App of the Week: Alfred

App: Alfred Platforms: Mac OSX Web site: Cost: Free (Power Pack add-on for about $20)

Normally, this space is reserved for apps for the phone and the occasional Web site. This week, we're going to talk directly to Mac users. Sorry, Windows users. Maybe next time.

The App Store was already a pretty amazing invention for the iPhone and iPod touch, but when it made its way onto the desktop, the first thing we thought was, "Why didn't they do this sooner?"

Not only does it allow any Mac user to search for apps they might use in conjunction with their phones or iPads, but it delivers a wealth of applications for the computer in a single location. For those who have used Apple products over the years, you know how difficult it could be to find freeware or shareware. There were a handful of resources like MacWorld magazine, but there were limitations to what was available. The App Store has changed that.

One type of software we have always looked for in desktop freeware apps for the Mac is anything having to do with productivity, and if Alfred doesn't make you more productive, few things will.

In virtually every version of the Mac operating system, users have clamored for a better search function. Even with OSX's Spotlight, there still wasn't an easy way to quickly seek out files and/or applications used frequently unless you wanted to put them on the dock, which can get pretty crowded.

Alfred solves those problems by creating keyboard shortcuts for and launching virtually anything.

Once installed, the free application takes up residence in the menu bar at the top of the screen -- near your wi-fi and volume controls. We set ours to launch at startup for convenience. Click the little bowler hat and "Toggle Alfred" (or set a hot key -- the default is option-space) and a small window with a text line appears. Type anything into the text line and Alfred presents a list of options. In fact, we used it to find the correct spelling of "bowler hat."

Simply put, Alfred can handle a wide range of searches, calculations and launches. Find the spelling of a word using the dictionary. Do a quick calculation with the calculator. Launch another application or a file after searching using keywords. Search for anything via Google, Wikipedia, Amazon and a huge number of other sites including Twitter, Google Mail and Flickr. Anything you type, it finds quickly and efficiently.

Going beyond simple searches, for just under 20 bucks (currently, it's 12 British pounds and the conversion in U.S. currency is about $19.60 as of this post), you can get the "Power Pack" that includes things that seem very well worth the extra money.

The robust file system navigator lets you find virtually any file easily and perform actions on them. Find a PDF document and open it in something other than Preview with a couple clicks. Even send them to an e-mail from your Address Book without going into Mail. Use it to track recently opened documents and your clipboard history -- very handy if you copy and paste a lot like we do. Even manage Address Book from within Alfred.

Best of all, the Power Pack includes an iTunes Mini Player that puts your music right in front of you without dealing with iTunes.

For our purposes, if we never have to click the Finder and then the Applications folder to reach a random, occasionally used application that isn't in the dock, which is already crowded, it will be too soon. That alone makes Alfred our newest favorite toy.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke