Bring desktop shortcuts to your iPad with Actions

A secondary screen and a visual trackpad

A lot of times you see people doing creative stuff on their computers with strange peripherals and cables you've never seen before. There are also the types that spend so much time working with professional software like Logic Pro or Photoshop that they might have even use a keyboard covered with stickers to remind them of the most used shortcuts. That's convenient, but can't we have something more sophisticated?

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This is what Actions by Usefool is good for. It's an iPad app that helps you to free your computer keyboard, mouse and trackpad from most used actions that that are not always so easy to command. You'll agree some of the triggers you use regularly require complex gestures or key combinations only suited for the fingers of a contortionist. Eventually you stop using them because you forget about them or are so cumbersome that defeat the point. The idea is as simple as using your iPad as a secondary screen, or more like a very expensive peripheral. Sitting next to your main desktop or laptop, the bright touchscreen allows you to trigger actions with just one tap like a remote command centre.

The range of actions you can select will depend on the desktop operating system you use as well as the support for certain apps. Just you give you an idea, you can use Actions on your iPad to launch hotkeys, paste snippets, resize windows, browse the web or send emails. The presets included are certainly overwhelming, but there's something for everyone in there.

Talking to your PC or Mac

If you were wondering, your iPad is not going to gain control of your laptop just because you install an app. You also need to install the companion on your desktop computer first, which adds a server functionality to communicate orders as long as they're on the same Wi-Fi network.

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Once you get to this point you'll probably want to try a bunch of presets to amaze yourself with this wireless magic. That's a good thing, as you'll get a fell of the kind of action that is going to be useful for you. In my case, I prefer to rest my palms while I'm writing and try to use key combinations as much as I can, as I feel having to change to the mouse will slow me down.

Having an iPad suggesting me actions as a secondary screen is a bit of a distraction, so I've learned to use it when I'm editing and my hands are free. The same goes for reading email and other daily activities that don't require you to be constantly typing. As you get used to having your iPad propped up on your desk doing something useful you begin realising how things like web browsing, reading feeds or tweeting can enter a new dimension. And this doesn't always mean being faster or more productive. It’s about navigating your system without having to look for small icons, drag the mouse cursor and click on them.

After you get a feel of the kind of action that works for you, you really want to customise the Actions panel to your own taste. Every tile can be modified with different colours and a long list of icons to remind you of what it actually does — there are text labels if you prefer. You can also group them in folders, creating a nested structure for particular task such as the aforementioned text editing.

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Although this sounds like some intense set up, the result is absolutely worth it. Every time you switch to a different app on your computer, Actions on the iPad will also present the suitable set of shortcuts — which is in itself a very interesting discovery tool.

Killer actions

While I've seen this type of communication before between desktop and iOS devices, nothing has given the iPad such a wide range of permissions to interact with every app command you can think of. iOS users will see some similarities with Launch Center Pro, which basically allows you to launch specific actions within the iPhone without having to open the app. Mac power users, will have experimented with this kind of automation with Keyboard Maestro, which relies on keyboard shortcuts.

Just like these two apps, Actions for iPad is not designed for everyone. Although a lot of work has gone in simplifying the setup and adding the most obvious actions for popular apps, Actions is not for newbies. In fact, it draws the geek line quite high, making me doubt if this is something for me. The power user, though, will love to tinker with it, create custom actions and tweak all that magic in the same way they try with Keyboard Maestro and Launch Center Pro.

I'm only a little disappointed that after managing to pull off the wireless sync between devices and making a very flexible and nice to look at interface, the uses for Actions are not very clear. Geeks will immediately spot the appeal. The rest of the mortals need to see what annoying part of their workflow is massively improved with it showing typical case scenarios and how other people use it.