Today I want to write about an app I recently got for my Macs that has completely changed how I use them for the better. It’s called Alfred and it’s a ‘launcher’ app that allows you to do almost anything on your Mac via the keyboard.
Such apps are not new but until now I’d had no interest; Alfred caught my eye with a bold, friendly design and a lot of recommendations. It’s available in a basic free version here with an optional ‘Powerpack’ for £15 that massively expands what it can do.
To really get the most from Alfred you need the Powerpack but you should definitely grab the free version and give it a whirl; I upgraded within five minutes of seeing what it could do and haven’t looked back so this review is based on features it provides – but not all of them, there’s just too many.
(All the Alan Partridge fans reading: insert your own “I wonder who got the powerpack?” gag here –> )
Typing alt-Space brings up the Alfred box into which you type your command or keywords. Typing an application name launches it, like Spotlight; typing a URL or part of a bookmark opens your browser and takes you there; if you want to search the web Alfred offers a selection of search engines then performs the search; it can control iTunes, send emails, perform calculations, manage your clipboard history, search for and perform actions upon most any file on your computer – and that’s just ‘out of the box’.
By installing 3rd-party extensions in the form of Shell Scripts, AppleScripts or Automator Workflows, Alfred can integrate with many popular applications including Wunderlist, Fantastical, Things, Evernote, Spotify, and Omnifocus. You can even tweet from it. The Alfred user community has come up with all sorts of other cool computer stuff you can do with extensions, many of which are collected on the Alfred site here; have a browse and see if anything that you do often has an Alfred shortcut. If it doesn’t, just create your own.
If all of this still sounds a bit “so what?” then you’re thinking what I was thinking when I first read about launchers. I mean, what’s wrong with the Dock, right?
Alfred is quicker, less distracting & more comfortable
For a long time my Dock had been loaded with around twenty apps and four folders. I would have liked a less full Dock but I found that it was more annoying to have to go looking for them when I wanted them than it was to have the Dock looking a little busy.
Then I got a Magic Trackpad for my iMac. I like it in principle but it’s definitely suited more to gestures than it is precision; It’s probably no coincidence that around this time I started investigating apps like Launchbar and QuickSilver that I’d heard a lot about; I wanted a better way to get to apps than through precise mouse movements.
In the end I didn’t see the point installing and learning to use something new that I could approximate for free by using Spotlight to launch apps that weren’t in the Dock. Spotlight’s cmd-Space shortcut is easy to remember and type, and entering a few characters of an app’s name is far quicker and easier than invoking a new Finder window and navigating to the app and double clicking.
Having got used to launching apps via Spotlight like this, trying Alfred was like opening the floodgates as it grants the same easy access to almost everything you do regularly on your computer, and considerably more elegantly.
How could Alfred help you?
Here’s a few examples of how I use it day to day:
I rarely type URLs into browsers now, or search via the Google box in my browser (although I still don’t remember every time). I can connect to my other Mac via Screen Sharing with just two keystrokes (‘ss’) instead taking a good ten seconds of focus to do it manually. When working on my site I often use the same selection of apps so I’ve set an Alfred keyword that opens them all at once.
A very useful shortcut that I’m using daily is for Wunderlist. Things I need to remember occur to me all the time; sometimes I try and record them with Siri and then get frustrated with Siri when I have to correct everything it got wrong; sometimes I remember to launch Wunderlist and create a new reminder; and most of the time I do neither because they’re both too much effort and then I forget.
With Alfred I type ‘wl remember to do that thing’ and go back to whatever I was doing while Alfred sends that off to Wunderlist in the background, displaying a Growl to confirm receipt. My fingers don’t leave the keyboard, I remain in the same app environment and I stay focussed on whatever I was doing. All I have to do is remember to check Wunderlist…
Another example: I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim recently (like, hundreds of hours of it) and occasionally need to look something up online. I’ve saved the two best Skyrim wiki sites as custom searches in Alfred and given them both the keyword ‘sky’. Now when I need the low-down on that Chillrend blade I looted I type ‘sky Chillrend’ and Alfred offers both wiki sites as possible actions. Rather than search one at a time I’ve set a keyboard shortcut to ‘action all results’ with ctrl-Return and both open in the background.
And then there’s the customisation and options; most of the keyboard shortcuts can be altered (although you should try the defaults first because they’ve been chosen deliberately); you can change the fallback search sites Alfred will offer to search with if it doesn’t recognise any keywords in your query; Dropbox syncing to sync extensions and settings across multiple Macs running Alfred; you can even style the Alfred box how you like it or download themes other users have created (my own attempt is available here – what I said earlier about Alfred being elegant obviously goes out the window if you go with a Sex Pistols colour scheme).
Alfred also learns quickly; the more you use it, the less characters you need to type before Alfred knows what you want. Using this I’ve trained it so that when I start typing ‘ph’ it offers Photo Mechanic first because that’s what I’ve picked the most when I’ve typed in just those two letters in the past, whereas if I continue to ‘pho’ it offers Photoshop first.
The finishing touches to an already wonderful app are the friendliness of the small team behind it and the support of an enthusiastic community providing extra functionality in spades. Every question I’ve tweeted at @alfredapp has received a prompt and helpful response and there are both official and unofficial Alfred tips sites to pore over.
Grab now, buy later
A full review of Alfred would take ages and I’ve really only touched on a very small set of the functionality; suffice to say it is extensive. The wealth of possibilities may seem overwhelming or you may be reluctant to give up the mouse. Don’t worry – it scales beautifully to users of all proficiencies and your mouse hand will definitely thank you. In fact, at first it took me by surprise how liberating it was to remove so many constant mouse interactions; even small movements down to the Dock are hassle compared to Alfred once you get into the habit.
If you’re even a bit of a geek or use your computer frequently I think you’ll love Alfred for Mac. Grab the free version now and see how long it takes you to resist the Powerpack and open up it’s trove of possibilities. It really does change the way you use your computer.
(Okay that last line sounds so much like a radio sponsorship blurb but I assure you this is from the heart, not the wallet; I love using Alfred so much I want you to as well – no kickbacks here.)
Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.