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Launchers for Mac OS X

by Giles Turnbull

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.)

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