LaunchBar 6

· software · review ·

I know from bitter experience of using other people’s Macs that I find it very hard to use a computer without a launcher of some kind installed. Having to mouse around to launch applications or files (let alone all the other things that launchers let you accomplish) feels positively archaic once you have got used to relying on one. As I wrote about when LaunchBar 5 was released, I’ve used (at one time or another) almost every third-party launcher including Quicksilver, LaunchBar and Butler, but in recent years, I have settled in to using Alfred exclusively. When LaunchBar 5 came out, I spent a while trying it out again, but eventually went back to using Alfred 2. LaunchBar 6 was recently released, and since I apparently can’t leave well enough alone with some categories of software, I gave LaunchBar another try.

LaunchBar 6 definitely addresses one of the issues I had with the previous version, which is that the command window is much larger, with bigger text, and is located near the middle of the screen rather than at the top under the menu bar. If you are on the wrong side of middle age, the window is now much easier to read quickly. There are a lot of other improvements too, all of which make it much more difficult for me to decide whether LaunchBar or Alfred fits my needs better.

LaunchBar 6

As I mentioned in my previous review, the ‘Instant Send’ feature of LaunchBar is fantastically useful. You can select either files or text and then press and hold the shortcut you use to activate LaunchBar (for me, the default cmd+space). The items are then sent to LaunchBar, ready to be acted upon: all you need to do is start typing an abbreviation for an action, then hit return to activate the action. As an example, you can select a file or group of files, Instant Send them to Launchbar, then type comp and press return to compose a new email and attach the files to it.

One difference between LaunchBar and Alfred is that LaunchBar has a slightly more comprehensive set of built-in actions and app-specific extensions, and that LaunchBar makes it a bit easier to pass objects around the application and perform a set of actions on it (similar to the way that Quicksilver operated). Consequently, some things that you need to build or download extensions to achieve in Alfred can be done out of the box in LaunchBar, such as adding new calendar entries or reminders, or tagging files in Mavericks.

LaunchBar also makes it somewhat easier to navigate and drill down into both the filesystem and objects. For example, if you select a text file, you can use the right arrow to examine (and take action on) each line of the file separately. This is often surprisingly useful. I also enjoy being able to activate system services and Automator workflows through LaunchBar, which also opens up other ways of interacting with applications, without having to write an extension for it.

Speaking of extensions, in version 6, you can now write your own extensions using a variety of scripting languages, which should provide a lot of extra functionality. There is a placeholder page for user-submitted extensions, but it does not yet have any submissions. You can, however, find some useful extensions already, such as launchbar-pinboard that lets you search tags and text in your pinboard bookmarks and browse the list within LaunchBar before visiting the bookmark. The instructions provided for building actions are fairly straightforward, but it is certainly not as easy as the drag-and-drop graphical workflows in Alfred. However, to build complex workflows in Alfred, you still need to use scripting and to do some manual work to provide caches and so on, just as you do in LaunchBar. I think that for building simple workflows, Alfred’s system is more approachable, but to do more complex things, they are broadly equivalent.

I found in my last exploration of LaunchBar 5 that the application didn’t guess my meaning from the abbreviations entered as well as Alfred did. That seems to have changed with LaunchBar 6, and they are now almost equally easy. I don’t know if I’ve changed or if LaunchBar has, but I get close to what I need pretty quickly, and because it learns what I mean when I enter an abbreviation then select another item, it adapts itself to your idiosyncrasies quite quickly. I also find that both are very comparable in speed, though this is hard to judge because I have one computer on which everything is very slow (my old iMac at home) and one on which everything is incredibly snappy (my MacBook Air at work). Either way, both applications provide a lot of flexibility in terms of what gets indexed, whether you can only search for that item via a sub-search and so on, so that you can tweak the list of results to suit your set-up.

Alfred vs. LaunchBar

At this point, I find it really difficult to decide which launcher I like best. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. I think that Alfred is more immediately accessible for new users, although LaunchBar has more actions built-in so that you do not need to download so many third-party extensions. As previously mentioned, Alfred is also easier to extend (at least for simple workflows), but once you get into making more complex actions, they are very similar.

One big advantage that Alfred has is a built-in facility for syncing its settings via Dropbox. I’ve found that this has worked flawlessly for me, with no conflicts, when running Alfred on two or more computers. This is something I really miss with LaunchBar. I’m pretty sure that I could rig something up manually by symlinking the settings files to Dropbox, but I expect that I would occasionally end up with conflicts. Launcher applications become so closely tailored to your individual usage that it is really annoying when you spend time setting something up on one computer, only to find that it doesn’t work on another until you have repeated the process there. I hope that Obdev build this feature into LaunchBar in due course.

I’m going to continue trying out LaunchBar for a bit longer to see which I prefer, but at the moment it would be impossible to decide between them. I think that the competition has been really good for both companies, and both are producing really useful new features. I would certainly find it much harder to be productive without one or the other installed on my computers.