Power Tools – introduction to Application Software Launchers

You want to get more productive in your computer usage? In today’s lesson, we’re introducing you to a power-user time-saving trick.

First, here’s the context: I’ve seen lots of people for whom simple computer taks such as launching Word, Firefox or Outlook take at least half a minute. Most of the time is spent with: minimizing the opened windows, slowly moving the mouse aiming it towards the Start button, clicking on the Programs Menu in the Start Menu, missing it, finally getting it right, slowly looking for the right application folder & icon, risking to click outside the Programs menu and restart the process, etc. Average users are a bit more productive – they save frequently-used applications shortcuts on the desktop. But this forces you to minimize everything on it to find the right shortcut and clutters the desktop with shortcuts. On Apple computers the issue is similar for the ordinary user – sure, there’s the Dock, but it has a limited shortcut capacity and to find a less frequently used application you’d still have to open the Finder, open the Applications folder and look, again, for the app you wanted.

So what can you do?
Remember, you want to stop wasting your time moving the mouse all around looking for applications, folders or files. A first step would be to get your desktop organized – instead of just throwing stuff on it, you create folders for the most important tasks and start placing things right where they belong. For more info on how I did this, take a look at my article – Turn your Desktop into a Productivity tool. But the power user trick is to use the right tools for the job, and this can only happen once you start using your keyboard more.

What are Application Launchers?
Application Launcher is a fancy term for a simple tool – a piece of software that stays in the background and, when you type a given key combination, gets up and helps you find the right application, file or action you want to execute. Instead of moving your mouse around, aiming and clicking at things, you just type a shortcut (usually Ctrl+Space), start typing the name of the program you want to execute and hit Enter. Simple and fast, and takes a tenth of the time you’d have needed to search the shortcut with your mouse.

Neat trick, but what’s the software I should use?
There are, as always, free pieces of software and for-money ones that do the trick. Some of them do more, some do less, but for the simple task of launching apps, the free ones will do:

Mac OSX:

  • Spotlight

    Apple’s OSX comes with a built-in desktop search engine that helps you find (most)anything. It’s one shortcut away(Cmd + Space) so, if all you want is look for stuff, it’s a decent already-installed choice. But because if searches on your entire computer and within the document contents, it gets overwhelming if you just want to find Applications to launch. So, although perfect as a general search engine, it’s not at all the productivity tool we are looking for.
  • QuickSilver

    much can be said about this swiss tool of the Mac power users, a Mac OSX utility that really makes you more efficient at work. You can do most anything on it, from sending email to creating TODO lists to uploading photos to Flickr. But this is overwhelming, and I know plenty of people who refrain from using QuickSilver because of this. All the hype about the capabilities of QuickSilver make me, instead of curious, reticent to use such a powerful tool. So I’ll just stick to ONE tip for you today – install it for free and start using it. Just for launching apps, at first. It does a great job at it. It’s smart and sorts them by most-used basis, so, for instance, if you’re a frequent Firefox user, a simple Ctrl+Space followed by F and Enter will be enough to launch your favorite browser. Once you get the hang of it and want to do extra things, feel free to experiment with the plugins and other shortcuts it has; and you can read some of the tutorials on Lifehacker.com.
  • Butler
    Butler is similar in many ways to QuickSilver, but some argue that it’s less scary and has a better documentation. It’s free as well, so I’ll let YOU decide.


  • Katapult
    If you are a Linux user then you probably are a more power-user than me. Still, you may not have heard of Katapult, a cool QuickSilver’s Linux clone with plugins, cute design and powerful uses. Once installed you can configure what shortcuts it can react to. Oh, and it works on both KDE and Gnome. Read more about it here.


  • Google Desktop Search
    Doing for Windows what Spotlight does for Mac, and more – has widgets, web search, etc. But, just like Spotlight, although it can do the job of launching apps, it’s not the perfect tool for the job, but quite the opposite – searching a program with Google Desktop Search takes a lot more keystrokes and mouse clicks than looking for the icon shortcut.
  • Colibri
    This was my Windows launcher of choice and the one I got addicted to most. However the website seems to be down and I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to find it anymore. It’s free and does a simple thing – in just a few keystrokes, it starts any program of the Start Menu/Programs list. For a more thorough review, check out this article.
  • Launchy
    Now that the Colibri website is unnacessible, the popularity vote goes to Launchy, a cool launcher app that, just like QuickSilver, has plugins and a strong community. Just like for Colibri, I bet that once you get used to it, you’ll never want to go back to the slow mouse.
  • If the Windows apps I listed weren’t enough, you can find a larger list on lifehack.org : besides Colibri or Launchy, the list includes AppRocket , ActiveWords , Dave’s Quick Search Bar, Find and Run Robot, Slickrun , SmartStartMenu, slimKEYS. Some of them cost, some of them are ugly, but you can still take a look and see if anything tickles your fancy…

The conclusion? A simple one: you have no more excuses to just drag that mouse around like a cannonball. You can now start programs faster, find documents easier and generally become a better computer user. All it takes is a bit of will power. But we’ll talk about this some other time…

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