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The introduction of the Macintosh back in 1984 helped release us from the bondage of the command-line interface. So, it seems ironic that there’s a relatively new category of Mac productivity apps that lets us control our Macs from the keyboard. Quicksilver was one of the first of these utilities, and I was a big fan. But when developer support fragmented, other apps like Launchbar and even Apple’s own Spotlight moved in to stake a claim. I’ve tried all of them and, while all have their merits, I eventually landed on Alfred by Running With Crayons and haven’t looked back.
At its most basic, Alfred is an app-launching utility. Rather than clicking on an icon in your dock or rummaging through your Applications folder, you simply type a key-combination (Cmd+Space, in my case) to bring up a text input window. As you begin typing the name of the app you want to open, Alfred starts displaying matches, narrowing down the list as you continue to type. Either hitting the Return key or selecting a Command-key option will open the selected item. Not only can you launch apps this way, but you can open files, folders, emails and contacts, perform web searches, copy/move files and folders, and a whole host of other actions. Almost anything that’s stored on your Mac is fair game for Alfred. The more you use it, the more Alfred learns about you in order to help you work more quickly and efficiently.
Alfred 2.6 is available as a free download from the developer’s website. (Note: An older version exists on the Mac App store, but it lacks some new enhancements and is not compatible with the newly released Alfred Remote app for iOS that’s described further.) The app includes several basic features, including the app launcher, Web search, calculator, and dictionary actions.
This is a good place to start, but if you want to squeeze the most out of Alfred, you need to buy the Powerpack. This unlocks more advanced capabilities such as searching your contacts, accessing your clipboard history, controlling iTunes playback, and integrating with 1Password. But probably the most important Powerpack feature is the ability to create workflows. These are multi-step actions that can include AppleScripts, shell scripts, Ruby or Python code, and so on. You can build your own workflows if you’re so inclined, or download Alfred workflows that other users have shared.
Alfred has become so ingrained into my workflow that I find it painful to work on a Mac without it. Now, Alfred has a new assistant called Alfred Remote—a $5 iOS version of Alfred that lets you control your Mac from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It’s important to note that Alfred Remote is not a standalone app; you also need to have Alfred 2.6 or higher running on the Mac you want to control.
After installing Alfred Remote on your iOS device, you need to pair it with Alfred on your Mac. This is similar to the process of pairing a Bluetooth device, except that it’s all done over Wi-Fi. (Obviously, your Mac and iOS device need to be on the same Wi-Fi network.) Once the apps have been linked together, Alfred Remote greets you with a screen that resembles the iOS springboard. Pages of icons are organized by category, such as System Commands, Apps, iTunes Controls, and so on. To navigate among the various categories of actions, you can either swipe from page to page or tap on the category icon on the bottom row.
When you tap on an action icon in Alfred Remote, it performs that action on the connected Mac. For example, tapping on the Mail icon in Alfred Remote will open the Mail app on your Mac, tapping the Lock icon will lock your Mac, and so on. As trivial as that may sound, it’s actually really cool when you see it in action.
You can add or remove icons and pages in Alfred Remote, but you need to make those changes within Alfred on the Mac and they’re immediately reflected in Alfred Remote. If you subscribe to the Powerpack, then those functions are available in Alfred Remote as well.
Even though I think it’s really interesting to be able to tap an icon on my phone and perform an action on my Mac, I must confess that I haven’t found myself using Alfred Remote very often. It’s been handy for controlling iTunes when I’m in another room, but in almost every other case, I still need to be sitting in front of my Mac. It would be different if Alfred Remote made opening an app or workflow on my Mac faster or easier, but it doesn’t. For example, to open Chrome on my Mac using Alfred Remote, I need to pick up my phone, unlock it, open Alfred Remote, swipe to the Apps page and tap on the Chrome icon. In practice, that’s not a huge effort, but I can perform the same action from the keyboard much more quickly by simply typing Cmd+Space > C > Return.
While this may sound like a harsh criticism, it’s really not meant to be. Although Alfred Remote doesn’t fit into my workflow at the moment, I understand that it’s a version 1.0 product and that the developer probably has a lot more in mind for future versions. Having the ability to remotely control your Mac’s keyboard and mouse from Alfred Remote would be quite useful, but here’s another important feature that I think the developers should consider:
Remove the need for a direct connection between your Mac and iOS device
The first time I used Alfred Remote, I was surprised that I had to connect via Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. I understand that there are situations where Wi-Fi is preferable to Bluetooth—for instance, to control iTunes on your Mac when your devices may be out of Bluetooth range—but it would be nice to also have a Bluetooth option for people like me who don’t necessarily keep all their devices on the same network.
More importantly, though, imagine being at a restaurant and realizing that you’ve left your Mac at home unlocked. An iOS remote control app, such as LogMeIn or TeamViewer, could come to your rescue since they don’t require a direct Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to your Mac, unlike Alfred Remote, However, this would require taking the time to log in to your Mac from your iPhone, manipulating the desktop on a relatively small screen, and so on. By the time you finished, the check will have come. (Or your date will have left!) Wouldn’t it be more convenient (and courteous) to simply tap an icon in Alfred Remote? This sort of remote connection option could also help address the Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth concern I mentioned earlier.
Alfred is a top-notch productivity app on the Mac that I can’t do without. But Alfred Remote? Not so much—at least not for me in its present form. But Running With Crayons is a respected app developer and I trust that many enhancements are already in the pipeline. Alfred has saved me so much time that I have no problem spending a few dollars on Alfred Remote in order to support the developer’s efforts to make it as indispensable on iOS as Alfred is on the Mac.