Saturday, July 2, 2011

How I Use Application Launchers

QuickSilver doing its thing.
Behind Internet browsers, application launchers are my second favorite type of software. They are not only faster than clicking with a mouse or trackpad but can take on numerous small tasks (simple math, moving files, opening folders) that are inefficient with a cursor. The more I keep my hands on the keyboard, the happier I am.
That being said, it seems a little ludicrous to admit that I use three different application launchers at once on my primary computer, a Snow Leopard laptop. Let me try to explain how they compliment each other and are suited to slightly different tasks.


is a powerful, open source launcher. I use it to open applications, folders, documents, but its specialty is moving things. No more frustrating dragging and dropping, I use the keyboard to trash and move files. Another specialty: documents which have no convenient default application. When I am designing websites, I might open an HTML file in <oXygen>, TextWrangler, NetBeans, or any of my numerous Internet browsers. Simply “open with default app” is not a useful option: QS can “Open With” any app.
QuickSilver is easily the most customizable option on this list and power users can do wondrous things with it. Someday, I will sit down and configure some triggers that integrate it deeper into my workflows. In order to make QS run quickly, you must selectively index only certain parts of your file system, e.g. going infinitely deep into ~/Library is death. This is both an advantage (limited and useful search results) and a weakness (some files are not accessible).


is a fast newcomer. I use it exclusively for two things: emptying the trash and opening folders or applications. While QS highlights a single result at first, Alfred instantly displays possible options and is ever so slightly faster than QS. Al is not open source and if you purchase the “powerpack” it begins to catch up to QS in functionality, though still lags somewhat from what I've read. My setup works best when only applications and system preferences are indexed, not documents, though I have experimented with that. Cool fact: Al tracks usage, so I can tell you I use it about 12.2 times per day.


is Mac OS X's built-in application launcher. It's the least useful item on this list but indexes the largest number of contents, so I use it to fill in the gaps. I also use the calculator and dictionary (begin typing an equation⁄word and it produces the result⁄definition) frequently, though both of the above have the same functionality. Why does Spotlight not quite cut it? For one, certain parts of the file system are bizarrely inaccessible (I'm looking at you, ~/Library), the options are extremely limited (you can blacklist certain folders and order your results by type—that's it), and it cannot do higher-order operations like QuickSilver nor is it as fast as Alfred.

Thus my three-tiered approach. Dear readers, is it insane or efficient? I think having the right tool for the job is important and this division of responsibilities has treated me well. If I relied on any one individually, it's almost certain that the index would be so bulky that speed would suffer.
Linux users: GNOME Do seems to be as good as QuickSilver. I love it. In the terrifying near future, I will have to use a Windows 7 machine at work, so if anyone knows of great (preferably free) application launchers, let me know. Otherwise, I'm sure LifeHacker can help.

Post Scriptum

I have learned a few tricks that anyone using these OS X launchers should know.
The Comma Trick in QuickSilver: to act on multiple objects, locate the first, hit the comma key, locate the second, hit comma, etc. and a list of icons below the pane will appear. Warning: the active object in the pane will also be acted upon. I frequently use this trick to clean up my desktop, moving several items to the trash or other folders.
Open Containing Folder in SpotLight: at first, it seems that Spotlight can only open⁄execute an object, but if you hit CMD+Enter instead of only Enter Spotlight opens the containing folder instead.
File Search in Alfred: hit the spacebar after activating Al to go straight into file search mode. This works well with my current index, which does not include documents, so the file search opens things up a bit while still maintaining speed in application launching.


  1. This post tallies with my (admittedly biased) feelings about these three options.

    I catalog '~/Library/Application Support' and 'Include Contents: None'. It's simple to bring this up and right-arrow into it to find the files I want. This can be done for any well-used top level folder.

    Install the Spotlight Module to use the 'Spotlight in Window' Action on search queries in pane 1. This also prevents Spotlight from starting to search before the query is complete.

  2. Hmm, that's a good strategy, I'll have to try it out. As it stands currently, the only way I get to ~/Library is with QuickSilver so this just gets me one step closer.

  3. Hmm...both the things you use alfred for can be done with Quicksilver just as well.

    Empty trash: Install the Extra Scripts Plugin. I adds a "Empty Trash.scpt" AppleScript to your catalog, which you then can select in the first pane and use the "Run" action on.

    Instantly show list of results: In the Quicksilver Preferences -> Command set "Show other matches" to "Immediately".

  4. @Henning
    Oh yeah, I didn't mean to imply that QuickSilver *couldn't* do any of the actions I choose to use other launchers for. It can touch everything Spotlight can touch, too. If I wanted to, I could rely only on QS, more so than the other two. But I've found it more efficient to subdivide different tasks amongst launchers. For instance, I recently set "Show other matches" to "Delay" specifically for speed reasons and it's definitely a noticeable improvement.
    The Extra Scripts are pretty handy and I should use them more.