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Automator

Like Dashboard, Automator is undeniably cool. Though I consider myself an expert user, I've never ventured into the land of coding—including AppleScript. I was very excited to have a tool that would help me create scripts to automate the tasks I do myself all the time. That's what Automator does: It is a graphic-based interface for creating small applications that, ahem, automate tasks. For example, let's say you care very deeply that the equalization of your iTunes playback is completely optimized for each different setting that you use your Powerbook in, and changing from headphones, to external speakers, to onboard speakers forces you to reconfigure the equalization several times. Using Automator, you can easily write a series of applications that will set the equalization and volume to predetermined values, so that each speaker setup has its own application, with its own optimized settings preloaded.

Using Automator is surprisingly easy. On the left side of the window is a pane that lists your library of actions and a smaller pane below it that describes what that action does. In the main pane is your workflow, which is where you see the actions that your burgeoning application will take. To add an action to your workflow, simply drag it from the library pane into the workflow pane. When in the workflow pane, actions look like little speech bubbles and give you lots of important information. Along with the name of the action, the speech bubble (or action bubble, as the case may be) offers settings and options to define exactly what you want that option to do. For example, what do you want to call the new iCal calendar that you're creating? And how exactly do you want the iTunes equalizer set?

In the upper-right corner of each bubble is an "x" that will remove that action from the workflow. On the right side of the bubbles is a chain of inputs and outputs. On the top of the bubble, the type of file or information that the action needs is listed and on the bottom, you can see what kind of file or information it produces. If all is well, the output of an action will be the same as the input for the next, so you'll see a nice chain of connected pointers. If something is amiss, whatever inputs and outputs don't match up will turn red and there will be no pointer linking them. If you have red inputs and outputs, your workflow/application will not run and you will get an error message as Automator tries to complete the offending step.

In theory, Automator is an infinitely useful tool that you could use to do everything from putting all your unread email onto your PDA to cropping photos that exceed your printer's abilities. However, there is one snag—the actions that come with Automator pertain to the native Mac applications only. What's worse is that not all native applications are represented. For example, I wanted to create a workflow that would take the frame where the playhead is in iMovie, save it as a .jpg file, and put it in a specific folder. The only problem is that Automator doesn't come with any actions for iMovie, only iDVD.

I use Entourage for all of my email and calendar needs, which makes the Mail and iCal functions essentially useless because those programs rarely contain my up-to-date information. Automator contains no iSync actions, so automatically putting info onto a PDA is pretty much out of the picture, although putting info onto your iPod is no problem. You can always create your own actions, but that means you have to know AppleScript, defeating the purpose of a mass-market tool.

The other downside is that actions actually open the programs they are associated with and leave those applications open. There are no "Close Application" actions, which means that the action that searches for specific iTunes playlists will leave iTunes open, cluttering up your screen. This can get severely annoying if you create a workflow that uses several applications and all you want out of it is a summary text file.

Bottom line: Automator is easy to use and can be coaxed into creating useful workflows and applications. It is a tool that is fun to play with and actually seems to be a good introduction to the basic logic of programming. However, it's not living up to its potential because of the limited number of prescripted actions. I'm sure that this situation will improve drastically over the next six months as Apple and third-party developers dig deeper into Tiger. Like Dashboard, I give it a thumbs up for potential and coolness, but a neutral sideways thumb for current usefulness.

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