LaunchBar vs Spotlight

I have written previously on keyboard shortcuts that I frequently use to save time on my Mac. You can bypass the mouse even more if you use an application launcher.

Quicksilver is probably the best known and has received much attention from Merlin Mann on 43 Folders. A few months ago I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about and download it. However, I just couldn’t get it to run properly and so gave up. (This was just after the release of Leopard so it may be that the version I downloaded wasn’t yet compatible.)

Then, a few weeks ago I read (and watched) an interesting review on Macworld of LaunchBar from Objective Development and thought I’d take a look. You can try it for free – after seven uses it will remind you that you are using the demo. You are however able to continue to use it for free beyond seven uses which gives you a chance to fully evaluate it. I set it up to launch on command-spacebar. All you need to do then is type the first few letters of an application and LaunchBar will bring up a list of suggestions. Most of the time I found it correctly selected what I wanted at the top of the list so all I needed to do was then click return. If the required application is further down the list you just use the arrow keys to select it. In time LaunchBar comes to learn what applications you use most and they will tend to appear at the top of the list. If you want to be really speedy, type a couple of letters (or in some cases just one will do), hold down the last one, and you will go straight to the application without needing to click return. 

Some examples:

  • To open Safari I type command-spacebar and then hold down s
  • To open Mail I type command-spacebar and then hold down m
  • To open Moneydance I type command-spacebar, then mo, keeping the o held down

It doesn’t just work with applications. You can also open files. All you need to do is start typing the name of a file, LaunchBar will find it for you and then open it in the default application.

There are many other ways to use LaunchBar. You can view contacts without the need to Address Book to open. You can use LaunchBar as a calculator. You can search for iTunes tracks and then play them. You can also search for an album and then it will show the tracks within it. There are a multitude of other uses that I haven’t even tried yet. Objective Development’s website gives some good examples.

Clearly LaunchBar is very versatile and if you use it regularly it could save a lot of time. The problem I had was I wasn’t using it as much as I could have done. Sometimes I would remember, other times I would use the mouse. I tended to find I would always use LaunchBar for applications I didn’t keep in the dock but not so often for those apps that did reside at the bottom of my screen. When I did remember to use LaunchBar I really enjoyed the efficiency of it. But when I wasn’t using it I wondered was it really worth stumping up the $20.

So I decided to not use LaunchBar at all for a week and see if I missed it. At first I did. The first day I kept trying to start up applications with the keyboard and looking blankly at the screen when nothing happened. But after a day or two I got used to using the mouse again and I must say, I didn’t really miss LaunchBar all that much. Maybe I didn’t need a launcher after all. Except the geek in me really liked the idea of using one. And it seems logical that it must be more efficient than reaching for the mouse when your hands are already on the keyboard.

So then I thought I’d try Spotlight. It’s new and improved in Leopard. And it’s free. So I reset command-spacebar to open Spotlight and started using it where I would previously have used LaunchBar. Generally it works in very much the same way. Start typing a few letters and click return to select the top choice or use the arrow keys to scroll through the list if necessary. Although it doesn’t learn your favourite apps in the way that LaunchBar does, it does list them in order of latest use which works nearly as well. Spotlight can search for contacts but opens Address Book for you rather than just showing the details within the Spotlight box. It finds songs and plays them in the same way as LaunchBar although it won’t show tracks within albums. It can also be used as a calculator.

A limitation of Spotlight is that the letters you type must be in the same order as they appear in the application name you are searching for. For example, in LaunchBar, nnw will bring up NetNewsWire. Not so with Spotlight. I have to type net. It’s still works pretty well though. la brings up LaunchBar; la bl brings up the draft of this blog post in Pages (titled launcher blog post).

Spotlight lacks all of LaunchBar’s fancier features such as being able to send files to applications or the ability to search directly in Google and Wikipedia. (You can use Spotlight to search Wikipedia indirectly using Dictionary but it’s rather more convoluted than LaunchBar.) You also don’t get the Instant Open feature (holding down the last character rather than clicking return) which is something I really like about LaunchBar.

After using Spotlight for a week I think it stands up very well against LaunchBar. All I’m wanting is a basic application launcher to save me time. Spotlight does this admirably – and is $20 cheaper than LaunchBar. Of course those $20 buy you a lot of features other than just application launching. If you are good with the keyboard and are looking to be super-efficient it’s a great addition to your Mac – but probably overkill for me. I’m sticking with Spotlight for now. But I wouldn’t rule out upgrading to LaunchBar in the future if I feel I could make better use of it.

Is it actually worth using a launcher at all? It depends on how much efficiency matters and also how comfortable you are with the keyboard. Some people just prefer the mouse. (My husband does. Every time I see him saving a document and he’s doing File>Save with the mouse, there’s me shouting “Apple-s” at him. Does he listen? No. So he’ll never get into using a launcher.) If you’re not averse to the keyboard it’s certainly worth trying out Spotlight as an application launcher. And once you’ve tried Spotlight, I would certainly recommend a look at LaunchBar too.


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