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.]

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