Inside Leopard: Macworld's OS X 10.5 preview

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Inside Leopard: Safari and Automator

Automator

Introduced as part of Tiger, Automator exists to help you you create useful little programs to accomplish routine tasks, even if you know nothing about programming. The first version of the scripting tool was relatively successful, making the creation of basic contextual menu plug-ins for the Finder and standalone applications a drag-and-drop affair.

With the release of OS X 10.5, Automator has taken steps to make it even easier to create your own useful little utilities. In fact, Automator 2.0 makes it more likely that you’ll find the courage to launch the program and take it for a spin.

The big changes

New Look Perhaps the most noticeable change in Automator can be seen as soon as you launch the program. In Tiger, you were immediately dumped into the work area, where you could start building your workflow. In Leopard, you’re instead presented with a Pages- and Keynote-like sheet called Starting Points that displays a number of categories—Custom, Files & Folders, Music & Audio, Photos & Images, and Text.

Choose a starting point based on the task you’re automating, and several pop-up menus appear, asking from where Automator should get content, and how you’d like to get that content. Make your selections and click on Choose, and Automator will open with a couple of actions already showing in the workflow area.

Recording In the top right corner of Automator’s interface, there’s a new Record button next to the existing Stop and Run buttons. Click on it, and Automator activates the Finder while displaying a small Recording dialog box. The recorder then captures your keystrokes—opening System Preferences and activating a specific pane, for example.

This ability to record actions in Automator is a long-awaited addition. While recording won’t allow you to do everything, it will let you work around any limitations you run into with Automator’s built-in actions.

What you may not know

Automator hasn’t necessarily gotten the attention devoted to other Leopard features. While Apple disclosed the recording capability this past summer, other enhancements to Automator have received very little play. Nevertheless, they should dramatically change how you use the automation feature.

With variable support and new libraries and actions, building a workflow in Leopard’s version of Automator should be smoother than ever before.

New Libraries and Actions One of the complaints about the first version of Automator was that it didn’t offer enough actions to make the tool truly usable. The new version moves in the right direction by offering a number of useful new actions.

Choose From List presents a pop-up list of options from which the user can choose one or many. Copy To Clipboard and Get Contents Of Clipboard do exactly that. Automator offers other actions that hide or quit applications as well as a slew of actions to work with RSS feeds.

Variables Another complaint about Automator 1.0 was that you were limited to choosing options that Apple provided. If you wanted to work with some text, for instance, you had to figure out how to get it into Automator.

The new version includes support for variables, which can be text or numbers. Automator includes a number of predefined variables for things such as the current day and time, the user’s .Mac account name, and the computer’s uptime. There are other variables for storing text, file paths, shell script variables, and AppleScript variables.

The ability to use variables in workflows give Automator the ability to accomplish more complex tasks than could its predecessor. I expect to see a number of really innovative Automator-based applications released in the coming months.

Smart Groups Personally, I thought the Tiger version of Automator made it tricky to find the action I wanted to use. Automator now takes care of that in a few different ways. First, actions are listed alphabetically within groups. They’re also sorted based on function instead of the providing application—all the photo-related actions are found in the Photos group for example. (You can switch to the old by-application view in the menu, if you wish.) Finally, you can create Smart Groups; just as in Mail, iPhoto, and iTunes, Smart Groups help you organize things based on a set of rules.

Other New Features In the workflow area, you can now expand workflows to see results of each step directly within the workflow itself. The log now displays within the Automator window, instead of below it in a drop-down drawer. You can also save the log file, something you couldn’t previously do.

What we think

Automator 2.0 is a nice step forward from its debut in Tiger. The ability to record keystrokes and mouse actions, the presence of variables, and the new sort-by-usage view all make Automator easier to use and more powerful than its predecessor.

Automator still isn’t an app that everyone is going to use. But for those who are looking for a way to automate a repetitive action, or add functionality to the Finder’s contextual menu, it’s a great tool. You really don’t need any programming experience, and the new Starting Points feature makes it even easier to get started with the program.

Great or Wait? Automator has made some big strides towards improved usability with this version. Both those new to Automator and experienced users will find something to like in this release—from a nicer interface to the ability to use variables in workflows, there’s something here for everyone. Great.

[ Senior editor Rob Griffiths also profiled OS X 10.5’s Time Machine feature while continuing to run the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

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