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  1. Computer Skills
  2. Automation
Computers

How to Automate Tasks With Services

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

Services. You see that word everywhere in OS X, but probably don’t know what it means. I didn’t until a few months ago. Essentially, a service is a way of connecting apps to perform special actions. This can be sending a Tweet, sharing a file, or defining a term in Dictionary.

There are hundreds of uses for services, but first you need to understand how to use the basic functionality. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to create your own services, use the ones that are included with some third-party apps, and save yourself a few clicks.


Discovering Services

Select an item to display services.
Select an item to display services.

Services, as you may have noticed, are integrated into every app’s main menu. To access them, click the app’s name in the menu bar and hover over Services. You may notice something curious: it’s empty, with the caption “No Services Apply”. It’s like this because you don’t have anything selected. Highlight some text or a file within the app and navigate to the menu again. Behold, it’s been populated!

Tip: You can also access services in the secondary-click menu (when something is selected).
Services for an image file.
Services for an image file.

Depending on what apps you have installed, your Services menu will have different options. If you have CloudApp, Droplr, or another file sharing app, there will be a service for uploading a file to it. Likewise, when text is selected, you can Tweet it with the Twitter app.

Test out each of the services on your menu right now and find out if any of them are useful. If you don’t think they are, I’ll list some inspiration in the next section.


Using Basic Services to Save Clicks

Services aren’t integrated in every app just so they can be used once every few days. If you use your Mac for work, this widespread functionality can assist you in tedious activities. For example, I added my own service (more on this in the next section) to resize images for me.

This way I avoid spending any extra time opening them in Preview, navigating to the resize menu, inputting the proper values, and saving everything. I have a few different services for the various websites I contribute to.

Adding a shortcut to a service.
Adding a shortcut to a service.

You can make it so services require even fewer clicks by adding a keyboard shortcut to them. To do this, head to the Keyboard pane of System Preferences and click the Shortcuts (or Keyboard Shortcuts) tab.

Locate the service you’d like to assign a shortcut to and click the text beside it, reading “none”. Input the shortcut on your keyboard and you’re all set! Be sure to try it out just to make sure the new settings are to your liking. You can always edit it by clicking the shortcut.

While you’re in the preferences for services, you may want to disable certain ones, or enable others. Scroll through the list and use the checkboxes to switch on or off specific services. This is a good way to keep your Services menu tidy.


Adding Your Own Services

Adding your own service seems complicated, but only takes a few minutes.
Adding your own service seems complicated, but only takes a few minutes.

Services are not limited to what you currently have. Third-party apps also aren’t the only way of adding new ones. You can go to Automator to begin making your own services. If you’ve never used the utility before, see our Automator 101 article to get acquainted.

  1. Launch Automator and click New Document (Mavericks and later).
  2. Select Service from the menu.
  3. Browse the Actions in the sidebar and decide if any of them will get the job done. If not, use the Record tool to capture any actions registered (see our full article for more on this).
  4. If you’re using preset actions, drag them into the right pane and adjust options as you may need.
  5. When finished, make sure to save the service as something you’ll remember.
  6. Enable the service in System Preferences. Recall it will be under the category you set in step three.

Inspiration

Quickly map an address in Safari.
Quickly map an address in Safari.

If you are looking for some examples of good uses for services, the following is a small list I’ve compiled. Some of them are preset actions in Automator, others are included with apps, but need to be enabled (System Preferences).

  • Set a photo as your desktop.
  • Make a new journal entry in Day One with the text selection.
  • Open a Twitter username in the Twitter app.
  • Look up an address in Apple Maps on Mavericks, or with Google Maps in the browser.
  • Extract Data from Text: Quickly pull out phone numbers, email addresses, and more from text.
  • Encode to MPEG Audio: Convert supported audio (AIFF, CAFF, and WAVE) to MPEG.
  • Get Image URLs from Articles: Pull image URLs from something you’re reading in Safari.

There are also some websites that offer prebuilt custom services. The best one I found was Mac OS X Automation. Everything on it is free and many of the services are very useful, whether you look up videos on YouTube a lot or encode audio specifically for iTunes. Some other handy services are available from DEVONtechnologies. Their CalcService can solve math problems in plain text format instantly, much like Numi.


Conclusion

I’ve covered some of the most interesting services available on Mac, along supplying a full guide to using the functionality. The question now is, what are you going to use this new power for? Tell me about how you’re using services to make your life better.

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