Back to LaunchBar

Back in October, after over ten years of using LaunchBar, I decided to give Alfred a try. Five months is, I would say, a fair trial, and while there were a few things about Alfred I preferred, last week I returned to LaunchBar and am happy to be back.

The obvious question is why did I switch in the first place? After getting a new iMac in late 2017, I noticed that LaunchBar wasn’t as smart on that machine as it was on my 2012 iMac (which I had moved from my office to home and am still using). I assumed this was because LaunchBar needed some time on the new computer to learn my habits, but even after the better part of a year, it still seemed to be making mistakes, especially when predicting which folder I wanted to open. I was pretty sure the indexing rules on the new iMac were the same as on the old one, so the difference in behavior didn’t make sense to me. Some corruption in whatever internal database LaunchBar uses to make and update its predictions?

Since I was considering wiping LaunchBar from the 2017 iMac and starting over from scratch, I thought it might be a good time to give Alfred a try. It and LaunchBar do roughly the same thing and seem to be equally well thought of among Mac power users. So I installed it and the Powerpack on both computers, training it in my habits and myself in its habits.

LaunchBar and Alfred are both launchers, apps that I always consider to be successors to the legendary Quicksilver1 but which most people probably think of as similar to Spotlight. Like Spotlight, they use a keyboard shortcut to bring up a floating text entry field. Depending on what you type into that field, the launcher may

Launchers, especially their ability to dig though a folder hierarchy in one step, are one of the main reasons I find certain types of work much easier on a Mac than on an iPad. Once you get acclimated to using one, you find working on a device that doesn’t have one like working with mittens on.2

Given the overlap in features, my ultimate preference for LaunchBar over Alfred comes down to just a few differences:

Update Apr 14, 2019 2:09 PM
A tweet from Tom Grimwood-Taylor alerted me to a way to get Alfred to (probably) activate with the last action ready to go. Turn on the “Show latest query if within 5 minutes” option in Alfred’s advanced preferences.

Alfred advanced preferences

I had the “Store typed query” option set. Don’t know why I didn’t set its neighbor. Thanks, Tom!

The biggest advantage Alfred has is patience. LaunchBar requires you to enter your search term within a certain amount of time (which can be adjusted in its Preferences); Alfred gives you as much time as you need to think about what you’re looking for and see how the search results change as you type more. While this isn’t enough to make me stay with Alfred, it does comes in handy sometimes. When I returned to LaunchBar this week, I increased its Retype Delay setting from 0.75 seconds to 1 second.

LaunchBar general preferences

After returning to LaunchBar, I did some tweaking to its Indexing settings, and it seems to be doing a better job of predicting my searches.

Despite my return to LaunchBar, I don’t regret my five-month detour into Alfred. It’s good to go off every once in a while and see how other people get their work done. My time with Alfred has me considering different ways of using LaunchBar.

One thing (not inspired by Alfred) that I’m considering is getting into HoudahSpot for more refined search filtering. John Voorhees’s article in MacStories did a good job of showing what the new HoudahSpot 5 can do, but I was still reluctant to add yet another app to my toolbox.3 It was when I saw Jason Snell’s note that I got more interested, as being able to run HoudahSpot’s filtered searches within LaunchBar would be a good fit for how I work.

  1. That I consider LaunchBar to be a Quicksilver successor doesn’t mean it is, it just means that I came to it after Quicksilver. As I was informed by Roben Kleene, LaunchBar goes back to the NeXTSTEP/OPENSTEP days. Which, frankly, I should have guessed from the name of the developer, Objective Development. 

  2. Apps like Shortcuts and Launch Center Pro are great, but iOS simply doesn’t allow them to have the power and range of apps like LaunchBar and Alfred. 

  3. David Sparks and Brett Terpstra have written about HoudahSpot in the past, and I’ve had the same yeah, but… reaction.