Automation programs Keyboard Maestro and Alfred, among others, can power up your Mac workflow and productivity by reducing the need to perform redundant tasks. But what is the difference between each program, and which will work best for you?
Both programs have saved me hours of time, and continue to save hundreds of clicks and keyboard shortcuts on a daily basis to get things done. Though both can perform similar functions, I use each program for specific purposes.
The power of KM and Alfred comes in the form of workflows, which consists of one or more computer actions activated by an assigned trigger. Alfred includes actions for launching files, opening specified URLs, performing Google searches, issuing system commands, and running scripts.
While the Alfred actions are extremely powerful, KM includes hundreds more that mirror all types of computer tasks, including controlling applications, copying text and images to system and custom clipboards, executing scripts, integrating with Chrome and Safari, manipulating windows, controlling iTunes, posting notifications, sending mail messages, inserting text and recording actions.
So for example, a simple workflow can be created in Alfred to open a set of URLs and applications using a keyboard shortcut.
KM can do the same thing, but it also includes actions for activating any menu item of any application, as well as hiding or quitting an application, or automatically relocating the front window of an application. For example, you can set up a workflow to open an application and automatically launch a new file or document, and even automatically save the new documents to a designated folder before you get started using it.
If you’re new to Alfred and KM, don’t let the above screenshots of workflows overwhelm you. Creating workflows doesn’t require any programming skills, you just need to assemble actions that basically mirror what you perform manually on your Mac. KM can also record actions and create a workflow based on what it records.
Alfred mainly triggers workflows by using a hotkey or keyword, but KM workflows (called macros in KM) can also be triggered by other applications, time and day, macro and menu palettes, a USB device, a designated wireless network, a mounted drive and more.
So for example, when I launch the writing program MarsEdit, it also launches Photoshop and Dragon Dictate, both of which I use when writing articles. When MarsEdit launches, it also launches a custom KM palette with two choices for the type of new document I want set up.
I also have a pallet of workflows I used in MarsEdit to perform lucky Google and MakeUseOf searches, embed the frontmost Safari or Chrome URL in MarsEdit, and change my desktop to a white background for some screenshots. Incidentally, the palette is configured to only appear when MarsEdit is the frontmost application.
Watch this KM workflow I created and use for uploading articles written in MarsEdit to WordPress. It demonstrates how KM mirrors what I would have to do manually without the workflow.
Both Alfred and KM can perform web searches, but I find that Alfred is faster and more specialized for these type of actions. I can use Alfred to quickly perform a keyword search in MakeUseOf or do a lucky search that usually downloads the exact page I need based on the keywords I give it. I have mapped Alfred workflows with a KM workflow to trigger searches by typing a character string or using a hotkey.
This may sound confusing, but as you become familiar with the actions and features in both programs, you will discover that they can mirror most of the actions you perform manually on your Mac. The only thing they can’t do is read your mind and go into action. We’re not there, yet!
Copying and Pasting
Both programs contain clipboard features that can keep a history of all the items you copy on your Mac. I prefer the Alfred history clipboard, not only because it’s better designed, but because it also allows for drilling down the list of clippings by simply typing or using an assigned hotkey.
But even in this case, I use KM and an assigned string trigger (“clb”) to activate the Alfred clipboard instead of a hotkey so I can practically select and paste a copied text without lifting my fingers off the keyboard. In addition, I use a KM macro which automatically copies to the system clipboard any text or item I select using my trackpad, thus often replacing the need to the use system shortcut for copying selected text.
KM contains additional features for copying and pasting content. It includes what are called custom named clipboards in which you can copy selected text to a designated clipboard where it can be pasted whenever needed. As an example, I use a workflow that copies the name of an application (or any word or group of words) I’m writing about to a special named clipboard. I even use a string trigger to quickly select and copy the application name.
Then when I want to paste the copied name as I write, I just use type the assigned string, “fh.” This means I don’t have to create a TextExpander or Alfred snippet for a word I might only use for a single article. It also means I can still use the standard clipboard for everything else. When I copy a new word to the named clipboard, it overwrites the previous one. It might take a while to get used to the workflow, but it’s a time-saver.
There are dozens of uses for named clipboards and variables in KM that can’t be covered in the space of this article. I’ve written about using custom clipboards on on Mac Automation Tips in the past, check it out for more information.
Which Is Best For You?
If you work on a Mac throughout the day, I suggest learning to use both of these applications. But if KM seems to be more than what you need, Alfred should be sufficient for launching applications, conducting Google and website searches, controlling iTunes, and automations other tasks like sending tweets and making reminders and increasing overall productivity.
And, if you use both programs, you might want to download this Alfred workflow that actually searches and executes your KM macros. KM also includes a search function, but you might prefer the design of this Alfred workflow better.