TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Getting Started with Automator

Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 08
Column Tag: Automation

Getting Started with Automator

by Ben Waldie

Automator, introduced in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and significantly upgraded in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, is becoming a staple of many Mac users' daily routines. With Automator, users can quickly and easily create custom workflows to automate many of the time consuming and repetitive tasks they perform day in and day out.

The first thing to understand when it comes to Automator, however, is that it can't do everything. Automator is by no means the be all and end all of Mac automation. For more advanced automation, you'll want to look at something like AppleScript, or one of the traditional scripting languages like Python, Ruby/MacRuby or Perl. At present (Mac OS X 10.5.x), Automator has several key limitations, including its inability to perform branching logic, i.e. if X happens, do Y. Still, it will allow you to automate a wide variety of basic tasks on your Mac, including image resizing and manipulation, emailing, extracting content from the web, and more. And, you don't need to be a programmer or scripter in order to use it.

TIP: If you'd like to learn about AppleScript, be sure to visit the archives section on the MacTech website, where you'll find dozens of my AppleScript articles: http://www.mactech.com/articles/mt_indices/W_Authors.html

Getting Around Automator

Automator is found in the /Applications folder on your Mac. When you launch it, a workflow window is displayed with a Starting Points panel attached. See figure 1. Starting Points allows you to choose the type of information (files & folders, music & audio, photos & images, or text) you want to process, and where that information resides (online, on your Mac, in iPhoto, etc.) Based on your specifications, Automator will then use a template to create a workflow that gets you started. Of course, you can always create a custom, blank workflow too, if you prefer.

PLEASE NOTE: This article covers Automator in Leopard. If you're using Tiger, some features discussed may differ, or may not exist.


Figure 1. An Automator Workflow Window and Starting Points Panel

Actions

In Automator, workflows are made up of actions, each of which performs a specific task. To build a workflow, simply find the actions that do what you need, and insert them into your workflow in the order you want them to run.

When run within a workflow, most (though, not all) Automator actions will produce results, which can then be passed to other actions as input. This allows you to create a flowing workflow, which passes information along from one action to the next, much like an assembly line. For example, get a web page, locate any images on that web page, download those images to a folder on your hard drive, rename the downloaded images, etc. Most actions also have configurable settings, allowing you to adjust how the action will behave when run within a workflow.

Finding Actions

Along the left side of the workflow window, you'll find a library of all the actions that are available to you. Automator comes with a few hundred actions for things like Address Book, iCal, Mail, Preview, and Safari. Within this library area, actions are organized into categories. Just click on a category to view a set of corresponding actions, or quickly locate an action by typing some keywords into the search field above the library. See figure 2.


Figure 2. Searching for an Action

Beneath the action library, you can view a description of the selected action. Here you'll find information about what the action does, along with the type of input the action accepts (if any), the type of result the action produces (if any), and more. See figure 3.


Figure 3. The Description of an Action

Adding Actions to a Workflow

When you find an action you want to use, simply drag it to the right side of the window to add it to the workflow. At this time, the action's interface will be displayed, allowing you to configure its settings (if any). See figures 4 and 5.


Figure 4. An Action with No Configurable Settings


Figure 5. An Action with Configurable Settings

TIP: Want more actions? You can find loads of third-party actions in the Mac OS X Downloads section of Apple's website. http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/automator/.

Creating a Simple Workflow

Perhaps the best way to get started with Automator is to create some simple workflows. Let's walk through creating a workflow that will encrypt selected PDF files in the Finder, and attach them to a new outgoing message in Mail.

Launch Automator and create a new workflow. When the Starting Points panel appears, choose to create a Files & Folders workflow, to get content from my Mac, and to Use files & folders selected in the Finder when workflow runs. See figure 6.


Figure 6. Creating a Files & Folders Workflow

Automator will then start the workflow for you by automatically inserting a Get Specified Finder Items action. See figure 7. When the workflow runs, this action will locate any selected files in the Finder, and pass them to the next action in the workflow for processing.


Figure 7. An Action to Get the Files Selected in the Finder When the Workflow Runs

Click on the Files & Folders category in the actions library, and locate Filter Finder Items. Then, drag it to the end of the workflow area. Configure the action to filter for files whose File Type is PDF File. See figure 8. When run, this action will scan through the files it receives as input, and filter out anything that's not a PDF.


Figure 8. An Action to Filter for PDF Files

Click on the PDF category in the actions library. Find Encrypt PDF Document, and drag it to the workflow. Enter a password into the Password and Verify fields. See figure 9. This action will receive PDFs as input from the previous action, and it will then encrypt them. When it does this, it won't actually replace your original PDFs with encrypted files. Instead, it will generate new encrypted PDFs in a hidden temporary folder on your Mac. It will then pass these encrypted PDFs to the next action for further processing.


Figure 9. An Action to Add Encryption to PDFs

Click on the Files & Folders category again, and drag the Rename Finder Items action to the workflow. When you add this action to the workflow, Automator will display an alert, letting you know that this action will modify your files. It will suggest inserting a Copy Finder Items action first, so the original file names are retained. This isn't necessary, since the action will already be working with copies of the PDFs. So, just click the Don't Add button to skip adding the additional suggested action.

Next, set the uppermost popup in the Rename Finder Items action to Make Sequential. Then, select the new name radio button, and enter Encrypted PDF into the following field. You can leave the other settings alone. See figure 10. Since the previously inserted Encrypt PDF Document action will assign unique names to the newly processed files, this action will rename them to Encrypted PDF, followed by a unique numeric suffix. The renamed PDFs will then be passed on to the next action in the workflow.


Figure 10. An Action to Rename Encrypted PDFs Sequentially

With the Files & Folders category still selected, find the Move Finder Items action, and drag it to the end of the workflow. See figure 11. This action will receive the renamed encrypted PDFs from the previous action, and simply move them from the hidden temporary folder to the Desktop.


Figure 11. An Action to Move Renamed PDF Files to the Desktop

Click on the Mail category in the actions library, find the New Mail Message action, and drag it to the workflow. See figure 12. This action will create a new outgoing message in Mail, and attach the encrypted PDFs received as input. Feel free to fill in a default subject and message, if you'd like.


Figure 12. An Action to Attach PDFs to a New Mail Message

You can now test the workflow by selecting a PDF file in the Finder and clicking the Run button in Automator's toolbar. If all goes well, the selected PDF should be encrypted as a new PDF file named Encrypted PDF-1.pdf on the Desktop, and attached to a new outgoing message in Mail. This example should give you an idea of how to place actions together to form a complete workflow.

Saving and Running Workflows

Of course, it's not terribly convenient to have to launch Automator every time you want to run a workflow. Instead, it's much more useful to save your workflows, allowing them to be run outside of Automator.

There are actually two primary formats in which you can save Automator workflows. The first is a workflow file, which simply opens in Automator when double-clicked. The second much more useful format is an application, which will behave like any other application in Mac OS X. Double click on it to run it, place it in your Dock, and so forth. Automator workflows saved as applications also support drag and drop. To process a bunch of files, simply drop them onto the workflow application, and they will be passed to the first workflow as input.

Workflow Plug-Ins

Automator can also save workflows as plug-ins for certain applications and processes. To save a plug-in, just choose Save as Plug-in... from the File menu, and when prompted, choose the desired type of plug-in. Options include:

Finder Plug-in – The workflow appears in the Finder's contextual menu (when you control+click on something). Any selected files and folders are passed to the workflow as input.

Folder Action Plug-in – The workflow is attached to a specified folder in the Finder, and runs whenever items are placed into the folder. The newly added items are passed to the workflow as input.

iCal Alarm Plug-in – The workflow is saved and attached to an iCal event as an alarm. You can configure the event to run the workflow at the desired date and time. You can even put it on a recurring schedule!

Image Capture Plug-in – The workflow appears in the Automatic Task popup in the Image Capture application. You can choose the workflow to process images as you download them from your camera. For example, adding a naming convention to photos, importing them into iPhoto, and generating a PDF contact sheet.

Print Workflow – The workflow appears in the PDF popup at the bottom of the Mac OS X print window when printing a document in any application. Just choose the workflow to print the document to PDF and pass it to the workflow for processing. For example, printing an encrypted PDF directly to an email.

Script Menu – The workflow appears in a system-wide script menu in the menu bar, giving you a quick way to find and run the workflow at any time.

Advanced Workflow Techniques

Automator in Leopard also introduced some features for creating more advanced workflows, including looping and workflow variables.

Looping

In the Utilities category of the action library, you'll find a Loop action. Use this to create a workflow that loops for a specified number of times or period of time. Consider using this action in combination with the third-party Dispense Items Incrementally action (available from http://automator.us/leopard/downloads/index.html) to create a workflow that loops through files or folders one at a time.

Workflow Variables

Probably the most useful, yet underutilized feature of Automator is the ability to insert variables into a workflow. Variables allow you to make use of dynamic content, which is determined when the workflow runs. For example, use variables to add the current date and time to the subject of an email, to get the current machine's IP address or user name, and much more. Variables can even be used to store the results of an action, for later reference within the workflow. This offers a way to get around Automator's linear processing, that is, passing information down from one action to the next in sequence from start to finish.

In Closing

We've only scratched the surface here about what Automator can do, and I encourage you to take some time to explore it more on your own. After some time and practice, you should be able to put together some useful workflows that will no doubt save you time and effort in your daily life. As you get started, don't be afraid to try out different actions that are included with Automator, to see what they do. And, be sure to explore the hundreds more actions that are available from third-party developers. As I'm sure you'll quickly find, Automator is a great tool for reducing some of those simple and mundane repetitive tasks that you're currently doing manually. Until next time, automate your Mac and simplify your life!


Ben Waldie (ben@automatedworkflows.com) is president of Automated Workflows, LLC (www.automatedworkflows.com), a company offering AppleScript, Automator, and workflow consulting services to Mac-based businesses. For years, Ben has developed professional automated solutions for companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Adobe Systems, Apple Inc., CNN, Microsoft, NASA, PC World, and Time Magazine. Ben is the author of "Automator for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard Visual QuickStart Guide" (Peachpit Press) and "AppleScripting the Finder", has written AppleScript and Automator content for Apple.com, Macworld, MacTech, MacScripter.net, and X-Ray Magazine, and is the host of the "Mac Automation Made Simple" video podcast (Peachpit Press). Ben has also released hundreds of Automator actions for use with Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, FileMaker, QuarkXPress, Twitter, and more.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

WhiteCap 6.7.1 - Visual plug-in for iTun...
WhiteCap is a sleek and sophisticated music visualizer and screensaver that features futuristic, wireframe mesh visuals with dynamic backgrounds and colors. WhiteCap contains thousands of visual... Read more
DiskMaker X 6.0 rc5 - Make a bootable OS...
DiskMaker X (was Lion DiskMaker) helps you to build a bootable drive from the official OS X installer app (the one you download from the Mac App Store). It detects the OS X Install program with... Read more
Lyn 1.9 - Lightweight image browser and...
Lyn is a fast, lightweight image browser and viewer designed for photographers, graphic artists, and Web designers. Featuring an extremely versatile and aesthetically pleasing interface, it delivers... Read more
MacFamilyTree 8.2.1 - Create and explore...
MacFamilyTree gives genealogy a facelift: modern, interactive, convenient and fast. Explore your family tree and your family history in a way generations of chroniclers before you would have loved.... Read more
LaunchBar 6.9 - Powerful file/URL/email...
LaunchBar is an award-winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the Web. It provides... Read more
LaunchBar 6.9 - Powerful file/URL/email...
LaunchBar is an award-winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the Web. It provides... Read more
MacFamilyTree 8.2.1 - Create and explore...
MacFamilyTree gives genealogy a facelift: modern, interactive, convenient and fast. Explore your family tree and your family history in a way generations of chroniclers before you would have loved.... Read more
Spotify 1.0.57.474. - Stream music, crea...
Spotify is a streaming music service that gives you on-demand access to millions of songs. Whether you like driving rock, silky R&B, or grandiose classical music, Spotify's massive catalogue puts... Read more
VOX 2.8.26 - Music player that supports...
VOX just sounds better! The beauty is in its simplicity, yet behind the minimal exterior lies a powerful music player with a ton of features and support for all audio formats you should ever need.... Read more
beaTunes 5.0.1 - Organize your music col...
beaTunes is a full-featured music player and organizational tool for music collections. How well organized is your music library? Are your artists always spelled the same way? Any R.E.M. vs REM?... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

This War of Mine gets a new ending and m...
This War of Mine just got a big new update, featuring free DLC that adds a new ending to the game, among other exciting changes. The update is celebrating the game's two-year release anniversary. Apart from the new ending, which will be quite... | Read more »
Summon eight new heroes in Fire Emblem H...
Nintendo keeps coming at us with Fire Emblem Heroes updates, and it doesn't look like that trend is stopping anytime soon. The folks behind the game have just announced the new War of the Clerics Voting Gauntlet, expected to start next Tuesday. [... | Read more »
The best deals on the App Store this wee...
iOS publishers are pulling out all the stops this week -- there's a huge number of seriously great games at discounted prices this week. Let's not waste any time and get right down to business. [Read more] | Read more »
The House of da Vinci (Games)
The House of da Vinci 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Enter The House of Da Vinci, a new must-try 3D puzzle adventure game. Solve mechanical puzzles, discover hidden... | Read more »
Solve the disappearance of history’s gre...
Blue Brain Games invites you to indulge in an immersive hands-on 3D puzzle adventure in similar vein to The Room series, with its debut release The House of Da Vinci. Set during the historic period of the Italian Renaissance (when Leonardo himself... | Read more »
Age of Rivals (Games)
Age of Rivals 3.3 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 3.3 (iTunes) Description: Deep civilization-building strategy in a fast-paced card game! | Read more »
Panthera Frontier (Games)
Panthera Frontier 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Angry Birds Evolution beginner's gu...
Angry Birds changes things up a fair bit in its latest iteration, Angry Birds Evolution. The familiar sling-shot physics mechanics are still there, but the game now features team-based gameplay, RPG elements, and a new top-down view. With all of... | Read more »
Sega Forever is for the retro game fans
Sega is launching a new retro games service titled Sega Forever, in a move that's sure to delight games enthusiasts with a bit of nostalgia. Sega's releasing five classic games for free. The titles include Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star II,... | Read more »
The Little Acre (Games)
The Little Acre 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

ABBYY TextGrabber 6 for iOS Implements Instan...
ABBYY has announced the release of TextGrabber 6.0.0, an important feature update to the company’s productivity app developed for iOS and Android devices. TextGrabber 6.0 now offers Real-Time... Read more
vPhone, First Smartphone That Can’t Be Lost,...
Austin, Texas based Hypori has introduced the vPhone, a virtual smartphone that affords every business user the benefits of separate work and personal phones, conveniently delivered on a single... Read more
Save this weekend with 2016 refurbished MacBo...
Apple has dropped prices on Certified Refurbished 2016 15″ and 13″ MacBook Pros by as much as $590 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: -... Read more
New 27-inch 3.4GHz iMac on sale for $1699, sa...
MacMall has the new 2017 27″ 3.4GHz iMac (MNE92LL/A) in stock and on sale for $1699 including free shipping. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Clearance 2016 MacBook Pros available for up...
B&H Photo has clearance 2016 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for up to $400 off original MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 15″ 2.7GHz... Read more
Apple Ranks 9th In comScore Top 50 U.S. Digit...
comScore, Inc. has released its monthly ranking of U.S. online activity at the top digital media properties for May 2017 based on data from comScore Media Metrix Multi-Platform. * Entity has... Read more
10.5-inch iPad Pros available for up to $20 o...
B&H Photo has the new 2017 10.5″ iPad Pros available for up to $20 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 64GB iPad Pro WiFi: $649 - 256GB iPad Pro WiFi: $749 - 512GB... Read more
Three Off-The-Beaten-Track iOS Apps That Dese...
One of the great things about using iPads and iPhones is the vast selection of apps available for most anything you want or need to do. The three outlined in this article have been in my core app... Read more
Apple No. 1 Spot In Gartner Top 100 Vendors i...
Gartner, Inc. has unveiled the top global 100 vendors in IT in 2016 based on their revenue across IT (excluding communication services) and component market segments. In the Gartner Global Top 100:... Read more
Clearance iMacs available for up to $300 off...
B&H Photo has clearance 21″ and 27″ Apple iMacs available starting at $949, each including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 27″ 3.3GHz iMac 5K: $1999 $300 off original MSRP - 27″... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* News Product Marketing Mgr., Publish...
…organizational consensus on strategy and vision for publisher tools, authoring, and Apple News Format.Carries this strategy and vision across the organization to Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Security Data Analyst - *Apple* Information...
…data sources need to be collected to allow Information Security to better protect Apple employees and customers from a wide range of threats.Act as the subject matter Read more
Lead *Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple I...
…integrity, and trust.Success Metrics/Key Performance Indicators:Quantitative* Year over Year growth in Apple Product and Beyond the Box sales in the assigned Point of Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant till v%u00E5r...
…ethics, integrity, and trust.Success Metrics/Key Performance Indicators:QuantitativeYear over Year growth in Apple Product and Beyond the Box sales in the assigned Point Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.