You’ve probably forgotten entirely about Quicksilver, and that’s too bad. The now-free Mac launcher is much more capable than Apple’s Spotlight – and in many ways better even than Alfred, the launcher that dominates the third-party-app-launcher scene these days.
Software that’s easy to use out-of-the-box is wonderful, but so is software that rewards you for digging. Quicksilver is the best kind of rewarding software. The more you dig into this seemingly simple app the more you realize it can do – and the more you want to learn more about how to use it.
Quicksilver, first released in 2003, was long considered the best Mac launcher on the market. Lifehacker’s Adam Pash wrote several widely-read tutorials back in 2007, and developers made all sorts of plugins. The previously proprietary program has since become open source, yet somehow also faded into obscurity. Users today are more likely to use Apple’s improved Spotlight, or another third party launcher.
Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s not great, as Quicksilver’s been teaching me this month. Here’s what I found out, starting with a look at the competition.
The State of Mac Launchers
Later this month El Capitan will introduce new features to Spotlight, letting anyone search for real-time sports scores (searching a team name brings up scores and a schedule) or bits of information from the web (“Weather in Berlin”).
This, combined with a natural language processor that lets users search for things like “documents I worked on in March” and get accurate results, means the default launcher that comes with OS X is pretty great at this point.
But there’s one weakness: there’s no plugin system, meaning Spotlight can only do the exact things Apple programs into it. Of course, a program called Flashlight basically amounted to a user-made plugin system, but El Capitan is going to break this and other customizations.
That leaves anyone who wants their launcher to do specific things, like add a date to their calendar or open a particular file with a particular app, looking elsewhere. For this reason, Alfred is probably the best-known Mac launcher. The free version has basic functionality, and the paid PowerPack lets you use hundreds of fan-made plugins to do all sorts of things, including tie into services Apple competes with.
Seeing everything that Alfred with PowerPac can do — and that’s a lot — why would anyone still use Quicksilver?
Here’s why I think Quicksilver is an improvement.
1. Sentences Are More Powerful Than Mere Search
Spotlight and Alfred are both, at their heart, search applications: you type a query, then hit Enter to pick a result. Quicksilver does search too, and you can just hit Enter if you want to open it. But the real magic happens when you type a query and then hit Tab.
In the above example, as you can see, I’ve searched for the very document you’re reading now. I could have hit Enter, and opened it with the default editor, but if I hit Tab I can opt to instead use the Open With action to pick a different program for the job.
If you’re the kind of person who uses different programs for different parts of your workflow, it’s not hard to see how this might come in handy. But it’s not just for work. I prefer using Vox to iTunes, and Alfred lets me quickly play any folder of music in Vox.
It’s worth noting that Quicksilver can do all this without any plugins: this is all out-of-the-box functionality. And “Open With” isn’t the only thing it can do:
Play with this long enough and you’ll be able to do just about anything with your files in just a few keystrokes. Like I said: you’ll need to take some time to learn what’s happening, but once you do you’ll be able to do just about anything.
2. Plugins For Searching The Web, Evernote, and More
Plugins: there aren’t nearly as many here as there are for Alfred, but the ones that do exist can do a lot. For example, the Web Search Plugin adds a quick way to search over 500(!) websites, and you can also add your own.
There are also tools that integrate Evernote’s notebooks and notes, or the bookmarks in your favorite web browser. You can even quickly add something to your Calendar, or manage your clipboard. You’ll find a number of prominent plugins were recently updated, so don’t worry if you’d assumed nothing Quicksilver-related is still being maintained. There are all sorts of things to explore here.
Even better: all of these plugins are tied into the sentence structure discussed above, meaning that with time you can learn to do all sorts of things with it. Once you get used to things, you’ll wonder how you used you Mac without it.
3. It’s Crazy Customizable
If you want your software to behave exactly the way you want it to, Quicksilver is bar none the launcher for you. The sheer depth of Preferences offered can be intimidating, but for a power user there’s nothing better.
There are the superficial customizations, such as choosing your “Interface”. Some of them are wonderfully weird, like this one that overlaps with the Mac menubar:
But the real customization offered is over the functionality of the app itself. You choose which folders and files are searched, and which are not. You can turn actions you don’t find useful off, and potentially create your own. You can create keyboard shortcuts to trigger any sentence Quicksilver is capable of, and I haven’t even mentioned the AppleScript support.
There’s seemingly no end of what you can make this application do – it’s just a matter of taking the time to set things up.
4. It’s Completely Free and Open Source
You might not think much of this, but Quicksilver is totally open source – unique among Mac app launchers. This means that, even if the current developers move on from the application, there’s a chance it will live on – provided someone is interested enough to maintain it.
This also means you can head to the Quicksilver project on GitHub and see how work on the project is progressing. You can read what the developers are working on, and see if other people are reporting the same issues are you. You can read a blog full of Quicksilver tips, or read through the Wiki.
There’s still an active community out there rallying around this app, actively working to maintain Quicksilver’s compatibility with future versions of OS X. It’s something that won’t matter to everyone, but it’s important.
Still Well Worth Checking Out
I’m really sad that El Capitan breaks Flashlight and its variety of plugins for Spotlight,a But in a way I’m glad that change re-introduced me to Quicksilver because I’ve found it to be better in many ways.
Is Quicksilver a worthwhile launcher, or is it too complex for your tastes? What do you use instead?