TextExpander 4: Worth the Upgrade?

If you use TextExpander much, chances are you don’t actually think about the app itself that much. You’ve added your own shortcuts to it over the years, and now you type them in and they’re automatically expanded without you even thinking. It just becomes another part of your Mac.

This week, Smile Software released the first full new version of TextExpander since 2010. It adds several new features, but if you’re already using TextExpander 3, a quick glance at their new features list might not even make it seem like its worth your time to upgrade. After all, when’s the last time you opened the TextExpander window, anyhow?

Turns out, there’s more than meets the eye in TextExpander 4.

Text Expanding for 2012

TextExpander, the über popular tool tool to convert little text snippets into full sentences, paragraphs, and more, is easily one of the most popular and handy 3rd party tools for Macs. I’m not even a very heavy TextExpander user, and yet it tells me that it’s saved me around 8 hours over the past year. That makes the initial purchase price not seem too bad at all.

For the past several months, it’s been available in the Mac App Store, but with version 4, that’s changed due to Apple’s sandboxing restrictions. The good thing is, if you purchased the app directly from Smile Software or from the App Store this year, you can get a free upgrade. Just download the latest version of TextExpander from their site, and it’ll recognize your old version and offer you a free upgrade.

For the rest of us, you can buy a new copy of TextExpander 4 for $34.95, or you can upgrade from TextExpander 3 for $15. One nice thing is that you can purchase the upgrade in a dedicated browser right in the app, so you won’t even have to copy and paste the license key. The only bad thing is that TextExpander offers to install the latest version as an automatic update, which is not such a nice choice if you’re not keen on upgrading.

That's actually a new version, not an update...

Wait: Should I Upgrade?

TextExpander 4 does include a number of substantial updates, though like most tools that you won’t look at all day, the advances are easy to overlook. Most noticeable is the new Lion-style icon scheme, with grayscale icons and Retina Display-ready graphics. The new style does look more professional than the previous version, though again, you’ll likely not spend much time in the app itself. The worst part of the upgrade, in my opinion, is the new Statistics screen, which adopted an Office 98-style graph that frankly looks out of date on any computer in 2012. Overall, it’s the same old TextExpander we’ve known and loved, and it can be forgiven for still having some old parts sticking out here and there.

The new, cleaner TextExpander UI

If that was all that had been changed, it’d hardly be worth considering upgrading. To see the real changes, click the Insert button on the bottom of the Snipped edit pane. Here, you’ll see that the Fill-in option has been turned into a Fill-ins menu, offering single and multi-line fields, popup menus, and optional sections. Now, more than ever before, you can use TextExpander to create complex documents, emails, and more with only a few keystrokes, even if you want the things you’re typing to be fully customized for what you’re currently doing.

Where TextExpander 4 shines: Fill-ins

Fill-ins

TextExpander’s clipboard and Apple Script integration has already made it incredibly powerful if you take the time to make snippets that fit your needs, and even the Fill-in feature isn’t 100% new. In previous versions of TextExpander, a Fill-in let you enter text specific for what you were doing, letting you, say, have a premade email where you could enter the name of your contact in a text field before TextExpander pasted it into your email app.

The new Fill-ins give you tons of new options to take it even further. When you enter a fill-in, you’ll see a modern OS X popover where you can add the options needed for that fill-in. You can make multiple choice selections, or choose to insert text fields that are as long as you expect you’ll need for that snippet. Or, you can add extra sections that you can turn on or off at will, say an apology for replying slow that you hopefully won’t need to use every time. No matter which of the fill-ins you’re using, TextExpander does a good job at hiding the complexity of creating them. Just click the %filltext: section you need to edit anytime later, and the editor popover will come back up so you can tweak it the same way you originally made the fill-in. And, they work great with standard text, formatting, and other TextExpander features, just like you’d expect.

Creating advanced forms in TextExpander

Once you’ve made your advanced text snippets, just enter the TextExpander abbreviation you selected as normal. You’ll see the new fill-in form open, complete with all the fields you selected. It works great, and you can quickly pick the info you want and be on your way. It’s especially nice that you can choose the default value for multiple-choice options. The fill-in form is functional, it is far from the prettiest sight on your computer. It looks more like something you might have hacked together in Visual Basic in highschool than a window from a modern Mac app. However, you’re using it to save time, so the looks shouldn’t matter so much.

There are two actual usability problems, though, for those of us looking to save time. First, there’s not always an easy keyboard way to finish filling the form. If you only choose single-line text entries or multiple choice options, you can just press your Enter key and the text will go to the app you were writing in originally. However, if you have a multiple-line text entry field, you will have to go back to your mouse or trackpad and click Ok, or tab further to the OK button and hit enter. It’d be much nicer if it just supported hitting CMD+Enter right from the multiple like entry form.

Then, while Smile Software says the fill-in form should work still even if you switch to another app to find info and then come back to it, in reality it was a bit hit-and-miss if you move around. You’ll need to be especially careful if you’re using it to fill in online forms, and if you switch to another browser tab to look at something while filling out a fill-in, be sure to switch back to the original tab before hitting Ok in your fill-in form.

The fill-in form is rather, um, plain at best...

Conclusion

TextExpander is still one of the best ways to speed up your typing, and with all of its features, it’s no wonder is such a well-loved app. TextExpander 4 is a worthy upgrade, but if you’re content with standard text expanding and don’t need the new fill-ins, you might do just fine with your existing version. It’ll keep running in the background as before, and you’ll likely never think twice about not upgrading. We gave it an 8 because TextExpander itself is so great, but the upgrade doesn’t add quite as much to it as we’d have expected.

If you’d rather get the new UI or would like to save extra time with advanced fill-in forms, then there’s no reason not to upgrade! The new fill-in features can be nice, though we do wish they were a bit more polished. On the whole, it’s a solid upgrade to a classic Mac app, and we’re sure it’ll continue to be the most popular way to expand text on a Mac for years to come.

Plus, don’t forget: if you bought TextExpander on the App Store or directly from Smile Software this year, you can get a free upgrade. Just download the new version, and it’ll find your old key and activate itself.


Summary

The most popular way to quickly expand short text snippets into full sentences and more, TextExpander 4 improves the popular app by adding new Retina Display graphics and advanced fill-in support

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  • Redswill

    The TextExpander “major release” is laughable. They just added different fill-in forms and Retina graphics (which should NOT be part of a major release) and ask $15? There are apps that cost less than the update price of TextExpander and are a lot more modern and professional: xType (free) or DashExpander ($9.99 and all major releases are free). Simply compare the fill-in form of TextExpander and how unprofessional and hacky it looks to DashExpander’s inline expansion popover (http://kapeli.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/dashE12.png), or compare TextExpander’s silly snippet management interface design to xType’s (http://a2.mzstatic.com/us/r1000/060/Purple/a4/04/a6/mzl.pnvjeags.800×500-75.jpg)

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Well, it’s of course up to each company what they want to charge for upgrades, and I’ll agree it was a fairly underwhelming upgrade. So many Mac users already use TextExpander, and since there’s so many premade snippets you can use with it, it’s still likely to remain the most popular way to expand text, just like Photoshop is likely to remain the top way to edit photos.

      That’s why I went ahead and reviewed it, so longterm users can see if it’s worth the upgrade, especially since it shows it as an automatic update. And as I said, if you’re happy with TextExpander as-is, there’s not really any compelling reason to upgrade.

      DashExpander’s expansion popover does look nice. Seems so odd TextExpander 4 didn’t use the newer Mac OS style popovers, like they used in the app itself for editing the fill-in scripts themselves.

  • Tim

    Typinator is better anyway.

    • Reza

      +1

  • Ben

    Thanks for this article, Matthew. I was just wondering if I should upgrade to TextExpander 4 until I saw your article. I was unsure if I should upgrade as the new features seem underwhelming and your article confirms it for me.

  • http://ipodtouchnews.co.uk Josh

    Also pretty disappointed in this update, seems it would have been more appropriate as a v3.5 release imo.

  • James Rankin

    Luckily for me, I purchased DashExpander before I realised there was even a TextExpander 4 (paid upgrade).

  • Bosco

    Any tried Magic Snippets before?

  • dixhuit

    I was also wondering what the *actual* merits of upgrading were – thanks for explaining things in this article. Smile Software did such a bad job of explaining it to me (release notes – that was it) that I’ve held off from this upgrade.

    This is a disappointing upgrade for a major release IMHO and I don’t think I’ll bother with the upgrade – I may even jump ship to an alternative product if this is how they’re gonna run things. Booooo.

  • Doc Chevalier

    Thanks for the write-up. I have been a Text Expander user for some time and have been quite content with basic text expansion. Your clear article demonstrated to me that I do not need the upgrade and while $15 is not a ton of money why pay for something that offers functionality of no value to me. What I have works. If it stops working I will look at alternatives

  • Peter Williams

    Why can’t I get version 4?

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