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?

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }


Personally, I find Apple’s Spotlight to work perfectly fine as an app launcher. It’s faster than any of these apps, and doesn’t add to the overhead on the system.



Why didn’t you include Spotlight ? If all you need is to launch app I don’t see a need for an extra app especially the non mouse based ones.


Milind Alvares

^^ Did you read the first paragraph? Didn’t feel the need to dedicate an entire subtopic on Spotlight.

However, Spotlight is slow. Compared to the keyboarders, it’s slow. Also, there’s at least 300 other things you can do with QS or Launchbar that really make a huge difference.



I find Spotlight incredibly slow and it continuously causes pinwheel. Launchbar is the one for me – I’ve used Butler and Quicksilver and, although I occasionally miss the ability to assign keyboard shortcuts to anything that you get in quicksilver, it was way too unstable.



Sweet round-up article. Even though I switch back & forth between the keyboard and the mouse on a regular basis, depending on the situation, I too like keyboard-based launchers when you know *exactly* what you’re looking for.

My favorite is Namely, which has a miniscule resource footprint.


Kristoffer Hess

My favorite for awhile has been Overflow for apps that I use often and Spotlight for apps I don’t often use.



oops.. missed the first para. Spotlight is slow ?? it is as fast as QS on my macbook. In tiger spotlight was slow but in leopard is quite fast (at least for me)



I’m a long time launchbar user. I’ve tried QS but just got used to launchbar.

I wanted to point out that you can, in fact, move the launch bar menu to any point on your screen. It doesn’t have to stay in the center. You can also stretch or shrink it to fit your needs.

I can hardly function on a machine that doesn’t have launchbar. It’s revolutionized the way I work.



I only find Spotlight slow just after a reboot, but that is because the hard drive is not yet ready. normally I can not out-type Spotlight even if I try.
I have to say I am pretty interested in LaunchBar, so I might look into that, especially since it does not try to replace Spotlight but support it.
PS. Why did you mention the price of every app but LaunchBar?


Milind Alvares

@Garoo: Totally missed that app. Will check it out for sure.

@David: Mistake. Fixed. Thanks.


Matt K

I’ve been using Dragthing for years and it still works just fine.


Dan Bookman

Though Spotlight is fast in Leopard, it doesn’t seem to learn, and QS is far speedier.

The sheer amount of things QS can do is astounding.

App launching, emails, contact info, social networks, iTunes controls, keychains, bookmarks, terminal, the list is as long as there are plugins. 30-40 mb of idle RAM is more than worth it.


Phil Olin

I used both Launchbar and Quicksilver for some time, and have to say that QS feels alot faster and more capable than LB.



Spotlight speed is depend on your computer resources, your overall data. Mine has 12 GB of Application folder, and it’s still fast. But Spotlight is quite slow when you boot up your Mac.



Cool post as always, keep it up. :)

Ironically I’ve just bought “Jump” (formerly known as RapidStart app4mac) which is fine, but has a few “hinges that don’t bent the way I want them to” I wish I would have seen a post like this one 2 days ago :)

Im gonna try out a few of them, and see is I can find a “hinge” that fit. :)

// ookami



@garoo Just checked out your app, and i’m pretty impressed. :)
- cool functions
- fast
- takes little memory compared to say Namely
- and free
So yeah, kudos to you.

Also its preyyt iritating that namely have to run in the dock to work. (dockdodger ? workaround) hmm?

I also run Tags, which I have been very happy with. and then it struck me, why not just tag my apps with say a “media” tag, and “app” tag for a quick overview of apps in a single category and quick launcher. works pretty well. :)



the developer of QS, I think his name is Alcor, DID stop development of QS and now works for Google.



Nice list of apps, but.. where’s Dragthing? You DO know about Dragthing, don’t you?



I agree with HeiLei. How could you not mention DragThing?!


Milind Alvares

Sorry guys. I’ve heard about DragThing but never used it so didn’t know it was a launcher.



Application Wizard is my choice….


Dan Bookman

The problem with DragThing, Overflow, and all the other icon and mouse based launchers (even the Dock) is that they become less effective the more applications you have.

I can access any application in about a second with QS, regardless of whether I have 300 apps, or 30. Icon-mouse launchers become quite burdened at that point, and you’re constantly having to choose whether or not an app deserves to be in your launcher.



@Dan Bookman, yeah I agree.

But on the other hand, I have a lot of programs installed and i tend to either forget the name of the program for which a curtain task i need, or exactly what the specific program can do for me.
So for me at least its useful to have a visual feedback in the form of say a category of “media apps” and the pick the appropriate app.

I currently use Jump and Sokusei.
they are both fast, and Jump gives me the categories I need, and Sokusei launches the programs that I remember the names of. (man I wish those to programs where “one” so that I did not have to use my mouse to launch the programs in Jump)

Does anyone else find the “categorizing”-thing useful?



I have fallen in love with Launchbar. Quicksilver is far too complex for me, but Launchbar is completely natural once you get the hang of a couple things. Instant Send is a godsend (pardon the pun) and the iTunes controls replace Bowtie.



(Now that I’ve brought DragThing to the conversation, I feel it’s my duty to keep defending it… :-)

With DragThing (and probably with the other alternatives as well) you can of course use keyboard shortcuts, so I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as “icon and mouse based launcher” only. In my DragThing dock, I have 6 layers, around 10-15 apps in each, and a global keyboard shortcut assigned to most of them (based on the F1-F16 function keys). This means I can launch any application with a dedicated keyboard shortcut at any time.



As one of the developers on Google QSB I’m surprised that you say it doesn’t have any actions. If you hit the tab key on any selected result you will see some of the actions you can perform, and we have released an SDK for creating your own in Obj C, Python or AppleScript.

Ironically your screen capture of QSB actually shows an action (Play iTunes).



The only time I find Spotlight slow is if I happen to catch it indexing, which only really happens about once a month. I launch about 8 apps from the dock, and some things I use less often (such as skype) are on my dock, but my brain still finds cmd space and typing skype to be faster than bothering to go to my dock.

I’m running a 2 year old MBP, 3GB RAM but otherwise stock – what are you guys doing that is making Spotlight slow? It’s always instantaneous for me.



Butler –

To remove search field: Click on Butler in the menu bar. Go to Butler -> Customize. Find “Web Search” in the Menu Bar categories. Select it and right-click -> Delete or select it and press either the Backspace or Delete key. It can also be configured as an icon that you select to bring up the search field.

Deleting text before new search – how does it know whether you are adding more text to refine the search or whether you want to start a new search? You can easily delete text by first pressing Command-A to select all of the text and then start typing to replace it. You can also set the timeout default so that it will wait for a shorter time before inferring that you are starting a new search: select Butler in the menu bar. Go to Butler -> Preferences. On the left select Abbreviations. Set Behavior/Invalidate query to a smaller number of milliseconds.

Main window size: can be resized like any window by grabing the bottom right corner. Also, in top left, the view can be changed from columnar to list.

The 3 items in the menubar (including Bookmarks and search field) can be removed or the features can be added to one of the other menus. You can define any of 0 to (a whole bunch of) menus and a docklet. Obviously, if you remove the search field, you would need to invoke it through a key sequence (default is Control-Command-G) or select it in one of the menus.



I still use Himmelbar, mouse based, cute little cloud in the menu bar, instant access to apps and utilities in an alphabetical list. Couldn’t be simpler or quicker.



I’ve used Sapiens for a couple of months now and I wouldn’t go back to anything else.

it’s worth noting that A) you can invoke it with a key command, even though you seemed to say otherwise in the review, and B) you have to train the software, which does take about a week and a half (or 3-5 days if you use your computer for 10+ hours a day, like I do).

As a software developer quickly switching between apps and not wanting to have to take my hand off the mouse while doing something, this method has quickly become an instant favorite for me. It brings up the correct application 95% of the time for me, and if not I just type any couple of letters in the application name and it pops up (MUCH faster than my previous method of using Spotlight).

You can also just grab a file and invoke it with the circle motion to bring up a list of apps that can open that file. Super quick!



As a user of Overflow, it is very much a keyboard based launcher. I *hate* the mouse for launching apps. Setup is in fact manual as mentioned, but once done, it’s all keyboard driven.

Ctrl-space brings it up, Cmd-2 (user configurable) gives me my video apps window, F, then space launches FinalCutPro

Ctrl-space brings it up, Cmd-3 (user configurable) gives me my text editing apps window, S, then space launches Smultron.

You can also arrow around the apps if there is more than one app with the same first letter.

Also, PathFinder (Finder replacement) has a hidden launcher built it too. Currently it’s fairly weak, but the devs have indicated improvements in upcoming versions.


David K

I just put a copy of my applications folder on the dock — set it to grid view and BAM — all my apps 1 click away !!


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