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How to use Automator's services and folder action workflows

I recently offered a video that explained how to construct simple Automator workflows that you triggered via applications and iCal calendar events. This week I continue my Automator primer by demonstrating how to build two other kinds of workflows--services and folder actions. In the first part of the video you'll learn how to create a new to-do item with a simple key combination. In the latter portion, I'll show you how to convert images to black and white simply by dragging them to a folder.

Download Macworld Video #189

• Format: MPEG-4/H.264

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• Size: 8.9 MB

• Length: 6 minutes, 34 seconds

Show Notes

I offer a new Automator workflow each and every month. You can check out all our Automator work on our Automator topics page. And if you're looking for additional information outside of this Macworld, check out the Mac OS X Automation website.

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Show transcript

In a recent video I demonstrated a couple of simple Automator workflows--one for creating a workflow application and another for creating a workflow triggered by an iCal event. This time I'd like to show you a couple of other workflow types that I think you'll find helpful. I'll start with a workflow that allows you to easily create a new To Do items, which you can invoke via a service. Launch Automator and from the workflow template that appears, select Service and click Choose.

At the top of the workflow you determine the context in which the service will appear--with text or files, for example. In this case we want the service to work with no particular item selected so we'll choose No Input. And I want it to work anywhere so I'll leave Any Application selected in this pop-up menu. Now choose the Calendar library and from it drag the New To Do Item into the workflow area. I'll choose my Home calendar from the second Add To pop-up menu. Click on the Options button and enable the Show This Action When the Workflow Runs option. Save your workflow and give it a name such as New To Do. To see what the workflow does, just click on the Run button. This New To Do Item appears. I can then add a title for my To-Do as well as set its priority and due date. As you can see, it's designated for my Home calendar, which I configured in the action.

Now we'll see what makes this workflow as a service so special. I'll move to the Finder and from it's menu select Services. Behold and Lo, there's my New To Do workflow. I select it, and there's the New To Do window.

That's good, but let's make it better. From that same Services command choose Services preferences. This opens the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of the Keyboard preference and selects the Services item. Scroll down to the bottom of the list to locate your New To Do service. Click to the right of it and press a key combination--I'll use Control-Option-Command-T.

Now, I return to the Finder and check the Services command--there's my New To Do command along with its key combination. I press those keys and, sure enough, Automator answers. The best thing about this is that this key command should work regardless of which application I'm working with.

And then there are folder actions. The idea here is that you assign a workflow to a particular folder. When you drop an item into that folder, the workflow kicks in. We'll make a simple folder action that converts images to black and white and places the converted copy in another folder.

So, back to Automator where we'll make a new workflow. This time choose Folder Action. In order to make this folder action useful, I need a folder, so I'll create one on the desktop called Originals. I'll then create a second folder called Copies.

At the top of the workflow, I need to select a target folder. I'll do that by dragging my Originals folder to the top pop-up menu. Now, I select the Photos library and drag the Apple Quarts Composition Filter to Image Files into the workflow.

Automator is smart enough to know that I risk altering my original images and wants to protect me, so it offers to add an action that makes copies of the altered files and preserves the originals. Good idea, so I'll let that happen. You see that a new Copy Finder Items action is added to the workflow. Into this action I'll drag my Copies folder.

Now I'll save the workflow and called it Make B&W.

So, let's test it. I'll open the Copies folder so you can see what's happened and then drag a couple of images from the Desktop to Originals folder. Sure enough, the images are copied and, as you can see via QuickLook, the copies are in black and white.

And that's the gist of folder actions--a simple way to manipulate items that you drop in a handy folder.

I'm sure you can find good ways to put workflows like this to good use. Thanks for watching.


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