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Programmers are a curious bunch. We’ll spend hours or days working on a solution for ourselves that’ll save us mere minutes. Part of it is just the challenge of stripping down tasks to their bare minimum, even if the total time we save from ever running that task adds up to just a small fraction of the time we spent on the solution. But overall, we do save hours, days, and weeks from the mundane. It’s the 80/20 rule, I guess. Overall, we spend about 80% of our effort on the 20% of the tasks that save us, uh, 80% of our mundane work? Anyway…

Several years ago (I’m talking the DOS days), I used to write elaborate batch files to whittle down tasks to a couple of keystrokes. I used to carry around these tiny utilities on 5.25″ floppies (yep — pre- 3.5″), so whatever machine I’d have to use, I wouldn’t feel like a fish out of water.

But then the mouse was born…hatched…whelped…whatever. And I became a mouse-clicking zombie. I’m sure it felt like a new kind of “control” back then for us control freaks. But we were misled. Or just found a new hammer. And it took some of us years to realize the error of our ways. Sure, the mouse and other more “modern” input devices have an indispensable role in many applications, but as many of us have discovered and blogged about ad-nauseam, the keyboard is still king.

I rediscovered the keyboard a couple of years back, when a colleague of mine reintroduced me to SlickRun. I had tried it out about a year or so earlier, but never made it a habit, so I never reinstalled it when I upgraded to a new PC. But this time, it took. And now I feel completely out of sorts when I have to use a machine without it.

But something about the UI for adding keywords has always bugged me. As intuitive as using the tool is, the dialog for maintaining keywords has always been seriously lacking and unintuitive. And I need to be able to mindlessly create new keywords and shortcuts. As long as there’s a barrier between the keywords I already have, and the creation of new keywords, I’m never going to take full advantage of the tool. It’s sort of like what David Allen of GTD fame teaches: If you don’t have the right tools close at hand, like having to roll your chair across the room to get to your file cabinet, you’ll never really make use of that file cabinet.

Eliminate the friction.

And I really, really wanted to take advantage of SlickRun’s full power, and start creating shortcuts for exotic scripts. So now I’m on the search for my SlickRun replacement. It’s great that it’s free and it still may be the launcher of choice for many people, but I’m willing to pay a bit for something closer to my ideal.

I’ve been aware of ActiveWords for quite a while, and it’s gotten some great press, so I’m finally giving that a try on my main home computer. My initial reaction is more positive than SlickRun, but there’s still something a bit clunky about adding keywords — especially for web pages. It does NOT recognize Firefox. Sorry, but that’s inexcusable. Strike one.

At the same time, I’m probably going to test run DirectAccess at work, unless it starts getting too confusing to switch between the two. I tried Enso Launcher several months ago, but something about it wasn’t quite right. It seemed a little too “wordy” for me. It has a great pedigree behind it, so I may want to revisit it to see if I missed anything, but not quite yet. I also tried Launchy a while ago, but found it a bit buggy, and it didn’t feel as flexible as I wanted for creating keywords. I considered trying DashCommand, which looks very promising, but until they wise up and change their extremely paranoid trial limitations, I’m going to pass on it.

These are all cool looking utilities, but only one will win my heart for at least a couple of years. I have many automation plans, but my first step is to speed up access to the tools already at my disposal. I will report on my findings.


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  1. Mark:

    Shoot me an E-Mail, and I will send you a script that automates adding a URL in FireFox.

    WordPress thought the script I just posted above was HTML, and hence you ended up with something that says dcvn, and not the script.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Buzz. I just emailed you the following… When I want to add a new webpage activeword (I’m not at my home PC right now, so this is by memory), the dialog that pops up gives me a chance to select which browser’s bookmarks to navigate, but Firefox is not listed; only IE. And Firefox happens to be my default browser, also, which is why I found it very curious that it’s not even an option. I’d love to try out your solution. Thanks!


  3. Don’t waste time with DirectAccess. It’s a desperate rip-off of the freeware(!) PhraseExpress which is even more powerful.

    PhraseExpress is available here:

    It does not require .NET and not such a memory hog like DirectAccess or ActiveWords.


  4. Hello,

    I am one of the Dash developers. We listen very closely to what users have to say, and I am happy to say that we will release a full featured trial of Dash shortly.

    Please drop me an email, Mark and we will send you a full featured version of Dash for you to try and compare with the other options you have been considering.

  5. Jarvon, you don’t happen to be affiliated with PhraseExpress, are you? 😉 I will check it out. But DirectAccess doesn’t seem to be a memory hog. From what I read, at one time it was (50mb footprint), but now it seems to be down to 3 or 4.



  6. I use PhraseExpress and stumbled over your posting while searching for a way to import my old ActiveWords entries into PhraseExpress.

    I tried many such text replacement utilities and I ended with PhraseExpress as it really the most easy-to-use, flexible, and slick program.

    Just a few PhraseExpress features, DirectAccess is missing:

    + Support for formatted text snippets and bitmaps

    + PhraseExpress imports your existing Office AutoCorrect/Autotext entries for use in any application (killer feature)

    + Phrases and macro commands can be linked AND nested (killer feature)

    + The PhraseExpress UI is not so flashy and stylish as DirectAccess at first sight but it is ‘tighter’ and more straight forward

    – DirectAccess wants $40

    I am not affiliated (PhraseExpress is freeware, dude!) but a strong endorser of this wonderful program. I even recommended it at work and the IT is in process of implementing it to 250+ staff. 🙂


  7. To store a phrase in Phrase Express you simply highlight the URL and hit winkey-v. Then enter the desired text shortcut and you’re done.


  8. Well, I have not yet installed PhraseExpress, but it looks like it only does text substitution. That’s valuable, but only part of what the other tools do. And tools like DirectAccess and ActiveWords don’t require a combo activation keypress.

    I will try it though.


  9. Sorry, Mark, but you’re wrong. PhraseExpress can also launch applications, open documents or websites with either a hotkey or Autotext command. Just like the other two.


  10. I just looked on their webpage. It is the 3rd bullet of the main homepage: ‘Launch applications by entering shortcuts’ 🙂

  11. Hmmmm, don’t know how I missed that, but all the examples seem to focus on the phrase replacement (including the name of the product and the demo video). Thanks.

  12. Maybe that the program launch feature is not emphasized as much but it works and just like you want. You enter #cnn and it launches You enter calc and it opens the calculator, etc.

    It is interesting how this program is a fraction of the other program’s size but can do even more. It is very well designed. German engineering 🙂


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