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.

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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.