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Launchers for Mac OS X

by Giles Turnbull
04/09/2004

Stop what you're doing, right now, and lift your hand away from your mouse or touchpad. Flex your fingers. Twist your wrist muscles.

Feels kind of tight in that area doesn't it? If not, you must be one of the lucky few computer users who has a sensible approach to mouse use. Reaching for the mouse, and dragging it around a desk all day, means plenty of strain for your arm and hand. It all adds up.

Now, if you're one of the people who does have an odd tight sensation in your arm, or (let's hope not), actual pain, it's time you gave some serious thought to how you use your computer.

Keeping your fingers on the keyboard for as long as possible is a good policy to stick to. Thankfully, many programs are jam-packed with shortcut commands which, if you take the time to learn them, will save you a lot of mousing around.

But that still leaves a lot of other tasks that lack a keyboard control. This is where keyboard-based launchers come in.

The best known of these is LaunchBar, which you've probably heard of before if you are a regular reader of Mac DevCenter.

This neat little app scans your hard disk for files, and then allows you to launch them with a very quick keyboard combo: Command+Space. Hitting these keys brings LaunchBar into action. Then you just type a few letters from the name of the item you wish to launch, and LaunchBar offers a list of likely candidates.


LaunchBar in action

Hit return on the one you want and zap--the file opens. By typing the letters of a folder, rather than a file, LaunchBar becomes a zippy little Finder replacement, allowing you to browse to pretty much any directory you choose using just the arrow keys.

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So far, so cool. There's a lot more to LaunchBar, which we'll go into in a minute, but first, let's introduce some alternatives that do the same sort of task.

Butler, formerly known as Another Launcher is a magnificently feature-rich donation-ware application that offers very similar functionality. Quicksilver is a new kid on the block. It does the same sort of tasks but adds new variations on the user interface, consequently attracting quite a lot of buzz online. And finally, there's A Better Finder Launcher--is it better or not? In this article, we're going to compare all of them and find out.

A quick note before we continue. We could have included dozens of other launchers, but decided to stick to a selection that offers keyboard-based control. Launchers like Tigerlaunch, PocketDock, and MoofMenu, are also great launchers, but require you to use a pointing device, which is why we've not covered them in any detail here.

Disclaimer: I should spell out now that I've been using LaunchBar, very happily, for a long time. That affects my thinking about these apps, although I've tried to keep as open a mind as possible while reviewing the competitors.

More on LaunchBar

There's one thing you can say about LaunchBar, and that is that it is simple to use and very quick to understand.

Like all the applications on test here, it scans your hard disk on first launch, building a database of everything it finds. It looks at applications, files, and browser bookmarks, and lets you open them by typing a short abbreviation of their name.

The great thing is that the abbreviation is flexible. You don't need to learn a set of them, you can just guess, and most of the time you will be absolutely right. So, typing "itu" brings up iTunes, but "syp" and "pref" both bring up System Preferences. As long as you can remember just a part of something's name, you can probably find it.

The latest version of the program (4.0 beta 1 at the time of writing), ditches the Menu Bar icon that was present in earlier versions, since, as the authors say in the documentation, "the icon doesn't serve much of a purpose anyway", and was being squeezed out by the decision by Apple to force the right side of the Menu Bar for use with certain system utilities such as the Clock, Volume, and Displays. This means that the only sign you have that LaunchBar is running is the Dock icon, which you can disable if you so wish.

This new version is considerably faster than previous ones, and adds a bunch of new features, presumably as a response to the recent launch of Quicksilver (of which we'll cover more later).

LaunchBar is able to peek into your email program's address book, so typing in a name means you can quickly fire off an email to them. This new version is able to peek into the Apple Address Book and allow you to view phone numbers and addresses in large type across the screen. It can also browse iTunes playlists.


LaunchBar displays a phone number from my Address Book in large text across the screen

It also works very well as an application switcher by pressing the usual Command+Space shortcut, then holding down Command while repeatedly hitting Space. The little Bar will appear as normal, but this time it contains a list of running applications that you can flick through with ease to find the one you want to use.

The Bar's position has changed with the new release. It now appears under the center of the Menu Bar, and can be stretched horizontally to taste. There's no preferences setting to change the Bar's position or the font face used to display items within the Bar. This is only a very minor niggle, but some users might prefer to be able to tweak these settings, especially long-time LaunchBar users whose eyes have become programmed to flick to the top right corner of the screen. That said, this is still only a beta of version 4, so details like this might be added later.

One disappointment with LaunchBar prior to this version update was the poor configuration interface, which seemed overly complicated. Version 4 boasts a brand new configuration system that is much simpler to use and understand. This is a very welcome change and reason alone for existing LaunchBar users to upgrade.


LaunchBar's improved configuration interface

Enter the Butler

Butler, a.k.a. Another Launcher, has been around for a while and undergone considerable development along the way. And not just by changing it's name.

By default, it is brought to the front by pressing Control+Space, and rather than stick to one corner of the screen, takes center stage with a neat semi-transparent window right in the middle.

Once again, using it is a case of typing an abbreviation, and in an instant Butler offers a list of choices for you.


Butler's main user interface window

It offers some integration with some of the built-in Apple applications, and finds people in your Mail settings, or from the Address Book. While iTunes is running, you can use Butler to start, stop, or skip tracks. Another swift key combo brings up a status window showing what's playing, and what rating you gave it. This window, like the system volume display, fades nicely in and out of view.

Butler reads bookmark files for every Mac browser (as it says the documentation--I didn't have every Mac browser installed to test this out) so reaching any web site is as simple as remembering some letters from its name, although Butler does not appear to read bookmarked URLs. (Does that sound odd to you? It might be a bit odd, but I'm one of those people who often remembers domains and email addresses better than I remember loved ones' birthdays. I sometimes search for web sites based on a domain or a path stub that sticks in mind.)

Butler really shines with its many user-configurable options. Configuring which files Butler should scan is simple, adding new hotkeys for specific actions is similarly easy. There are already dozens of preconfigured key combos ready to use. To search Google, you'd hit Control+Space to activate Butler, then Control+Option+G to open a tiny text-entry box in your Menu Bar. Type your search, hit enter. You can have dozens more combos like this, tailored to your personal habits.


Butler's preferences and configuration panel

If you prefer to use the mouse for some actions, Butler offers the choice of assigning "hot corners" to certain actions. If you wish, you can change the Google search action to something like "Option-click in bottom right corner" instead of the default keyboard combo.

Butler runs by default with no Dock icon, so accessing basic functions is done via a small Menu Bar widget. This can also be changed to a small docklet that lurks in the top-left of your screen. For people with crowded Menu Bars, this might be helpful.


Butler's control docklet

Butler is a very neat package with so much flexibility to offer it's hard to know where to start. Many users might find they need to spend several weeks using Butler to get it tailored perfectly to their needs.

The only apparent downsides are the lack of application-switching that is so easy in LaunchBar, and on my G3 iBook, the occasional unwelcome presence of the infamous OS X spinning beach ball. I suspect this wouldn't be such an issue on more up-to-date machines.

A Better Option?

A Better Finder Launcher (ABFL) takes quite a different approach. The interface is split into different tabs, and it's up to you to flick to the correct one (using Command+Arrow) depending on what you're looking for: applications, documents, or folders.

This is a bit of a disadvantage, as it puts in another level of control that the other launchers don't require.


A Better Finder Launcher's main interface window, having completed a search for items starting with "omni"

Also, there's less flexibility in what you can type to find a particular item. You need to type the first few letters of its name, rather than any letters from it. This works fine (and very fast) for things you know and use regularly, but if you want to dig out a file you haven't used for some time, and can't remember what precise name you gave it, you're stuck.

A Better Finder Launcher is just a launcher, and offers none of the bells and whistles of other applications covered here--no Finder replacement, no playlist browsing, no Address Book integration. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Some people like applications that just do one thing, because they tend to do it well.

The settings and preferences are fairly limited, allowing you to add folders and file types you want scanned. There's no way of changing the keyboard command used to initiate a new search--Control+Command+L--a shortcut I found a little unwieldy.

Quick as a Flash

Quicksilver is the latest addition to this list, and in recent weeks has attracted a lot of attention among Mac-using webloggers.

As soon as you start it up, you can see why. A lot of thought has gone into the application's user interface, which is available in three delicious flavors: one unobtrusive one that lurks in the Menu Bar; one that looks much like a normal application window, but which jumps out of the way when you've finished with it; and a Bezel option that fades in and out of the center of the screen, just like the volume and brightness control indicators.






Quicksilver's different interface modes: Menu Bar, window, and bezel

Looks aren't everything. How does Quicksilver perform? I tried it on two machines, a G3 and a G4, and there was a noticeable improvement on the faster machine. But even on the G3, Quicksilver lived up to its name, operating speedily and reliably.

It does seem to do a lot of work in the background, frequently scanning the hard disk for new files and items that it might need in future. I suspect this is what slowed it down on the older computer, as the scanning got in the way of other tasks.

The day I started writing this article, Quicksilver was also the only launcher application offering direct integration with iTunes playlists. That was one reason why it was getting so much attention online. The following day, LaunchBar was upgraded to 4.0 and added the same feature, so it's no longer a Quicksilver exclusive.

Quicksilver's developers earn extra karma for their thoughtful approach to many aspects of the interface. Not just the variety of interface options on offer, but the amusing preferences option to switch on or off "Superfluous visual effects".


Quicksilver's witty preferences panel

For me, the only problem with Quicksilver is the same I found with Butler: No easy application switching, which forces me to revert to the Command+Tab switcher built into OS X. For most people this won't be a problem, but I have deeply ingrained switching habits after months of regular LaunchBar use, and my fingers find it hard to cope without their instinctive switch movement. For anyone starting from scratch having not used one of these launchers before, this will not be an issue at all.

Quicksilver lives up to its name and deserves all the praise it has earned among webloggers in recent weeks. It is feature-rich and looks absolutely gorgeous, and free, so it's destined to appeal to a lot of busy Mac users.

Final Thoughts

All of these applications offer serious time savings, and can make a huge difference to problems with any regular Mac user's timesheet or lower arm nerve endings.

Each has good and (slightly) bad points, but none of them fail in their essential task. It's just that some offer more features than others.

LaunchBar has much to recommend it, especially for use as an application switcher and Finder replacement. What used to be a confusing configuration has been cleaned up, but it does cost money (albeit not very much).

Butler is so configurable it's almost overwhelming. There's not much it can't do. On the G3 iBook I tested on, it sometimes ran slow and seemed to struggle to catch up with my typing speed. It also didn't find as many files as its competitors. But for people looking for an all-in-one solution to launching, file management, and web searching, it's a good choice.

A Better Finder Launcher is much simpler than anything else tested here, but some people might find that a positive feature. The fact that you have to type the letters that an app or file begins with, rather than just any letters from its name, is a disadvantage.

Quicksilver is undoubtedly impressive, and combines super-cool looks with blistering speed, and was the first to offer iTunes playlist integration. However, on my G3 it crashed a few times, requiring a Force Quit, and was sometimes slow to respond to commands. Considering the price (nothing), it's a very impressive app.

As for me? I said at the start that I've been a LaunchBar user for some time, and while testing all these apps I did consider changing to Quicksilver. But then, overnight, the new version of LaunchBar was released and after using it for a day or so, I was certain that I had no need to switch.

Your choice of launcher is up to you. Of course, you could always do what I did during the process of writing this article--install all of them, and watch in bemusement as you use one launcher to launch another, and a different one to switch between them. Silly, I know, but we writers have to get our entertainment from somewhere.

Happy launching!

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.


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