Productivity software

Type Less, Write More with PhraseExpress

PhraseExpress is a utility ($50 for commercial use, free for personal use) that helps automate the typing of commonly-used text or phrases, such as "Please check snopes.com before forwarding me another urgent message, Mom." While many word processors have such features built-in, PhraseExpress is universal; it will enter the text in any application that accepts text, including browser forms, spreadsheets, and so on. Thus, users need to set up their text only once, and have it available in any context.

PhraseExpress screenshot
PhraseExpress has powerful macro features in addition to simple word substitution.
There are several ways to get the text. The first is to assign an autotext letter sequence that PhraseExpress will look for. For example, you might assign the phrase "Sincerely, John Smith" to "SNC." Whenever you type SNC and hit a defined delimiter key, such as space or enter, it will expand the text. You can filter this by application, so that PhraseExpress does not activate in some contexts.

The second way is to define a key combo, such as Alt-Win-F, or whatever might work for you. This method requires you to remember the keys, of course. PhraseExpress also can detect reserved key combos, and will warn you if you assign one it knows is in use by another program. One of the useful features of this method is that you can assign a key combination to an entire folder of phrases within PhraseExpress, allowing you to bring up a set of them and then select your desired text.

The third method involves clicking the tray icon, which brings up a list of all defined phrases, in their folders. This is the slowest, because it requires you to leave your app, go to the task bar, click, and select. The Professional version of PhraseExpress includes a feature that allows you to tear off a floating window containing phrases, which you can then drag-and-drop from. (The lack of a right-click menu for PhraseExpress is due to the desire for universality; it would need to be coded for each specific application in order to insert itself.

PhraseExpress contains a simple, but effective, system of macros that allow for more than literal text insertion. You can, for example, define a phrase which includes a macro to ask the user for text; this text is then placed into the phrase as it's entered. The macro functions can be powerful and can automate a lot of processes. A particularly handy one will perform math calculations in-line, so you don't need to bring up a calculator--just type the equation and it is replaced with the result. (Obviously, you want this turned off if you're trying to write out the equation itself.)

Another feature of Phrase Express I found useful is the clipboard cache, which retains multiple recent clipboard items. The default number is 20, but this can be changed by the user.

There are a few minor issues with PhraseExpress. First, to get the most out of it, you need to configure it for your most commonly used text strings, quotes, and so on. This clearly isn't a bug; it's a necessity for this kind of software, but we live in a plug-and-play era where personalization of software is sometimes seen as a hurdle. Another aspect that is both a feature and occasionally an annoyance is that it works everywhere, by default, including places you might not want it to work. It's easy to fix this by excluding applications within the settings, but, again, it's something users need to think about.

The PhraseExpress license allows for free use for non-commercial purposes, and it defines "commercial" fairly broadly--basically, if you make money using any application PhraseExpress hooks into, that's commercial use, even if you're not doing so as your primary purpose. If I use PhraseExpress to help with PCWorld reviews, for example, including sending out boilerplate queries or correcting typos, this counts as commercial use, and I must pay the $50. An algorithm within PhraseExpress monitors usage and attempts to detect "commercial" behavior, such as the use of professional salutations.

There's also a $140 Professional version of PhraseExpress, which has some interesting extras. You can create a floating menu of phrases and then drag and drop them to your document. You can include fillable forms as part of phrases, with the form data then being entered into the text. And phrases in the Professional version can include Word formatting, not just the text.

PhraseExpress is a great tool that can save a lot of typing time, if the user makes a relatively small initial investment in time to set it up properly, and keeps this up by adding in phrases as the user discovers they are often typing the same text. The macro facility allows for some fairly sophisticated uses, as well. It's completely free for non-commercial purposes, and well worth checking out.

--Ian Harac

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