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Best of Gems: Shortcuts, launchers, and search tools

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The third part of our week-long profile of the best low-cost software available for your Mac looks to save you some time. We feature seven terrific shortcuts that will help you do everything from remembering what keyboard shortcuts sync up to what commands to running AppleScripts and launching applications.

We also look at a pair of search tools that shine where OS X’s built-in Spotlight search technology falters. And we sing the praises of launchers—utilities that give you quick access to apps, documents, and other stored data.

As in the first two parts of our Best of Gems feature, version numbers are current as of press time, though the rapid nature of software development could mean that new versions become available by the time you read this. The software listed below runs with the latest version of OS X, but it’s best to check the developers’ Web sites to confirm that your Mac meets the system requirements.

Menu shortcut utility: KeyCue 2.0.1

Keyboard shortcuts—such as Command-C for Copy—have long been a quick and easy way to access common application actions on the Mac. However, to learn those shortcuts, you have to search the current application’s menus to find the desired command and then remember the keyboard shortcut associated with that command. With KeyCue 2.0.1 (   ) installed, holding down the Command key pops up a window summarizing all the shortcuts available from within the current application. It also displays custom menu shortcuts you’ve defined through OS X’s Keyboard & Mouse preference pane and third-party utilities such as MenuMaster. When you press modifier keys, KeyCue highlights the shortcuts that are accessible via that combination of modifiers. It’s a great cheat sheet for using and learning keyboard shortcuts. ($15; Ergonis )

Window switcher: Witch 1.0.2

Which window? Witch lets you use the keyboard to quickly switch to any window in any application.

OS X lets you switch between windows in the current application by pressing Command-`. Unfortunately, not all applications support this shortcut, and even among those that do, there’s often no apparent logic to the order of window switching. Witch 1.0.2 (   ) gives you proper window-switching behavior. By pressing its customizable keyboard shortcut, you get an on-screen list of all open windows in all applications, organized by app. Press the shortcut until you get to the desired window and then release—unlike OS X, Witch shows you exactly which window you’ll be switching to. (payment requested; Peter Maurer )

Other top shortcuts

Scripters and AppleScript users will love FastScripts 2.2.9 (   ; $15; Red Sweater Software ), which replaces OS X’s own script menu with a more functional version that lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to scripts, understands other scripting languages (such as Perl and Automator), and provides better menu organization. One of the handiest AppleScript-based utilities is KeyViewer 1.4 (   ; free; MacParc ), which provides easy access to OS X’s Keyboard Viewer without having to venture into System Preferences and enable the Input menu.

If you like OS X’s Command-Tab application switcher, LiteSwitch X 2.5 (   ; $15; Proteron ) improves on it by offering more intelligent switching—apps show up in reverse order of recent use, you can perform more actions on apps via the switcher, and you can also activate OS 9-like windowing behaviors. For more convenient access to System Preferences, MenuPrefs 2.6 (   ; $5; iThink Software ) puts a new menu in your menu bar that lists preference panes. You can even customize the layout of the menu—for example, choosing how preference panes are sorted or including only those panes you frequently access. For greater keyboard functionality, check out Spark 2.1.1 (   ; free; Shadow Lab ), which lets you create keyboard shortcuts that run AppleScripts, launch applications, open documents, control iTunes, and even execute system actions.

Spotlight substitutes

Quite a find MoRU puts the power of Spotlight at your fingertips—without requiring you to memorize arcane commands.

Tiger’s Spotlight search technology is a great feature that helps you find almost anything on your system. However, it’s far from perfect: The find-while-you-type approach, in which results are displayed as you type your search string, can be quite annoying, and performing advanced searches is far from trivial. Thankfully, two companies have stepped in with search utilities that improve on Spotlight’s interface: MoRU 1.3 (   ; $10 single computer license; Windstorm Software ) and EasyFind 3.9 (   ; free; Devon Technologies ).

MoRU is an alternative front-end to Spotlight’s own index. You build your query—simple or advanced—using MoRU’s interface; when you submit the final query, you’re actually using Spotlight, so searches are just as quick as Spotlight’s. Once you’ve performed a search, it’s saved in MoRU’s interface and can be rerun in a single click at any time. EasyFind, on the other hand, works by actually running live searches of your hard drive; it doesn’t rely on Spotlight’s index. This can lead to lengthy search times, but it also means that EasyFind works in both OS X 10.3 (Panther) and 10.4 (Tiger).

Which should you use? If you mainly search file names, or if you’re using Panther, EasyFind is a great—and free—solution. If you want to use and access the power of your Spotlight index, MoRU is the better choice; although it’s not free, it’s still quite a bargain.—ROB GRIFFITHS

Launchers We Love

Launch by letter Type a few letters of the item you want to launch or open— exc for Excel, for example—and LaunchBar will find it and open it. The app can even learn your preferred shortcuts (for example, xl for Excel).

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If you’re tired of browsing folders and loading the Dock with icons just to open applications and files, you’re a prime candidate for a launcher—a utility that lets you launch programs, open documents, and access your stored data quickly and efficiently. There are three major Mac players in the launcher segment: Butler 4.1.2 (   ; $15; Peter Maurer ), LaunchBar 4.1.1 (   ; $20 to $39, depending on license; Objective Development ), and Quicksilver 1.0b48 (   ; free; Blacktree ). All three do similar things in similar ways. You activate the utility via a keyboard combination and then type a few letters of the name of the desired item; the item appears in a list, allowing you to launch or open it (or perform other actions on it).

Once you’ve tried a launcher, you’re usually hooked. As long as you recall the start of an item’s name (or even just part of its name) you can find it and open it. Even better, over time, the launcher learns what you want when you type a shortcut, so you have to do even less typing. And launchers can even directly access items such as preference panes, Dashboard widgets, and browser bookmarks.

Each of these launchers has features that help distinguish it from the others. For example, Quicksilver has a vast collection of plug-ins that add more features. LaunchBar can display a list of recently opened documents when a particular application is chosen; you can also browse the data associated with a given application—such as Address Book entries or iTunes tracks—when that app is chosen. Butler can turn any folder into a pop-up menu, activated via a hot key under the mouse’s location, and create and run AppleScripts directly as Butler tasks.

The launcher for you is really a matter of personal preference—and the topic of endless online debate. We recommend trying all three programs—they’re free to download—and picking the one that best fits your workflow and preferences.—ROB GRIFFITHS

[ Senior Editor Dan Frakes is Macworld ’s Mac Gems columnist as well as the product review editor for Playlist. Senior Editor Rob Griffiths is the author of Mac OS X Power Hound, Panther Edition (O’Reilly Media, 2004), and runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

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