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PhraseExpander Review:
Superlative Software for Busy Writers

~ Editor’s Choice – 4.5 Stars ~

Jan 9, 2014
Peter Falkenberg Brown

[Note: See my new Capsule review of Phrase Expander 4. I give it 5 stars.]

As a writer and a programmer, I’m fascinated by the tools of my trade. Before I started using computers, back in 1985, I loved picking up a good pen. I was delighted by my ultra-cool portable typewriter, on which I banged out a novel that never saw the light of day. I liked writing, both for the content of the text and the act of putting the words on paper. I was a member of the dying breed of fountain pen lovers.

However, I did not like using whiteout, or rewriting pages upon pages of edits. When I started using word processors I was hooked. The idea of editing, in place, before printing the page, was mind blowing. Well, that was then, lo those many years ago, and I find that I still love examining new writing tools. Content is still king, but finding better ways to get the job done is a rewarding exercise. Finding ways to make writing easier and faster is especially pleasing.

PhraseExpander LogoA while ago, I got rather tired of typing my long email address, and pasting in accented characters in special words, and even typing in credit card numbers in forms. So, from that rather simple need, I started looking around at text expansion programs. I tried out a few, read user comments, and finally settled on one that is now my favorite. PhraseExpander rocks, in my opinion. Once I started really digging into it, I discovered how useful it is, for a large variety of needs.

Text Expansion Software

Text expansion software works by monitoring your keystrokes, in all of your programs, and looking for text “shortcuts”, and then replacing them with longer phrases. The shortcuts can also be used to execute programs, or do web searches, or even fill in forms, which medical professionals find very useful.

Now, I can type ‘pfb’, and it will automatically replace that shortcut with my email address. I can type ‘cc’, and voilà, my credit card number is inserted into a form. I can type an email to our children, and write, “Don’t forget to send Mamá a birthday card.” When I type “mama”, it replaces the word with the accented version. The possibilities are endless.

When I want to send an email to my wife and four children, I type “bfe” in the To: field of the email, and the list of five email addresses is inserted instead. Very handy, in my opinion.

SmartComplete

One of the features that sets PhraseExpander apart from the competition is that it display the shortcuts and values in a popup list, so that you can choose from multiple options, and by using the shift key, select the correct item. For example, if I type “sj”, a box will pop up that looks like this:

PhraseExpander SmartComplete Popup

I can continue to type letters that dynamically narrow the list, or I can type a number that corresponds to the correct phrase. When the phrase is highlighted, I then press the shift key, and the phrase is inserted.

The shortcuts can be set to either use the popup list, or immediately replace the shortcut with the phrase. For writers, that’s a little dicey, unless you’re sure that the shortcut won’t be typed in a normal sentence. I thus very much prefer the popup list, since I can just hit the shift key to insert the phrase. Not all programs have that feature, but I consider it a dealmaker. Note that this feature is only included in the Professional version.

Macro Includes & Graphics

The phrases you create with PhraseExpander don’t have to be short. You can create very long phrases and even link to a text file that then gets inserted at your cursor, using macro code like this:

{#include C:\01_content\example_text_file.txt#}

PhraseExpander allows one to format text with different fonts and colors, and even provides the option to include graphics. The graphics can be pasted into the phrase box, or linked to with a macro expression. I found that things worked across more applications when I used the macro to link to an image. For example, one could type:

sig

which would activate this macro code:

Very Truly Yours,

{#img C:\00_work\some_signature.jpg#}

John Smith

and then insert the following text and graphic into your document.

Very Truly Yours,

A signature

John Smith

Shortcuts to Activate Websites

When I write, I usually keep dictionary.com open in a browser tab so that I can avoid silly misspellings. PhraseExpander really rocks with web searches, in my opinion. It comes prepackaged with a variety of shortcuts to search websites, that are easily modified. This is my modified shortcut for dictionary.com (note that in this macro there are no line breaks).

{#url http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/
{#input -[desc=Dictionary Word:][useSelection=1][title=Dictionary.com][urlEncode=1]#}#}

The shortcut is set to use either a word or hot key. If you select a word, in any program, and click the hot key (e.g. Alt-d), the highlighted word will be grabbed and PhraseExpander will open a new browser tab at dictionary.com with the word definition displayed. Now that is handy for a writer!

I use shortcuts for dictionary.com, google.com, maps.google.com, translate.google.com and forvo.com, and others, all extremely useful for writing. I use forvo.com because one should know how to pronounce the non-English words that one uses. :-)

Starting Programs

PhraseExpander can also start programs. I use it to pop up the Windows Character Map, the Calculator and even my favorite text editor (UltraEdit). When I’m programming, I sometimes need to consult a text file that contains my favorite programming commands and syntax examples. Rather than go look for the text file, now I just type a short phrase which activates a macro that uses the {#run...} command to open the reference text file in UltraEdit.

Glossaries

The company website offers many different types of free auto-correction glossaries, which are very handy when one types a misspelled word. The glossaries also include some accented words, so that when you type resume, it will replace it with résumé.

Calculating Shortcuts

I was pleased to find that PhraseExpander includes useful functions like inserting the current date and time in a variety of formats. I was even more pleased to learn that the program will automatically detect arithmetic calculations and provide the answer when one presses the equal sign at the end of a formula.

I’m a writer who failed arithmetic in the third grade, at Butler Elementary School in Portland, Maine. Oh, the trauma! They gave me an “E”, which was their equivalent of an “F”. It was my only failing grade during my school years, but oh, the trauma! I’m a programmer who can create invoicing software and databases that do a variety of logical things. But arithmetic! Shudder. So, I appreciate being able to type (((8*432.75)/(19.7))-120)+872.50= and have PhraseExpander replace the calculation with the answer, 928.24 (rounded to two decimal places), when I press the shift key.

Of course, it will also work when one types a simple, more realistic expression like 432.25*.05=, which calculates the Maine State tax ($21.61) on a $432.25 purchase. Like that flat screen TV you’ve been drooling over at Best Buy.

Data Entry Forms

I’m not a medical doctor or transcriber, but if I were, I would run out and buy the Pro Edition of PhraseExpander as quickly as I could, because the macros to create data entry forms are great. A hot key pops up a simple or complex form, and then, after filling out the data, inserts the data and any template text into the document where your cursor was when you hit the hot key. For people who have to deal with repetitive questions and answers, it’s absolutely lovely.

Versions and Prices

The program comes in two flavors: Standard ($55.95) and Professional ($139.95).

Things to Improve and Add

I’ve been using PhraseExpander for around three months, and I’m very pleased with the program. There are a few things I’d like to see in future versions, some of which I know are already in the works.

  • Speed of loading at boot up. The program is immediately responsive after it loads, as you work throughout the day. However, on my Win7-64 ThinkPad, with 8 gigs of RAM, it loads very slowly at boot up. It’s not a terrible problem, since it only happens once a day, but compared to another program which I will review (AsuType64), the loading speed is very slow.

  • Lower RAM usage. When I looked at the running processes, PhraseExpander was using around 150 megs of RAM, which is about half the size of Firefox. Since I have 8 gigs of RAM, I’m not really worried about it, but AsuType comes in at around 12 megs. Of course, AsuType lacks a lot of the graphical pizazz and functions of PhraseExpander, so it’s not a fair comparison. PhraseExpander is also programmed in Microsoft .NET Framework 4, and requires Internet Explorer 6.0 or newer, so it may simply be a result of the programming language.

  • A spelling correction function. I believe this is planned. I’m looking forward to it.

  • A glossary of accented words and names. I would value a large glossary of words and names that we use in English that contain accents, even including common non-English names. Inserting accented characters is a real pain, so I think this would come in very handy.

  • A calculation function that looks behind. As far as I know, PhraseExpander only calculates formulas as you type, and if you type the equal sign immediately after the formula, with no space. When one has to type a complex formula with many parentheses, like (((8*432.75)/(19.7))-120)+872.50=, it helps to be able to edit the formula, and then type the equal sign. It would be very helpful if the program could “look behind” and recognize the text as a formula. Perhaps if the formula was highlighted, and then a hot key was pressed, it would do the trick.

  • Moving SmartComplete to the Standard Version. To me, SmartComplete is a mandatory feature, for ease of use. Since it’s only available in the Professional version, I think that the Standard version suffers from its lack. I feel that the complex form macros are enough of an incentive for companies to purchase the Pro version, and I believe that many more individual creative writers would spring for the lower-priced Standard version if SmartComplete was included.

Summary and Recommendation

I give PhraseExpander very high marks. PhraseExpander is my “Editors’ Choice” for text expansion programs. I give it 4.5 Stars and highly recommend it. If you’re a creative writer, or a medical or legal professional, you’ll find your writing tasks flowing more easily with Phrase Expander.

If the boot up speed can be improved, and if it gets a spelling checker, I believe that I’ll give it 5 stars.

Because SmartComplete is only included in the Professional version, I recommend that version, even though the price is higher. The website is listed below.

http://www.phraseexpander.com

Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to his favorite motto: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”

~ Deus est auctor amoris et decoris. ~

Follow Peter on Twitter or Facebook:
@falkenbrown - https://twitter.com/falkenbrown
https://www.facebook.com/peterfalkenbergbrown

For news about his books:
http://peterfalkenbergbrown.com or: http://worldcommunitypress.com

Visit Peter's LinkedIn Profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/peterfalkenbergbrown

View Peter Falkenberg Brown's profile on LinkedIn

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