Automator is a great tool for automating basic tasks on your Mac, no scripting or programming required. By dragging prebuilt actions together, you can quickly and easily create countless workflows to do things you might otherwise have to do manually.
Mac OS X comes with hundreds of Automator actions to get you started. These actions can handle basic tasks within the operating system itself, as well as in many of OS X's bundled applications, including Address Book, iCal, iTunes, Mail, and Safari. But as useful as all of these built-in actions are, they can't do everything.
Fortunately, third-party developers have been busy building Automator actions of their own. Like the built-in actions, these third-party actions work with OS X itself and its bundled applications, as well as with all kinds of other programs. Some of the actions come from big-name software companies (the latest version of Microsoft Office, for example, includes some handy actions of its own), and some come from individual programmers.
Wherever you get them, these third-party actions make Automator even more useful than it already is. Here are a few of my favorites. To install any of them, follow their Web links; you'll find installation instructions there.
Dispense Items Incrementally
Automator's new Loop action lets you repeat a section of your workflow over and over. Unfortunately, it has a glitch: if your workflow passes multiple files or folders to a loop, Automator will send the entire batch through the loop all at once.
That may be fine if you're working with a small number of items. But if your workflow generates a list of hundreds or even thousands of Finder items, and then sends them to an application, you could find yourself with hundreds of files open at one time. Nyhthawk Productions' Dispense Items Incrementally fixes this problem by taking a batch of files as input and then releasing them to an Automator loop one at a time. Once all the items have been through the loop, the action stops the workflow.
Download URLs as PDFs
Saving Web pages in PDF format can be very useful. You can then share them with friends via e-mail, archive them for offline viewing, or integrate them into a document. Scott Garner's Download URLs as PDFs action makes saving them simple. The action takes URLs from a previous action (such as Get Current Web Page from Safari or Get Specified URLs), downloads those Web pages in PDF format to a specified folder, and outputs the downloaded files for further processing by the workflow. Within the action's preferences, you can specify the PDF's orientation, whether it will include images and backgrounds, the file name, and more.
James Pitt's Flickr Upload action makes sharing your photos easier than ever. Once you've authenticated the action with your Flickr account, you can use it to build workflows that upload photos directly from Aperture or iPhoto, or even as you're downloading them from your camera. The action not only handles the uploading, but can also apply a title, adescription, and tags to your photos, and specify who is allowed to view them.
Performing routine system maintenance, such as repairing disk permissions, can be tedious. Automator's built-in actions won't make it any less tedious, but Jesse Hogue's Maintenance can. It lets you initiate a variety of system maintenance routines, including repairing permissions, clearing cache files, and rebuilding the Spotlight index, from within an Automator workflow. Maintenance is not an Automator action per se. Rather, it's a customized version of Automator's Run AppleScript action, saved as an application. You run it by double-clicking on it in the Finder, by opening it in Automator, or by adjusting the workflow's AppleScript code and telling iCal to run it as an alarm, so it'll happen regularly with no intervention from you.
Run Python Script
Automator's built-in Run AppleScript and Run Shell Script actions let anyone who knows AppleScript or Unix do all kinds of cool stuff. Toxicsoftware.com's Run Python Script action extends these possibilities even further, allowing you to run Python scripts from within an Automator workflow.
Run Ruby Script
Building on the success and popularity of the Run Python Script action, Jason Foreman has released a similar Run Ruby Script action, which lets you run Ruby code from Automator.
Upload to FTP
If you have to regularly upload files or folders to an FTP server, this action from Peter Dekkers will make it quicker and easier. You give it your FTP server address, user name, password, root directory, and other settings. When it receives files and folders as input in a workflow, it uploads them and provides their URLs as output. You can then insert those URLs into e-mails or text files, or whatever else you want your workflow to do.
View with Quick Look
Leopard's Quick Look is a fast, easy way to preview file contents without launching a full-blown application. Nyhthawk's View with Quick Look action brings it to Automator, allowing you to create workflows that will preview folder contents, Mail attachments, and more, all within a Quick Look window. The action itself has no settings to configure. Simply add it to a workflow, following an action that outputs Finder items.
The final word
Those certainly aren't all the third-party Automator actions available online. Here are a few more Automator resources on the Web, where you'll find more actions, as well as downloadable workflows and Automator tutorials:
Ben Waldie is the author of Automator for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2008) and the president of Automated Workflows.