Must-have keyboard shortcut apps for Windows

Don't want to take your hands off the keys? These two apps will help.

I've been a keyboard shortcut fan for a long time. Sure, icons and eye candy have their place -- I'd rather double-click an icon than, say, type run c:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office 12\Winword.exe. On the other hand, I'd sure rather click a file name and hit delete than drag an icon to my Recycle Bin (assuming I can even find it on my cluttered desktop).

That's why I'm always on the lookout for keyboard shortcuts to make my computing life easier. Two Windows apps that top my list are AutoHotkey and Nostalgy. They count among the applications that I rate as truly useful.

AutoHotkey

AutoHotkey is one of my favorites and has been for some time. So much so, I made sure it ran on Windows 7 before upgrading my home computer's operating system. Happily, AutoHotkey runs as smoothly on Microsoft's newest OS as it did on XP, allowing me to map shortcut keys just as I did before. (Unless your shortcuts were XP-specific, they'll work fine in Windows 7, too.)

Once it's installed, you can create a script by right-clicking anywhere within a folder, and you can then tweak the resulting text file in an editor of your choice.

What can you do with an AutoHotkey script? You can map a single task to a hot-key combination, such as running a program or opening a Web site. You can also create much more elaborate scripts, like adding an on-screen numeric keypad. And, unlike Windows PowerShell, the syntax is pretty easy to follow from looking at sample script; at least it was for me.

Want to have your Windows calculator pop up when you type ctrl-alt-c? This line of AutoHotkey code does the trick:

^!c::Run C:\Windows\system32\calc.exe

Want to do a Google search on whatever you've copied to your Windows clipboard? This script creates that functionality when holding down the Windows key and typing s:

#s::

Run http://www.google.com/search?q=%clipboard%

; You can have additional command lines here for a multi-line script

return

There are a boatload more things you can do with AutoHotkey, including setting key combos to expand to longer text. For instance, btw followed by a space or comma could be set to type out "by the way." More-complex tasks include creating an on-screen volume display or making the backspace key in Windows 7 Explorer act the way it did in XP. It is a pretty complete scripting language, including support for variables, loops, regular expressions and file access, and it sports a bunch of user interface commands -- everything from sending mouse clicks to creating menus and manipulating windows.

The online documentation is robust, with an understandable get-started guide and an outline of various commands.

AutoHotkey isn't exactly like AppleScript on the Mac. As far as I can tell, AutoHotkey can't really script specific applications -- beyond using GUI menu commands -- the way AppleScript can send commands to properly enabled apps. And recording your own activity to save as a script isn't nearly as elegant or intuitive as AppleScript's built-in keystroke recorder.

However, it offers a reasonable amount of the scripting functionality I've come to enjoy on my MacBook at work. AutoHotkey even outshines AppleScript in several areas, such as determining the active window; how I wish AppleScript had a simple command for this! AutoHotkey is also ahead when it comes to using regular expressions; AppleScript requires an external addition for this and is still not as robust as most other scripting languages.

As with AppleScript, you can compile your AutoHotkey scripts into executable files. In fact, compiled AutoHotkey files can run on any Windows machine, even if AutoHotkey isn't installed, making this an attractive platform for sharing productivity snippets.

If you haven't yet taken AutoHotkey for a spin, it's definitely worth a download.

Nostalgy

The other keyboard macro app I've come to rely on is specific to Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail program: Nostalgy. This plug-in allows you to assign keys for copying messages from or moving them to various folders.

If this doesn't sound like much to you, chances are you've already got a system for taming an unruly in-box. I've had more than 10,000 messages sitting in my in-box at times -- so, for me, Nostalgy is a big reason why I've been able to adhere to one of my 2010 New Year's resolutions: keeping my in-box uncluttered.

In some cases, automated filters take care of this for me -- for example, I can send messages containing coupons or other shopping deals to a folder that autopurges after a few weeks. But many messages arrive first in my in-box, where they need to be moved manually to folders for short- or long-term saving.

Resources

* AutoHotkey script showcase

* AutoHotkey documentation

* Nostalgy documentation

* Knock down repetitive e-mail with Thunderbird's QuickText

This is where I find a single keystroke -- such as md for "move this to the Misc folder that autopurges after 30 days" -- vastly superior to dragging messages to the appropriate folder, where I can often misjudge and drop them into the wrong place.

After installing the plug-in, you can access Nostalgy's setup for key mapping in the Thunderbird Tools menu, then select the Keys tab. Choose whether you want a key to open a folder, copy to a folder, move to a folder or move a message to a folder, and then open that folder. Select the folder you want and type the key for mapping. Done.

While Nostalgy's shortcuts sometimes work slowly on my computer (I've got a lot of messages saved), it's still less annoying than numerous drag-and-drops.

Nostalgy also lets you create rules that don't run automatically but simply display a suggested action when it finds a match. You can then use a shortcut key to accept the rule's action. This is handy if, say, you want to take a look at a message subject line before it goes to another folder. The rules can include regular expressions such as a message subject including five digits and an optional dash with four more digits (i.e., a zip code), which Thunderbird's built-in filters cannot.

If you're looking specifically for regular-expression filtering capability within Thunderbird, there's an experimental add-on, FiltaQuilla, that has more-robust rule options. That's more than I need at the moment, although I expect to give it a try at some point. And if you're looking to save time with repetitive answers to the same kinds of e-mail, the QuickText plug-in has garnered rave reviews.

But if you just want a quick way to copy or move messages around within Thunderbird, take a look at Nostalgy.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000 or subscribe to her RSS feeds:

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Sharon Machlis

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