Running back to Alfred

geek software

Sometimes I just can’t help myself from tinkering with my workflow on the computer. One of the bits of software that is essential to me on any Mac I happen to be using is a hotkey application that lets you launch applications, files and run scripts using the keyboard. Years ago, I started with LaunchBar, and from that point on any computer I used that didn’t immediately pop up a command window ready to do my bidding when I hit cmd+space felt utterly broken. At various points I’ve used Quicksilver, Butler, and finally Alfred. Alfred felt immediately comfortable, and the excellent and easy to use extensibility (particularly in Alfred 2) made me feel that I had finally found the one.

However, I really can’t leave well enough alone. When LaunchBar 5 was released recently, along with an excellent Take Control book about the software, I decided to find out whether Alfred really was still the best for me, or whether I had been seduced (as is my wont) by the new and shiny. I switched over on both my iMac and laptop to LaunchBar, read the book (which is very good and covers a lot of useful tips and tricks that you might not discover on your own), and generally lived with LaunchBar for a month or so.

It was an interesting experiment, but it confirmed my feeling that Alfred is the one for me. LaunchBar is excellent and has a lot of very nice features. The ‘Instant Send’ feature (whereby you select some text or a file and press and hold the launch hotkey to send the text/item directly to LaunchBar for it to act upon) is great, and a useful time-saver. I also like the fact that you can launch Services (including those you build yourself in Automator) with LaunchBar — in fact, I would really like to be able to do that with Alfred. Despite this, I still much prefer Alfred for two reasons.

First, with a command application like this, you really need it to be able to read your mind. When you hit the activation shortcut and start typing, you need to see the thing you were thinking of come to the top. You need the way you act on files and other items to be second nature, so that you can use it without thinking. This is almost impossible to pin down precisely, and it varies between people. All I can say is that Alfred seems to grok the tangled bird’s nest that is my mind much better than LaunchBar. I tried tweaking the index and preferences for LaunchBar, but I never managed to make it as telepathic as Alfred. I know other people who have had the opposite experience, so your mileage may well vary.

The second feature I prefer in Alfred is the extensive (and rather mind-blowing) extensibility. It’s important to say that you can also extend LaunchBar with scripts and services, but I don’t find it as capable or easy to use as Alfred’s workflows. You really can do almost anything with Workflows, and in many cases workflows can replace other stand-alone utilities. Since I have run joyfully back into the arms of Alfred again, I have spent a bit of time updating some existing workflows I was using and finding some new ones written by other people, so I thought I would write a bit about my favourites here.

  1. AlfredTweet2 by David Ferguson. I don’t use Twitter as much as I once did, because I spend more time on ADN, so it’s really handy to have a lightweight but fully featured way of posting to Twitter. I can hit cmd+space, type ‘tweet’ and then enter my message and cmd+enter, and it’s posted and out of my way. You can also view (and reply to) recent mentions, view lists, send direct messages, follow/unfollow, block/unblock and search Twitter, so it does 90% of what you want from a Twitter client. I tend to only read my timeline on the iPhone or iPad anyway, so this suits me well.
  2. Youtube Download also by David Ferguson. I quite often need to download Youtube videos for inclusion in talks or lectures, and in the past I have used various applications to accomplish this, but this seems like overkill for a simple task. This workflow has replaced them anyway: cmd+space, then type dl and enter the URL of a Youtube page, and it downloads the movie file to your desktop, popping up a notification when it is finished.
  3. Recent Items 3.0 by Carlos Alberto Sztoltz. This workflow lists and opens recent items, and you can filter by particular types of items (such as Applications, plain text files or documents). You can also restrict your search to items opened in the past 24 hours, or things you have marked as favourites, which is a great way to keep track of things on which you are currently working. If that wasn’t enough, you can also send the found file or folder to open or save dialogues, which almost makes Default Folder X redundant.
  4. Reminders by Jack James. There are quite a few workflows that let you add reminders to the OS X Reminders app, but I find this the easiest to use and most full-featured. You can use natural language to enter a reminder date and time, search for reminders by date, text or list, and also add to specific lists. I keep ‘To Buy’ and ‘Wishlist’ lists (the first for general things and the second for books, films and music), so I find this really useful for quickly adding items while I remember them. You can also type r this while you have a browser or Mail open (along with several other applications) and it will intelligently add a link to whatever you are looking at as a reminder. Actually, this workflow has made me use Reminders much more than I used to.
  5. Mail Actions by Pedro Lobo. This is really useful and replaces a couple of Mail plugins: you can jump to a particular mail box by typing mg followed by a few letters of the mailbox name, or copy or move the selected emails to a mailbox by typing mm followed by a bit of the name. It works really well, and allows me to keep Mail very minimal1.

There are quite a few other useful workflows I use, but the ones I’ve listed are the ones that most impressively replace other applications or utilities for me. This isn’t just useful in trying to maintain a minimal and streamlined Applications folder, but also because I don’t need to think about what application I need to open to accomplish something: all I need to do is type cmd+space then type what I want. And that feels like magic.


  1. Unfortunately I had to go back to using Mail from MailMate for work email because so many people at work require me to forward HTML emails, which I can’t do with MailMate. Sigh. At least this workflow makes it possible to navigate Mail using the keyboard more easily.
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