Most Mac users may not know it, but OS X comes with a very handy utility to automate many repetitive tasks.
Apple, always the creative technochic company, calls it Automator. It’s free. It works. It requires you to think about what you want it to do. Or, you could spend a little money and buy a bunch of Automator Actions to do the thinking for you.
Automator is one of the handiest of a few nearly unknown Mac utilities. Basically, you select from a stack of actions for specific applications, then link them together to performa specific tasks.
Think of it as an electronic Tinker Toy set. Many Mac applications have their own ‘actions’. Open automator, select the actions from the list to the left and drag them to your list on the right. That’s the so-called workflow which is what makes up an ‘action’.
What can you do with Automator? You start with a workflow, which can Files & Folders, Music & Audio, Photos & Images, plain old text, or something custom.
If you select Custom, you’re presented with multiple columns in a Mac window. The Library column to the left holds various Mac applications and utilities.
When you select one, the column in the middle presents various actions assigned to that specific app or utility.
Select one of those and drag it to the workflow area to begin building your own automated action. For example, click on Internet, and you’re presented with a dozen or so actions from Download Files to Display Widgets to Upload Files to get images from a specific URL.
If you don’t remember Tinker Toys then think Erector Set. Whatever the analogy, Automator Actions can be built to your own specifications in just minutes and run whenever you need that action.
The upside is that Automator is free, it’s powerful, it’s not difficult to master. The downside is that it’s a bit complex for the average Mac user. Thinking in terms of actions and workflows goes well beyond Mail, Safari, iLife and iWork.
Enter Automator Action Packs, pre-constructed Automator actions that do one or many different functions. They’re not free, but they’re so inexpensive you can easily determine the value on a per-action basis.
As an example, a site named Automated Work Flows is one of many sites that specialize in Automator Actions.
There’s an Automator Extension Action Pack with 20 Automator actions which work in the Finder, Safari, Mail and elsewhere. These are actions which choose list items, add Finder items, click Safari web form checkboxes, enable and disable various functions in Mail, Safari, and other apps.
There’s a Finder Action Pack that performs 20 additional functions. There are also Action Packs for Photoshop, Filemaker Pro, Illustrator, TextEdit, Quark Express and others.
The Mac web site Automator World features a whole library of Automator Actions.
If you don’t mind digging through a bunch of Actions to find one that suits your needs, there’s a download section available. Apple’s web site features a download section for OS X Automator Actions.
Some are simple actions which check to see what’s hidden on your Mac’s clipboard (what gets copied when you copy something). Finding plenty of books on Automator is easy, too. Amazon has plenty and so does the Mac360 Store. Select Books from the category list, enter ‘mac automator’, and learn all you need to know about Automator.
Most of us perform the same actions over and over and over again when we’re using our Macs. Automator helps you link and sequence those actions so that a single click can perform many repetitive actions. One function that’s totally handy is the Automator recording feature called Watch Me Do.
It’s a new Automator action in OS X Leopard which lets you record a user action just like recording television, then play it back as part of a custom action.
The problem with building your own Automator Actions is that you’re somewhat limited in the actions provided by OS X, though there are plenty, and you’re required to plan your action steps in the workflow area.
Regardless, Automator Actions can be an inexpensive way to get many tasks done in seconds and with a single click. Plus, if you like to tinker the best place to start is with Automator.