Productivity Apps: Alfred Remote

Two weeks ago, the creators of one my favourite Mac apps – Alfred – released a second app: Alfred Remote.

alfredremote

What does it do?

Alfred Remote is an app for your smartphone (currently iOS only) that integrates with Alfred, and allows you to control your Mac from your phone. You can launch apps, interact with the system (to logout, dim the brightness, shut down the computer, etc), or run more complicated workflows.

What’s the point in that?

At first it isn’t quite clear what the point in some of the features of Alfred Remote are. They might be designed really nicely, and work well… but why bother launching an app on your computer from your phone if you then have to be at your keyboard to use the app anyway? It would be awesome if there was some way to input text into open apps, for example, but there currently isn’t – not easily anyway. I was a bit disappointed, as it seemed like a nice idea that didn’t have much use outside of controlling the screen when you were giving presentations.

However, as with Alfred itself, the ways in which it can become useful don’t come clear until you start to dwell on them a bit more. I realised there were more than a few things I would do on my laptop that would be great if I could control remotely – like when I was watching films on Netflix or VLC. As more and more people use computers as media centres, this app will prove more and more useful. It might be true that many of the issues that it can solve are very niche, but often they are the hardest ones to find a solution to.

On top of controlling your computer remotely, rather than thinking about it in terms of something that would be used instead of the keyboard or mouse, we need to consider the benefits of using it to augment them. As one fellow Alfred forum members put it, think of it as ‘Alfred Sidekick’ rather than Alfred Remote.

What do YOU use it for then?

The ways in which Alfred Remote will be useful will differ depending on your own needs and expectations. The beauty of the app is having the framework there, ready for you to create your own custom solutions to your individual problems.

For me, the first thing I did was to create a workflow for the media player VLC.

We don’t have a TV at home – as I don’t think the licence fee is worth the cost. As a result, we watch a lot of DVDs and other media files on a big LCD external monitor. Not having a remote control can be a bummer, so… I created one!

alfred remote vlc

The basics are there – play/pause, and buttons to change the volume – but there’s also a few that I added in specific to issues we came across, like to turn subtitles on or off, to fullscreen the window, and to increase or decrease the audio delay to compensate for lip synching issues. Simple, rough, but works great. Download VLC Remote Control here.

Next was Flux. Flux is an app that gradually changes the colour temperature of your screen throughout the day, in order to prevent eye strain. I hated it at first, but now I love it. Along with Alfred, it’s one of the first apps I’d install on a new computer.

The one problem with Flux is that it can interfere with the colour rendition for when you’re playing movies, or working on photos. There are ways to make up for this, but often it can be a pain if you’re sitting on your couch to go into the settings and find what you want. So…

Flux Alfred Remote

Here is my Flux Remote app. I can disable it for an hour, until sunrise, for the current app, access the preferences, enable movie or darkroom mode, and even quit the app completely. Download it here.

Third came Flickr. I love Flickr, particularly browsing through other people’s photostreams and seeing their work. Problem is, I’d really love to do it sitting with a glass of whisky, with the pictures in high resolution glory on my big screen rather than on my laptop. Luckily, Flickr’s interface has some keyboard shortcuts built in. I used these to create…

Flickr Alfred Remote Control

Flickr Theatre. This is really simple at the minute, but it lets me load up a big stream of pictures, browse between them, zoom in on them if I want, view them in lightbox mode, and then add the ones I like as a favourite. Pretty basic, but in the future there are a whole load of other things that could be possible. Download it here.

Now on to something that is more along the lines of the ‘Alfred sidekick’ mindset that I mentioned above. I edit a lot of pictures, and I am terrible at remembering the shortcuts to open common things like Curves, Contrast, etc. No matter how often I use them, they just don’t stick. So I had an idea… why not create a dedicated Alfred remote page to control these?

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 16.12.29

This is still a work in progress, so not online to download yet – but essentially I can keep my iPhone open at the side of the keyboard whilst editing pictures, and call up the tools I use frequently without having to worry about remembering their keyboard shortcut. Awesome.

These are just a few examples, and there are plenty more coming out all the time. I also use the built in iTunes control, and some others – but have chosen just to focus on the ones I’ve created specifically, as there is documentation out there on the rest. The Alfred community is alive and well, and the possibilities available by using workflows are pretty powerful. There have already been hints that future versions will contain more advanced features based on the feedback that has been received so far, so it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

Where do I get it?

Currently the app is only available for iOS, but that should hopefully change in the future. It’s available for $4.99 on the App Store, or £3.99 in the UK.

To find out more, visit the Alfred Remote page.

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Productivity Apps: Bookmarking with Shiori

Shiori

Bookmarking

Bookmarking. It’s something I’ve always struggled to find a good solution to. The in-browser features don’t really make it easy to quickly find common URLs, and I’ve tried to use other websites in the past, but they just didn’t seem to stick in my mind.

What I’ve Tried Before

The closest I’ve come to finding an answer is in Alfred, which I’ve blogged about before. There are a few different ways you can bookmark with Alfred, but I didn’t quite find that any of them matched what I was looking for.

First, I tried using the ‘web search’ feature to associate bookmarks with particular keywords. The problem with doing this though, is that you need to remember the exact keyword to call up the site you want. As as a result, it isn’t all that great for keeping track of lots of different locations.

Another solution was to use the Alfred Snippet Manager. This could be a really good solution, as you would be able to search by the title and description that you enter, as well as the content of the actual URL itself. However, if you already use the Snippet Manager for predefined replies – more like a clipboard manager – then having a large number of bookmarks in there could pollute the results, increasing the time it takes to find the things you need effectively.

I set out to find an alternative, and made use of my old Delicious account to create a workflow that could search through my bookmarks by making use of the private RSS feed. It worked, but was a bit clunky, and not as intuitive as I’d have liked. That meant that I didn’t ever really make use of it.

The real solution came in the form of a different app altogether…

Shiori

I stumbled upon Shiori completely by chance, and was surprised I hadn’t seen it mentioned anywhere before.

Both the website and the app itself are beautifully simple, and easy to use. You simply set it up to connect to a Delicious (free), Pinboard ($11 annually) account, or both. Personally, I use the latter – as Delicious keeps making changes to their service which break things. The $11 is worth the money. Call up the interface with a hotkey, and you can search through all of your bookmarks in an interface that is awfully similar in feel and operation to Alfred.

shiori_main

The similarity isn’t a criticism, as Alfred is amazing. You can search via tag, words, or even abbreviation. Like Alfred, the more you use the app, the smarter it gets – picking up on the type of searches you use most commonly to find particular bookmarks. Because it uses your login details (and doesn’t just pull it from the RSS like my hacky method above), it’s really fast too.

There’s also a hotkey that can be set to bookmark new websites quickly from the browser. If you have Keyboard Maestro installed, Joseph Schmitt has created a pretty sweet workflow which you can assign to an additional hotkey. It takes the highlighted text and automatically adds it into the ‘notes’ field. More on Keyboard Maestro in a later post.

This type of bookmarking is often called ‘social bookmarking’, as they are largely designed to be public, to share with friends etc. I’m not really into that, and prefer to keep my URLs private. Shiori makes it easy to automatically tag new bookmarks as private, to avoid having to do it manually yourself every time.

You can add in certain domains (if you want to keep particular – ahem – websites – private), but if you stick in an asterix, it will capture them all.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 13.23.14

In summary, I love Shiori. The design is as nice as Alfred (and it works just as well), it arguably works better for bookmarks, and it helps keep things compartmentalised. Snippets are now assigned to one hotkey, Alfred another, and Bookmarks another.

Where can I get it?

You can download Shiori for free (yes, completely free) here.

How Alfred Changed (Ruined?) My Life

From day one when I started working at Automattic, there was a strong focus put on different tools and apps that would help out with our daily tasks. Everybody is a power user, with their own tips and tricks, which means there are plenty of different things to explore.

One of the tools that was used by a few people, and championed by my pal Bryan is Alfred (If you don’t use a Mac, sorry, you may as well stop reading now). At first I was suspicious. I installed the app, but was never all that convinced. It didn’t fit neatly into my existing workflows, and it felt more like a hinderance than a help. In the past couple of months though, Alfred has become indispensable… so much so that I find myself lost when I use other people’s Macs.

Note: Some of the functionality I am describing requires the PowerPack, which currently costs £17, but you can try out the core features for free. The PowerPack has definitely been worth it for me, but bear that in mind.

What is Alfred?

There are plenty of other articles online to explain exactly what Alfred is, so I’ll be brief.

Alfred is the ultimate quick controller tool for your Mac. It’s like TextExpander, OSX Spotlight, Clipboard manager, and multi-search toolbar all rolled into one… but even better than that.

You start by assigning a hotkey to bring up the Alfred search box. It looks something like this:

I experimented with a bunch of different key combinations until I settled on ⌘+K. This might seem like a weird choice, but it felt like the best option given the way my hands naturally sit on the keyboard.

This unassuming search box has the power to become the command centre for your whole Mac.

Web Searches

How many times do you search Google, Facebook, IMDB, Wikipedia, or anywhere else a day?

To borrow Bryan’s advice: Whenever you search a website, consider adding it as a custom search in Alfred.

This is what the screen looks like:

I have a whole pile of custom searches, but most of them are for work, so I’ve only shown those that will be common for most folk.

Setting these up is pretty straightforward, so I won’t go into details – instructions can be found on the Alfred site itself. What’s important is how it works. Say I want to search IMDB for a particular movie. I would call up the Alfred box with my hotkey, and then type IMDB, followed by the movie title. Like so:

Hit enter and I get taken straight to the search results, rather than having to go to imdb.com first. The same sort of setup can be used for almost any site that has search.

Snippets

One of the features I use most often is the ‘Snippets’ feature. This has two main functions: a clipboard manager, and a storage for commonly used pieces of text that you don’t want to have to type out over and over again. You can access this through the main Alfred box, but of course you can assign a specific hotkey if you use it frequently. For me, that’s ⌘+O.

If you are familiar with tools like TextExpander, you’ll find the concept familiar: you input all of your predefined texts into Alfred, and then you can recall them at will through the use of a short phrase. I used to use TE and really liked it, so was hesitant to move over to Alfred’s way of doing things. It seemed counter-intuitive to press a key combination to bring up a window and then type in the keyword for my predef, rather than just typing in the predef directly.

Whilst it takes a bit of getting used to, where Alfred really wins is its fuzzy search matching for predefs. Whilst before I would have to remember the exact phrase, in Alfred it will show you all of the similar responses. This means you can have far more variations than you could remember, and find them easily through the use of a common word. When dealing with DMCA takedown notices, I use the word DMCA in the title. Start typing one, and the list narrows down to the relevant ones. Combine this with the clipboard history (which you can set the retention duration for, or disable altogether), and you have everything you need for working in support at your fingertips.

What’s even cooler is that Alfred will remember the selections you make most frequently, and float them to the top of the list, which is a major time saver. This is something that applies for all of the app’s actions, and is difficult to explain just how helpful it is without trying it for yourself.

Workflows

Workflows are one of the more sophisticated parts of Alfred. Here, you can create complicated recipes that do all sorts of things (or use ones already created by other people).

Here are some examples of the sort of Workflows I have set up:

Alfred Logo

Launch Alfred Preferences – I am constantly modifying or updating the snippets I use in Alfred. As a result, I’ve set up a hotkey (⌘+;) to bring up the preferences panel. You can download this here.

Connect to VPN – I have a number of VPN services that I use to connect to different countries for testing and anonymity purposes. Rather than have to manually connect up to these through the Mac task bar, I have it set up so I can hit one key combination to connect to London, one to connect to the USA, one to Romania, and so on.

Shorten URL with bit.ly – By typing in ‘bit into the Alfred box, I can paste a URL and have it automatically shortened using the bit.ly service. What’s even cooler is that this works with your custom shorteners. In my case, it shortens using http://allmy.fr – which I own.

Control PopClipPopClip is an awesome wee tool for the Mac that another colleague and friend Mark introduced me to. It pops up a whole host of configurable actions you can take on text when you select it. I wasn’t a big fan at first, as it was popping up at inappropriate times, but it did have a lot of potential to be really useful. I created a workflow to toggle PopClip on or off using a keyword, or to bring up the menu with a hotkey when you want it. You can download that here.

Check if a site is down – To check if a website is down globally, or if it’s just me experiencing problems, I type ‘down’, followed by the URL. Alfred checks with http://downforeveryone.com/, and displays the result.

Add a task or appointment to Things or Fantastical – Quickly add a new task or appointment to the Things task manager, or the Fantastical calendar app, rather than fire up the apps themselves.

Open apps with a hotkey or short phrase – e.g. typing ‘sn’ into the Alfred box to open Simplenote. (More detail on the hotkey part in a section below)

Search for and play songs from Spotify – Self explanatory. (#)

Randomise your MAC address – for when you need a new MAC address to bypass time restrictions on the WiFi in hotels/airports/cafes.

IP Address Check – Quickly check your internal and public facing IP addresses. I use this to confirm if I’m properly connected to a VPN or proxy.

Show Workflow Commands – Remembering these workflows is hard. This workflow creates an on-screen list of all the commands with details of what they do. Very handy!

There is a whole pile of different examples over on Packal.org, so that’s a good place to start if you are looking for inspiration.

1Password Integration

If you aren’t using a password manager yet, stop reading and go install one. Seriously. You remember a master password, and these applications both generate strong passwords as well as storing and filling them in on websites automatically.

I used to swear by LastPass, and was perfectly happy with it thank you very much. Then I discovered that Alfred integrates with 1Password.

As well as being able to trigger the 1Password application with a hotkey or phrase, I can search for stored logins from the Alfred box, hit Enter, and get taken straight to the website and automatically logged in.

This means you need to spend a bit of time tidying up your stored URLs to ensure that they are correctly set to the login page rather than the signup page, but it’s worth it. I’ve now completely switched over to 1Password as a result.

Hotkey Trickery

One of the more complicated tricks (in terms of setup) I’ve found with Alfred relates to the use of Hotkeys.

Hotkeys are awesome things. They let you fire up apps, or specific workflows without having to search for anything in the Alfred box. The problem is, a lot of the key combinations that are available are already used up by system commands in OSX.

A guy called Daniel Setzermann has come up with a novel solution to this. It essentially involves installing a couple of tools to re-map your Caps Lock key to the unusual key combination CMD + ALT + CTRL + SHIFT – aka the ‘Hyper Key’. This kills the use of your Caps Lock key, but really… when do you ever actually use that anyway? Never. That’s when. At least, you shouldn’t be. If you need to change text to all caps, you can always get a workflow to do that for you.

This takes a wee bit of time to set up, and even I was hesitant to go through the steps, but stick with it; it’s well worth the initial effort.

The beauty of this is that you can now set up really great hotkeys like CAPS + S to launch Spotify, or CAPS + C to launch Chrome, etc. Here’s an idea of what my workflow for this currently looks like, though I’m still adjusting it to find what combos stick best in my memory:

Daniel explains how to set this up really well on his site over here. (Scroll down a wee bit till you find the relevant bit)

But… this sounds awesome. Why has it ruined your life?

It is awesome. At first, I was reluctant. Changing habits and your engrained workflows is difficult, and I didn’t really get how Alfred would be all that useful at all, even despite the explanations of some really smart people.

Having stuck at it though, I don’t think I could live without Alfred (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration). Alfred is like the gateway drug to productivity.

One of the results of using Alfred more is that I’ve finally reduced the size of my dock, and hidden it completely (until I mouseover). I no longer need to launch things from the dock, and I can quickly see what’s open by Command Tabbing, so I’ve opened up a whole extra bit of screen real estate that I was previously chained to.

Whenever I use somebody else’s Mac, it’s a nightmare. It feels unbelievably clunky and old. I’ve switched from a personal approach based heavily on clicking and moving the mouse about to one that is primarily hotkey based. I haven’t even really scratched the surface of what’s possible in this post… and I’m still discovering new things every day. Alfred lets me launch things quickly and smoothly, to concentrate on what I’m actually meant to be doing. No more trying to remember where that particular network admin page is located… Alfred knows.

Alfred knows.