Alfred 0.9.1 Review

Alfred 0.9.1

What makes a good butler? I’ve never had one personally, but if I did, here’s a list of qualities I would look for:

  • He would be as transparent as possible, yet immediately available at a moment’s notice.
  • Once I’ve given him a task, he would work as quickly and as efficiently as possible without causing problems or extra friction in my workflow.
  • His purpose would be to free up time and reduce stress by carrying out all of the tasks that I never want to, but out of necessity, have to—ultimately leaving me with more time and mental clarity to get more done.
  • He would be smart. Over time, he’d learn to predict—to a certain extent—what I’m going to ask of him without me even having to finish.

Meet Alfred. He’s a butler who meets all the above qualities I described above, and he lives in your Mac. But unlike a real butler, Alfred is free.

Of course, I’m talking about the application launcher app by Running with Crayons.

This is my first—and only—venture into using an application launcher, so I really have nothing to compare my experience to, of course, except for working without one. But first, a little back-story of why I decided to give Alfred a shot.

Passive Peer Pressure

I’m a regular reader of The Brooks Review and ShawnBlanc.net. Both authors are big fans of LaunchBar—which is another application launcher, similar to Alfred. Every so often in their posts, they make a mention of the software, so naturally I got to thinking if something like that would be useful for me as well.

Also, constantly seeing Carlos and Walter—co-founders of Ansca—navigate source code files solely using the keyboard like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life opened my eyes to just how much more productive I could be if I were to go as mouse-less as possible (another benefit to using application launchers).

And although I don’t hate using a mouse, I absolutely despise using trackpads (although I love two-finger scrolling with them). I don’t always have my Macbook Pro plugged into an external monitor and a mouse, so during those times, I’m stuck with the trackpad (arghhhh).

So the combination of constantly reading about others benefiting from application launchers, and seeing the benefits of using the mouse less started peaking my interest in using an application launcher.

Prior to all of that though, the thought of using an application launcher app didn’t really appeal much to me. I figured using a mouse to find an app, either in the Dock or the Applications folder, would be much easier than typing it out.

And for any other time that I did need to type to find something, the built-in Spotlight app sufficed (though I was admittedly annoyed by its laggy-ness, it didn’t even occur to me that an application launcher’s performance could be any better—I thought it had to do with OS X’s HFS+ filesystem and my non-SSD hard-drive).

And while I’m not afraid to try new things, I didn’t want to pay for an app that I didn’t feel like I needed that much (or might not be able to incorporate into my workflow). I would have tried QuickSilver (free), but I have this aversion to using abandonware.

And on TOP of all that, I’m very picky when it comes to the user interface of the apps I use, and frankly, LaunchBar just didn’t appeal to me. An application launcher would only be useful if I choose to use it regularly, but I know I won’t choose to use an app that I don’t like the look of, especially if I’m already used to using the alternative.

And then I discovered Alfred.

Alfred is an application launcher that’s very minimal in it’s design, but also very clean and Mac-like at the same time. After reading some positive reviews of it, I decided it was finally time to give an application launcher a shot.

Application Launchers

All this talk of application launchers and I haven’t even described what it is. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but most application launchers do much more than just that. Normally, they can search for files, contents of files, scripts, etc.

Alfred (free version) does all of that and more:

  • Quick web searches in your default browser.
  • Can serve as a calculator.
  • Get the definition of words quickly.
  • Custom web searches.
  • Perform system commands (e.g. “shutdown, restart, sleep, etc.”).

And if you purchase the PowerPack add-on, roughly $20 (USD) but highly recommended, you get:

  • Built-in filesystem navigation.
  • Perform actions with specific files, as well as search the contents of them.
  • Start composing an email (e.g. “email [email protected]”).
  • iTunes mini-player.
  • Clipboard history and snippets (there are apps out there made only for this purpose).
  • Quick access to your address book.
  • Customize Alfred visually with color themes.
  • Launch terminal commands (!!).
  • Custom fall-back searches (search alternative websites when something is not found).
  • Global hot-keys for apps and scripts (of course, I have one setup for the Corona Simulator).
  • Sync settings via DropBox or iDisk (useful if you have multiple Macs).
  • Probably something else I’m leaving out.

You get all of the above in a tiny, well-designed, elegant little window that can be activated with a simple keyboard shortcut (I replaced the Spotlight default, which is Cmd + Space, but the Alfred default is Option + Space).

Just looking at the feature list, you can already see that this app is far superior to Spotlight, and I’m sure that even if you’re not an application launcher type of person, you can still pinpoint at least a few items above that you have to admit would be nice to accomplish by typing a few letters into your keyboard.

Speed

Alfred is fast. It outperforms Spotlight by miles, and does way, way more. As soon as you press the keyboard shortcut to activate Alfred, there he is, ready to go. The moment you begin typing, Alfred is already fast at work, trying to predict what you’re looking for (remember the “smart” bit from earlier?).

I’m running a 2011 Core i5 13” MacBook Pro and I haven’t had any issues with speed whatsoever. I don’t think it’s lagged on me even for a brief moment, as Spotlight frequently did.

Accuracy

It’s not that difficult for these apps to be accurate at finding what you’re searching for, that is, IF you type the full name of what you’re looking for (which would be a pain). As I mentioned above, as soon as you start typing, Alfred begins showing results—without interrupting your typing flow.

For example, if you type the letter “i”, Alfred will list the apps that begin with the letter “i” instantly (unless you have a custom command set up specifically for just that letter), ordered from the most recently launched. The item at the top of the list can be activated by pressing return, and the others by either the up/down arrow keys, or with keyboard shortcuts (Cmd + 2, Cmd + 3, and so on).

The app behaves in this same manner, consistently, whether you are launching an app, opening a file, executing a system command, etc.

To launch an app, most of the time I only have to type the first letter or two and Alfred’s got it on a silver platter, ready for me to hit return and quickly launch it.

Alfred’s accuracy and speed has come in very handy several times since I’ve been using the app, and it really makes me wish I had ventured into application launchers sooner (or maybe not, because then I might’ve got used to something other than Alfred, which I am loving right now).

Transitioning

The first couple of days I had Alfred installed, I loved what it could do, but out of habit I kept doing things the old way. In the beginning, his “transparency” sometimes caused me to forget he was even there. At first I’d only remember about Alfred whenever I got frustrated with having trouble looking for an app in the Applications folder. Once that happened a few too many times, I started remembering Alfred more and more.

Now, since I’ve gotten used to using Alfred, I can’t stand the thought of navigating the Applications folder up and down searching for the app I want, or using Spotlight hoping it’ll give me fast results. Lion’s LaunchPad? Please. (Though I think it’s great for new Mac users).

My Dock is now hidden thanks to Alfred. I don’t ever need to use it as an application launcher anymore, now it’s just used for shortcuts to my Documents, Downloads, Trash, and currently open apps (which I’ve been using Cmd + Tab to switch between).

3 Tips for Transitioning:

Here are my tips for making the transition to using Alfred over traditional application launching methods a little smoother:

  1. Hide the Dock. This has been the single-most helpful thing I’ve done to speed up the transition to using Alfred. Out of sight, out of mind. Alfred will be easier to remember because most likely, your hand will already be on the keyboard.
  2. Remove all of your apps from the dock (so only running apps show up there).
  3. Use Alfred for everything you can think of (that it can currently do)—constantly. That’s the best way to form a habit, in this case, a positive one.

My Favorite Features

Application launching aside, here are my favorite features in Alfred 0.9.1:

  • The ability to start composing an email by simply typing “email [person’s name]”.
  • Being able to open files using the “open [filename]” command.
  • Easily “forcequit” an app by typing same into Alfred.
  • The fact that it’s core features are free (huge advantage, especially for newbies like me). I have the PowerPack, but if I just needed the basic core features, this would be one awesome freebie.
  • Being able to shutdown, restart, and put my Mac to sleep faster and more convenient than ever before.
  • The clipboard/snippet manager, which has saved me several times when I needed to go back and get something that I copied to the clipboard previously. Also useful for storing email signatures.
  • Being able to launch quick web searches without having to launch the browser first.
  • The fact that adding Spotlight comments to individual apps and files improves Alfred’s ability to find exactly what you’re looking for (this is awesome. You can even “nickname” specific apps and files if you want to by using Spotlight comments).
  • The in-line calculator. Good-bye Mac OS X Calculator app.

Bugs

I haven’t encountered a single one, even though Alfred’s version is less than 1.0 (which implies beta, but I’m not so sure it is). Kudos to the Running with Crayons team for creating such a stellar app with very little to no bugs (as a developer myself, I’m hesitant to say no bugs, but this is about as close as it gets).

My Features Wishlist

With such a positive review, it’s hard to imagine any shortcomings this app has (it does so much, and does it all so well). This is especially true since I’m not coming from another application launcher where Alfred may not have every feature that other apps do (I wouldn’t know).

I do, however, wish I could do some things that I currently can’t in this version (hopefully for me, Running with Crayons is listening, heheh).

Quick Reference Popup:

While I was still trying to get in the habit of using Alfred on a regular basis, I kept constantly wishing there was a separate keyboard shortcut that would open up a separate popup over on the side, similar in appearance to the main Alfred popup, which listed all of the available commands (including custom).

For example, a few times I forgot whether the command was “close” or “quit”, so I’d try one and hope for the best. Or, I’d have to go into the Alfred preferences and look it up myself (which takes way too much time). I guess I should’ve known, but hey, it happened. That’s just one example (hey, everyone has a brain fart now and again).

Another thing a popup like this would be useful for is a reference for keyboard shortcuts, because those are the hardest to remember. Having a quick reference that’s just as available as our trusted butler friend would help with the memorization of these shortcuts by a great deal. Even as a regular Alfred user now, this would still be extremely handy for me.

Built-in Terminal:

With the PowerPack (which I have), I love the ability to quickly enter a terminal command and have it quickly popup. This feature request is a little nit-picky, but I think it would be very handy if a little terminal, in the same style as the Alfred popup itself, expanded beneath the text field and allowed you to work from the built-in terminal instead.

Hey, there’s a built-in filesystem browser, seems like the idea of a built-in terminal doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

Secure Password Manager:

Bear with me here. I usually use LastPass (which is a free alternative to 1Password) for generating and storing secure passwords for websites (etc.) and easily filling them out automatically upon visiting the websites.

This approach, however, requires that a special plugin be installed—and actually be available—for my browser of choice. Form filling also only works for websites, so if you need a password in an app, you have to retrieve the password from LastPass first. Unfortunately, the plugins differ from browser to browser, and frankly, that’s pretty annoying.

If only Alfred had a secure password manager, generator, and form-filler built-in, it could not only store any secure password I needed (or generate new ones), but I could also use it with whatever I wanted (whether it’s a browser, app, etc) by using a simple command such as “fill” or something similar. I could then, of course, stop using LastPass.

Of course, Alfred would have to somehow know when to ask for your master password (or it would defeat the purpose of having a password), but it could work similar to how iTunes does, where it’ll ask you for the master password after a certain amount of time has passed (and have this be configurable).

I know it’s a bit far out there, but Alfred has things like the clipboard manager, which is so well-implemented that it eliminates the need for another app to serve that purpose, so I’m curious to see what Alfred’s implementation of a secure password manager and form filler would be like.

And don’t quote me on this, but I don’t think any other application launchers have this feature, so if included, would be a great feature to set Alfred apart from the competition.

Conclusion

So apart from having to train myself to get in the habit of actually using the app, Alfred has proven to me that application launchers are totally worth it. And it’s so good, I don’t even have the desire to try the other ones.

Alfred has simplified my computing by handling the simple, mundane tasks that would often become the source of unnecessary friction, and ultimately disrupt my workflow. Like a good butler, Alfred has enabled me to be more productive, and focus on doing the things that really matter—instead of all the little chores in between.

On top of that, I’m able to use my mouse less, which means I can use my trackpad less—which is a huge benefit to me. Great job, Running with Crayons—I’m sold. I can’t wait to see the next version.

And as a side note: Alfred, with it’s elegantly minimal design and infinitely useful functionality, is the type of app that makes me—as a developer—want to start creating some Mac OS X apps, instead of being a mobile-only developer.

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