Using LaunchBar 5 to fly on your Mac

by Brandon Pittman

Using LaunchBar 5 to fly on your Mac

by Brandon Pittman on November 2, 2010

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I used Quicksilver for a long time. At least 4 years. It had so many weird, arcane commands that called up so many powerful features that I felt a level of control over my Mac that made me feel like a ninja at times. Slowly though, the iTunes triggers became less necessary with the addition of media keys to keyboards, the development of plug-ins started dying when Quicksilver’s dev stopped working on the project, and when Snow Leopard came out, it was weeks before there was even a stable version of QS. And over the next year, the sluggishness of Quicksilver was noticeable. The app just crashed way too much. Combined with the abandoned state of the software, I knew it was time to find an app that could replace Quicksilver. I remembered LaunchBar. Loren Brichter told me about the LaunchBar 5 beta when it was first available, and I tried LaunchBar out, but at that time, I was still happy with Quicksilver, and didn’t see much benefit to switching.

Fast forward a year, and I’m fed up with Quicksilver crashing and eating up RAM, and I try out LaunchBar again. I haven’t found anything that I can do with LaunchBar that I couldn’t do with Quicksilver, but unlike Quicksilver, LaunchBar is responsive and never goes down. I’ve used it for about a month now, and I’ve had zero hang-ups. To me, LaunchBar’s stability is its biggest feature. I mean, I don’t know what there is to tell you about LaunchBar’s features. If you’ve used Quicksilver, you can do it in LaunchBar. It’s great for launching apps, searching files, starting web searches, appending text and accessing OS services. LaunchBar has a great feature called Instant Send where you can use a keyboard shortcut to instantly open certain actions instead of opening up the UI the normal way and typing in the action. Just hit command-space and ‘g’ and it’ll open right up to a Google search. It’s a useful little feature that will save you some time if you commit it to muscle memory.

What you can do with LaunchBar

LaunchBar has become my little Swiss Army knife of Mac software. There are a lot of little things that LaunchBar can do that make a lot of OS X utilities more or less unnecessary. LaunchBar’s clipboard history function can replace all those little clipboard utilities. It’s also got this nifty little ClipMerge™ feature that allows you to stick two clipboard items together into one single item. This allows you to mass-copy stuff like links on a web page. Simply press Cmd + C twice to add the item to the current clipboard item. Then bring up the LaunchBar Clipboard (Cmd+K after invoking LaunchBar) to perform actions on those items. LaunchBar is great for creating todo lists right inside of text documents. Have LaunchBar locate your .txt file, press Shift+Space, type in any text, and hit return to add that string of text to your .txt document.

Instead of using a dedicated iCal extender app, you can use LaunchBar to add events to iCal thanks to LaunchBar’s iCal indexing service. The syntax is fairly simple, using natural language instead of controls and buttons. Invoke LaunchBar, type in the name of your calendar, hit space, then enter your event like “Record special edition podcast with Gabe and Milind @ Monday 4:30 pm !15m” will add an event to your calendar on the following monday, at the specified time, with an alert firing 15 minutes before the event. You can omit the date for an all day event, specify time blocks like “4-8pm”. If you just enter any text string without syntax, it’s merely added to as a todo task. To specifically add a todo task, enter “Reinstall Windows > next month !1h” to remind yourself to reinstall Windows before the next month, with an alert an hour before your due date. You’re probably going to have to reinstall it sooner than that though, but let’s not get out of topic.

LaunchBar’s integration with Finder is robust as well; you can copy, move and delete files. You can hit Cmd + G to grab an image in the Finder and transfer it to launchbar, ready for to be manipulated. If it’s an image, just enter “resize” or “flip” and you can perform those actions straight from LaunchBar. You can set images as desktop backgrounds too. And if you’re a plain text nut, you can append text to an existing file. But LaunchBar’s integration goes deeper than that. Say you want to open a file in Pixelmator while your default for that file type is Photoshop. Drag the file from Finder, and while dragging invoke Launchbar; type “Pixelm…” and then drop the file on the bar. If you don’t like seeing the contextual menu after, you can hold down modifier keys like Shift to “select in LaunchBar” or Option to “Copy to Folder”. The entire thing is documented in the LaunchBar help, which I’d highly advise you read through.

There’s another amazing workflow that will be useful for any user, and that’s quick internet searches. How often have you searched for a movie name in Google only to click on the first link that sends you to IMDB? Wouldn’t it be way quicker if you could just enter the name of the movie in LaunchBar and be taken to its IMDB listing? Well LaunchBar makes it so easy and painless, that you will soon find yourself using LaunchBar instead of Google to get to most of the sites you frequent. Here’s the secret sauce:

Invoke LaunchBar, click on the little gear icon, get to your Index, and in the sidebar click on Search Templates. Once you understand how this works it’s super easy to create your own search templates. Launchbar will use the Name as a trigger to initiate that search, and then insert your keywords in place of the asterisk it finds in the search string. For instance, to search Google Images, enter “Google Imag…” in LaunchBar, when selected, press spacebar. Now enter any search term you want Google Images to throw results for (let’s say “cute cats”). Launchbar will take the Google Images url, and replace the asterisk* with cute+cats, thereby creating a direct google search. LaunchBar comes with a whole lot of search templates, but you can create your own one. Say you want one for Smoking Apples. Just create any search in our searchbar above, and then copy the resultant url (something like “…”). In LaunchBar, create a new entry in your search templates, add a trigger (e.g. “SA”), and then in the details field paste in the copied url, but replace Omnifocus with an asterisk.

There’s one more thing. The genius that is Aayush Arya taught me to leverage Lucky Google to create even better custom search engines. For instance, if you used the above template, our WordPress backend would generate a search results page with all the articles matching your search term. But as we’ve come to realise, Google is a far better search engine than WordPress will ever be. Moreover, the custom SA template will only take me to the results page — I still have to click. If on the other hand you do a Google search for “Omnifocus smoking apples” the first result will more often than not be our most popular article on Omnifocus. If you use LaunchBar to create a Lucky Google search for those search terms, it means direct access to articles on specific sites. Create a new search template, add a keyword, and then use “*+smoking+apples” as your url, replacing smoking apples with imdb, or amazon, or youtube. Just try it out; it’s worth the initial effort.

The third, and most obvious, aspect of LaunchBar is its ability to control iTunes. Enter any artist name, and use your keyboard to narrow down the search. There’s a nifty feature called “Best of Lists”. Just search for Best of Coldpl… and it will automatically narrow it down to all songs by that artists with four or more stars. Handy way to quickly listen to your favourite music.

There are still so many more of the ‘little things’ that LaunchBar allows you to do quickly, that would otherwise take up your computing time, we could write a book on it. Look through the help files, or this official ‘usage examples’ guide on the Obdev site.

What I use LaunchBar for

So what kind of things do I use LaunchBar everyday for? The simplest is of course opening applications, but I also use it for searching my hard disk. If you tell LaunchBar which directories you want it to index, then you can find files much faster than with Spotlight. For example, I just downloaded a “Linux distro” and I want to open it without going to the Finder. I double tap ⌘ and then start typing in say… “Lin” and BAM! My “Linux distro” is right there and I just hit enter to open it. LaunchBar is also very intelligent, as it learns your actions and instantly provides you the right result as you continue using it. If I open up my Linux distro often enough, soon it will have it selected on typing the letter L. Also, do you love using Spotlight for light calculator work? You can do the same with LaunchBar, and you can do even more complex math with LaunchBar than you can with Spotlight, the result of which can be thrown on your screen as a large text overlay. I’ve also started using LaunchBar as a way to add events to iCal without opening my calendar. Simple as that. It’s also a great way to move files around. I find a file by searching, tab over to its options, and then copy or move it to another location. Great for stuff that needs to go into Dropbox. I have been using file actions as a way to email attachments quickly too. Select a file, go to the options, and send as an attachment. That easy, but more importantly, that much quicker.

If you’re a Quicksilver user now, I think it would be wise to move over to LaunchBar. Sure, it’ll cost you some money, but you’ll be getting an actively developed piece of software that still has a future. Quicksilver, while open source is seemingly dead and its creator has been quoted as saying that he thinks LaunchBar is a great replacement for Quicksilver. You can download a 15 day trial of LaunchBar and purchase it for €24.

A lot of Mac users have quite taken to the fresh new launcher Alfred. It’s by no means a bad app, and we’ll surely have a review of it soon enough. But Alfred is not LaunchBar. The key difference in these application is that where LaunchBar is powerful and flexible, Alfred is super easy to use. Alfred sports a much larger UI, simpler options, and less customisation, making it ready to use right out the box. But if you’re invested in the Mac as a productive tool, you might as well take a few minutes to program your fingertips to react the LaunchBar way. It’s faster, way more powerful, and in most instances, better.

[Milind Alvares contributed to this article, so several instances of "I" may not in fact be Brandon.]

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

John Smith

I used LaunchBar for years (7 years!) and in fact recently moved to Alfred. While it’s true that LaunchBar has more functionality, it is not easy to access. I found I used a small percentage of what it had to offer, because I didn’t use the various functions often enough to recall them.

Alfred is simpler: You have specific verbs that access each function. And it’s very, VERY fast as a launcher (it’s noticeably faster than LaunchBar). It also uses less RAM and its developer is actively adding functionality (where LaunchBar tends to go 2-3 years between major releases, and had almost a year between 5.0.2 and 5.0.3… to be fair it didn’t need many fixes).

I really liked LaunchBar. I still do. But I *love* Alfred. It still needs some more functionality to match LaunchBar (in fact, lots), but I find I get more out of Alfred than I did out of LaunchBar, already.



Though very smooth, i don’t see LaunchBar replacing Quicksilver anytime soon for me. Besides typing to open files and apps, i heavily use Quicksilver to launch applications with shortcuts and Gestures. i don’t know how i would function without QS’s abracadabra (gesture control launcher.) Also, I find Quicksilver more robust for moving, opening, and controlling files. Not to mention its quick jot function that also acts as website launcher. Or the ability to launch Safari’s bookmarks without opening a browser.

LaunchBar is obviously cleaner and more stable then QS Due to its [Quicksilver] Snow Leopard woes, but Quicksilver is the popular champ for a reason: Gratis, Functional, and just all around ballin.



Also favor Alfred over Launchbar and QuickSilver. Think it wins by a long shot in beauty, productivity and with updates.



I am a Launchbar user for two years now and I really like it (don’t see myself stop using the app in the near future).

However, my main problem is the “active development”. Launchbar is a very expensive piece of software (imho, compared to QS and Alfred or even Butler, which are priced more reasonably for a launcher – the 24€ are without tax, I paid around 29€ which is almost 40$) and the development is far from as “active” as e.g. Alfred users are used to.
For example, a bug was introduced with SL, which affected the probably best and most important feature “Quick Send” of LB. The problem was, that they neccessary keystroke wasn’t registered anymore and so the feature was totally unusable. People were talking about this problem since the beginning, I myself wrote several emails to the developer, and the answer was always the same: “There is no problem!”. When the complaints in the forum didn’t stop and some more experienced users started to track down the problem on their own, the dev eventually admitted the bug, but didn’t do something about it for another 6 months. Around 1 month ago he finally found a solution (after one year!!) and released said version 5.0.3.

To my mind LB _is_ the best launcher out there: It’s very much like QS (learned to love launchers through QS myself), but without the fiddling, the bugs, the crashes and the horrible configuration. LB offers an enormous amount of features (btw: Best clipboard history on Mac, better than ALL discrete clipboard history apps out there) without sacrificing accessibility – most features are already set up by default and configuring them works very well.
At this point I miss too much from Alfred and Butler is just strange, imho (tried it several times, but never really understood it) and so I will have to stick with Launchbar. However, it felt a bit like abandon-ware in the last year – guess LittleSnitch is more popular and making more money and that’s why updates here are more frequent than at LB – and if Alfred is catching up in the next months I guess I won’t be a paying customer of LB’s next major release (if something like this should ever happen).



@dorian_grey You should check the nightly builds which I never had a single problem with.



@Christian Unfortunately in this one year (in which the corrupted QuickSend feature existed) there has not been a nightly build, which fixed the bug (dunno, if there was a new nightly build at all).
The nightly build, which did fix the bug came out some days before the official 5.0.3 and I was using it 5 minutes after the dev posted it in the forums …



I’ve tried all the launchers I could find and I unquestionably vote Alfred.
Good design is about implementing functionality step by step, making sure everything is perfect before adding more. I do believe Alfred has the most robust core and the most active development. I wrote them to request for a feature and it was implemented in a new stable release in less than a week.



it was remarkably inviting to deliver assign to
I yearn for to quote your notify in my blog. It can?
And you et an account on Twitter?



John Smith: “And it’s very, VERY fast as a launcher (it’s noticeably faster than LaunchBar).”

What do you mean ‘faster’? When I hit ‘cmd-space’, LaunchBar’s input window opens instantly. Then I type an abbreviation, ‘NN’ for NetNewsWire, or ‘SL’ for Soulver, etc. I hit ‘Enter’ directly because, by the time I reach the key, I know that Launchbar has already found the app. I don’t see how a launcher could be any faster.


John Smith

Tom, there is a delay with LaunchBar (it’s not long, it’s like 0.3 seconds) that is longer than Alfred (whose delay is more like 0.1 second). Try it; you’ll see. I’ve had lots of experience with LaunchBar and I’ve seen it.

They work somewhat differently w.r.t. shortcuts… with LaunchBar it’s easy to use any kind of shortcut you want (e.g. ps for Photoshop or even pp if you wanted; it will learn). Alfred sorta supports this but it’s much better if you use the actual name (so typing phot). In many cases this works better for me because if you fat finger something, you can just backspace and type it correctly, whereas with LaunchBar if you mis-type the shortcut, you have to pause for the specified delay time (in my case, I think 0.5 seconds) and then try again. I ended up doing that a few times a day, with as much as I use a launcher (I often use a launcher to switch applications as it’s faster than command-Tab and finding the app you want to switch to).



Even Alfred is quite complex to understand to average user, so I think it is better suited for the rest of us.



Having said that I will do an Alfred screencast as well. The developers are personal friends and they haven’t allowed me to do this yet. ;)


Natural Nurture

Love this site…
On the subject of easy automation for the Mac….I felt so smug when reading about QS and Launch Bar….I have been using Quickeys for over a decade…it has a price tag…but is cheap like borsch considering what it does…can do…be customized easily etc….it is a personal Robot in waiting…all you have to do is take a little patience to understand its less than intuitive interface…which of course like anything else…when you learn how…IS EASY…I DO NOT WORK FOR THEM…nor do I have any agenda other than WOW…if you don’t know what it is or does…your are missing the boat….
Just a for instance…I read & write a lot…I want the definitive answer to what a word means in all its contexts….ie: what does CHOIL mean?….
I defy you to answer that question with out spending a lot of time…INSTEAD with a custom macro that took only seconds to create…I hit COMMAND D on the keyboard…. after highlighting a word in any text on my Mac (available for PC now too!) ….and heres is what happens in the background….Safari (or what ever) opens….the URL for is auto inserted…the highlighted word is copied and then pasted in the search field and the return key is auto hit…and WHAM in less than a second (with fast internet) you have the word from dozens of dictionaries….that is .o5% of what you can create to save time and effort…I get so frustrated when I start hitting keys on others Macs…and realize NO QUICKEYS DUMMY…and have to go back to searching menus…and typing to get simple work done…WHOA…not at all ergonomic…
It comes with dozens of shortcuts built in….and customizable and downloadable from other’s gifted ideas and shortcuts that are importable…….if you work on a Mac you are shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t have it…bullet proof too….there is a free 30 day trial….fully functioning…but go ahead and buy it…then send me 10%
:- )….because they won’t….I Said I don’t work for them in any way,shape or form…I just love it thats all …and I am so surprised so few people know about it…the people at Quikeys are missing the boat by not letting the world know about it….the app is huge…but they aren’t….. guess thats why it is so good…people who care are the creators…my hats off to you guys…(and gals) :-)

FOR what it is worth…

Here is what Choil means:
this definition was garnered in under 3 seconds:
“In cutlery, the indentation in the blade of a knife where it joins the tang.” ta… da….


Natural Nurture

I can’t stop….
I hit Control P and photoshop opens or if open comes forward…Control I – Illustrator opens…you get the idea…you pick the keys you want to use and THAT YOU CAN REMEMBER….
I hit shift command G and Google opens up…open quote is inserted….the highlighted copy inserted….a close quote is inserted… and VOILA…your answer is waiting…seconds and no typing…errors inserted etc.

How can you tell I couldn’t work without it?



Apologies for this sad post, but does anybody know where I can get hold of the purple desktop wallpaper used in the Launchbar screenshots?



i am waiting for quicksilver successor too, but by now none wins qs.

just for discuss:
my qs is responsive and fast, no problems for me. had them time ago, then switched to a new version.

looks like brandon does not know that qs has triggers. when i want to open a google search w/qs i know at least 3 fast ways to go:
1- in most cases i just call qs, type “.” + search terms and hit enter, done
2- if the word is in a document of any kind, just highlight it, open the local menu and select “send to quicksilver” then just hit enter, done
3- if i want to see google search box before typing, i hit ctrl-cmd-g, type search terms and hit enter
btw, when using methods #1 & #2, i can do many other things with that text: use for a new email, or a new document, or send it to google calendar or set as reminder or…. too many to mention!

almost all commands like ctrl-cmd-(letter) trigger smtg in my mac: mail, remote ssh accesses, terminal, xcode…
when i access my linux server i just hit ctrl-cmd-n and i am logged in via ssh without any other action.
when i need a calculator i invoke qs, type “.=” + the operation and enter, done.

from a quicksilver addicted


Brandon Pittman

Looks like you don’t know that addicted isn’t a noun.



you are right brandon, it’s my bad english.
i did not want to offend, please forgive me if i did.



Fascinated to see that people are still holding on to Quicksilver, but not one mention of Google Quick Search Box . You guys realize that Alcor, the guy that created Quicksilver, went to work for Google and built QSB, right? I don’t know how it compares to the other choices (I suspect it may be yet another Google Abandonware), I’m just shocked to see it not mentioned once.



@John Smith
“Tom, there is a delay with LaunchBar (it’s not long, it’s like 0.3 seconds) that is longer than Alfred (whose delay is more like 0.1 second).”
→ I don’t see the difference in responsiveness but LB might look a bit slower if you have animations enabled

“whereas with LaunchBar if you mis-type the shortcut, you have to pause for the specified delay time (in my case, I think 0.5 seconds) and then try again.”
→ Not true. You don’t have to wait. Hit the shortcut to evoke LB again and you can try again right away


Star Base Kansas City

I tried Quicksilver, too. I agree with the whole arcane thing. I use Namely, and I like it because it’s so fast because it only does one thing: quickly opens my applications. I sound like an old man.

I think I’ll try Alfred.


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