Dyce & Sons Ltd.

Helping IT since 1993


Thursday 13th October, 2005

Remember what happened with Konfabulator? If I were a betting man, then I’d give good money that the next thing Apple ‘researches’ into OS X will be QuickSilver. The big problem with getting things on the computer is that you still need a mouse and keyboard to do it. The mouse is slower (or at least seems slower) at getting to where you want to be and the keyboard is less intuitive, and you have to learn precise arcane commands to get things done.

QuickSilver succeeds in creating a more intuitive keyboard interface for your Mac. As a utility it passes both the “am I still using it after two months?” test, and the “when I’m working on someone else’s Mac is it the first thing I install?” test. The reason for its success is that it does its job quickly and gets out of your way.

It’s easier to demonstrate than explain how it works, so here’s an example. At any point in our work, we invoke QuickSilver by pressing a user-defined hotkey (the default being control-space). Up pops the two-slot QuickSilver window. We type the first few letters of the thing we’re looking for - say ‘exc’ - and tusing predictive text searching of its internal catalogue, QuickSilver tries to figure out what we’re after, showing us the icon of its best guess in the first slot. (If it wasn’t what was expected, we wait a second, and a list appears below the icon; we can scroll down using the arrow key to select our item - in this case, Excel.) Noting that the second slot contains a launch icon, press enter to accept, and launch Excel. A long description for a very simple process: launching Excel in five keystrokes, from within any application - in less than a second.

Although we used ‘exc’, any consecutive letters will do, so ‘mxl’, ‘xl’, or ‘mxc’ would have worked equally well for ‘Microsoft Excel’. QuickSilver’s not just intuitive, it learns as it goes. Search for Excel a few times using ‘xl’, and it begins to produce ‘Excel’ as its first guess.

Although the basic search is filename-based, QuickSilver’s plug-in architecture can easily extend the catalogue (and therefore the search parameters) to include, say, iTunes tracks and folders, contacts from Apple’s AddressBook, bookmarks from your browser of choice, tagged photos or albums from iPhoto, Transmit favourites, and so on. Plug-ins do more than just index personal data: they can also add actions to the contextual list in slot two .

For example, I could start typing ‘fa’, and QuickSilver might throw up my wife’s AddressBook entry. Tab takes me to the ‘action’ slot, where typing ‘dir’ jumps to the ‘Email DIRectly’ action. This action is one of a special group which puts up a third slot - an indirect object slot. Here again I can type ‘cv’ and it will select the ‘covering letter’ document I have on the desktop. Finally, I press return, and the email with attachment is sent, without any further intervention. Time: two seconds. Keystrokes: eight.

QuickSilver is no one-trick-pony, mind you. It can also function as a fairly powerful Finder substitute. Press the ‘/’ key to pull up the system disk, or ‘~’ to jump to your home directory; then use the arrow keys to navigate through file hierarchy, just as you would in a Column view in the Finder. With an item selected, tabbing to the action slot offers you tools to, among other things, move or copy it to somewhere else, make an alias of it, or delete it. (If it’s an application that’s currently running, you can even force quit it, or raise or lower it’s priority - something that normally would only be possible via the UNIX command line.)

QuickSilver can also act as a basic text tool - pressing the ‘.’ lets you directly enter text into the first slot - contextual actions can then, for example, paste it into a new text document, (if valid) open as it as a URL, look it up in a dictionary, or even Google for it online. Pressing ‘=’ turns QuickSilver into a parenthetically aware calculator. Enter your calculation, hit enter, and the result is put into to slot one, ready for further actions.

Plug-in extensions also include: a clipboard manager, allowing you to store previous clipboards and access them from a floating window; Slideshow, Automator, and iChat modules for displaying a folder full of pictures, running an Automator action, or sending someone some text via iChat; and a Services Menu module, that enables you to apply appropriate services to your slot one item. It also plays well with others, and is Growl aware, so, for example, your calculation results can appear as floating notifications. And for the icing on the cake, you can also set up oft-used actions, and define them as mouse or keyboard triggers à la QuicKeys.

There must be a downside, you say. Well, yes, it’s still in beta and the documentation is somewhat lacking. But to say QuickSilver feels stable and slick is an understatement. The interface is skinable - so it can resemble the command-tab application switcher of OS X, or appear in the menu-bar as a two-field Spotlight-alike. Plug-ins are downloaded and installed simply by checking a checkbox in the preferences dialog. And as far as unobtrusive ease of use goes, very little comes close.

Buying Advice

QuickSilver’s real strength is that it doesn’t just make finding ‘things’ easier, it makes acting on them easier, and in doing so ties the other standard Mac applications together in a more fluid way than Apple have so far achieved. It’s free, so try it for a day, and see if you can live without it.

Get Further Info
Manufacturer Blacktree Inc
Pros Quick; easy to start using; extensible; slick.
Cons Poor documentation.
Price Free
Originally Published Thu, 13th Oct 2005