Five Awesome Automator Tips

Christopher Breen
19 February, 2011
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Mac OS X’s built-in automation tool, Automator (in your Applications folder), is capable of performing wondrous feats, yet far too many people ignore it – believing that the program is too difficult to use or their work wouldn’t benefit from automation. Neither is the case, as evidenced by these tips for the Snow Leopard version.

1. Easy media access

When you use Apple’s iLife and iWork suite applications, you’re probably accustomed to having your media close at hand via the Media Browser – a pane that displays the contents of your movie, photo and iTunes libraries.

Yet when you want to access these files with a different application, the pane is absent. It needn’t be if you get a collection of Automator services.

Go to and download the Media Picker Services collection. When you install it, you’ll discover that the Services menu – found in all your Snow Leopard applications under Application Name > Services – includes three new entries: Browse iTunes Library, Browse Movie Library and Browse Photo Library.

2. Listen to your documents

This is a  helpful Automator service that lets you take your documents with you in audio form. To invoke it, launch System Preferences, select Keyboard, click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab, and select Services in the window’s first column. Scroll down to the Text heading and enable the ‘Add To iTunes As A Spoken Track’ service.

Now open a text document that you’d like to save as an audio file. Select all the text, choose Services from the application’s menu, and then invoke the ‘Add to iTunes as a Spoken Track’ command. Automator will convert the text to audio and then save it to iTunes.

3. Trigger workflows through iCal

When you launch Snow Leopard’s Automator application, the workflow sheet that appears contains a list of templates. One worth paying attention to is iCal Alarm, which lets you create helpful workflows that are triggered at a particular date and time.

For example, to automatically back up a Current Projects folder on your desktop to another folder (one on another drive, for example), select the iCal Alarm template and then create a list of actions that includes Get Specific Finder Items, Get Folder Contents and Copy Finder Items. (Click Files & Folders to reveal these items in the Actions column.)

Drag your Current Projects folder to the Get Specified Finder Items action so Automator understands that it’s the source folder. Leave the Get Folder Contents action as it is. Then drag your destination folder to the Copy Finder Items action.

Click the Run button and any items you’ve placed in the Current Projects folder will be copied to the Backup folder. (If you want old files with the same name to be replaced, enable the Replacing Existing Files option in the Copy Finder Items action.)

Save the workflow, name it and click Save. iCal will open, with the event’s Edit window showing. In this window you can create a repeating alarm that triggers the workflow.

4. Trigger automatic slideshows

Automator also includes an Image Capture plug-in that lets you do cool things. In iPhoto, create an album (File > New > Album) called ‘Today’s Pictures’, for example.

Open Automator, create a new workflow, and in the template chooser select Image Capture Plugin. Click on the Photos item in the Library column and create a workflow that contains these steps: Review Photos, Import Files Into iPhoto, Get Selected iPhoto Items, Play iPhoto Slideshow.

In the Import Files Into iPhoto action, choose your Today’s Pictures album as the destination for your pictures. And in the Get Selected iPhoto Items action, choose Albums from the Get Selected pop-up menu (this causes the action to be named Get Selected iPhoto Albums). Save your workflow (File > Save) with the name Review And Slideshow.

Now connect a camera or iPhone to your Mac. Open Image Capture (in /Applications), and from the Import To pop-up menu at the bottom of the screen choose your Review And Slideshow workflow. Select some images and click the Import button. When you finish reviewing the images, iPhoto launches, adds the images to the Today’s Pictures album and displays a slideshow.

5. Pull text from PDFs

If you’ve ever sought an easy way to extract text from PDF files, Automator provides it. Create a new Automator workflow, and in the templates sheet choose Application.

Create a workflow that contains these actions: Get Selected Finder Items (under Files & Folders in the Library column) and Extract PDF Text (under PDFs in the Library column). In the Extract PDF Text action, choose Rich Text as the output option.

Select an output destination – a folder you’ve called ‘PDF Text’, for example – from the Save Output To pop-up menu. Then save the Automator application to your desktop. When you’re ready to convert a PDF file, just drag it on top of the Automator application you created. Automator will extract all the text from that document and place it in a new document in the target folder.

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