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Automating Desktop Tasks in XP

by Mitch Tulloch, author of Windows Server Hacks

Back in days of yore, when Windows 3.1 ruled the land, one utility I found incredibly useful was Macro Recorder (recorder.exe). This simple tool let you record a series of mouse clicks and keystrokes and play them back, and it provided a simple method for performing repetitive tasks. I found I could be a lot more productive in certain aspects of my work when I used Recorder, and when Windows 95 came out I was dismayed to find that Recorder was no more.

Fortunately, over the years a number of third-party replacements for Recorder have emerged; most of these are powerful tools that can do much more than the original Recorder utility. Using these tools, you can create whole collections of macros, nest macros from within other macros, assign hot key combinations for triggering them, limit their operation to specific programs, schedule times when these macros will automatically run, specify that they run when certain conditions are fulfilled, launch batch files and scripts from macros, allow user input during a macro's operation, and much more.

I frequently use several of these programs to speed and simplify certain tasks such as changing the screen resolution or color depth for my display, changing skins for programs and themes for my desktop, selecting a new default printer from the network, switching between different folder options when using Windows Explorer, accessing deeply nested menu options in Microsoft Office programs, and generally doing just about anything that requires lots of steps or that can't easily be done from the command line. I also find the programs useful in performing standard IT tasks such as copying data into databases, importing or exporting data into spreadsheets, generating reports, testing applications and web sites, and so on.

Below, in no particular order, is a list of five macro recording tools for Windows that I've tried at various times. I've included brief descriptions of their notable features; all of them support the creation of basic mouse click/keystroke macros (and usually a whole lot more). I'd be interested in your comments in regard to which of these tools, if any, you use on a regular basis, and what you use them for.

AutoMate, from Network Automation--This tool features drag-and-drop macro creation by letting you drag a macro action onto a macro; this usually opens a dialog box providing you with additional options for configuring the action.

Macro Express, from Insight Software Solutions--This tool is quite easy to use, and once you've created a macro you can easily customize it. If you assign a hot key sequence to a macro, you can also limit the macro's operation to within specified programs. That way, if you accidentally press the hot key sequence from some other program, you won't get unexpected (and often unwanted) results.

EZ Macros, from American Systems--This utility uses a wizard to guide you through the steps of creating a macro and lets you display a menu of macros from within a macro. The wizard might make you think this tool is simplistic, but under the hood it's actually quite powerful.

Automation Anywhere, from Tethys Solutions--This program includes a wizard, conditional commands, email notifications, the creation of automation scripts, and many other power features in addition to basic keystroke/mouse move logging. I like the interface for this program and find it a powerful tool for automating tasks ranging from data entry to database copying.

Workspace Macro Pro, also from Tethys Solutions--This tool is a very easy-to-use macro recorder and includes a macro language, action filters, and a scheduler for advanced users. There is also a standard edition of this tool, called Workspace Macro, with fewer features for users who don't need the full capability of the professional version.

That's a quick overview of what I've tried in the field of desktop automation for my Windows XP workstation. Feel free to use the Talkback feature at the end of this article to mention other macro tools that have helped you be more productive, and let me know some of the tasks for which you find such tools useful.

I still miss Macro Recorder sometimes....

Mitch Tulloch is the author of Windows 2000 Administration in a Nutshell, Windows Server 2003 in a Nutshell, and Windows Server Hacks.

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