Productivity Apps: Keyboard Maestro

keyboard_maestro_logoI’ve had this article on the back burner for almost three years now, but for the next thrilling instalment of my productivity app blogs, I’ll be turning to look at Keyboard Maestro.

Don’t let the somewhat dated website put you off, the app itself is unbelievably powerful. I have to admit to being wary when I first tried it out. The learning curve is steep, and the documentation pretty unclear – especially when compared to the other productivity apps that are available. However, after months years of sustained use, my feelings towards Keyboard Maestro have completely changed. It’s tough to get into, but so worth it. I honestly don’t know what I would do without it at this point.

So if Keyboard Maestro is so great, why did it take me so long to publish this? Well, there’s a few reasons. Firstly, there aren’t so many general use cases for Keyboard Maestro – at least not for me. Instead, it’s an app that’s best for repetitive tasks that are very specific to each user’s needs, which makes it difficult to give good examples. Secondly, it’s an app that you tend to set up and forget… before rediscovering it later on when your needs have changed, and you realise: “Oh! Keyboard Maestro could make this way easier!”. I’ve gone through that cycle a number of times, and after rediscovering just how awesome it is, I decided to finally complete this post.

What does it do?

Okay okay so Keyboard Maestro is great, but what does it actually do?. This is a good question, as it isn’t immediately obvious. Essentially, Keyboard Maestro allows you to take any task that you have to repeat, and automates it. If you’re familiar with Alfred, think of Alfred workflows, but on steroids. The key difference is that instead of having to write Applescript for every action you want to complete (which is still an option, by the way), there are a whole bunch of options baked in. Whether that’s telling the mouse to move and click on a certain point, displaying a popup message, getting an image size, filling in a field on a website, or whatever. You get a lot of control from the get go.

Keyboard Maestro Actions
Some of the ‘actions’ available.

 

The sheer power of Keyboard Maestro is also its undoing in a way. It’s easy to look at the list of actions and wonder when you will ever use any of them. The UI is not the most intuitive, and you’d be forgiven for giving up at the beginning purely on that basis alone.

If you want to carry out simple, general tasks, then there may well be a nicer app that lets you do those things. However, that isn’t the point of Keyboard Maestro. Keyboard Maestro is there to help you automate pretty much any task that you can think of.

In addition to the automation, there is a whole host of other cool features that you can do a deep dive into – such as an extensive multi clipboard manager, application switcher, and others – but for me the real glory lies in the macros.

What can it do for me?

 

One of the biggest hurdles to starting off with Keyboard Maestro is working out exactly what you’ll use it for. It takes a conscious effort to work out what tasks you could automate – which isn’t necessarily something you thought was possible beforehand. Once you do sit down and give it some attention though, you’ll soon come up with plenty. Do you have to fill out specific fields on a website more than once? Use a macro. Do you need to convert HTML to markdown? Use a macro. Need to extract URLs from a big block of text? Macro. The possibilities are endless.

As part of my job, I regularly have to review and respond to reports about different websites using a helpdesk system. Each one (generally) requires me to:

  1. Find the website URL in the e-mail and open it.
  2. Decide what to do.
  3. Note down the action taken in certain circumstances.
  4. Reply by copying a specific part of the original message, and quoting it back in a certain format before providing an appropriate response.
  5. Select a certain option to mark the issue as ‘Resolved’ or ‘On Hold’.

All of these steps are fairly straightforward, but a lot of time is taken up by clicking through the same tasks for each – even when I use a textexpander or snippet manager like Alfred. Sometimes the URLs are jumbled up and I need to fix them before opening or responding, or they are buried in huge blocks of text… etc. However, with Keyboard Maestro, I can reduce this all to a couple of key presses, with a couple of macros doing all of the following:

  1. Extracting all of the URLs from the messages, and opening them in new windows.
  2. Pasting the URLs in the correct quoted format at the top of the reply, along with the appropriate response.
  3. Adding whatever notes needed to track the action taken in a specific field.
  4. Marking the issue Resolved or On Hold as appropriate.

The only thing Keyboard Maestro doesn’t do is decide what action to take – which is just as well really, for a variety of reasons!

Like many of the examples, that one is very specific, but it demonstrates a bit of how granular and useful Keyboard Maestro macros can be – and will hopefully get you thinking about your own use cases. Here are some other more general tasks I regularly deploy macros for:

  • Inserting a URL wrapped in a href tags.
  • Pasting text with different styles of quotes depending on the situation.
  • Parsing blocks of text to extract URLs and/or e-mail addresses.
  • Getting ID numbers from long URLs.
  • Pasting items in a bulleted or numbered list automatically.
  • Filling out forms online.
  • Copying the current URL from my browser window (and doing stuff with it).

The most powerful and useful ones are those that have very specific, work related use cases. With a bit of imagination, you’ll come up with your own, so I’d encourage you to give it a bash.

Triggers

To wrap this up, I wanted to highlight one more feature of Keyboard Maestro that makes it stand out from other productivity apps. For those veterans amongst us who regularly make use of workflow improvements, it’s easy to run out of hotkey assignments, and Keyboard Maestro has a bunch of different ways to solve that problem. First off is the use of ‘palettes’, which lets you assign the same hotkey to different macros – and then select them from a menu – or to activate different hotkey sets depending on what you’re working on that day.

If you already use Alfred, Keyboard Maestro is a brilliant complement, rather than a replacement in this way too. There is a specific Alfred workflow that lets you search and trigger Keyboard Maestro macros from the Alfred search bar, which is incredibly useful for those that you may use occasionally, but don’t want to dedicate a precious hotkey to: Alfred Maestro.

Finally, triggers aren’t just confined to mere hotkeys. Oh no. Pretty much any event you can think of can kick off a macro. If you want certain changes to happen when you connect to a particular WiFi, you can make that happen. Execute commands remotely by running Keyboard Maestro on a server? Why not. Run certain checks when a USB device is plugged in? Easy. You can even have Keyboard Maestro react to MIDI notes and values, which opens up a whole world of interesting hardware controllers aside from the keyboard… something I’ll be exploring in the next post.

In the meantime, go forth, and automate!

 

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A Hyper Key Solution for Mac OSX Sierra

In the past I’ve mentioned how I have streamlined a lot of the everyday tasks I have to do through the use of various keyboard-centric apps such as Alfred and Keyboard Maestro. One of the linchpins of my setup is the use of something called the ‘Hyper Key’, which is essentially re-mapping the fairly useless Caps Lock to act as a super-function key, letting you trigger all sorts of shortcuts and different macros.

This particular configuration relied on two bits of software, called Karabiner and Seil. However, earlier today I was forced into upgrading from OSX El Capitan, to OSX Sierra, to fix an issue with some other apps that I was having. Of course, upon upgrade, I discovered that the Karabiner/Seil combination no longer functioned properly, and there was no real solution using the same tools. Sigh.

After a bit of digging, I discovered a way to re-enable the same functionality, albeit with a bit of jiggery pokery. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Install Hammerspoon. This is a piece of software that allows for automation, acting as an interface between a scripting engine called lua, and the OS itself.
  2. Install Karabiner Elements. This is a version of Karabiner that works with OSX Sierra. The latest DMG is available here.
  3. Under OSX Keyboard System Preferences pane, change the Caps Lock Action to ‘None’, to allow Karabiner to control it.

    Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 21.12.04.png

  4. Set up Karabiner Elements to map the caps_lock to F18. You can also do this by adding in a config file to ~/.karabiner.d/configuration/karabiner.json, but it’s so easy to do manually that it seems overkill to go that route.

    screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-21-09-05
    How Karabiner Elements should look
  5. Now, load up a lua config file into Hammerspoon, by copying it to ~/.hammerspoon/init.lua – see below for examples.

The config file I am using is available over on GitHub here. It will re-enable the Hyper Key function for all a-z and 0-9 keys, as well as a couple of miscellaneous ones that I use, though it should be self explanatory on how to add new ones.

One thing to watch out for is that any Hotkeys set up in Alfred to launch applications with the Hyper Key don’t seem to work any longer, so for that, one way to get them to launch is to add a specific mapping in the init.lua configuration. Here’s what I’ve done to get 1Password to launch with CAPS+O:

-- Code to launch single apps that Alfred used to handle.
-- Hat-Tip: https://gist.github.com/ttscoff/cce98a711b5476166792d5e6f1ac5907

launch = function(appname)
 hs.application.launchOrFocus(appname)
 k.triggered = true
end

-- Keybinding for specific single apps.

singleapps = {
 {'o', '1Password 6'},
}

As you can see from the above, I obviously didn’t write the code to make all of this work. Credit for that goes to a combination of ttscoff and prenagha; I just tweaked it for my own simple use case and wrote this up in the hope that others might find it easy to follow.

Good luck!

Looking back at how to listen: A year of music

I’ve been using Last.fm – the tracking service to catalogue the music you listen to – since 2004. Since then, I have ‘scrobbled’ about 1,600 different artists, and just over 43,500 tracks.

To be honest, I don’t check in on Last.fm very often, preferring to let it just carry on doing its thing in the background – looking in every once in a while to see how things are getting on. I tend to have periods where I don’t listen to a whole lot of music, and there’s some useful information in there to help spot when that’s happening and do something about it. I can always look back and dig out some of the bands I haven’t listened to in ages, and try and rekindle some of the associated excitement again. I’m not a very good passive music listener… preferring to be more involved when I do.

A couple of months ago I realised that my music habits over the past couple of years have slipped pretty dramatically – going from 5,952 scrobbles in 2013, to 2,671 in 2014, and 2362 in 2015. The figure for this year is slightly higher than it would have been had I not realised and made a conscious effort to listen to more.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 14.28.05

I think there’s a few reasons for the dip:

  • Moving House – I always preferred listening to music through my amp + speakers combo than whilst wearing headphones. In my previous (shared) flat, the audio setup was used purely for those purposes whilst I was hanging out in my room. Now, it’s used as my main output – connected up to the TV. Because of that, it gets used far less for music, and I listen to a lot less as a result.
  • Travelling – The past couple of years I’ve been travelling a lot. I have too much music to store on my phone, so rely on Spotify – but that tends to rule out listening to things whilst abroad with no data connection. I also don’t generally really like using my phone for music. I also discovered that the in-built music system wasn’t registering all the scrobbles that it should be…
  • Work – Two years ago I went from working in an office where I would listen to music constantly during the day to working from home. Whilst this was great, it meant that I didn’t always need to block out what was going on around me, and ended up listening to music less as a result. In addition, if I needed some background noise, I would tend to opt for the TV.
  • Not being involved – I used to be in a band, write for a music zine, and a whole lot more. I’d naturally come across music I loved and get excited about it. I don’t really do this at all anymore.

Now that I’ve worked this out, I’m going to actively make an effort to listen to more music. Here’s some of the things that should help make a difference:

  • New bluetooth speaker – I always thought that bluetooth speakers sucked, and generally they do. After trying out a JBL Charge 2 though, and hearing how great the bass response was, I got one. It’s portable, and means that we can listen to music whilst travelling easier – or whilst in different rooms without headphones.
  • New headphones – I got a pair of open backed Beyerdynamic headphones that have ultra soft ear cups on them. Coupled with a cheap FiiO mini amplifier, they sound incredible – and I can wear them for hours at a time. Listening to music on them is a pleasure, and means I find myself doing so far more often whilst working at home; concentrating better as well.
  • Going to the gym – I stopped going to the gym when I moved flat, as there wasn’t a decently priced one nearby. One has opened up across the road, and I’ve started to go pretty frequently. The music they play in there is utter gash, so that means an hour of music 3 or 4 times a week that I wouldn’t have listened to before. I’m using Vox on iOS currently to make sure that it gets scrobbled properly.
  • Finding new music – The times I’ve listened to loads of music in the past has always been when I’ve gotten passionate about it and explored different artists to get excited about. When I can’t think of what to listen to, I tend to not bother. This year I’m going to make more of an effort to explore related songs on Last.FM and become more involved than I have been for a while.

All the grizzly details of what I’m listening to can be found on my Last.FM profile here.

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.

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.

Productivity Apps: PopClip

If you work online, there a whole load of tasks that can be a pain in the ass to have to do. Even if work itself is great, nobody likes having to do certain things… like copying and pasting different URLs into new browser tabs, or re-formatting garbled text.

One of the benefits of working at Automattic is being surrounded by friendly, smart geeks who have tried all sorts of different things to get the most out of their computers, and to tailor them to fit how they work. When you hit the sweet spot, your laptop really seems to sing; doing exactly what you want to straight away without having to footer about and get bogged down in the drudgery; it becomes almost like an extension of your fingers or brain. That sort of harmony can be a really great feeling, and let you enjoy working rather than it becoming a chore. I’ve written before about how great Alfred is for this.

One of the other tools that helps achieve this sort of inter-relationship for me was recommended by my friend and colleague Mark: PopClip for Mac.

original

PopClip is a small helper application for Mac and iOS that pops up a control panel when you select text. You can then quickly access a whole variety of different options, from the standard Bold/Italic formatting options, to looking up the text in the dictionary, Google translate, or whatever else you might fancy.

This is what my PopClip bar looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.33.31

Usefulness, and Integration with Alfred

At first, I wasn’t too convinced about this app. It seemed like one of those cool ideas that didn’t really play out properly in execution. The prospect of having the PopClip bar appear whenever I highlighted text seemed like it would become a real pain real quickly, and it did.

However, there were lots of cool features in there that I was sure would be useful at somepoint. I realised that rather than have the bar pop up every single time text was highlighted, Alfred could be used to control the behaviour through the use of Hotkeys.

As a result I created an Alfred workflow specifically for this purpose. You can download that here.

Once installed, you can toggle PopClip ‘On’ or ‘Off’ by using the keyword popclip from the Alfred launch bar. Alternatively, you can leave PopClip off, and trigger its menu when needed by the use of a hotkey – currently set to ⌘ + P. The latter is what I find myself using more often than not.

As soon as I realised that I could do this, PopClip seemed a lot more powerful than before.

Features

There are a whole bunch of things you can use PopClip for, so it’s just a matter of finding what is useful for your own particular workflow.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the extensions I have installed:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.40.18

The ones I use the most are:

Instant Translate

This is a great extension. Highlight a sentence, call up PopClip and hit Instant Translate to get a translation into the ‘Destination Language’ that you set in the preferences. Saves the time and hassle of going to the Google translate page, instead bringing up the translation in a bubble:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.46.24

That’s Greek, by the way.

Download Instant Translate here.

Google Translate

Of course, sometimes there’s just too much text to display in one little popup. The Google Translate extension grabs the selected text and passes it through to the full booner.

Shorten URL (bit.ly)

Pretty self explanatory. Grabs the selected URL and shortens it using the Bit.ly service. Download it here.

CopyURLs

This is one of my favourites. Often I need to deal with long e-mails that have various URLs in them. Going through these, copying and pasting the URLs out separately was always a real fiddly, and boring task. The CopyURLs extension did away with all of that in one quick swoop. Simply highlight any text, invoke the extension, and just the URLs from that text will be copied to the clipboard. Fantastic.

This beauty was authored by Brett, and is available to download as part of a bundle here. If you just want CopyURLs though, you can grab it here.

OpenURLs

Just like CopyURLs, but this time it takes the URLs in the selected text and opens each of them in a new browser tab. Pretty swish. Grab it here.

Abbreviation Lookup

Not sure what an abbreviation means? WTF TLDR? Highlight and invoke this extension to get taken straight to the meaning. I ended up writing my own extension for this purpose, as the existing one on the PopClip page wasn’t producting great results. Get it here.

Send to SimpleNote

I had been looking about for an extension that integrated with SimpleNote, but couldn’t find any. So, I wrote one. This will grab the select text and send it over to a new note in SimpleNote. Great for capturing quick thoughts you want to come back to later. Download it here.

Simplenote-demo
Image owned by Pilot Moon.

Custom Searches

Can’t find what you are looking for on the list of 100+ free extensions on the PopClip page? No sweat. You can easily set up your own. There’s a good tutorial here if you want to get down and dirty with AppleScript, but if you’re not ready for that yet, Brett again has created a fantastic wee tool to help you on your way. Simply plug in the site you want to search with the highlighted text, and this will spit out a PopClip ready extension for you to use.

Personally, I’ve created a whole bunch of quick extensions for things I need to search for at work regularly – like usernames, domain names, and e-mail addresses. Not dis-similar to Alfred’s Custom Searches function, using PopClip in this way makes the process even quicker for particular tasks, saving the need to copy the text, call up Alfred, paste it in then search. Instead, just highlight, call up PopClip, and hit the relevant search button. Easy!

Summary and Price

It can be hard at first to get into the habit of using PopClip, but there are real rewards to be reaped once you do. Certain tasks are made so much quicker than they would be otherwise, and it’s just a matter of finding out what will be of most use to you personally.

PopClip costs $4.99 from the App Store, but also has a free trial available on the Pilot Moon website. For all the hours it’s saved me copying URLs from lawyer’s emails, it’s been well worth it. Give it a bash and see what you think.

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.