I'm a programmer by trade but looking to extend my design skill set. Should I just eat the cost and go straight to Photoshop or should I start with the free alternatives such as Paint.net and Inkscape? I'm committed to becoming a designer. Also, what are some inexpensive ways to get started in Photoshop? I know that they have 30 day trials and I've gotten good feedback about taking a course at the local college to receive a student discount.
Design isn't about the tools - it's about finding and solving problems. Before jumping into learning a design tool, you should spend some time actually learning design. You can do a lot with pen and paper and it might be a good exercise to do so for a bit.
That being said, you probably should plunk down the cash for Photoshop at some point. Not sure when it's supposed to be released (Q2 2010 was the last rumor I heard), but you might want to hold out until CS5. That would give you a decent amount of time to study up on design fundamentals.
You mentioned some free Photoshop alternatives - which might help bridge the gap until you can pony up the cash to send an Adobe employee's kid to college (i.e. purchase Photoshop). The GIMP seems to be a another very popular alternative and if I recall correctly there may be a plugin and/or hack to make it behave more like Photoshop (gimpshop maybe?).
Here's something to consider: take a "Design Fundamentals" (or similar) course at a local community college. That way you can get some formal design education AND you can purchase Photoshop with your student discount (this generally works in the US. Your mileage may vary outside the US.)
Also, this book may be of interest as it's written specifically for programmers delving into web design.
Fireworks > Photoshop for most web and UI stuffs :)
Also, if you're a Mac user, I'm really digging on a couple of the upstarts: Opacity (like Fireworks), Acorn and Pixelmator (like Photoshop), and VectorDesigner (like Illustrator). All of these options are better tailored to web workflows, fit the Mac UI paradigms better, and are less bloated (read: crashy, confusing, and full of unnecessary "features") than the Adobe counterparts. They're also significantly cheaper (Pixelmator is available on Amazon for $28).
Yes. Buy them as soon as you can afford them. No reason to use anything else.
I agree with Andy Ford. In my opinion, there are two programs that you should invest in: Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. For better or for worse, they are the industry standard for graphic design. No matter where you go to work, those are the programs that will be used. Those are the accepted file formats industry-wide. And the bonus is that even if you end up working someplace that only uses Macs, Photoshop and Illustrator are almost exactly the same for Macs as they are for Windows.
I am not sure when would be the best time to purchase them, but it is inevitable that you will. There is a reason that they are the standard: they are the best on the market.
If you'll read the fine print, I think you'll find that Student licenses are supposed to be upgraded to full once you start using the product for commercial work.
Academic versions are an option, though not meant for any commercial work, including on the side of your studies.
Photoshop Elements is an idea, it is a "budget" and stripped down version but covers the essentials. I only used version 2 and that was a long time ago but it had some useful web design features including this add-on called "Image Ready".
Another way to save money: wait for CS5 to be released, then buy CS4 on eBay. This is how I acquired PS Elements 7 for a quarter of the going price for version 8.
Also, I've used Paint.net and it's a great program for what it is, but for features and ease of use, it does not compare to PS.