Wednesday, October 10. 2012
Shortcat is a tool for power keyboard users on the Mac. It offers keyboard shortcuts to UI elements of the active application, as long as they integrate with Apple's accessibility system - and while I'm sure not everything will, most of the things I've tried it on so far do.
You use, inevitably, a keyboard combination (Cmd+Shift+Space) to invoke a little black box on the screen with a cat's head by it. Into that you can type something that acts as a short cut to the element you want, press enter and it's like clicking on that bit of the screen. If you've got something with a LOT of UI elements or you're not sure, hitting . first will cause it to label all the UI items for you so you can learn the shortcut - these seem to be fairly stable. And, in case you're not quite sure, if you wait after pressing the shortcut keys, the selected item will light up green so you can check it's the right one.
That probably sounds confusing, so here's an example. I use Shrook to look at my RSS feeds. There's a perfectly good existing shortcut (space) to move to the next item. There are three UI elements I regularly click on though: "Show Web Page" when I want to expand the RSS headline and read the whole piece, the Back button mostly to go back to 3 column view admittedly and the "All" item at the top of the RSS sources so it displays items from all feeds in reverse chronological order. These three items don't have normal keyboard shortcuts associated with them (actually Back might, but I don't remember it). Using Shortcat I press Cmd+Shift+Space to bring up the panel. Pressing BA+Enter is the equivalent of hitting the back button, pressing WP+Enter shows the web page and slightly more obscurely A2+Enter is the "All" item - it's actually "All 259 items," hence A2 is the abbreviation for All 259 - logical enough. Given I only installed it before breakfast and I hadn't finished breakfast when first writing this piece you can see I remember these things and so I'm pretty likely to use it a lot. In Safari I use the bookmarks bar and folders to organise my more regularly used bookmarks. Invoking Shortcat and then BL+Enter gets me into my blogs folder... the arrow keys or I assume Shortcat again will then let me get to the right place and open that bookmark with my fingers never leaving the keyboard.
This might sound terrible to you - GUIs like the Mac freed us from these weird key-combinations by giving us the mouse to point and click. That's developed even further in the iOS concept where it's reach out and touch - and that's fair enough: I'm pretty sure this isn't the app for everyone and it won't completely replace my mouse. But if, like me, you find yourself learning and remembering keyboard shortcuts for a lot of things you use regularly, another tool to help me not take my fingers away from the keyboard is a good thing.
Shortcat is still in beta. To my mind its biggest problem is the time it takes - if you have a busy UI for it, it can take a few seconds to label and find UI items for you. And sometimes the automatic abbreviations aren't obvious - A2 for All 259 items works ok, and it will be quite some time before that becomes A3 for All 300 items I expect. But using it to navigate around through Mail when I1 for Inbox with 1 unread item, but I9 for inbox with 9 unread items will be a bit more of a pain to get used to.
And while this piece is mostly about Shortcat, I just want to give a thumbs up to Mountain Lion, iOS6, the iCloud and Reminders.
Reminders is a sort of hybrid between a diary/calendar, a GTD list and a clock that came with Mountain Lion and iOS6 as bundled apps. It lets me set reminders for things to do, and set an alarm for them if I wish (which I almost always do). It doesn't block out time like a calendar app does and there's no system for remind me an hour before and again 5 minutes before the event but once I'd got used to that, no problem. What it does do, seamlessly thanks to iCloud, is background sync between my Mac and iOS devices. I can enter events either at the computer or on the iPad (using Siri or my hands). Next time I check on the other one, there they are, already. Alarms ring on both, and cancelling on one cancels on both. Clicking to complete on one completes on both. The iPad version has a display badge showing how many uncompleted reminders are outstanding too. There are a couple of features to my mind - it would be nice to be able to organise a list to show in date order for example, or failing that to reorder them manually somehow (drag and drop maybe) and the iPad version has an automatic "Today" list generated that is absent on the desktop version - but both of those niggles aside I am finding Reminders is rapidly becoming the way I organise my activities. I'm sure that's helped by the fact that the vast bulk of my work is done to deadlines rather than in meetings, so I don't need to schedule so much around being double booked but for me it's much neater to be able to scan things this way, particularly on the iPad with the Today list. It uses different lists easily too - you could have one per project or client say - so you can enter information without giving away details from other places, or giving away your shopping list! There are lots of tools that do similar things to Reminders but Reminders does them all nicely and in particular that background syncing through iCloud turns it into a killer app for me.
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