Developer: Running with Crayons Ltd
Price: Free/£15 (upgrade from £10)
OS: OS X 10.6 or later
There’s a point where an add-on becomes almost intrinsically linked to an operating system. You’ll know this has happened on getting a bit itchy when that specific add-on isn’t running. That’s pretty much how Alfred makes us feel whenever we restart a Mac and a little bowler hat isn’t present in the menu bar.
On the surface, it’s admittedly hard to see what all the fuss is about. In its free incarnation, Alfred is essentially an alternative to Spotlight. You use å+[Space] to bring up a floating window, type a term, get a results list and select an item to launch it. But almost immediately, you notice the add-on’s benefits over Apple’s tool. First, it’s a lot faster. Second, it doesn’t reorder the results list as you’re navigating it, thereby eradicating accidental launches. There are compromises, notably in Alfred being more focused in its searches (for example, you must use the ‘open’ keyword to get a file list – by default, the general search only accesses apps, contacts and preferences), but the experience is almost always superior.
The free version adds some extra features, including a powerful, configurable web search, Dictionary app access and calculations, but buying the £15 Powerpack unleashes Alfred’s true power. On doing so, you can perform actions on items you find, moving, copying, deleting or emailing files without touching Finder. Directories can be browsed and your (text-only) clipboard history perused. This will be familiar territory to long-time Alfred users, but the update feels faster and more stable. Importantly, it also brings major new features: themes are created within Alfred’s preferences by using a slightly opaque but nonetheless simple interface, and they’re easily shared; workflows are similar in nature to Automator, enabling both simple and complex task flows to be created and performed, but all within the context of Alfred. Several examples are built in, but many more free workflows exist online.
It’s to Alfred’s credit that what could have been a confusing mess feels so friendly. The search window is bold and usable, and although there are dozens of menus and checkboxes in the tools’ preferences, Alfred is an app that rewards the inquisitive rather than baffling anyone willing to venture beyond the surface. A nicely designed usage graph lurking within the preferences is essentially a summation of the entire product – something that’s a touch geeky (who really needs to know how often they’ve triggered Alfred’s hotkeys?) but welcoming to all (ah, that’d be us).
A big, impressive update to what was already a strong app. Alfred comes highly recommended.