Thursday, 5 January 2012

Alfred - Always There When Needed

Well, here we are in 2012 - Happy New Year to you all!

Every effective household needs a butler and the Apple Harvest is no exception. The difference is that we have one. He's called Alfred and he's resident on all the Macs on the network and he's always there when you need him. And he keeps getting better and better!

It's quite hard to describe what Alfred really is so I'm not going to try - I'll let his makers speak for me...

Alfred is a productivity application for Mac OS X, which aims to save you time in searching your local computer and the web. Whether it's maps, Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, you can feed your web addiction quicker than ever before.
  • Increase your productivity by launching apps with shortcuts
  • Instant access to web searches, bookmarks & more
  • Browse and play music from your iTunes library quickly
  • Perform actions - copy, move & email files & folders
  • Ward off RSI - skip using the mouse with easy shortcuts
As if that isn't enough the basic programme is free. For a little bit extra (£15.00) you can add the Alfred Powerpack and add a whole bunch of new features supported by a community of developers. But let's get back to basics first!

Ever since I got my first Mac in 2007 I've used Tiger Launch as my programme launcher. Tiger Launch is a simple menubar resident which displays a (configurable) list of applications when you click on it. At one stage I dallied with QuickSilver but there seemed to be a bit of a steep learning curve to get over before being able to get the best from it, and more importantly, its future was (is?) somewhat uncertain. Alfred seems to have been created by people familiar with QuickSilver but who seemed to have real end users in mind rather than technophiles. Which means that Alfred can be used on many different levels and it allows the user to grow into the programme in their own time, slowly building up their knowledge, understanding and growing in productivity.

Alfred springs into action on a hot key press: in my case Option+Spacebar. At its simplest level Alfred does what Spotlight does - it locates files, applications, documents or whatever, based on search parameters that the user types into the input bar. In this respect it's a fairly standard launcher. But you can also force Alfred to look in more specific places - start your search string with google and it will do a google search on the next text your type in. Start with imdb and it'll search the IMDB database. Specific searches can be user defined as the need arises, but there's a whole bunch of them predefined for you.

Alfred can also do calculator, dictionary and iTunes related things automatically.
As mentioned, the Powerpack add-on extends Alfred considerably. I have written a small extension to load a set of applications that I normally use during the day without having to load them at start-up. I recently downloaded an extension that performs currency conversion by typing (as an example) "convert 100 USD to GBP", and another to add an event into iCal. The possibilities are endless, and there is a serious community of developers out there who are happy to share their creations.

My guess is that anyone who starts using Alfred will soon become a convert. Certainly the testimonies on Twitter suggest that it has an increasing and enthusiastic following. My advice is download it and start playing. After a couple of weeks get yourself the Powerpack. I suggest that you use the Alfred website directly to do the download, and get Alfred to check for its own updates. You can get the basic programme from the Mac App Store but not the Powerpack and this causes a few problems when you later want to install Powerpack.

I've now been using Alfred for over a year and it's probably the most used utility across the Apple Harvest. Highly recommended - if Steve Jobs had designed a launcher from scratch it would probably have looked something like Alfred!