Turn Your iPad into a Universal Shortcut Machine with Actions

ProfHacker 2013-03-19

Star Wars action figuresIf you’ve been reading my last several posts, you might have figured out that I’m kind of fanatical about keyboard shortcuts. That’s why I recently showed you how to learn your keyboard shortcuts, brainstormed new and simple twists on text expansion, and covered how to create keyboard shortcuts for ANYTHING! It turns out that my love of shortcuts isn’t restricted to the keyboard, however. Launch Center Pro is my most used app on my phone, because it lets me do everything on my iOS device with a single touch. So when I heard about a new iPad app that would let me fire off shortcuts to the computer, I was more than a little curious.

Actions bills itself as the One App to Rule Them All. But that title is a bit misleading, as it might make you think that it will control the apps on the iPad itself. Instead, Actions controls the applications on your computer. (Apple fanboy status be damned, I don’t want to call my computer’s software “apps.”) It does this by presenting you with a screenful of icons that are linked to the application you are running—Firefox, iTunes, Evernote, and many more. Clicking on an icon on the iPad fires the selected action on the computer—whether it’s a Mac or a Windows box. The server client that you install on your computer is free.

screenshot from Actions

For example, if I’m using Chrome, my iPad displays the above menu. Opening a new tab is as simple as tapping on the appropriate icon (third from the left, second row from the top). Closing that tab is as easy as clicking the icon to the left. What’s more, Actions is smart enough to notice which application I’m running; when I switch from Chrome to Keynote, Actions automatically switch to the appropriate set of tiles, and I can suddenly control my slideshow from the iPad, as well as many of the editing options for composing slides.

Actions comes with several sets of preset actions for popular software (lots of Apple software, but also Adobe Creative Suite and Google Docs, among others), but you can also make your own, edit the sets, and rearrange all the icons. Creating new sets and shortcuts is amazingly simple. You just title it, choose the appropriate combination of keys, choose the application the shortcut is for, and change the button’s color and icon, if you’d like. It’s really kind of fun.

menu for adding a new Action

But while Actions really is a universal shortcut machine, it’s worth noting that these shortcuts can do many different things. If you find yourself opening the same folders on your computer multiple times a day, as I do with my Dropbox folder, you can create a new Action that will open all of them with a single click. And for another turn of the screw, it boasts universal swipe gestures for four of my most used actions: copy, paste, undo, and re-do. To trigger any of these from anywhere in the app, you swipe with two fingers either up, down, left, or right, respectively. You can also save text snippets to Actions and use them to paste commonly used information, if you don’t already use text expansion to type smarter.

Perhaps this will all make a bit more sense if I treat you to one of those beautiful product demo videos that are so hot these days on the Internet.

As slick as that video is, however, it’s clearly from the developer. So let me tell you what I think after playing around with Actions for a bit: there are some very strong points to it…as well as some clear negatives. First, the positives:

  • It just works. Steve Jobs famously introduced the iPad as a magical device. Actions is one of a very small group of apps that has ever delivered on this promise. Changing applications on your computer from the iPad and vice versa is cool, and the shortcuts are pretty impressive.
  • It connects easily to your computer. I’ve never had any trouble getting either my iMac or my laptop to connect immediately to my iPad while running Actions. It’s a very different experience than I’ve had with DisplayPad, which lets me turn my iPad into a second, touchable monitor.
  • Its tutorial is very well done. It’ll take you about 5 minutes to get going, but those are minutes well spent.
  • Actions is easy on the eyes. There’s no denying how good this app looks. Its colors and icons are really nicely chosen.
  • The two-finger swipe for copy / paste / undo / re-do is very nice.

“But,” you might be saying, “you’ve been talking about keyboard shortcuts long enough that I know that I can open a new tab in my browser by hitting Control / Command – T. And copy / paste is just as simple. Why on earth would I take my hands off the keyboard to hit a button on the screen of my iPad?” Trust me, I hear you. And this is where I see the problems with Actions. As magical as this app is—and it is—, I’m not sure that I ever do anything that is so complicated that I can’t hit it as easily and faster from my keyboard. Even the patented shortcut to end copy/paste headaches (Command-Option-Shift-V) isn’t all that hard, after some practice.

Moreover, getting Actions set up and customized for your own particular workflow and the applications that you use on a regular basis is not going to be something that you accomplish in 5 minutes. Even as simple as the shortcut creation is, you might find yourself doing it a LOT. You can import sets of controls from other users, and that would help, but I’ve not been able to find a dedicated community of people sharing Actions at this point.

So perhaps the best-case use for Actions is if you work with a tool like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or any other professional software. These tools offer so many choices that you really might end up saving time by using the iPad as a command surface.

But another consideration for Actions that its developers don’t highlight is what it could mean for enhancing the usability and accessibility of computers. While I can say that it’s not all that hard to hit particular keyboard combinations or to work a mouse, that is not true of everyone. Being able to do more complicated commands with a single touch really could be of benefit to an important—and frequently under-served—user base.

At the end of the day, I remain impressed with Actions. The app is currently $3.99 on the US iTunes App Store, and I think that’s a fair price for the experience it delivers. (N.B., I was provided with a review copy of the app.) But I don’t think it will become part of my daily workflow.

What do you think, readers? Could you find a use for a universal shortcut machine? Or would you rather stick to your keyboard? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Star Wars! / Jonas Forth / CC BY-ND 2.0