Good Software, Cheap

by - Episode 26 - September 17th, 2004

Great software doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

Great-but-expensive programs-like Final Cut, Photoshop, Logic, Dreamweaver, InDesign, FileMaker Pro, and many others-are (excuse the pun) a dime a dozen. Cheap but crappy programs are ubiquitous and worth a penny a pound or less. My favorite programs are the hardest to find: Inexpensive, well-designed programs that save you time and effort every time you use them. You know, the ones you miss desperately when you use someone else's Mac…

Great inexpensive programs are fewer and farther between than great high-priced programs but there are still plenty to be found. I don't pay for commercial software I review and I don't have a problem with that (they give it to me, after all). But when it comes to shareware and donationware, I have a rule: If I use a program regularly after my review is published, I pay for it. This not only makes me feel good, it encourages the developer to keep up the good work.

Today I'll show you an inexpensive program I not only paid for, I would have gladly paid more than its very reasonable US$20 cost. I'm talking about LaunchBar from Objective Development, a $20 utility that may be my very favorite of all time, and one I use at least a zillion times every day.

LaunchBar gives you instant access with pinpoint accuracy to the tens of thousands of files and folders, contacts and bookmarks, applications and preference panes scattered hither and yon on your hard drive(s). That alone would be enough, but LaunchBar is also fiendishly clever. It constantly prioritizes the items it finds based on items you've found in the past.

Here's an example of how that works:

I press my LaunchBar hot key (Control-Spacebar) and the floating LaunchBar appears, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: LaunchBar appears when I press its hot key, Control-Spacebar.

I'm looking for DiskWarrior, so I type a few letters, "D + I + S."

A list pops up below LaunchBar with the items LaunchBar thinks are the best matches for the letters I just typed, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: I typed "D + I + S" and this list of items appeared instantly.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I selected DiskWarrior from the list and pressed Return; DiskWarrior launched and became the active application.

OK. That's all well and good-LaunchBar is a file launcher that doesn't require planning or forethought, or make you memorize arcane keystroke combinations. That's pretty good, but wait, there's more.

Imagine, if you will, that I've used LaunchBar a few times since DiskWarrior. I again type the hot key combination Control-Spacebar and then type "D + I + S" again. LaunchBar guesses, correctly, that I might be seeking DiskWarrior. This time DiskWarrior isn't the fourth item in the list, it's the first, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The second time I typed D + I + S, LaunchBar guessed I was looking for DiskWarrior again and placed it first on the list.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Now I can ope DiskWarrior even faster. It's already selected, so I just press Return (or Enter) and wham-o; DiskWarrior appears.

LaunchBar gets smarter as you use it. For example, now, when I type, "P + H + O," LaunchBar guesses that I may be looking for Adobe Photoshop CS, which technically starts with the letters, "A + D + O." Over time LaunchBar can predict what file you're searching for and select it before you key in your third letter. It's uncanny.

Now if that were all LaunchBar did, it would be enough. But no, LaunchBar has more immensely useful features like the ability to look up a person in your Address Book without launching Address Book, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: I'm looking for that world famous editor Bryan Chaffin so I typed, "B + R + Y."
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Bryan's name came up along with other Bryans I know or listen to. (Note: I don't know why Britney Spears shows up on this list. But notice that her placement is correct -- last on the list.)

I press the right arrow key to show Bryan's details, which are shown (but blurred to protect his privacy) in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Contact details for Bryan; I'll try calling him at home…
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I press the Return or Enter key and Bryan's home phone number lights up my screen, in numbers big enough that even my aging eyes can make them out from across the room. A big phone number, not Bryan's, is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Big enough to read from a block away.
(Click on the image for a MUCH,MUCH, MUCH, larger view.)

Selecting Bryan's e-mail address from the list would launch my Mail program and address a new mail message to Bryan; selecting his AIM handle would launch iChat AV and attempt to contact Bryan; choosing his Home Page would launch my Web browser and take me to The Mac Observer Web site, and so on.

Certainly LaunchBar has enough features that you'd spend a mere $20 on it, but wait, there's still more. When LaunchBar is active, press Command + R to see the built-in application switcher, shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Switch between open apps and even select individual windows with LaunchBar's application switcher.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

There's still much more but I'm getting tired of hurling superlatives. You'll have to test-drive LaunchBar to check out other the myriad of other features it includes, such as moving, copying, and renaming files and folders, storing text clips, and many more.

LaunchBar is brilliantly designed. Once you get in the habit you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. It's that good.

LaunchBar. Objective Development. Business License $39.00; Home User License $19.95; Family License $29.95.

And that's all he wrote…