TextExpander (for Mac) review

TextExpander 4 is the missing shortcut utility for Mac OS X.

Smile’s Mac shortcut utility TextExpander 4 ($34.95) has taught me how much of what I do can be automated. A sobering proposition I suppose, but once I accepted the repetition of my writing practices, I realized I could use it to truncate my most tedious tasks. From supplementing keyboard shortcuts to autocorrecting typos, from completing online forms to creating document templates, TextExpander has earned itself a coveted spot in my workflow. While its all-business interface is uninviting at first blush, once I began to use it—and reap its rewards—I learned to love its system-wide Snippets.

Snippets, Abbreviations, and Groups
Although TextExpander 4 is not available on the Mac App Store, downloading and installing the utility from Smile’s website is nearly as simple. The only complexity is that you will need to grant TextExpander access to your Mac’s Accessibility Access. (Tick the boxes for TextExpander and TextExpander Helper in the Security & Privacy pane of System Preferences). You can configure TextExpander via a shortcut added to your menu bar.

TextExpander is built around shortcuts (Abbreviations) and the texts they expand (Snippets). Smile supplies some templates, including a signature and address, date and time stamp, and phone number and email address. By default, Snippets are set to plain text, but I preferred formatted text, which supports images. (Tech-savvy users can also toggle between AppleScript and Shell Script). Editing text is a cinch because TextExpander uses your Mac’s built-in formatting pallets, à la Apple Mail or Text Edit. I also edited Abbreviations so that I could actually remember—and use—my Snippets. For example, now I can insert my signature, complete with the PCMag.com logo, in any application by typing “–sig.”

Consider these templates an apéritif. Smile also bundles Predefined Groups of Snippets. Perhaps you want to broadcast your elitism, by adding accents to foreign words (see above). Alternatively, you can embarrass yourself by integrating Emoji and other symbols into your daily communications. With the Internet Productivity Snippets you can quickly shorten or validate URLs. Once you find your bearings, you can create your own Snippets that incorporate Smile’s templates and variables (such as date, time, cursor position, and more).

Fill-Ins and Popups
TextExpander will scale to your expertise and expectations. The most powerful—and least inviting—means of expanding the utility’s functionality is through Fill-ins, with which you can create complex forms around fields of predefined selections (Popups) and open fields (Fill-ins). The simplest application is file naming. Say I am project manager who relies on naming conventions to designate projects. I can create a Snippet that includes both the stable text (e.g. company and project name), alongside Fill-in fields for dependent information (file name and date). I can even include sample names for Fill-in fields (Default Values), and I can expand my Snippet from the “Save As” field of any application.

But why stop there? Suppose I am an educator who needs to write midterm reports for all my students. Each midterm report is comprised of a body paragraph (tailored to each student), a header that addresses the student by name, and a footer that lists assignments and grades. I can use a manual Fill-in field for students’ names, and a Popup menu for predefined grade values (A-F). Upon expanding my Snippet, I need only type the names and select the grades from drop-down menus. TextExpander produces the full-formatted report, save the body paragraph. While I found the wonky nomenclature off-putting (e.g., Area Name, Part Name, Default Value), Fill-ins present a dynamic way to automate repetitious and time-consuming work. 

As I have already suggested, TextExpander operates across your Mac. That said, I did find that it works most cohesively with Apple applications. For example, when I expanded my midterm Snippet in Apple Mail, the formatting matched TextExpander. In Microsoft Word ($119, 4.5 stars), however, the 12-point typeface shrank to 9-point, which could prove a nagging issue.

As you build a library of Snippets, TextExpander’s location in the menu bar is a godsend. On more than one occasion I forgot an Abbreviation, but I found I could use the menu bar to search for Snippets or browse my library. That Library is not confined to one Mac, either. Thanks to DropBox synchronization, you can access your Snippets across multiple Macs or even iOS devices via TextExpander touch ($5).

TextExpander includes a feature called Statistics that tracks and visualizes your usage. In the course of testing, I saved myself about nineteen thousand characters and more than an hour of typing. I can only imagine the tally this time next year. Given how many ways there are to spend time, any utility that reclaims it, in a manner that supports rather than encumbers your existing workflow, deserves commendation. Smile’s TextExpander 4 earns our Editors’ Choice award because it accelerates routine tasks and enables users to think more strategically about how they use time on their devices.

TextExpander 4 is the missing shortcut utility for Mac OS X.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc