of your Mac from the Windows side.

Josh asks:

Is there any way to fix the graphical problems on Snow Leopard for users of the Intel X3100 chipset? Videos for me look like they aren't in full color and so do many media apps (especially Front Row which looks like it is in 8 bit color).

Unfortunately, at the moment this seems to be a problem with no real solution. Although it doesn't seem to be a problem for all users, just some, I realize that's no consolation if you're affected. The one thing people report that has fixed the problem (at least in some cases) is to remove the iStat Menu application, if its installed.

Other than that, according to the Apple support rep I spoke with, they are aware of the issue but so far have no solution for it. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

mattattrent asks:

I have returned to using Safari after using Firefox for some time now. Safari seems faster and more stable now but has a slightly irritating pop-up descriptor tag when I hover my mouse over some links, which is what caused me to start using FF in the first place. This tag blocks my view of the page and I want it to go away. Is there a way to disable this feature?

If I understand your question correctly, I think that's actually something the page itself is feeding you. As far as I know, there's no way to block that in Safari except to make sure "Block Pop-Up Windows" is checked in the "Safari" Menu. Although, that won't stop all of them.

In addition, there may be a way to hack Safari to further stop these types of pop-ups but that's beyond the scope of this column. Although, I'm sure one or two of our readers can point you in the right direction if you want to go that way -- keep an eye on the comments.

J? asks:

I just upgraded to Snow Leopard at work so I could take advantage of Mail & iCal's support for Exchange. The account setup was a breeze--far easier than Outlook or Entourage--so I was quickly up and running. That said, I've run into a bit of an aesthetic problem that I hope you can solve.

In Entourage/Outlook, I can get a preview of the day's activities right within the main screen. As Mail and iCal are two separate apps, I have to decide which is always visible on my secondary monitor. What I was wondering is if there any way I could get a "mini" preview of iCal in Mail? Or, perhaps, even get an iCal button on the Mail toolbar, so I can quickly switch back and forth?

Once again, I feel like I'm giving a lot of bad news in this edition of Ask TUAW, but sadly, there's no way to do what you want to do. Because Apple has made iCal, Mail and Address Book separate apps, the integration that you get from something like Outlook just isn't there. You can get a nice floating day-plan viewer similar to Entourage's My Day feature via the $15 Today app, if that's a help.

That said, you do get the rest of the Mac and OS X experience and don't have to use Outlook, so at least there's some positives to the situation. The best way I've found to do this quick app switching is either by using the Application Switcher in OS X, which you invoke by hitting Command and Tab at the same time. Doing so brings up a little menu of your open apps right in the middle of your screen.

Keep the Command key pressed continuously, while pressing and releasing the Tab key as desired. Pressing it one time will switch to the next open application (hold down Shift as well to cycle backwards). You can also use Command-` (Command-accent -- it's the key to the left of the '1' key) to cycle through open windows within a specific application.

You can also use the mouse, arrow keys, or (if your mouse has one) scroll wheel to select an application in the Command-Tab row. Application Switcher is a handy little feature and one I use every day.

Welcome back to Ask TUAW, our weekly troubleshooting Q&A column. This week we've got questions about Photoshop alternatives, Windows...