Sunday , 26 October 2014

AutoHotkey: Windows automation at its best

People that spend a lot of time in front of a computer, whether it’s for work, education or leisure, often find themselves performing time-consuming, repetitive tasks. From multiple mouse-clicks to open applications and documents to writing the same sentence over and over again, these small and apparently insignificant actions add up consuming precious time.
AutoHotkey is an open-source desktop automation program for Windows that can be used in so many ways to improve productivity and speed up many kinds of chores.

Autohotkey DocumentationInstallation & Requirements

AutoHotkey’s installation is blazing fast, thanks to the program’s reduced size (the installation folder is less than 10 MB). The setup offer Express or Custom installations. The Custom one is divided into four steps that imply choosing the version of the program (UNICODE 32-bit, UNICODE 64-bit or ANSI 32-bit), the install location & Start Menu Folder shortcut, a few general options and the installation process itself which only lasts a couple of seconds.

Once the program is installed a window will pop-up providing the user with a list of the latest changes and added features, the program’s tutorial, the option to run AutoHotkey or simply exit the window.

Technically AutoHotkey runs on all Windows operating systems, starting with Windows 95, but there are specific features which don’t work on some Windows versions. There’s no official list with these features, but any known issue is specified in the program’s documentation.

Interface

Unlike the vast majority of applications, AutoHotkey doesn’t have a GUI. It’s just an application that allows the user to create automation scripts in a fairly simple language. While the automation possibilities are endless, there aren’t any “ready-made” options which is why AutoHotkey is not very appealing to non-technical users, or people that don’t want to spend any time learning how to use it.

Nevertheless, the thorough documentation of the program includes plenty of examples in using commands. Some scripts are available though, on the AutoHotkey community forum, which may not always be exactly what you’re looking for, but can serve as very good, functional examples. A script is any text file saved as .ahk (AutoHotkey’s format) containing the correct syntax and it can be deployed by simply double-clicking on it. Multiple scripts can run simultaneously and you can even set them to run at system startup by placing their shortcuts into the Windows Start Menu Startup folder.

The quick start tutorial available in AutoHotkey’s documentation guides beginners into the basics of creating scripts, demonstrating the automation of some frequently used actions such as using a hotkey to run an application, open a document, a web page…etc., type a string, send mouse clicks, repeating a series of actions, activate windows and other related options such as close, move, minimize, maximize and restore and file & folder commands.

AutoHotkey offers flexibility and versatility: some of the most popular uses include replacing abbreviations, remapping keys and mouse buttons. Even complex scripts can be made to create custom graphical user interfaces.

Pros

– Very small application with fast installation process.
– Comprehensive documentation and tutorials guide users to advance from basic to complex scripts.
– Any script can be converted to an .exe file so it can run even on computers that don’t have AutoHotkey installed.
– Several community-developed scripts are available on the official forum of AutoHotkey.

Cons

– While this is not necessarily an issue, the tool is definitely not suitable for non-technical users. Some time must be spent studying the tutorials and documentation.
– A built-in collection of script templates with some basic automated actions would definitely make AutoHotkey more attractive for users that don’t need complex scripts and don’t want to learn the application’s internal scripting language.

Alternatives

-AutoIt
-WinParrot

Conclusion

While not the friendliest tool, AutoHotkey scripting language provides a virtually unlimited number of possibilities not just for automating tasks and maximizing workflow efficiency, but also for creating complex actions based on multiple conditions, events, variables and other parameters. Those that have the patience to study the inner workings of AutoHotkey will be amazed by the power it offers.

About Alexandra Vasiliu

The list of things we can accomplish through applications or a few simple system settings is virtually endless. Between finding the latest trends in software, excitedly testing new programs and tinkering with their settings, I am glad to share any piece of useful information.
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