LaunchBar 6 review: Do-everything utility gets (and looks) even better
At a Glance
LaunchBar, the keyboard-based app that offers a faster way to open the applications and files you use most, started 20 years ago as a folder full of shell scripts that could be triggered by a specific abbreviation typed into a Terminal shell. It was clever, but clunky. It didn’t take long, however, for the developers behind LaunchBar, Objective Development, to realize that their folder full of scripts would be much more powerful as an actual launching application—as a bar that helps you launch things—with an index of everything on the computer, thus allowing the app itself to figure out what it is you’re searching for.
That’s how LaunchBar was born, and it was immediately useful. Today, however, LaunchBar, recently updated to version 6, is the single most important utility I have installed on my Mac.
For those not familiar with LaunchBar, using it to open an app works like this: Press a keyboard shortcut (Command+Spacebar by default, but you can choose your preferred key combination), and you’re presented with the Bar (shown here). Then just start typing the name of the application you want to launch. Since LaunchBar is very clever at figuring out what you’re looking for, it takes only a few letters before your app appears in the bar. Press Enter and you’re off to the races.
But that, my friends, is just the beginning. LaunchBar literally gets more helpful the more you use it, as it learns which apps and actions you use most often. So, if you frequently launch Photoshop, Photoshop soon becomes the first result when you press the letter P, even though alphabetically it comes after Pages, Paprika, PDFPen, and the 💩 emoji.
In addition to the basics of launching apps, there are three other features I use constantly: LaunchBar’s “Instant Send” feature, the ability to dive into and act on documents, and Clipboard History, which tracks recent clipboard contents, letting you browse and paste any with a few key presses. The app also offers scores—hundreds?—of other features and actions, too many to get into here, but Macworld has already covered many of these features in reviews of previous versions; we’ve also published a couple videos full of usage tips and tricks. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s new in version 6.
Like previous versions, LaunchBar 6 costs $29 for a single license or $48 for a five-computer family license; current users can upgrade for $19 or $29, respectively. Objective Development also offers a “Relaxware” trial: You can use LaunchBar for free, with full access to all the features and functions, but the app can only be accessed every so often, making you take a “break” between your time using it.
LaunchBar 6 is the utility’s most handsome update yet, and it is also one of the most significant. The company’s website offers a complete list of what’s new—there’s a lot there—but I’ll cover a few of the new features that I think are the most notable.
A new look The most obvious new feature of LaunchBar 6 is the look. It’s bigger, bolder, more readable, and more beautiful than before. The new design also has options for bright, dark, frosty, small, and Yosemite themes. The frosty theme is my favorite, because it takes some cues from iOS 7 (and Yosemite), and is just slightly transparent.
Live search results within the app LaunchBar has long had the capability to search Google, Wikipedia, and any other site. It now offers live search suggestions, right within the app, just like what you see to when doing a search on Google.com; the suggestions appear in LaunchBar’s results list as you type.
DIY extensions and custom actions One of the most powerful and promising features of LaunchBar is also one of the most nerdy: You can write your own custom actions, using a variety of common programming languages (such as AppleScript or PHP) and then save them as LaunchBar Bundles that you can install in LaunchBar and share with other LaunchBar users.
The official LaunchBar site provides more information on how to build these custom actions. I’m not enough of a programmer to write my own, but I’ve found many excellent extensions on the LaunchBar forums, such as one that works with Pinboard and one that lets me view all my currently open Safari tabs (and quickly switch to one or open it in another browser).
Better integration with iCloud Reminders and Calendar If you use iCloud Reminders you’re going to love the deep integration LaunchBar now has with them: You can view, create, and even check off your iCloud reminders right from within LaunchBar.
To create a new reminder, bring up LaunchBar and start typing Reminders to focus on the Reminders app. Then just use the arrow keys to browse your individual iCloud Reminders lists. Once you’ve selected the list you want, press Spacebar to bring up a text-entry box for creating a new reminder. (If you’re new to LaunchBar, this may all sound a bit complicated. But if the capability sounds at all interesting and worthwhile to you, I encourage you to give it a try—after a few days, these sequences become second nature.)
When creating your new reminder, you can type just a to-do-item title, but you can also assign a day and time to it if you like. The syntax works like this:
reminder @ day time — as you can see in the screenshot here, LaunchBar even shows you how the reminder info is being parsed.
In addition to creating reminders, you can view each reminders list, and even mark individual items as completed from within LaunchBar.
In short, LaunchBar now operates as a full-fledged client for iCloud Reminders. This is pretty great if you prefer to use Apple’s Reminders app over third-party alternatives, but you’ve always wished it offered better quick-entry features.
You can similarly create new calendar events. Simply bring up Calendar in LaunchBar, use the arrow keys to drill down into your list of iCloud calendars and select one, press Spacebar to bring up the text-entry box, and then punch in the details of the event. The syntax is identical to that of Reminders, except that you can also set an alert for how soon before the event you want to be reminded of it.
Unfortunately, you can’t use purely natural language (“take out the trash at 8am tomorrow”) for time and date assignments. If you’ve ever used Fantastical, you’ll certainly feel a bit of friction with LaunchBar because Fantastical’s natural language parser is so superior. But for those who aren’t Fantastical users, LaunchBar’s new reminder and calendar-event features are handy.
Usage Statistics If you’re really curious how much time LaunchBar saves you, and how you use it, version 6 keeps a tally of how often you use the app and what sorts of actions you’re performing. My LaunchBar superpower is Instant Sender—I frequently use the app’s feature for grabbing a document and “sending” it to another app or otherwise handling it—and according to my statistics, I’ve used LaunchBar to open various apps nearly 1,400 times in the past 10 weeks.
The Unquantifiable Statistics
LaunchBar’s usage stats are fun, but what truly matters is something the app can’t track. And that’s the non-quantitative productivity and creativity gains you get by using the app. I’ve used LaunchBar long enough that its actions have become second nature: When I want to launch an app, open a particular file, or perform one of the countless other actions and tasks LaunchBar can handle, it’s a matter of muscle memory—I rarely have to stop my train of thought to think about navigating my computer. And as someone who does creative work with pixels and words every day, preserving my mental energy is just as important as, if not more important than, saving time (though the reality is that LaunchBar does both). In short, LaunchBar helps me to stay focused on doing my best creative work.