Text Expander: A Staggeringly Useful Time Saver

If you do any sort of writing (from programming to fiction), chances are that you end up typing many things over and over again. Basic HTML 5 structure, rounded corners for the top left and bottom right in CSS, multiple signatures you use in emails, etc., can all be shortened to a few keystrokes with the help of TextExpander.

It’s the most useful tool that you’ve never heard of! And if you have, you’ll want to read on and find out whether it’s a worthy addition to your iPad…


TextExpander touch, the iPad or iPhone version of the popular application gives you the same power on your iOS device. You will be able to define strings to trigger a replacement, for example, typing mysig will paste your whole signature automatically.

The TextExpander main interface.

Getting Started

Once you’ve downloaded the app, you can start adding some snippets. You should see some samples in there, feel free to take a look at them to better understand the process.

I started out by creating a snippet group using using the plus sign at the bottom right of the snippets pane. Once created, navigate to your new snippet group and add a snippet using the plus sign. You will be able to enter an abbreviation and the content. Whenever you type the abbreviation in an enabled app, it will instantly get replaced by the content (this behavior can be changed). Due to this, it is a good idea to use a string which isn’t a word. In other words, instead of using “signature” or “sig”, use “mysig”.

Advanced Features

TextExpander allows you to add some advanced functionality to your snippets. For example, adding “%!” (without the quotes) into your snippet content will position your cursor to that point when it has been inserted. You can also add dates dynamically, “%Y” will add the four digit year, “%B” will add the full month name, and “%d” will add the two digit day.

Regretfully, there is no list of available macros like this anywhere in the app or anywhere online for that matter! You can find some of them in the FAQ section. This is quite unacceptable, so I have compiled a list of TextExpander Macros on my own. If you own the desktop version, you can find the list by going into a snippet and clicking the cursor icon near the bottom of the right pane.

Expanding a snippet with TextExpander.

Digging In

While that is the principal behind TextExpander, this functionality gives you surprising power and control over your work. Let’s look at some usage scenarios!

Editing

I am frequently asked to review articles from other authors, and there is usually an HTML template associated with the process. If I am correcting grammar, I use HTML elements and classes to add strikethroughs (red, strikethrough text) and additional text for corrections (green). If I want to share my opinion about something, I use a nicely styled box.

To make the latter effortlessly easy, I created the snippet “r.rev”, which adds the HTML code necessary to do this. On an iPad, typing all those braces and brackets would take forever, so this saves me a lot of time.

Writing

If you write articles, there might be specific format guidelines you have to follow. Here at iPad.AppStorm it is customary to have a getting started and a conclusion section, but other sites have other guidelines. Simply create snippets for skeleton articles which contain the preferred title structures, title formatting, and so on.

If you write fiction and you’re in the middle of a 500 page book, there might be references and notes you write up for yourself so you remain consistent. Where two characters first met, character backgrounds, maiden names, dates of birth, etc. You could add a characters info into the snippet “ch.john” which would insert this info for you temporarily. You look up the info you need, press undo and continue writing.

Coding

Coding on an iPad is possible, but due to all the special characters required, it is quite the pain to do. You can alleviate much of this by adding common elements to snippets. Instead of typing out an HTML div, adding its contents and then closing the element, you can create a snippet which contains “

” and then just add the contents.

You can include some more elaborate items like an HTML header section complete with an empty title, and a few empty script and style declarations, meta tags, and so on.

Emails

A lot of people use TextExpander in their everyday communications. If you are involved in multiple projects, chances are you have multiple email addresses and multiple signatures. In addition, you probably don’t want to add your signature all the time when communicating with an employee or in some other instances where it isn’t appropriate.

With TextExpander you can create multiple signatures and just type “mysigp” for a personal signature, “mysigc” for a company signature, and so on.

You can also create canned responses which you can use globally – not just in Gmail or other apps – but in any enabled app. If you frequently report ad stats just create the template email in TextExpander, and fill out the specifics after typing “report.ads”. The great thing about this is that it can be used while creating a document for a monthly report in Word, not just in an email.

Syncing and Sharing

TextExpander supports sharing between the desktop app and the iOS app, and also enables you to save/sync your snippets using Dropbox. To share from the desktop app you will have to enable this feature in the desktop app itself. Once enabled, you will need to add a new snippet group from a local network on your iPad and select the one you need and approve the share on the desktop.

On one hand, this is needlessly complex. It would be a tad more elegant if this were true syncing, whichever snippets I create on my desktop would automatically be available on my iPad. On the other hand, this methods does offer more flexibility, since if you use your iPad mainly for writing, you won’t really need your code snippets. I think following the Evernote method might be best in this scenario. By default all snippet groups would be shared, but you could mark some as local only.

Other Options

While I’ve gone through the most important functions, TextExpander does have quite a few more. You can set up various text expansion options like ignoring the snippet case, expanding immediately, playing a sound on expansion and so on. You can set up notes, which are essentially the same as snippets, intended for longer content. You can send snippets to Twitter, share them through email, and more.

Support in Third Party Apps

Whether or not an app like TextExpander is worth using can only be determined by the number of apps which offer support for it, and in this case we are in luck. Right now 121 apps can utilize its text expanding awesomeness, including much used ones like PlainText, Things (both iPad and desktop version), iSSH, Zendesk, and a lot more. View the full list here, or click on the TextExpander icon in the app and select “TextExpander – Enhanced Apps”.

Design

While I love the functionality TextExpander offers, I pretty much hate everything about its design. This is fine though, as TextExpander is used mostly through other apps.

The welcome screen is confusing when you first open the app (to me it seemed like a static loading screen), it is redundant and I don’t really like the colors. This mostly has to do with the poorly chosen background gradient, font family, and font color.

The “inside” of the app is a vast improvement over the home screen, it is the standard iOS look with a sidebar showing a snippet list on the left, and the main area showing snippet details on the right.

The home screen, unhelpful and redundant.

Usability

The usability of TextExpander is not great either. Again, I won’t hold it against the app I strongly as I would for others, since most of your time using the functionality is actually outside of the app. Nevertheless, it is curious to me why an app which is geared specifically towards making other apps more usable would make a mess of its own.

Nothing is actually very hard to do in the app, it’s just not as intuitive as it could be, and the overall feeling is that this app is of much lower quality than it actually is. For example, as I mentioned macros are not documented anywhere. In addition the fill name macro doesn’t work on the touch version, which would not normally be a problem, but the app doesn’t strip out the macro text, it leaves it in, meaning you’ll have to delete it manually.

Overview

Despite all my criticism toward the end, TextExpander is easily worth the $5 price tag for the touch version and – if you use it heavily – the more hefty $35 for the desktop version (you don’t have to buy this for the iPad version to work well). While the usability of the app itself is not great it increases the effectiveness of typing in supported apps by so much, the positive impact vastly outweighs anything else.

There are no real competitors to TextExpander for the iPad either. There are 1-2 apps which offer some of its functionality, but none of them are supported in other applications, making their use more than a bit cumbersome. If you do a lot of repetitive typing I highly recommend getting TextExpander, it will save you time and let your hands rest a bit as well.


Summary

TextExpander enables you to create snippets which, when typed, will be automatically expanded to anything you define. This enables you to insert signatures, canned responses, etc. with a few simple keystrokes.

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