capsule review

Butler at your service

At a Glance
  • Many Tricks Butler

    Macworld Rating

Dan Miller recently wrote about his favorite launcher utility, Quicksilver. So now it's my turn to chime in about my favorite launcher, Butler.

Just in case you're not familiar with this type of program, a launcher is (at its most basic) a utility that lets you launch programs by first pressing some sort of activation key, and then typing a few letters of the program's name.

But Butler, Quicksilver ( ), and LaunchBar ( ) all go well beyond the basics, as each provides additional tools that greatly increase your productivity. As Dan stated in his review, "Quicksilver, Launchbar, and Butler each do roughly the same things, and the choice between them is more a matter of subjective preference than of objective comparison."

So here's a look at why I subjectively prefer Butler.

First and foremost, I call Butler my Swiss Army Knife. It's seemingly got a tool for everything, though there's a price to pay for that power in terms of a somewhat steep learning curve. But with this one application, I can do all of the following (and more)...

  • Launch applications (obviously).
  • Open files and folders.
  • Directly open a given System Preferences panel.
  • Directly open a given widget.
  • Manage browser bookmarks.
  • Display addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses for Address Book contacts. Just type a few letters of the person's name, and you can then easily choose which info you'd like to display.
  • Control iTunes (play, stop, start, etc.) and browse my iTunes collection from any application, similar to what Synergy and You Control: Tunes can do.
  • Run Spotlight searches on completed strings, like Laserlight.
  • Create a pop-up menu containing any set of files, folders, and applications that you'd like, much like MaxMenus.
  • Enable a pop-up Fast User switching menu, similar to WinSwitch.
  • Create keyboard macros, similar (though much more limited than) QuicKeys X3.
  • Create multiple-entry clipboards, like PTHPasteboard and CopyPaste.
  • Search any number of websites via pop-up panels, much like iSeek.
  • Execute AppleScripts directly within Butler.
  • Create complex commands by stringing together various other Butler commands.

As you can see, Butler truly is my Swiss Army Knife utility, replacing countless other programs that I would otherwise be using. I won't even try to dive into everything Butler can do, but by expanding on a few of the above features, I can give you a better sense for how Butler works.

Launch things

In its launcher role, Butler works just like the other launcher apps. Press a hot key (Control-Space by default), and an input box appears, ready for you to type in. As you type, matches are quickly displayed. Hit Return if the one you want is highlighted, or use the arrows to select any other option. Here's a short movie of the launch window in action.

The small icons to the right of the highlighted entry indicate what action Butler will take when you press Return. The default is to open the selected item, but by pressing Tab, you can choose to either Show in Finder (the middle icon) or copy (rightmost icon) instead--you can see these options activated near the end of the movie clip (notice the bottom status line changing). And since Butler will handle files, folders, System Preferences panels, widgets, and even your iTunes collection, everything on your machine is but a few keystrokes away. Like the other launchers, Butler learns your preferences over time, or you can force any given item to use a shortcut of your choosing. For instance, I've assigned $ to open our Quicken file.

Search via Spotlight

One of Spotlight's "features," which I discussed in my Spotlight opinion piece, is that it starts finding things as soon as you start typing. I find this quite annoying and slow, as the machine is constantly trying to guess what I'm going to type next, then searching again to find new matches. With Butler, you can define a hot key to pop up a Spotlight search box into which you type your query, then send the completed string to Spotlight. You can even choose between content searches and filename searches, simply by pressing the Down Arrow while the input box is onscreen:

So not only are my searches done faster, I can easily do a filename search, something else that Spotlight makes harder than it should be. By the way, Butler lets you change the color and shape of those pop-up windows if you wish--you're not stuck with my greenish tones!

Control iTunes

This is probably one of the Butler features I use most often. Butler includes a wide selection of iTunes' controls for everything from song ratings to info to volume. And since you can assign a hot key to anything in Butler, it's easy to build your an iTunes controller suite that can be used from any application. Below is a somewhat complex screenshot, but it demonstrates several aspects of just how powerful Butler can be (click the image for a full-size version):

What you see there is both the Butler configuration window (in the background) along with the Butler drop-down menu, both showing the Music menu. If you compare the menu structure shown in the configuration window with the options showing in the selected Music menu, you'll see they correlate--Now Playing followed by Ratings, Controls, etc. The gray lines in the window correspond to the divider bars you see in the menu. If you rearrange the items in the configuration window, the entries in the menu will change to match the new order. Although this example is for the iTunes controls, you can build menu entries for anything you like.

But the real power in Butler comes from the ability to assign keyboard shortcuts to anything you wish. Look at the configuration window, and notice the Hot Key column. I've assigned hot keys so that I can control iTunes from any application without having to use the mouse to visit the Butler menu:

  • I can rate songs by holding down Control and Option, then pressing anything between the backtick (no rating) up to 5 (five stars).
  • I can move to the previous (Control-Option-Z) or next (Control-Option X) track, or pause iTunes (Control-Option-C).
  • I can display info on the presently playing song (Control-Option-A).
  • I can pop-up a menu containing all of my playlists (Control-Command-Option-P) or even (huge, but it works) every single song in my library (Control-Command-Option-L).

As an example, here's a brief movie that demonstrates setting the rating for a given song via keyboard shortcuts.

As with the Spotlight search box, you can also customize the color and shape of these status display windows. Being able to control iTunes from anywhere via the keyboard is a great timesaver, and it also allows to me to leave the iTunes window hidden most of the time.

Search the Web

Another great Butler feature is its ability to send search strings to various Web sites. Butler comes with more than 50 different pre-defined searches for sites, including Google, Yahoo, Mac OS X Hints, Slashdot, eBay, and Amazon. But if one of your favorites isn't included, you can easily add additional sites.

Once you have a search engine defined, you can put it in the Butler menu, directly in the menubar as a search box, or (my favorite, assign it to a hot key usable from anywhere. On my machine, pressing Control-Command-Help brings up the Mac OS X Hints search box and Control-Command-G brings up a Google search box, as seen here:

You could also, of course, just use one hot key to bring up the search box, and then use the pop-up menu to pick from the available search engines. However, I find it much quicker to have a few hot keys defined to jump directly to the search engines I often use (I have other shortcuts for Amazon and the MySQL site, for instance.)

Create pop-up menus

One final feature to discuss is Butler's ability to turn any folder into a navigable pop-up menu at the mouse position. To do this, all you need to do is drag a folder into Butler's configuration window. You can do this by just dragging a folder to a defined "hot corner" or your screen. When you do, Butler's configuration window will open the instant your drag action touches that corner, and adds the folder to the configuration.

After dragging the folder into Butler's window, define a hot key for the container that holds the folder, and then change the pop-up menu below the Hot Key definition to read "Opens a menu near the mouse." That's it; you've now got a folder you can reach via a navigable pop-up menu at the press of a hot key, as seen at left--that's my folder to open any of the myriad OS X browsers with the press of a hot key. If you've got a multi-button mouse and this is a folder you access often, you could use your mouse's configuration software to assign your hot key to a mouse button. Presto, one click access to an often-used folder. If the folder contains other folders, the pop-up menu will even let you drill down as deeply as you wish--think about a pop-up folder for your user's Home folder, for example.

The learning curve

I've barely scratched the surface of the things that Butler is capable of doing. It really is the Swiss Army Knife of utilities. Because of that, though, some may find its interface somewhat intimidating. Although very usable right out of the box, to get the most out of Butler, you'll want to spend some time learning how its interface works. There''s a hint on Mac OS X Hints that gives a good general overview, and make sure you click the About icon on Butler's toolbar--from there, you can read the user guide. Although far from complete, it does contain a good bit of info about how Butler works.

Conclusion

Similar to how Dan feels about Quicksilver, I feel about Butler. It is the one utility that I simply must have when working in OS X. There's simply nothing I've found that offers the number of useful tools that I can get with Butler. Even now, after a few years of usage, I'm still learning new things about its capabilities. It's not for everyone, given its complexity, but I found the learning curve to be well worth the time investment.

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At a Glance
  • Many Tricks Butler

    Macworld Rating
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