Manufacturer: Running with Crayons
Date Reviewed: 3-30-2012
Retail Price: FREE!
Mac users love their productivity tools, and I’m no exception. As a self-described “power user” (read: Mac nerd), I’m always on the lookout for tools and apps that will improve and enhance my overall day-to-day workflow. And, if it’s available for free, that’s a double-bonus. Apps like that are difficult to come by, but every now and then, the stars align and a true Mac gem appears.
Alfred, by the husband-wife team of Andrew and Vero Pepperrell, is just such an app.
So… what is Alfred?
Simply put: Alfred, at its core, is a keyboard-based launcher. Invoke a custom keystroke (such as Command-Tab), type a few letters, and instantly you are presented with a floating window that lets you quickly find apps, contact info, search a website, or even compute an equation.
Alfred’s searches are fast and efficient. Typing ‘fi’ in the launcher window results in Firefox showing up at the top of the list. Hitting ‘return’ will launch the app, or I use the mouse (or type Command-3) if I were interested in launching the Finder.app.
With Alfred, the user is not limited to searching for apps. Alfred can also parse Google, Amazon, or Wikipedia at the touch of a keyboard.
Alfred even handles arithmetic computations on the fly. Type the equation and the result shows up straight away, without the need to launch the calculator app. How’s that for service?
Behind the Scenes
Now that you know what Alfred does, it’s time to take a peek at the app itself. Alfred is an application, first and foremost. Its menu can be invoked by clicking on the Alfred app or via the Alfred menulet on the menubar. (You can toggle the visibility of the icon / menulet within the Alfred preferences.)
Speaking of which…
Alfred has a comprehensive set of options tucked away inside its tiny 3.4MB footprint. Outside of customizing the keyboard shortcut to invoke the app, I’ve also configured Alfred to launch at login.
You can choose to let Alfred know which results you want to be shown, along with defining the locations where you want Alfred to look when it’s performing searches.
Like any highly-polished Mac OS X application, you can customize Alfred’s look via three built-in themes: Light, Dark, and Lion. Personally, I prefer the Light look. Of course, Alfred can also utilize custom Alfred themes, via the paid PowerPack module. Plenty of Alfred themes abound if you perform a search.
In the Options tab, you can toggle the visibility of Alfred’s icon, choose how Alfred acts (i.e. toggling auto-highlight and window fade options) as well as specify the number of visible search items returned from a query.
The Advanced tab lets you rebuild OS X Metadata, if Alfred has trouble locating your apps and such. I haven’t had need to do this, because in my experience, Alfred found every app I queried.
Alfred’s Usage button is a neat touch: at a glance you are presented with a graph that shows the number of times Alfred was invoked, along with a running average. Not necessary, but certainly a welcome addition for a Mac nerd like myself.
Alfred vs. Launchbar vs. QuickSilver
I am not new to keyboard based launchers. I first started using them right after a little program called QuickSilver was released. After QuickSilver suspended its development, I invested in Objective Development’s Launchbar and have been using it without complaint for the past several years. (Note: QuickSilver is being actively developed again.)
Mac geeks are passionate about their keyboard launchers; everyone has a favorite.
For me, I choose Alfred. QuickSilver and Launchbar are both excellent, powerful launchers, but in my opinion, those extra, nifty powers are compromised by the steep learning curve. I think I made it to page 3 on the Launchbar / QuickSilver docs before my eyes started to glaze over.
While QuickSilver and Launchbar could arguably trounce Alfred in terms of the raw power they both wield ‘out of the box’, Alfred appears to be much more intuitive to use for the tasks that I perform regularly. Put another way: if I had to install a keyboard-based launcher on my parents’ computer, Alfred would cinch it. It’s really simple and fun to use, and from a usability stand-point – it’s much easier to see, with fonts appearing at a larger point size compared to both Launchbar or Quicksilver.
If I ever wanted to expand Alfred’s capabilities, that option is readily available via the (paid) PowerPack module (which I haven’t obtained for testing).
Alfred is a terrific, easy-to-use keyboard-based launcher. It’s fast, it’s free, and it exudes a professional polish that really makes it a pleasure to use day in and day out. It’s a must-have gem of a program that no Mac user should be without.
Alfred earns the distinction of a solid 5 out of 5 Bob Weiners.