With the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple has delivered a solid update with high-profile features such as Time Machine, Spaces, and a (mostly) improved user interface. Of interest here, of course, is the highly anticipated whole-number update to Automator.
Automator 1 was a good product, but hampered by performance issues and bugs. Its limited functionality often required clever hacks, or simply drove users to more robust tools such as raw Applescript, perl or worst of all, over-paid consultants.
So does Automator 2 address these issues? Is it better, stronger, faster? Does it put those $200/hr. consultants out to pasture? Let’s find out.
Upon launching Automator 2, changes are immediately apparent. The window now conforms to the Leopard UI, Brushed Metal having met a Scorcesian demise. New buttons and widgets dot the window, just begging to be randomly clicked.
Templates/wizards/clowns are pervasive these days, as developers struggle with the contradictory notion their users are both savvier and yet stupider at the same time. Still, Automator was always hampered by a “how the hell does this thing work?” vibe, so on first launch, Automator 2 presents Starting Points.
Upon choosing the starting configuration, the workflow is then populated by one or two actions that seem to vaguely correspond to what you think you might want to do. I don’t see tremendous value here, as it still leaves the green user thinking, “ok, now what?” A good set of sample actions accomplishes this much better.
Once past Starting Points (which you will immediately disable via the Automator menu), you’re presented with the new workflow interface. The toolbar has a few new icons: Hide Library, Media, and next to Stop and Run, a record button for the new feature Watch Me Do. The Hide Library button does just what is says, and Media brings up the system-wide media browser, which is handy enough.
The Library has undergone a minor facelift, starting with two new buttons: Actions and Variables. Actions are selected by default, and listed by categories, much like this web site (have you no shame, Apple?) This might be a more natural approach for users looking to accomplish task-based workflows, and makes for a shorter, more visually-digestible actions list. For you graybeards, the old Application view is still available, via View > Arrange Actions By. Clicking Variables reveals a new list of categories under the Library, with a corresponding list of items.
Apple has added Smart Groups to the Library, which behave pretty much the same as smart folders in other apps, like iPhoto, Mail, etc. This should be another good way to navigate the endless number of actions that tend to pile up.
At the bottom of the workflow area are two rather generic buttons. The first, the one with the little lines, reveals the log viewer, a great improvement over Automator 1’s drawer-on-the-bottom afterthought. The next button, the one with the little lines, reveals a Variables viewer. Click them enough, and Fitt’s Law should kick in to help you remember which is which.
The biggest functional upgrade in Automator 2 is in the actions themselves. Visually, they have a crisp, more purposeful design than their predecessor, which will no doubt send a number of copy-cats scrambling (starting with this website, ahem). The title bar picks up a pleasing white-glossy look, and the actions connector has been moved center, clarifying their function.
At the bottom of the action are three new text buttons: Results, Options and Description:
Results – You probably test and re-test workflows a dozens times before getting them right, and Automator 1’s View Results action was critical for debugging. Problem is, you ended up peppering your workflow with dozens of these at any given time. No more. Automator 2 has a results viewer built into each action, which makes checking your workflow not only much easier, but disturbingly fun (note that the original View Results action remains, which leads to the mind-effing scenario whereby you can view the results of viewing results).
Options – This reveals the same options as before, usually just Show this action when the workflow runs.
Description – Reveals the action description. Previously, this resided only in the pane beneath the Library.
One backwards step was the removal of the pop-up menu for controlling actions, leaving only the non-intuitive contextual right-click on the title bar. The same functions are there, with the addition of “Ignore input”, which replaces the Automator 1 popup for “Ignore Results from Previous Action”. This language is much more concise for what had been another “huh?” function. I also miss the action numbers—they were very handy for describing workflows in terms of “Step 1…step 2…”