Many Mac users whose relationship with the Mac predates Mac OS X retain an affection for macro utilities—applications that let you string together a series of actions, and summon those macros with a click or a key press to automate repetitive tasks. Chief among them was QuicKeys, an application passed from company to company before finally coming to rest (and currently in deep hibernation) with Startly Technologies.
With the decline of QuicKeys and the arrival of new users who are generally unaware of utilities of its ilk, macro utilities seem to have dropped off the radar during the past few years. And that’s regrettable, particularly when one as useful, powerful, and affordable as Keyboard Maestro 6 ($36; $18 for upgrades) exists.
Working with the Maestro
When I reviewed Keyboard Maestro 4.2 in 2010, I covered the utility’s workflow, which hasn’t changed significantly (though its system requirements have—version 6 requires OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion). Feel free to check that review for all the details, but here’s the gist: The macro editor is laid out in three columns. The first includes any macro groups you’ve created. as well the All Macros group. The second column displays all macros in the selected group (both those included with Keyboard Maestro and those you’ve made). The third column details the actions included in the selected macro.
When you create a new macro, the third column becomes the editing area where you add actions and configure triggers (the things you must do to execute the macro—type a keyboard shortcut, type a string of characters, or launch an application, for instance). When adding an action, you’ll notice that the first two columns change: The first shows categories of actions, and the second offers actions associated with the selected category. To create a macro, you just drag actions from the second column to the third, in the order in which you want them to execute.
You can broadly classify Keyboard Maestro’s new features in two ways: niceties and improved functionality. Among the niceties, I would include macro syncing between Macs, support for retina graphics, the ability to assign icons to macros and macro groups, a customizable status icon, a debugger that lets you walk through your actions to look for problems, and the power to trigger macros by typing their name, much as you would with a utility like LaunchBar (). These niceties are all great to have, but they’re features I’d classify as “icing on the cake.”
The cake itself has been enriched in welcome ways. I’ll start with new triggers.
You can now configure a macro to execute when you plug in or disconnect a particular USB device. For example, you might arrange that when you plug in a scanner, your scanning utility launches and then scans, saves, and prints your document. Or when you jack in a USB thumb drive, a macro launches that copies its contents to a folder on your Mac’s startup drive.
Similarly, you can have Keyboard Maestro fire off a macro whenever you connect to a particular wireless network. For example, when you take your MacBook to work and log on to the office Wi-Fi network, a macro can mount a local server volume and changes the default printer to the one across the hall.
Keyboard Maestro added multiple clipboards and TextExpander-like text clippings a while back; version 6 now supports styled text as well.
To me, one of Keyboard Maestro’s most appealing new features is that it now offers Safari and Chrome actions. As a result, you can use Keyboard Maestro to fill in and submit Web-based forms. If you’re in the business of working with such forms—as I am as part of my writing, publishing, and forum-moderating duties—this is a terrific time saver. Prior to the release of Keyboard Maestro 6, when I needed to smite a forum spammer, I’d have to click a field, enter a reason for the smiting, tick off four check boxes, and then click a Submit button. I now perform all of those steps by activating a macro with a single keyboard shortcut.
The application is extensible in another way: Keyboard Maestro offers a new feature that allows you to create and add user-written actions. Called Plug In Actions, these are shell scripts or AppleScripts bundled in a form understandable to Keyboard Maestro. Stairways Software encourages people who’ve create such actions to share them with other Keyboard Maestro 6 users. (The actions don’t work with earlier versions of the program.)
Similarly, though you’ve long been able to share macros by exporting them and then importing them into another copy of Keyboard Maestro, version 6 makes it easy to copy a macro as a screenshot for posting to the Web—or as the case may be, in the body of a review.
If you find yourself doing the same things over and over—typing text strings, navigating to a particular location, running through the same series of menu commands, or manipulating files on a recently mounted USB drive—you owe it to yourself to try Keyboard Maestro. Macro utilities remain enormously helpful: If you formerly used one, it’s time you did so again; if you’re new to macros, get on board. You’ll be amazed at the time you save.