As a student of Mandarin Chinese, I use the romanisation system pinyin to 'spell out' the sound of Chinese characters, including their tones. Each tone marking shows what sound you should make for the vowels. For a long time, I have been looking for an input engine that would allow me to type tones directly, instead of having to use letters and numbers, or go through a complicated special symbol input. I wanted to be able to type something like e3 and come up with ě on the screen. Until recently, my only options were to use the input engine NJStar (which works really well, except that the full version is really expensive), copy and paste special characters each time I wanted to use them, or create complicated macros which would only work in certain programs.
A while back, I thought I could use Texter, which is a tiny yet powerful text replacement program from Lifehacker. Unfortunately it doesn't support Unicode characters, which are the ones I wanted (although give it a go if you type the same things a lot and want shortcuts that work in all your programs). I couldn't find many other alternatives online, although I found a few other people online who had the same (pinyin writing) issues as me.
Then I found a link to PhraseExpress, another text replacement program, and I thought I'd give it a go. Well, lo and behold, it works perfectly! All you have to do is add your desired characters (e.g. ā) and the key combination you want to associate it with. You can even add whole pages of text instead of just special characters, and export your shortcuts so you can use them on different computers.
I did have to fiddle a bit with the format of the shortcuts (you obviously have to use something which you don't use anywhere else), but finally decided on using .[letter][tone number] as my template. So now if I type ".i2," I get "í". Magic!
If you have been wanting to type special characters in any language simply and quickly, I highly recommend downloading the PhraseExpress software. It's completely free for personal use.
If anyone has any additional comments or recommendations, that's what the comments box is for!