TextExpander 5 review: Typing shortcut utility makes you more productive by learning your habits

TextExpander is designed to save keystrokes. Instead of typing the same sequence again and again at full length, tap in a few characters and the app automatically drops in your replacement in whatever software you're using.

Version 4 extended that to offer fill-in forms, so that entire messages could be partially automated, such as common replies. The latest release, TextExpander 5, adds suggestions, watching what you type to either remind you of a shortcut you'd already set or note a frequent pattern that could be replaced with one. It also expands sync, improves search, and adds previews. (This version requires OS X Yosemite.)

The basics of TextExpander remain the same from our TextExpander 4 review in 2013. The program lets you set text, called a snippet, that replaces an abbreviation when typed. The snippet can be plain text, HTML with images, AppleScript, a Unix shell script, or--new--either of two kinds of JavaScript. Snippets can be organized into groups, which also allow overriding default settings for that group, such as precisely how an abbreviation is expanded and whether a sound is made.

This allows not only the replacement of typed text with other text, but more sophisticated operations, such as taking the contents of the Clipboard, sending it to a URL shortening service, and pasting the replacement URL. Even with plain text, a number of placeholders allow the app to insert the current time or date, or even recursively include another snippet by its TextExpander abbreviation.

I use TextExpander constantly throughout the day: inserting a time and datestamp in a file where I'm taking notes; dropping my voice number into a chat or email message; formatting HTML; and dropping in hashtags in Twitter. The developers, Smile, like to remind you that the software is truly useful with a Statistics dialog you can click from the main screen.

TextExpander comes with a few predefined sets. Choose File > Add Predefined Group, and you can load a set of common typing errors (in English, French, or German, or from a list assembled by fellow Apple publication TidBITS), shortcuts for Emoji (typed in the form :name:; for example,  :knife: for =*), accented words, and HTML/CSS snippets. These are handy, especially the 50th time you type teh for the.

Version 5's flagship updates are related to suggestions. The program already has to watch everything you type in order to drop in shortcuts you've set. The latest release has two complementary options, each of which can be disabled. First, any time you type in the full snippet for which a shortcut exists--I have a shortcut for my full name but I re-type it all the time--an OS X notification appears reminding you what you could typed instead. This works perfectly and is much appreciated.

Second, it monitors for frequently typed patterns of text, and then provides a notification about the text as a Snippet Suggestion. These suggestions are then added to a Suggested Snippets folder where they can be easily turned into active ones. (Smile explains that it doesn't transmit or retain the original text, but rather converts it to an abstracted sequence it can compare.)

I wanted to love this feature, but across several days of testing--with settings synced between the two computers I use--all the suggestions were too commonplace and short. Either I'm a modern Shakespeare, using a high degree of unique phraseology (unlikely), or the algorithm needs more tweaking, and perhaps training against a corpus of text I've already typed. As it stands, I'm disabling it after finishing this review.

There's a conceptual flaw here that keeps this release from receiving a slightly higher rating. After unchecking the Suggest Snippets option, the app...keeps suggesting. I confirmed with the company that it's a "feature:" any items in the Suggested Snippets list will continue to be suggested to you even after the option is disabled, unless you delete them from that special group. The preference setting doesn't note this, and it would seem to be contrary to the intent of disabling the feature.

Smile continuously improves and matures its products, and I expect I will love this one later. For instance, this release adds inline searches via a hot key. While you're in an application, you can trigger inline search to find a match. If you have large sets or infrequently used snippets, this retains the advantage of not typing them out without having to rely entirely on your memory.

This version also adds previews of snippets within TextExpander, which allows you to make sure that a snippet that includes special placeholders or characters will work as you design it.

Dropbox is no longer required for syncing: TextExpander 5 now works with any sync service. Dropbox is still required for use with TextExpander touch ($5) in iOS 8, which functions as an alternative keyboard layout that can expand many kinds of shortcuts, including web browser-compatible JavaScript. A single-user copy of TextExpander is $45. Owners of previous editions pay $20 for an upgrade; purchasers after January 1, 2015, get the upgrade at no cost.

Bottom line

TextExpander 5 is a no-brainer for anyone who regularly types the same or similar chunks of text, and who wants to speeed up work while retaining flexibility. On an hourly basis, you'll recoup the cost in a matter of weeks; the savings from tedium are priceless. Despite the need for the suggestions feature to be tweaked, previous users should upgrade, as they will benefit from several minor improvements.


Glenn Fleishman

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