I recently had to replace the hard drive on my MacBook Pro and, since I was still in Leopard ear, decided it was an excellent opportunity to start a fresh installation. I've been a QuickSilver addict ever since I switched back to Mac, about 3 years ago. Yet, it has been acting up lately and it is no longer regularly maintained. I remember reading an interview with QS creator specifically mentioning LaunchBar, so I decided to check it out.
I'll start from the bottom line: LaunchBar is a great piece of software, I don't miss QuickSilver and I don't see myself using a Mac without it.
I've been using LauchBar for about a month now. On the face of it, LaunchBar is not as configurable as QuickSilver. They share the concept of Index which can be extended, but there are no plugins or themes. After a while, I found that LaunchBar can do everything I need and even added some new tricks to my arsenal.
The basic usage is simple and intuitive, but there is a lot tucked beneath the surface and I keep finding new options and features all the time. It takes a while to understand the depth of the product and I recommend going over the documentation, which is something I never do. If you want the QuickSilver feel, I recommend hiding the dock icon (under the Preferences → Advanced → Dock Icon) and using a command double-tap to invoke LaunchBar (under Preferences → Keyboard Shortcuts → Modifier Taps).
My Common Use-cases
There's a lot you can do with LauchBar and trying to cover everything will result in a book, not a blog post. Hence, I will focus on some tasks that I use very often. You can head over to the LauchBar web site for the full feature list. It also features a good section on switching from QuickSilver.
Launch an application - the most common use. Start typing an application. Find it. Launch it. LaunchBar also remembers your previous selections and offers them first the next time you start typing. Works as advertised.
Browse for files - I often use it for file browsing instead of browsing in finder windows. It is faster, more keyboard friendly and reduces windows clutter. I usually start by either typing and searching for a specific folder. LaunchBar does not index the entire drive, that would be too much. Adding your relevant folders to the index is simple. Once the folder is found I use the arrow keys or type a partial name to navigate to a sub-folder. Once a file is found, there are numerous actions that can be performed. I can launch it, but I can also move it, rename it, delete it and much more.
Manipulate Finder selection - I can also start from the Finder selection. I have a special shortcut for that: double tap on the Ctrl key. For example, if I need to move a file, I use this shortcut and then simply locate the destination folder. Another example: open a terminal at the given path. From the Finder, I simply double tap Ctrl, type "TER" to find the "Open in Terminal" action and press Enter. That's it.
Web search - You can use LaunchBar to invoke web search in different sites. For example, start typing "WIKI" to find "Wikipedia", press enter, and type your query. A second enter will invoke the query in your browser. You can easily add more search engine. For example, I added a search that lists tagged bookmarks in my own delicious account.
Even More Features
Here's some more features worth mentioning.
Services - The services are an often neglected feature in OS X. Snow Leopard did some justice by reducing the services menu clutter, making it configurable and context dependent. LauchBar takes it even further, adding all the services to the index, letting the user invoke services without ever leaving the keyboard.
LaunchBar Actions - It comes with a big library of predefined actions. For example: shorten a URL, manipulate images (resize, flip, etc.), control iTunes, set file labels and much more. Needless to say, one can always write more AppleScripts or Automator workflows and add them to the index.
Clipboard History - It can keep history of the clipboard, making it accessible from the launcher itself. It also has a nice feature called ClipMerge which enables copying and adding to the existing clipboard.
Calculator - There's a handy calculator. That's a feature also found in the built-in Spotlight, but the LaunchBar calculator is much more powerful.
Display - There are a couple of things that could be improved. First, the LaunchBar appears right below the menu bar and uses a small font size (probably 12). QuickSilver was better in this area, both in design and function. There should be an option to enlarge the font size. It would also be nice to have the bar in the middle of the screen and not at the top. It works OK on my 20" monitor, but at larger screens, this could be a nuisance. It is not an eye candy.
Event Triggering - QuickSilver has an option to bind keyboard shortcuts to actions. LaunchBar does not. Personally, I don't miss it because I use another program called Keyboard Maestro, which lets you define macros for keyboard events and much more. It is a perfect companion for LaunchBar, IMHO. That, and Typinator. With the 3 at your disposal, you become a true Mac keyboard ninja. But that's a topic for a completely different post.
The Free Alternatives
You could choose to stay with QuickSilver. Some other developers picked up where the original developers left off. From my experience, it consumes too much resources and has too many bugs. LaunchBar does an excellent job in that sense. For example, right now it is consuming 33 MB of memory (about 6 day uptime). My system stability and performance is worth the price (I always say that cheapskates pay twice).
There is, of course, Google's Quick Search Box (QSB). It can be considered a successor to QuickSilver. I tried using QSB, but I found that it was missing some features and still hogged resources. QSB has a strong focus on search, not surprising considering its' origin. Personally, I didn't like getting search results from the web or spotlight inside the launcher. It also lost the initial momentum: updates to the project are now irregular at best.
As I noted at the beginning, LaunchBar has become an indispensable part of my arsenal. You can do almost anything you need without leaving the keyboard and that saves time and reduces the interruptions in the workflow. Especially when using a laptop with a trackpad and a limited screen real-estate.
As promised, I have one license to give away, courtesy of Objective Development. If you are interested, please leave a comment on this post. Make sure to leave your email address (it is not visible to other readers) so I can get in touch with you if you win. I'll pick the winner on Sunday, October 24th. Good luck.