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Mac Gems: Alfred 2 ups the launcher-app ante

Dan Miller | April 18, 2013
When I first reviewed Alfred, the app- and file-launching utility, back in early 2011, I praised it for its simplicity: You'd invoke the utility with a shortcut key-combination, type the first few letters of an application or file's name, and Alfred would find what you wanted and open it. It did more than OS X's built-in Spotlight feature--if not quite as much as other launchers such as Butler, Launchbar, or Quicksilver--without a lot of monkeying around.

All of that is still there in Alfred 2.0, but one thing is missing: Alfred 1.x had a separate preference tab for creating global hotkeys. That hotkey functionality is still available, but it's subsumed by version 2's marquee new feature, workflows.


Workflows are bit like the extensions that were introduced in Alfred 0.99, providing customizable actions to which you can attach hotkeys or keywords. So, for example, you can now set up a workflow that will search for recently used documents in your Dropbox folder whenever, and you can assign to that workflow the keyword dropbox. Workflows can be simple (launch a single file via a hotkey) or complex (use a keyword to initiate multiple Web searches for a given search term). Workflows can include a variety of scripted and programmed components--there's even support for Perl, PHP, Python, and Ruby, as well as shell scripting and AppleScript.

Alfred 2.0 comes with a small selection of sample workflows, as well as templates you can use as the basis of your own. You can construct your own workflows from scratch, by combining triggers (hotkeys, for example), inputs (such as keywords), and actions (open file, reveal file, run script, and so on), and you can output results into processes that can be as simple or complex as you wish. You can also download and install workflows that other Alfred users have already built.

Themes and other improvements

Alfred 2.0's other notable change is the addition of themes. Several built-in themes let you change the utility's colors, fonts, and the size of the search-results window. It's also simple to create your own: After clicking a plus-sign (+) button, you can tweak the current settings by holding down modifier keys (Command, Option, and so forth) and clicking on the various interface elements. The color, font, and sizing options are limited, but they do provide a reasonable degree of customization.

The developer also says that Alfred 2 has been rewritten from the ground-up to improve performance. I personally couldn't detect any change in speed, but I never had problems with its performance in the first place. Running With Crayons also says its improved the way Alfred works with Contacts, but, again, I never saw any issues with Alfred 1 in that respect, so I can't vouch for the changes.

As before, Alfred itself is free, but to get the most out of it, you need to buy the Powerpack (currently £15--about $23--for a single-user license). That purchase gets you workflows, themes, clipboard history and saved text snippets, iTunes controls, keyboard-based file navigation and file actions, Contacts and email integration, lists of recent documents for specific apps, Dropbox syncing for settings, and more.


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