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Select and Click: PopClip Makes Text Manipulation Easy on the Mac

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[This is a guest post by Jim Cracraft, a Language Teaching Specialist and technology coordinator at Vanderbilt University's English Language Center (ELC), which offers English language support to individuals who have a first language other than English. He can be reached through the center's website: http://vanderbilt.edu/elc/ --@JBJ]

As a longtime Mac user who does not own an iOS device, I have been somewhat reluctant to embrace the steady “iOS-ification” of the Mac–you know, the aesthetic and functional bits that were introduced to OS X that borrowed from iOS (iPhone, iPad). Some features were added: the five-finger pinch gesture on the trackpad of a MacBook Pro brings up the iOS-style view of the applications via Launchpad, and since OS X 10.7, “natural scrolling” has been the default way to scroll. And some features were removed: the iWork productivity suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) was overhauled “to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions” but the removal of key features made quite a few users unhappy. Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that some degree of OS convergence is inevitable.

Smart iOS-ification

iOS devices lack a built-in physical keyboard, so working with text can be tricky. iOS cleverly solves this problem through a little popup menu that appears when text is selected allowing some common operations like copying and pasting with a finger tap on the touchscreen. Macs, on the other hand, have a keyboard and mouse/trackpad and don’t need this feature–or do they?

A few years ago, Pilotmoon Software released PopClip, a small utility that runs in the background on your Mac (OS X 10.7–10.9) to give you iOS-style popups for common operations like copy/paste, spelling correction, and quick access to the built-in dictionary. A user only has to select text in any application* using the mouse/trackpad and a PopClip menu appears above the selected text with options. For example, with PopClip installed on your Mac, copy and paste works as shown below.

Highlight some text with your mouse/trackpad and click or tap ‘copy.’

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Tap your cursor where you want to insert the text. “Paste” will appear.

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The copied text is pasted when you click “Paste.” Very straightforward.

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Spelling correction looks just like you’d expect it to and a tap replaces the misspelled word.

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At the time, even though PopClip was under $5, I was skeptical. After all, I knew “Command-C” and “Command-V” and a few more keyboard shortcuts and didn’t feel that the addition of an extra popup toolbar would enhance my computing experience much. Why install yet another extra app to run in background and sit in the menu bar? Now that I’ve used it for a few years, I have come to depend on its functionality and use it many times throughout the day.

Unlike some of Apple’s own iOS-ification which seems more cosmetic than truly useful, PopClip scratches a productivity itch right where I need it–with text handling. Since I spend much of my time at the computer dealing with text (writing, editing, copying, pasting, formatting, searching for terms, etc.), any piece of software that can reduce friction as I manipulate text is a plus. And importantly, PopClip is so well integrated and feels so native that you’d swear it was part of the operating system.

Moving beyond copy/paste

While the ability perform the actions shown in the screenshots above is nice, it frankly wouldn’t make it a must-have utility for most users. It is the extra actions available through the PopClip extension library that make PopClip much more powerful and, for this user, essential. In addition to the default set, there are currently over 100 extensions available, putting the actions you need—from image search to unit conversion—at your fingertips. Users and developers have created useful PopClip add-ons to popular third-party apps like Evernote, OmniFocus, and Skype, and it seems that a few new ones appear every month. Extensions are quick and easy to install/uninstall and they’re smart. This means that they are triggered when it makes sense for them to be available. For example, when you select a string of words, the popup menu will show actions that you’d perform on words (e.g., search in Google, cut/copy, word count).

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If you select a url, you’ll get the url-specific actions you have installed (e.g., open url, shorten url).

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You can also bypass Command-Shift-G for “Go to Folder” and navigate directly to a folder if the path is properly formatted with Unix-style forward slashes like this:

/Library/Screen Savers/Default Collections/

Select the whole path and click the ‘reveal in finder’ folder icon in the PopClip menu, and—voilà! the folder will be revealed with a single click. This is the path to the 43 hidden Mavericks screensaver images, in case you were wondering.

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Pro Tip: Create your own extensions

So, what if the existing extensions are not enough? What if you want to create your own? The brave can go to GitHub to view documentation and source code for all Pilotmoon’s PopClip extensions. For the rest of us, coder and web developer Brett Terpstra has created PopMaker, a free PopClip extension generator which allows you to quickly and easily create your own custom PopClip extensions. You can even give your extensions icons to help you quickly identify them and also save valuable space on the PopClip bar, which can get unwieldy if too many extensions are added. Since I frequently search WorldCat, I created an extension to do just that and then added the familiar WorldCat logo to make it complete.

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Search WorldCat with ease

Like most ProfHackers, I get e-mail from publishers announcing new books and often I’ll want to order one. Normally, I’d first go to my university’s library catalogue to see if the book was already in the system. My old workflow would involve selecting the ISBN, pressing Command-C, navigating out of Mac Mail to Safari, opening the library website and finding the WorldCat search and pressing Command-V to paste in the ISBN. Not very hard, but a lot of clicking around and toggling between applications. With the “Search WorldCat” extension in PopClip, I can search WorldCat with only one click after I’ve selected the ISBN!

The new workflow
Select ISBN. Tap “Search WorldCat.”

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Limitations and Final Thoughts

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that PopClip does not work well with every app*. The developer, however, is very responsive and maintains a list of “Known Issues.” When, for example, I noticed quirkiness with PopClip in Safari using Google Docs, I alerted the developer and soon after saw that it had been added to the “Known Issues” page. Since I work in Google Docs quite a bit, this was inconvenient, but certainly not a deal-breaker for me.

PopClip is available through Apple’s app store for $4.99, and you really should try it out. For the more cautious, a free trial is available at Pilotmoon Software if you want to try before you buy.

Do you have a text selection tool that you like? (Maybe one for Windows or Linux, though Mac alternatives are also welcome!) Do you have a favorite PopClip use case? Let us know in comments!

Photo “recortes by Flickr user Nic McPhee / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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