9 Mac Launchers to Speed up your Workflow

by Milind Alvares

9 Mac Launchers to Speed up your Workflow

by Milind Alvares on June 1, 2009

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apps-launchersLeopard has really made launching apps and items on the Mac quick and easy. The dock now allows you to store ‘stacks’ for quick access to less frequently used apps, and Spotlight is optimised for launching apps, so much so that I’ve been using that as my app launcher for the past 10 months or so. Yes, I didn’t bother installing Quicksilver which I was so hooked to in the Tiger days.

However, Phil got wind of this, and was so horrified that he threatened leave SA unless and until I got myself one of those launchers. To please him, I ended up using 9 different launchers, all at the same time, for these past 6 weeks. And here’s what I think of them.


I’ve only heard good things about Launchbar, so it had to be on the list. Once installed, hitting the global shortcut Launchbar shows up as a small bar below the menubar, right in the center. You can’t can move this bar anywhere.


To ‘launch’ something, just start typing. Results are instantaneous and far faster than you would ever get with Spotlight. Part of this of course is that these launchers generally search only little bits of meta data instead of the comprehensive search that spotlight does. However, unlike Spotlight, you don’t need to be very accurate with your typing, so ‘iunes’ will bring up iTunes as the best result. This helps in launching the iApps, so you can just type in ‘tunes’ or ‘chat’ to bring up those results.

Launchbar also does other things like perform control actions for iTunes, open web urls, and can read through certain types of data like Addressbook cards. For instance, I searched for “Milind Alvares”, hit the spacebar, which loaded up that contact info, and I then selected the phone number which brought it up on my screen in large type. Another interesting feature is the Clipboard history store. Hit another shortcut and it brings up the clipboard history, which is excellent if you don’t want to have a separate clipboard manager.

Overall, Launchbar is packed with features, but even after extensive usage I couldn’t quite get used to the interface. Perhaps I’m trying to find QuickSilver in Launchbar, but either ways, I think I’ll pass on this one. At €24.00 (~$32), Launchbar is the most expensive of the lot.


This brings us to the grand daddy itself. While it appears to be a simple launcher, Quicksilver is capable of launching space shuttles and destroying nations. The shortcut quickly brings up the HUD like interface, complete with a slick animation effect. Start typing and QS instantly shows you a single search result. Like launchbar, you can type in between characters to generate good results.


If the single result is not the one you’re looking for, just wait a second for QS to spring up the ‘other results’ window. QS will remember this and will bring that up as the best result the next time you search (and so on). With the result selected, just hit enter to perform the default action (usually “open”). If you want to perform another action, tab into the second field, bring up the actions list, and select which action you want to perform. Sounds like a big chore? I assure you, once you’ve mastered the QS interface, all this is done within the span of 2 seconds.

Quicksilver can be extended with plugins, which are easily downloaded using the QS plugins database. My favourite is the music plugin, which allows you to quickly browse through your iTunes library without ever opening up the iTunes interface. These plugins can then be tied to triggers, so Cmd+Shft+T on my Mac brings up the ‘Artist Search’. Quicksilver can also be skinned, with some really great ones created by SO AND SO.

Quicksilver is a free download, for what it’s worth is still in beta, and I think has stopped development.

Google Quick Search Box

The search giant’s desktop search app for the Mac, Google Quick Search Box is a launcher much like QS and Launchbar. In fact, one of the QS devs is working on this code.


Tap the Cmd key twice to spring up the QSB interface which is a simple floating search bar. Type in something, and it brings up results instantly. After using Launchbar and QS for a while, QSB seems so limited. There are no actions, special functions, or little tricks that surprise you every now and then. It’s simply a launch bar that gets the job done. In a way, that’s a good thing, since it doesn’t have any learning curve, leaving the user interface clean and simple.

A free download, check it out if the other two feel too complicated.


One of the veterans in the field, Butler seems to be sort of stuck in time. It’s a fairly good launcher, but the main window takes too much space, you need to remove typed text before typing again, and there’s nothing special about this app that trumps the above three.


Butler however has three-four elements that drive the search. One is the main search HUD which springs up similar to the above three. And the others are menubar items that allow you to mouse your way into different functions. The main Butler menu allows you access to all files and folders on your system, as well as quick access to Documents and your iTunes music library. It’s also got a clipboard manager much like Launchbar, as well as a separate menu for managing bookmarks. And squeezed to the side, is a little Google search bar that I don’t know how to get rid of. Butler can also act as an iTunes extender, with specific shortcuts for controlling music.

Overall I’d say Butler has good features, but it needs to radically change its approach to make its interface simpler, integrated, and hot. Butler is donationware, so you can try it for as long as you’d like.


If you want total simplicity, you can check out Namely, which is purely an application launcher. It has absolutely no other features, but app launching it does really well. It learns your favourite apps and will give priority to them in future. The app is a free download, so if you’re looking for a clutter free app launcher, Namely might interest you.


Mouse based launchers


Unlike the others, Overflow depends on the mouse for support. It’s basically a HUD like pop up in your dock, allowing you quick access to your favourite applications or files. You can drag in files from Finder to add them to the mix, move them around, resize, and basically keep things within close reach. Everything however is manually done, so if you’ve got a fairly simple workflow, Overflow might help you out.


It’s not a free app however, so you will have to shell out $15 after the trial.


More of an experimental app than a stable launcher, Sapiens is heavily mouse based. You trigger the interface by moving your mouse pointer in a circular motion. Sapiens then draws up applications based on your past usage, in relation to open applications, the app in focus, and sort of ‘thinks for you’.


All this is well in theory, but in my experience is was more of a hindrance than useful. The launcher would sometimes spring up when I didn’t want it to, and the app I really wanted to launch was never in the top 5. Luckily, you can begin typing to bring up any other app in your system, but it kind of defeats the purpose.

Sapiens is still a very cool app, one that you should try if you have some free ‘app time’.


Much like Sapiens, Trampoline aims to use your mouse and past activity to figure out what your next activity will be. The launcher is a pretty looking HUD, with application icons placed such that your hand naturally moves towards them.


In my experience, I did find that it provided easy access to my apps, but I still prefer to hack away at the keyboard. Trampoline is better than Sapiens with the fact that it doesn’t require the mouse gesture to invoke the interface. You can assign a hotkey or just use a mouse button to bring it up.

Trampoline costs $20, which is a bit pricey considering there are lots of free alternatives out there. Still, you be the judge.


Something like Overflow, Valet takes up your entire screen, bringing up large icons organised in categories for you to click on. Every time you install a new application, Valet will offer to assign it to a certain category. One thing that bugs me in this app is the striped folder icons carried over from Tiger. They look totally out of place, so hopefully the devs will update them to the fresher icons of Leopard.


Valet costs $25 for a license, and a free trial is of course available.

Sign off

I’ve personally stuck to using Quicksilver for most part. Launchbar is equally capable, but somehow I feel at home with Quicksilver. The mouse based apps are good for limited use. If you’re hanging around you Mac for a large part of the day, I’d say keyboard based launchers are way better. You?

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