Using Launchy to improve productivity with a graphical command line

I recently ran across a Digg news item about an article over at the Mozilla Labs where UI designer Alex Faaborg discussed hypothetical “Graphical Keyboard User Interfaces” in Firefox, and how they might be implemented. Interfaces like this, such as Quicksilver (for Mac), offer a hybrid of features found in CLIs (Command Line Interfaces) and GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces), and thus can have the best of both worlds.


Basically, a graphical command line is a command line that pops up on screen when you activate a keyboard shortcut/combo. This command line allows you to easily launch any program, file or action by easily typing its name. This offers you the advantage that good CLIs offer – such as auto-complete and speed-of-use, while retaining the advantages of the GUI. I recently learned of a Launchy, a nice program for Windows that offers these features. (Sort of like Quicksilver for Windows)

More than just a command line

Besides its fairly mundane appearance (though Launchy can be customized with skins), the Launchy interface can actually be one of the most powerful aspects of using your computer. When Launchy is first installed and running, you won’t notice a difference – in fact, you won’t even notice a space-stealing system tray icon. The command line window is brought up by pressing a user-defined hot-key. (By default it is alt-space, but I changed mine to ctrl-space, since the alt-space is already mapped to bring up a context menu for the current window, allowing you to minimize/maximize it fairly fast.)

Then, you simply start typing the name of what program you’d like to launch, and Launchy will look for matches. The list of matches pops up in an auto-complete list, and furthermore, Launchy seems to remember your usage habits somewhat, so next time you start typing, it’ll bring up the matches first that were previously used. Launchy is automatically configured to scan for all programs/links in your start menu, and also can be set up to scan other directories of your choosing. It automatically rebuilds the index after a user-defined period of time, so things are kept up to date.

The advantage of such a system might be lost on traditional GUI users, but anyone who dives into the command line will realize its benefit. Typically, input through a keyboard to accomplish actions is far more efficient that using a mouse. Take the Start Menu, for example. A typical computer will have dozens of programs available for launch, and finding the one you want in a menu can be a time-consuming and tedious task. By using Launchy, you can simply type a few letters of the program’s name, and it’ll pop up as an option. Launching a program takes far less time.

There are also a bunch of included plugins that allow for additional functionality. You can, for example, easily access all of your Firefox bookmarks, and also browse through directories/files from the command line of Launchy, further making it an indispensable application. However, perhaps the best part of Launchy is the fact that it’s open-source – that’s right, it costs nothing. So grab a copy of Launchy today!

An alternative to Launchy, which I have not tried, is Colibri. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

More on why it’s better

As this article best describes it, a combination of the command line and GUIs is truly a best of both worlds solution. CLIs offer a “high bandwidth” input interface, meaning the choice of applications you can launch with just a few keystrokes is huge; this translates into a quick launch time because you can easily find what you want. GUIs offer a “high bandwidth” output interface, meaning they can convey a lot of information back to the user with graphics such as icons, drop-down menus, and the like. Combining the two gives a nice interface like that of Launchy’s.

In particular, I liked Launchy because I’ve been looking for ways to improve my productivity on the computer. Besides putting my most-used programs in the main level of my Start Menu (thus allowing them to be launched with two keystrokes), I was at a bit of a loss at what to do with other programs that I use less frequently. Launchy has solved those problems, essentially allowing me to launch most any program fairly fast. Windows Vista offers a similar feature in its new Start Menu (finding a program by typing), but I’m still running Windows XP and have no desire to upgrade to Vista anytime soon.

Perhaps the only problem with Launchy, has nothing really to do with Launchy at all. It is in fact the Paradox of the Active User, something that I’ve written about before in relation to design. Basically, the paradox can be summed up with the phrase, “Old Habits Die Hard”. Once most users have learned how to accomplish a particular task, they won’t be keen to learn a new way, even if that way is faster and more efficient – basically, they don’t like to take the time to learn a better way, even if in the long run it pays off.

I’ve been somewhat like this, having only recently enabled/started using keyboard shortcuts in Gmail and Google Reader. However, I’m trying to break these habits and by using Launchy more, I hope to transition to using the keyboard more to perform tasks, rather than just relying on the familiar but slow mouse.

One Comment »

  1. Give Keybreeze a try as well. It’s similar to Quicksilver but is loaded with features.

Comments are now closed for this entry.