End mind-numbing repetition with these 5 powerful PC automation tools

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The most original thing I've ever attempted using AutoHotkey was a "Morse" utility: I wanted a tool that would do one thing when I hit Ctrl three times in rapid succession (dot-dot-dot), and do something else when I hit the same key in a dot-dash-dot pattern. AutoHotkey was up to the task, and I didn't even lose the Ctrl key's original functionality: All other hotkey combinations (Ctrl+S and so on) continued to work. In that case, I did struggle with the coding: Try as I might, I couldn't get the utility to work on my own, but AutoHotkey's friendly developer community came to my rescue, and a knowledgeable member created a script that did exactly what I needed.

Much like VBA, AutoHotkey is addictively easy to use right away. Your first need will likely be a simple one: to remap an annoying shortcut in an application that you use frequently, perhaps, or to create a quick macro for signing your emails. Once you see how easy such improvements are to make with a quick one-liner, you'll want to do more--which is where AutoHotkey's comprehensive documentation comes in. Full of examples and clear explanations, the bundled help file can give you a sense of what's possible, and how to achieve it. To make things even easier, AutoHotkey lets you perform many operations either in a simple syntax (a = Hello), or in a more professional way (for people who are already comfortable with coding in other languages, a := "Hello"). So, two syntaxes yield the same result, and everyone is comfortable. Add the community and its extensive collection of open-source scripts, and AutoHotkey takes automation to a new level.

Take Command

In the beginning was the command line, or so Neal Stephenson tells us. And disappointingly, not much has changed since then, at least with regard to the default Windows command processor, cmd.exe, and its bland black window. While Linux users enjoy slick semi-transparent windows that connect them to the powerful bash command processor, Windows users are stuck with an antique command line that doesn't resize properly and can't paste without a mouse command (pressing Ctrl+V will just cause ^V to print).

Microsoft's answer to this annoying situation is PowerShell, a powerful alternative command processor bundled with versions of Windows from XP SP2 to Windows 8. PowerShell can do lots of things, and its default console application is resizable, but you still can't select text via the keyboard, paste with Ctrl+V, or even resize its font quickly. In addition, the PowerShell command processor isn't easy to learn, and you may have to adjust your computer's security settings to be able to use it at all.

Take Command, a $100 utility, proves that the Windows command line doesn't have to feel so ancient or be so complex. It takes a powerful yet simple command processor and partners it with a beautifully modern interface, for a result that leaves the default Windows interface years behind. The command processor, TCC, is a superset of the one built into Windows. So, dir is still dir, and del is still del, and everything you already know about working in the command line is still valid. But you also get lots of extra commands, and even the existing commands have switches in TCC that their cmd.exe counterparts can only dream of. As a result, like VBScript and AutoHotkey, TCC is a language you can gradually grow into; you can start with simple things, and you probably already know some of it.

The console interface is done just right. The window is tabbed, so it supports multiple console sessions at the same time. Pressing Shift and the arrow keys selects text. Pressing Ctrl+V pastes text into the console (amazing, I know!). An integrated file manager lets you see the impact of your actions on the file system in real-time. And when you're comfortable with the language and feel ready to write some batch scripts, you'll discover the best part: a built-in programmer's editor with a line-by-line debugger.

Take Command is expensive, but if you find yourself spending lots of time at the command prompt or having to troubleshoot why batch files are breaking, it's a great investment.

Which one? It's your pick

Software is a personal thing, and different users have different pet peeves. Fortunately, we don't have to create our own word processors and command-line interpreters for them to feel right. Even a simple tweak or two can go a long way towards making your software truly yours, and making your work go faster and more pleasantly. Start slow, and who knows: You might even become a coder.

This story, "End mind-numbing repetition with these 5 powerful PC automation tools" was originally published by PCWorld.

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