Mac Gems: Alfred 2 ups the launcher-app ante

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At a Glance
  • Running with Crayons Alfred 2.0.2

When I first reviewed Alfred, the app- and file-launching utility, back in early 2011, I praised it for its simplicity: You'd invoke the utility with a shortcut key-combination, type the first few letters of an application or file's name, and Alfred would find what you wanted and open it. It did more than OS X's built-in Spotlight feature—if not quite as much as other launchers such as Butler, Launchbar, or Quicksilver—without a lot of monkeying around.

But almost as soon as I wrote that review, Running With Crayons, the utility’s developer, began monkeying around with Alfred, adding powerful new features such as global hotkeys (which let you assign permanent keyboard shortcuts to files, apps, Web searches, and other things) and extensions (which let you quickly run AppleScripts, Automator workflows, complex file searches, and more) to the essentially simple app. With Alfred 2, that trend continues. This recent major update introduces a feature called workflows for performing more-complex series of actions.

Thankfully, this added power doesn’t compromise Alfred's appealing simplicity. You can still use Alfred to reliably find and launch files, apps, and Web searches without any complex configuration. But if you're willing to dig deeper, you might be pleasantly surprised by just how powerful this easy-to-use launcher can be.

When you activate Alfred using your chosen shortcut (I use Control+Space), you get a basic text-entry box. You start typing what you want there, and Alfred returns a list of possible hits. Scroll down that list (or use one of the displayed Command-number keyboard shortcuts) and select an item to open it. So far, this sounds just like Spotlight, right? But like other third-party launcher utilities, Alfred learns which apps you launch most frequently and puts the most-used ones at the top of the results list. (I wish it did so more reliably with files.)

Using keywords, you can find more than just apps and files. For example, typing g followed by a search term, for example, initiates a Google search for that string of text. There are similar shortcuts for Bing, Yahoo, Gmail, Twitter, Amazon, and more. Alfred can also search your contacts, clipboard history, and dictionary; it can perform standard and advanced math calculations; and it offers a library of keywords for controlling your Mac (logout and emptytrash, for example). Alfred also has an iTunes controller and text-snippets capabilities, a la TextExpander.

Since my previous review, Alfred 1.x extended its core functionality in some really useful ways. A file buffer, for example, lets you find multiple files in sequence, adding each to the buffer with a quick keyboard shortcut, then perform the same action (copy, move, whatever) on all of the files at once.

All of that is still there in Alfred 2.0, but one thing is missing: Alfred 1.x had a separate preference tab for creating global hotkeys. That hotkey functionality is still available, but it's subsumed by version 2's marquee new feature, workflows.


Building a workflow in Alfred 2

Workflows are bit like the extensions that were introduced in Alfred 0.99, providing customizable actions to which you can attach hotkeys or keywords. So, for example, you can now set up a workflow that will search for recently used documents in your Dropbox folder whenever, and you can assign to that workflow the keyword dropbox. Workflows can be simple (launch a single file via a hotkey) or complex (use a keyword to initiate multiple Web searches for a given search term). Workflows can include a variety of scripted and programmed components—there's even support for Perl, PHP, Python, and Ruby, as well as shell scripting and AppleScript.

Alfred 2.0 comes with a small selection of sample workflows, as well as templates you can use as the basis of your own. You can construct your own workflows from scratch, by combining triggers (hotkeys, for example), inputs (such as keywords), and actions (open file, reveal file, run script, and so on), and you can output results into processes that can be as simple or complex as you wish. You can also download and install workflows that other Alfred users have already built.

Themes and other improvements

Alfred 2's themes

Alfred 2.0's other notable change is the addition of themes. Several built-in themes let you change the utility’s colors, fonts, and the size of the search-results window. It's also simple to create your own: After clicking a plus-sign (+) button, you can tweak the current settings by holding down modifer keys (Command, Option, and so forth) and clicking on the various interface elements. The color, font, and sizing options are limited, but they do provide a reasonable degree of customization.

The developer also says that Alfred 2 has been rewritten from the ground-up to improve performance. I personally couldn't detect any change in speed, but I never had problems with its performance in the first place. Running With Crayons also says its improved the way Alfred works with Contacts, but, again, I never saw any issues with Alfred 1 in that respect, so I can't vouch for the changes.

As before, Alfred itself is free, but to get the most out of it, you need to buy the Powerpack (currently £15—about $23—for a single-user license). That purchase gets you workflows, themes, clipboard history and saved text snippets, iTunes controls, keyboard-based file navigation and file actions, Contacts and email integration, lists of recent documents for specific apps, Dropbox syncing for settings, and more.

Like its predecessor, Alfred 2 provides more launching power than Spotlight with little or no intervention on your part. And if you're willing to invest the time required to set up Alfred's more-advanced options, as well as to take advantage of the new workflow feature, Alfred provides impressive power and flexibility. However, if you are willing to invest that kind of time in a launcher utility, it’s worth asking what you really want in return: Butler offers its incredibly extensive configuration screen, Launchbar its seemingly bottomless index, Quicksilver its catalog, triggers, and plug-ins. Each offers more built-in actions and customizability than Alfred does. But in each case, tapping into that power requires considerable time and effort. If its comparative simplicity or its new workflows appeal to you, Alfred is still a great choice. But if you're after the most powerful, most infinitely configurable launcher you can find, I recommend checking out the other three before deciding.

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At a Glance
  • App- and file-launching utility adds workflows and customizable themes while maintaining ease of use, but lacks some of the configuration options of its more-powerful competitors.

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