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The Verge at work: take your computer back from your mouse

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The Verge at Work is a series about process. We’re not scientists, and we’re not gurus, we’re just trying to get some work done. The solutions presented here are highly personal, and highly personalized. Not the only way, but our way. Like many of my generation, I cut my computing teeth before the widespread adoption of the mouse and Graphical User Interfaces. Call it old-fashioned or backwards, but I feel more productive with a full, physical QWERTY keyboard. More to the point, I feel like doing computing tasks with that keyboard is more efficient than navigating a pointer around a screen (or touching it directly). Granted, both the mouse and touchscreen deserve their place in modern computing and they’re often faster than the keyboard. There’s a cognitive load to remembering keyboard shortcuts — but I’ve always found the effort worth it for the stuff I do dozens of times a day. That’s why I use Alfred, a little Mac app that helps me get stuff done faster.

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What is Alfred?

What is Alfred?

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Alfred is one of several apps that usually get referred to as "launchers." The idea is really simple: by hitting a keyboard combination (usually control+space), you get a text box that lets you "do stuff" on your computer. The most common things you might do include launching other apps, searching Google, and searching for files. It’s all controlled by the keyboard and possible options appear as you type — so launching "iTunes" often just requires you to type "it" and hit enter. Alfred learns your preferences as you use it — if you’re constantly searching for a file or app, it’s more likely to make that your first option.

With a mouse, to launch an app you’ll be clicking on an application folder (or Launchpad), looking for an icon, and then clicking that. With Alfred, you hit the key combo and type the first few letters of the app and hit enter. It’s often (but not always) faster, but more importantly for me it feels faster. Using Alfred makes it feel less like you’re navigating a computer than just telling it what to do directly. I’ve completely learned typing, I don’t think about where the keys are when I’m doing it. Using the keyboard takes advantage of that learned knowledge, which means it seems to me like there are fewer things between my intent and the action. Alfred may not be faster, but it’s cognitively easier — at least once you’ve trained yourself up on it.

For those basic features, it’s actually not all that different from the built-in Spotlight search — although Spotlight doesn’t give you quick access to searching the web. That’s a critical difference — my computer is as much a window into the web as it is a computing device, and Alfred is web-aware in a way that Spotlight still isn’t.

Alfred is often (but not always) faster than using a mouse, but more importantly for me it feels faster
Getting started

Getting started: Google, web, and apps

The philosophy is "just type what you want"

Launchers

It turns out that there’s a long history of extensible launcher apps on the Mac, but the one that is most likely to cause old school users to launch into misty-eyed remembrances of computing past is Quicksilver. Although it’s still under active development by a new team, the original developer, Nicholas Jitkoff, was hired by Google and works on the Google Quick Search Box — yet another launcher.

Quicksilver still has its proponents, of course, as do other launcher apps like LaunchBar or Butler. It’s as easy to get into arguments on the internet about which launcher app is better as it is to debate the merits of Macs vs PCs. Each tool offers largely similar features, so choosing one over the other often boils down to a matter of taste.

There are also similar apps for Windows — and as with the Mac you’ll end up splitting your time between the operating system’s built-in search and the launcher app. You can find a bunch of links to apps in this genre on Wikipedia and debates about the best one all over the internet.

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A launcher app like Alfred may not sound like something that you really need in your life — who wants to have to remember more ways to interact with their computer? The best way to know is to just install it and give it a shot, and I think that the most basic feature of Alfred will have you hooked in fairly short order: Google search. (Yes, you can set the default to Bing if that’s your style).

To do it, you simply launch Alfred, type what you want to search, and hit Enter. That’s it. What’s hard to get across is just how convenient it is to be able to jump into a web search no matter where you are on your computer. Instead of switching to the browser and opening a new tab or mousing up to the search bar, you just type the thing you want to know about.

I also use it to directly open webpages — Alfred is smart enough to recognize that when you add a ".com" to the end of your term, what you want to do is open that site. Similarly, if you type the name of an app, you can just hit enter and launch that app.

The philosophy is "just type what you want" and most the time, Alfred does it. In rare cases where Alfred thinks you want to launch an app instead of doing a search — say you want to search the web for "iTunes," you can just type "g iTunes" to clear things up and get your web search.

Alfred tells me that I use it around forty times per day (which actually seems low to me), and the vast majority of my usage is quick Google searching. Even if you never use any of the other features Alfred has to offer, just having fast and easy access to Google from anywhere on your computer makes it worth the install.

Custom searches

Custom searches

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Although using Alfred for basic web searching and app launching is quite powerful, it’s also able to directly search a wide variety of other websites. Amazon, Twitter, eBay, Facebook, and many others are all built right into Alfred by default. To search one of them, you start typing the name of the service you’d like to search and then hit Tab or Space to enter your query. For example, you can type "imdb Skyfall."

As with the other functions in Alfred, it learns as you use it so you don’t have to hit as many keys. I apparently search IMDb often enough that I can just type "im [Tab]" to begin an IMDb search. It’s also able to take in equations for Wolfram Alpha, search for specific Twitter users, and plenty more. You can also search Gmail, a feature that saves a few steps — but more importantly just takes up less of a mental load. The moment I think "Oh, I have an email about that," I’m already searching for it, no matter what app happens to be frontmost at the time.

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Most people can stop there, but I happen to live and work on the web and have a few sites that I need to search on a very regular basis. No surprise, first among that list is The Verge. Alfred doesn’t have our site built in, of course, but here’s where you can begin to dig into the (admittedly difficult to understand) preferences to set up some custom searches.

The way it works is this: go to your favorite site and search for some random term, like "foo." Then check out the URL after you search and look for "foo." You can then take that URL and use it as the basis for a custom web search. I often need to search our products database, so I’ve set up a custom "Verge products" search, along with a half-dozen other Verge-specific searches. In fact, these "custom searches" can work straight with web pages too, not just searches. I have "tu" set up to search for "http://www.twitter.com/{query}" so I can quickly open up the Twitter profile page for any user with just a few key presses.

Clipboard history and snippets

Clipboard history and snippets

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Like so many apps, Alfred’s developers haven’t been able to resist adding features that may not technically be part of the original purpose for the app. There are a ton of features in Alfred that I don’t bother with — controlling iTunes, a calculator, and working with files. I recommend that most users don’t bother with them either — at least not until they’re really into the app.

I do use a few of these extra bits and there’s one that I can’t live without: Clipboard History. This feature is offered by other apps, but since I’m so deep into Alfred already it’s convenient for me to use it here. What it does is save every piece of text you copy to the clipboard for some particular period of time. Once saved there, you can re-paste something even though it’s not the last thing you copied.

You’ll need to set up (and remember) a keyboard shortcut to bring it up, which could be a pain for some. I use Control-Option-v, which is close enough to Command-v for it to be convenient. It then presents you with a list of your most recent copied text for pasting — and you can search that text just by typing or arrow-down to the thing you want to paste.

The best part about this feature for me is that it pastes plain text without any formatting whatsoever. That means that if you’re pasting into Word or a WYSIWYG editor on the web, you don’t have to worry about those apps trying to copy over the bold, italic, or even images that were in the copied text.

Clipboard History also as a thing called "Snippets" that lets you permanently save little bits of text to paste whenever you want. It’s nowhere near as powerful as a tool like TextExpander, but it’s more than enough for my needs. I use it to paste my signature into emails and — more importantly — save links to my favorite animated GIFS. I just hit my Clipboard History keyboard shortcut, type "el" and it autocompletes to "ellisdance," which is a link to the best animation of Mr. Hamburger’s stylings you’ll ever see. Huge productivity gain.

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Advanced

Advanced: keyboard shortcuts, app integration, and more

Mapping Caps Lock to Alfred

I use Alfred often enough that I wanted to make it just a little faster to open. Typically, you launch it by hitting Control+Space, but there’s another button on the keyboard that I almost never press: Caps Lock. Unfortunately, remapping the Caps Lock isn’t as easy as it could be, since it’s a special sort of key as far as OS X is concerned.

It is possible, though, with a little jiggery-pokery. I found a few methods for doing it, so the one I settled on may not work for you. It involves an app called PCKeyboardHack, which lets you remap Caps Lock to another key. You have to track down a "keycode" for the key you’d like to remap it to. On my Macbook Air, I never use F12, which has the keycode "111." So I remapped Caps Lock to that, and then inside Alfred set it launch by hitting F12.

For what it’s worth, Chromebooks also map what would normally be the Caps Lock key to a Search — so there’s a miniscule chance your new "use my pinky finger for search" muscle memory won’t go to waste. Bonus benefit: remapping Caps Lock makes it harder to yell on the internet.

Lmgtfy-alfred

Alfred also offers universal keyboard shortcuts for certain functions. Like Clipboard History, this is something that’s also offered by other, more powerful and specialized apps. I like using Alfred for it, though, because my needs are relatively simple and because I can map some of my shortcuts to Alfred-specific actions.

I only have a handful set up, but I use them quite often. One way I use it is to have a keyboard command launch Alfred itself for a search: Control+v brings up a Verge-specific search, for example. You can also set up keyboard shortcuts for specific iTunes functions, launching the screensaver, opening up specific folders, and plenty more.

Getting into even nerdier territory, you can also use it to launch Applescripts and Automator actions. I’m far from a programmer or scripting expert, but I have learned just enough to cause some damage and I use Alfred for some common tasks like grabbing a preview link from Chorus, the software that powers our site.

Remembering all the keyboard shortcuts you’ve set up and keeping them distinct from the many keyboard shortcuts that are already built into both OS X and specific apps can be a real chore. I find that I constantly have to rethink certain shortcuts because they conflict with some app-specific feature. All that hassle makes it only worth setting up for a few very important things.

Last but not least, there’s a small developer community that’s built up around Alfred that lets you further extend what it can do. It allows Alfred to speak directly to these apps to perform functions — for example I use Alfred to put stuff into Fantastical and to create To-Do items in Wunderlist. Most of the extensions can be found on Alfred’s support site, but there are others floating around on the web if you look hard enough. Installation is relatively painless, but again I recommend only adding them as you feel you really need them.

Wrap-up

Wrap-up

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There’s not really an argument anymore between the Command Line Interface and the Graphical User Interface: the GUI won, and I’m grateful. Adding a layer of graphical abstraction between what you want to do and the computer’s function makes computing more accessible and more intuitive. Still, that doesn’t mean that the keyboard needs to be relegated to simple text entry and copy/pasting duties. Alfred brings back some of that old feeling of directly interacting with the computer.

Alfred is far from "intuitive," you need to learn how to use it and teach yourself a new way of interacting with the computer. What it lacks in intuition, it makes up for in immediacy and universality. No matter where I am on my computer and no matter what I’m doing, I can find something important without having to think about how to find it.

The Verge
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