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Launchers for Mac OS X
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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

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