Actions: One Tap Automation

Every once in a while I’m fortunate enough to come across an app that has the potential to significantly improve the way I work. Such was the case when I stumbled upon Actions. I say “stumble” because in all honesty, I can’t recall how or where I discovered the app, but I’m thankful that I did.

Since then I’ve been scheming different ways in which I can harness the power and versatility that this seemingly simple app has to offer and although I’ve been privy to the beta for the last couple of weeks, it still feels as though I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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Actions in a Nutshell

Actions is a two part app, comprised of a server that runs silently in the background of your Mac (it also works on Windows) and an iPad app that allows you to execute specific actions on your Mac.

Prior to version 1.0.3 all that was possible was triggering keyboard shortcuts, however this latest incarnation has seen some amazing additions. Besides hotkeys, you can now control the system, application windows and media as well as send emails, open URLs and paste text snippets.

The first set showcases some of the actions possible.

The first set showcases some of the actions possible.

Actions is stunning and every interaction with the app, from the intuitive and well thought out gestures to the whimsical sounds, shows an extraordinary level of attention to detail. And speaking of sounds, the developers have already revealed that they’re working with Hugo Verweij from Cleartones for even better sounds in the next update.

While the app is intuitive, no expense was spared in getting the user up to speed as quickly as possible. An email with a few instructions and download link to the server component, an initial set with some interesting actions and a tutorial guiding the user every step of the way are all part of the welcome package.

A detailed tutorial guides you through every step of the process.

A detailed tutorial guides you through every step of the process.

The Anatomy of Actions

In order to get the most out of Actions it’s essential you familiarise yourself with the various building blocks.

  • Action – in essence is what will be executed on your target Mac. A few possible actions include:
    • Launching hotkeys – whilst you can create them from scratch, Actions already has a large list of keyboard shortcuts for specific apps (presets) that can be imported;
    • Controlling the system – perform a variety of common actions such as shutdown, restart, sleep, logout, etc.;
    • Controlling windows – akin to apps such as Moom on the Mac, Actions has the ability to resize a window so that it occupies either the left, right, top or bottom half of the screen. It can also close, minimize and maximize the current app window;
    • Controlling media – volume level, play, pause, previous and next track are just a few of the possible actions when it comes to media control;
    • Emails and URLs – here you can quickly create an email or open a URL. You can define email templates with To, Cc, Subject or Body pre-populated. Just one tap will launch the default email client on the Mac with all those details ready to go;
    • Text snippets – you may already have a text expander app, but if your needs are humble and not already met, then this is perfect for the job. Create a snippet of text and place (:) where you want to cursor to be;
  • Touchpads – this an action’s container: the button you tap in order to trigger said action. You can customize the touchpad by choosing one of seven available colors and optionally any of the many carefully crafted icons.
  • Sets – these contain touchpads and subsets. A set can be linked to an app (Magnet Application), meaning that when you switch between linked apps, their corresponding set also switches and vice-versa. It’s also possible to favourite a set for quick access;
  • Subsets – this is merely a group touchpads. A subset can either be locked (remains open when a touchpad is tapped) or unlocked (closes after tapping a touchpad).
It’s easy to create a new action and link it to an app.

It’s easy to create a new action and link it to an app.

Rich in Gestures

Actions makes clever use of gestures. The ability to define custom gestures is planned for a future update, but currently available gestures include:

  • Three finger swipe left or right navigates between sets;
  • Three finger swipe down reveals a scrollable list of sets for easy selection;
  • For sets that have more than one page of touchpads, one finger swipe left or right navigates between pages;
  • Two finger swipe left or right executes undo/redo in the current app and two finger swipe up/down copies/pastes in the active app.
An overview of the gestures as presented by the initial tutorial.

An overview of the gestures as presented by the initial tutorial.

Although not a gesture per se, it’s relevant to point out that tapping and holding with three fingers will switch between your favourite set and the last set used. This is a great way of having quick access to a set with all those global controls (window controls etc.).

A Few Use Cases

There are many possible uses for Actions, ranging from the simple and mundane to the more elaborate – it’s all a matter of imagination and ingenuity. To get you started, here are just a few things that can easily be accomplished with Actions. Given the app’s nature, where appropriate, I’ve gone into more detail over on Mac.AppStorm, so just follow the links if you’re uncertain how to accomplish any action.

App Launcher/Switcher

Create a new set and leave the Magnet Application blank. Now create a touchpad for every app you’d like to have. Give it a name and optionally an icon and colour. Leave the shortcut blank and under Send to, choose the desired app.

Mark this set as favourite so you can have quick and easy access to your apps. You can also set the global actions in this set, such as resizing windows etc.

Working With Windows

I’ve already mentioned that Actions can handle windows, resizing and moving them so that they occupy only half of the screen. This in itself is great, but there are apps on the Mac far better suited for this task.

One such app is Moom, that allows you to create Window Snapshots, a logical grouping of windows that can easily be recalled with a keyboard shortcut. Another great feature of Moom is the ability to assign to a hotkey, to a sequence of window actions.

Working With Mail

One of the available presets in Actions is for Mail.app. It has the most common tasks you’d expect to do in mail, composing, replying, archiving etc. However, I still found it had something missing. The ability to move messages and navigate mailboxes. With a little help from apps such as Keyboard Maestro I can now fully triage and manage my mail from Actions.

Working With File and Folders

Actions feels right at home whizzing through finder with presets for the default locations and some common tasks. What happens though when you need something other than the default? Once again, with a little automation at the Mac end, it’s a cinch to setup Actions so that moving files and accessing favourite folders is a mere tap away.

Control Your Media Center

If you’re one of the many people that, like Katie Floyd, have cut the cable and set up a Mac mini as a media center, then Actions is the best possible remote you could get.

Simply create a new set with actions that allows you to control iTunes, volume, play and pause. Create some actions for Hulu or any other service you use. As long as you have you iPad near, you’ll never have to look for that pesky remote lost under the couch pillows.

Easy controls for media.

Easy controls for media.

Still to Come

The dedicated team behind Actions is already hard at work on the next version which promises even more goodness. A few things on the roadmap so far include:

  • The ability to emulate a click (left, middle or right) with your key combination or by itself;
  • The ability to emulate key hold (press and release), instead of simply sending the combination once on tap;
  • The ability to repeatedly send keystrokes at a given rate;
  • Macros, the much awaited feature, allowing you to sequentially tie a series of actions (think Keyboard Maestro for the iPad).

Also planned is an online community for users to share with each other custom sets (importing and exporting is done via iTunes).

Final Thoughts

All that is needed for Actions and your Mac to communicate is that both are on the same wireless network. Proximity no longer is an issue and this opens up a realm of possibilities. You could harness the power of home automation with WeMo and other similar solutions. Or, you could automate your Mac with apps such as Better Touch Tool or Keyboard Maestro – let your imagination run wild!

Whether you’re a mad scientist like Brett Terpstra, with more key bindings that most could fathom, or a user with more humble needs (such as myself), you’ll undoubtedly find a use for Actions.

If you already find that your iPad is never far from your Mac, then why not give it a better use and boost your productivity. Why not try Actions? At $3.99 it’s a steal! It is, in my opinion, the companion app for any productive Mac lover!

How would you use Actions? Share your ideas with us in the comments.


Summary

Actions is a companion app for your Mac, it is capable of launching hotkeys and controlling your system among other things.

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