Mac Gems Promising Prospect: Shortcat replaces mouse clicks with keyboard presses

At a Glance
  • Sproutcube Shortcat

Nearly two decades after it first made an appearance on my desk, the mouse has yet to gain my favors. Modern graphical-user interfaces (GUIs) make its use practically mandatory, but I use it only when I have no other choice.

My dislike for pointing and clicking is not just a matter of reliving the good old days, when the only way to use computers was to type for hours on end—uphill, both ways—but rather a simple consequence of the fact that, unlike the mouse or trackpad, a keyboard gives me haptic feedback that allows me to type without looking.

I mention all this to help explain why Shortcat caught my eye. This little utility promises to let you use the keyboard to perform many operations, such as clicking textual links on a Web page, that normally require a pointing device.

Shortcat adds a systemwide menu to your menu bar (though you can turn this off) and lets you choose a global keyboard shortcut (I stuck with the default Command+Shift+Space). When you press that shortcut, Shortcat displays a small text-input box at the bottom of the screen.

As you start typing in the box, the app examines the contents of the active window (which gets a faint outline to confirm which window is being examined) and looks for actionable text items—buttons, checkboxes, files, and so on—that match the text you’ve typed. Shortcat matches in a variety of ways, including the first few letters of a word, or the initials of the words in a phrase (for example, typing LA will match both “later” and “load all”). Shortcat is clever enough to differentiate between regular text and “clickable” text (onscreen elements that can be clicked), and it can even detect items that have hidden textual content attached to them, such as clickable images with ALT tags on a Web page.

As you type in Shortcat’s query box, your text is matched against clickable text.

Shortcat highlights the first matching item with a very noticeable (but unobtrusive) green, rounded rectangle; if that’s the item you want to “click,” you just press Return. If multiple items match a given query, Shortcat assigns a unique letter to each, displaying that letter in the item’s highlight rectangle. You can quickly select one of those items—and, thus, turn its rectangle green—by pressing Control+[letter]; pressing Return “clicks” the item.

What if an onscreen element requires a double-click? Just press Return twice. And if you would normally use a modifier key when clicking—for example, Control+click or Command+click—you can simply hold down that modifier key while pressing Return to emulate the same action. If, on the other hand, you just want to move the pointer over a green-highlighted onscreen element, without actually clicking on it, you simply tap the Control key by itself.

With this simple mechanism, Shortcat allows you to bypass the use of the mouse completely, as long as the item you wish to activate is visible on the screen and has some sort of textual representation. (Of course, you must be able to tell what that textual representation is—in the case of image links, for example, that can be difficult.)

When a query matches multiple targets, Shortcat highlights them and lets you choose one using the keyboard.

Shortcat is currently a beta, but I’ve been using it on my main Mac for several weeks and I’ve had very few problems. It has worked well with just about any app I’ve thrown at it, from the Finder to Safari to third-party software and developer tools. I have experienced a few hiccups here and there, mostly due to the fact that some apps were simply built with a focus on mouse usage: In addition to the aforementioned issues with clickable images on webpages, iTunes is somewhat difficult to control at times. (Then again, I have problems using iTunes's user interface with a mouse, too, so this is unlikely to be a big surprise or a significant problem.)

Shortcat has to dig pretty deep into the operating system to work its magic; thus, although much of its functionality piggybacks on OS X’s Accessibility features, which are robust and well supported, your mileage may vary considerably, depending on the apps you tend to use.

Still, Shortcat is more than worth a try. With very little training, it has the potential to improve your productivity more significantly than you’d expect—and to reduce the stress that using a mouse inflicts on your hand and arm muscles and joints.

(Note that the beta version of Shortcat is free; we don't yet know what the final version will cost.)

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At a Glance
  • If you're a keyboard junkie, Shortcat allows you to use keys to access almost any any onscreen element, avoiding a mouse or trackpad (almost) altogether.

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