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Choosing the right launcher for your Mac

Joe Kissell | March 27, 2015
If you're still manually digging around in folders looking for apps to launch and documents to open, it's time to stop. You can save tremendous amounts of time and energy by using a launcher utility instead, which can open apps and files, as well as perform calculations, search the Web, run scripts, and do all sorts of other laborsaving tricks.

If you're still manually digging around in folders looking for apps to launch and documents to open, it's time to stop. You can save tremendous amounts of time and energy by using a launcher utility instead, which can open apps and files, as well as perform calculations, search the Web, run scripts, and do all sorts of other laborsaving tricks. 

In this roundup, we put four all-purpose, keyboard-based launchers to the test: Running with Crayons' Alfred (free, but £17/$26 for the highly recommended Powerpack option), Many Tricks' Butler ($20), Objective Development's LaunchBar ($29), and the Quicksilver Project's open-source Quicksilver (free).

We also take Spotlight into consideration, which is built into OS X and can do many of the same things. Each of these lets you open items on your Mac without knowing where they are (or even exactly what they're named), and they all share a number of other useful core features.

Get used to keyboard commands 

With all these launchers, the primary usage pattern is the same. First, you press a keyboard shortcut, such as Command-Spacebar, to open a pop-up search window. (In some cases, you can also click a menu bar icon.) Then, you start typing the name of whatever you want to launch, and potential matches appear in a list. You can narrow down the list of matches by typing more characters or by using the arrow keys to select something other than the first item in the list. When the item you want is highlighted, you press Return to open it. For example, the complete sequence of keystrokes to open Mail might be Command-Spacebar, "m," Return.

Spotlight uses the Command-Spacebar shortcut by default, but you can change it if you like by going to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Spotlight > Search Results, double-clicking the keyboard shortcut next to Show Spotlight Search, and pressing a new key combination. Similarly, each of the non-Apple launchers has a default keyboard shortcut involving the Spacebar (LaunchBar uses Command-Spacebar, the same as Spotlight; for Alfred, it's Option-Spacebar; for Butler and Quicksilver, it's Control-Spacebar), but you can change this to whatever you prefer — just make sure your chosen launcher doesn't conflict with Spotlight. (If you want to use more than one launcher at the same time, that's fine too, as long as each has a different keyboard shortcut.) 

What you can find and open 

The word launcher implies that you'll be opening apps, and all the launchers (including Spotlight) prioritize apps in their search results. But Spotlight can find and open nearly anything on your Mac, including documents, folders, System Preferences panes, Mail messages, iTunes tracks, and contacts. In addition, Spotlight can search the Web (via Bing), perform currency conversions, show Dictionary definitions, and more. In Yosemite, Spotlight displays most results (including Wikipedia pages, movie trailers, maps, and so on) right in its pop-up window. (You can see the full list of search categories in System Preferences > Spotlight > Search Results, where you can also disable or reorder the categories as you see fit.)

 

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