Alfred’s Here to Help

It might reinvent one of the Mac’s most popular application categories, do away with the need for Spotlight, and bring back the command line. I’m talking about Alfred, a new keyboard-based launcher app for Mac OS X. Alfred was released early last year, as a simple application launcher. It has now grown to be an incredible utility with myriad different uses, and an indispensable tool on my Mac. And it’s not even out of beta.

Alfred comes in two forms: the basic, free “core” version, and the £12 (about $18) Powerpack. The latter adds several powerful features, including File System Navigation, Result Actions (similar to Quicksilver or Launchbar), and the useful iTunes Mini Player. A recent update, beta 0.7.2, added a Clipboard History feature (which, for me, negates the need for apps like Jumpcut), and many more are coming. (Now, the Clipboard History also includes “snippets,” pieces of text saved for easy insertion. This won’t replace utilities like TextExpander, but works quite well for me.) Alfred’s free version is available on the Mac App Store here. Seriously, get it.

A great feature of Alfred is its simplicity. The main interface is simply a standard text box, much easier to understand than competitors like Launchbar or Quicksilver. Undo and Redo commands work too, which is often helpful. Type some text to search your applications, and other types of files you’ve enabled the basic search to detect. A neat feature is the (disabled by default) “partial matching,” which lets queries such as “QTimePlyr” suggest the appropriate apps.

But app launching only scratches the surface of Alfred’s capabilities. A multitude of keywords is available. Find and open search for files (typing a space or an apostrophe takes the place of open); various system commands such as emptytrash and sleep act on the computer; and my favorite, define, searches for a word’s definition and even suggests alternate spellings. Define just got even more useful in version 0.8, with the definition shown in the results list. These keywords, and many more, are customizable in the comprehensive Features preference pane.

Another very useful, yet simple feature is web searches. Alfred includes thirty-one searches by default, ranging from Google to Wolfram|Alpha to eBay to Flickr. Each has its own customizable keyword. But the true power of Alfred’s searches lies in the ability to create your own. Making a custom search is easy; the first step is to find the URL of a website’s search function. For instance, Apple’s site search is found at http://www.apple.com/search/?q={query}. Choose display text, and a keyword, and add your search. It now behaves in Alfred just like the built-in web searches (minus the icon). I quickly created a web search for Geeks Rule, so I can now search for articles with just a few keystrokes. The developers posted some clever searches to Alfred’s Twitter account (@alfredapp), including creating a new tweet in Twitter and searching the Mac App Store.

Alfred’s capabilities can be combined in creative ways to speed up your workflow even further. For instance, I assigned the Spotlight comment “gksr” to every Geeks Rule article I’m working on. I can now open Alfred, type Space-gksr, and hit Control-Enter (for Action All Visible Results) to open them all. I then created Services in Automator for adding or removing the comments, so I can add a file to the group, or remove it, with a keyboard command. The ability to create systems such as this is one of the best features of the Mac, and Alfred fits into it perfectly.

What’s the big deal about Alfred? Can’t you do many of these things in the system itself? The big deal is that it’s entirely keyboard-driven. Everything in the app can be done using the keyboard. That’s important for power users. It speeds up actions and workflows, and keeps your hands off the mouse.

Also, despite Alfred’s apparent similarities to the built-in Spotlight tool, there are several major differences. First of all, Alfred is much, much faster. Alfred’s max of nine results beats Spotlight’s two Application results handily. Its (customizable) interface is much friendlier than Spotlight’s. And this isn’t even considering Alfred’s useful keywords, or the amazing Powerpack features.

The best part of Alfred, in my opinion, is that it keeps improving at a fast pace. In less than a year, about twenty fairly large updates have been released, bringing new features and innumerable improvements. On the roadmap for the future are a plugin API, new hotkey support, integration with Address Book, support for third-party apps, and more. I find that very exciting!

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By TheGreatBug Posted in News

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