LaunchBar Revisited

(Disclaimer for QuickSilver and Butler users: This article in no way, shape, or form claims, implies, or otherwise suggests that QuickSilver and Butler are bad products. This is simply a review of LaunchBar. We do plan on reviewing these other utilities in the future. Thank you for your restraint :-) )

A few years ago, a colleague of mine mentioned a utility that he said had changed the way he used his Mac. That piece of software, called LaunchBar , allowed you to launch any application on your Mac by pressing a keyboard shortcut (by default, Command+Space) and then typing the first few letters of the application’s name. When the correct application was displayed in LaunchBar’s, well, launching bar, you pressed the return key to launch it. LaunchBar indexed your hard drive in the background so that searches were quick.

If you used only a handful of applications, LaunchBar wasn’t that big of a deal, since you could instead add those apps to the Dock for quick access. But for those of us who used more applications—frequently or infrequently—than would comfortably fit in the Dock, LaunchBar really did change our day-to-day computing lives. (In fact, to this day I rarely see the inside of my Applications folder other than to install new applications or delete old ones.)

Since I first used LaunchBar, it has improved significantly. In fact, in the three-plus years since our most recent review—version 3.2 received   back in July 2002 —nearly thirty minor versions and several major versions have been released. So I thought it was time to revisit this Gem of Gems, the current release version of which is LaunchBar 4.0.2 (   ; business license $39, home license $20; family license [up to 5 computers] $30). (The latest beta version of LaunchBar is 4.1b2.)

LaunchBar basics

For those using Tiger who haven’t tried LaunchBar, the above description of its usage likely sounds strikingly familiar to Spotlight. In fact, when Steve Jobs first demoed Spotlight, a number of people sitting around me at the keynote wondered aloud if Tiger would be the death of LaunchBar. But the two are actually quite different and have different strengths.

Spotlight’s strength is finding files—especially documents—via literal searches. If you type disku in Spotlight’s search field, Spotlight will find only those items on your hard drive that contain the exact phrase disku in their names or contents (on my system, just DiskUtility.log).

LaunchBar, on the other hand, performs “educated guess” searches. For example, if I type xl in LaunchBar, it guesses what I might be looking for and presents a list of possible matches—depending on how I’ve configured LaunchBar’s preferences, those items can include applications, documents, contacts, bookmarks, music files, and many other kinds of items. Like Spotlight, highlighting an item and pressing return opens it; pressing Command+return views it in the Finder.

LaunchBar xl search

But what makes LaunchBar such a time-saver is that it actually learns . For example, the first time I typed xl , LaunchBar’s top hit was an application called Xlocate . But I was really trying to launch Microsoft E x ce l , so I instead chose Excel from the list (either by using the up/down arrow keys to highlight it and then pressing return, or by using the mouse to double-click it in the list). LaunchBar learned that preference and now, whenever I type xl in LaunchBar, Excel is the default selection. Using this learning process, I’ve “taught” LaunchBar that ps means photoshop, du means Disk Utility, trans means Transmit, aw means AppleWorks, and so on. I’ve been, in essence, setting up keyboard shortcuts—but I’ve been doing it in a way that is much more intuitive and memorable than by choosing arbitrary key combinations, such as Option-F8, the way many keyboard shortcut utilities require you to do. And the more you use LaunchBar, the better it learns your preferences.

In addition, unlike Spotlight, which on some computers takes metaphorical ages to find an application, LaunchBar is nearly instantaneous. In fact, because LaunchBar is so much better than Spotlight at finding and launching applications, I’ve used the Spotlight pane of System Preferences to disable application searching by Spotlight—which also improves Spotlight’s performance, as it has one less type of file to search.

But LaunchBar isn’t limited to finding and opening files and applications. For example, if you activate LaunchBar and press Command+R, you get a list of currently running applications, providing a way to quickly switch between them. You can even drag files and drop them onto an application or a folder in LaunchBar to open them in that application or move or copy them to that folder, respectively, making LaunchBar a handy file management utility. (How do you view a folder in LaunchBar? By typing its name, of course. Or, if you press Tab when LaunchBar is active, you get a list of files at the root level of your hard drive; you can use the arrow keys to browse through those files and folders until you navigate to what you’re looking for.) You can also open individual panes of System Preferences (for example, typing displays gives you the Displays pane as the first hit). And as I mentioned above, you can search bookmarks, email messages (in Mail), contacts (in Mail or Entourage), browser history, and much more. You use LaunchBar’s Preferences and Configuration dialogs—the latter of which resembles the Spotlight pane of System Preferences—to choose what LaunchBar searches.

(As a side note, I actually use both LaunchBar and Spotlight. As I mentioned above, they both have their strengths, so I play to those strengths: I generally use Spotlight for finding documents -- especially when I'm searching document contents -- and LaunchBar for launching applications, browsing files, and searching for contacts. To avoid keyboard shortcut conflicts, I've assigned one of them the activation shortcut Command+Space and the other Control+Space.)

New features

LaunchBar 4 has added a number of useful features to the already-impressive utility. One of my favorites is the ability to access recently used documents in any application: When you’ve “found” your desired application, if instead of pressing return you press the right-arrow key, you get a list of recent documents opened in that application; choose one with the mouse or keyboard and it’s opened.

LaunchBar Recent Preview Docs

LaunchBar can also browse the databases of particular applications. For example, when the selected application is iTunes, pressing right-arrow lets you browse your iTunes Library by song, playlist, album, artist, composer, or genre; choosing an item from the list plays it in iTunes. Similarly, when Address Book is the selected app, pressing right-arrow browses contacts; choosing one and pressing return opens that contact in Address Book.

LaunchBar iTunes

LaunchBar 4 also offers some new features for Web browsing. For starters, you can browse your Safari bookmarks and history. But you can also quickly visit a Web site in your browser by activating LaunchBar, pressing Command+L (or just .), and then typing or pasting the desired URL. When you press Return, LaunchBar will switch to your preferred browser and open the page. (Sure, you could switch to your browser and do the same thing, but once you start using LaunchBar regularly, activating LaunchBar becomes second nature.) And LaunchBar also provides quick access to a number of popular search engines. For example, to perform a Google search, you would type goo , press Space—at which point a text field would appear in LaunchBar’s bar—and then type your search term. Press return and your Web browser opens to the results of your Google search.

Another of my favorite new features is “context” searching. For example, I can search for my Entourage Address Book, then search for a contact within the Address Book. In my case, to do this I type ent , then press Space, then type the name of the contact. Once the contact is located, pressing space again shows me the various types of information for that contact: phone, email, postal address, URL. (Choosing an email address opens a new email message to that address; choosing a URL opens it in your browser; choosing a phone number or postal address displays it in large type onscreen.)

I haven’t even mentioned file content searching, Finder actions (renaming files, creating new folders, duplicating, and more), working with Terminal, changing Network Locations... I could go on and on (and it may seem like I already have). I couldn’t hope to cover all of LaunchBar’s features here. But that doesn’t mean its feature set is overwhelming. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: LaunchBar is one of the rare pieces of software that is simple and non-intimidating when it comes to its most basic—and most useful—features, but can be as powerful as a “power user” wants it to be. And that alone makes it a Gem in my book. That and the fact that I honestly struggle to use a Mac that doesn’t have LaunchBar installed.

(Check out the LaunchBar Usage Examples Web page for some useful tips.)

LaunchBar is compatible with Mac OS X 10.2 or higher.

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