Mastering Quicksilver: The Basics

Last week, we reviewed a serious alternative to launchers like Alfred and LaunchBar: Quicksilver – a program that finally came out of its 10-year long beta period a few months ago.

This software is really powerful and is relatively easy to use, yet you might miss its full potential if you don’t spend enough time with it. Let me make a few things easier for you and guide you through the steps from a complete beginner to becoming a Quicksilver master in just a few articles. This week, we’ll cover the basics that help you understand how the app works and how you can perform basic tasks on files and folders.

Understanding the Catalog

There are two ways of finding things with Quicksilver:

  • by searching, i.e typing letters to match the name of an item
  • or by browsing, which is done by pressing Right arrow when an item is selected

If you don’t like having to press the Right arrow key, you can use the space bar instead. First, though, you’ll need to assign this behavior to the space bar by changing the default setting from Normal to Show Item’s Contents in Quicksilver’s Preferences, under Preferences > Command > Search > Spacebar behavior (yes, there are Preferences in the Preferences).

By the way, unless specified, always use lower case when typing in Quicksilver. While in most cases, using capitalized keys won’t do anything particular, you can assign a special behavior to capitalization. I’ll cover this in a forthcoming article. For now, you don’t want to mess things up, so don’t capitalize words (and it’s easier to type, after all!).

Quicksilver does not use Spotlight indexing. Instead, it has its own index: the Catalog. Items have to be registered in the Catalog first before they can found by searching. Thankfully, though, the Catalog already includes some of the most used items by default:

  • your Home, Downloads and Documents folder,
  • your Desktop,
  • the Trash,
  • items in the Dock,
  • OS X Recent Items,
  • all Disks (both internal and external, including those accessible over the local network),
  • Preference Panes,
  • Printers,
  • …and some extra items.

You might be surprised that I mentioned your Home folder and your Downloads, Documents and Desktop folders. The latter are subfolders of your Home folder, after all. You will understand later on why this has its importance.

Scanning and Subfolder Depth

If you take a deeper look into Quicksilver Catalog presets for some folders, you’ll understand a bit more why you can have access to some items and not to others. Let’s have a look at it now.

First, open up the Catalog. You can do this by “invoking” Quicksilver then pressing Command + comma, just like you would with any native Mac app. Remember that invoking Quicksilver is pressing the keyboard shortcut you defined to show the Quicksilver window (it’s Command + Space for me; this can be configured in Quicksilver’s Preferences > Preferences > Command > Activation > HotKey).

In the window that’s opened now, click on the Catalog icon on the right of the top row. In the list on the left, choose User, then select Home in the Sources list on the right. Finally, click on the little i button in the bottom right of the window. This will open up the info drawer.

Screenshot showing the info Drawer for the Catalog of your Home folder

The info drawer lets you fine tune Catalog entries.

In the drawer, you can see that “Include Contents” is set to Folder Contents and that the Depth is set to 1. It means that when scanning your Home folder, Quicksilver also scans items contained in this folder and adds them to its Catalog — but only for first level items. Therefore you will find subfolders of your Home folder (Documents, Images, Movies, and so on) but not subfolders within these subfolders. You can check this by switching from “Source Options” to Contents at the bottom of this drawer.

Notice that everything is grayed out in this drawer: this is because the Home entry is a preset of Quicksilver, and presets can’t be modified.

If you want to modify a preset, you should first create a copy of it. To do this, click Attributes in the bottom of the drawer, then on the Create Copy button. This will then add a copy of this Catalog entry to the Custom list (which is accessible from the list on the left, just under User). This copy is editable, so you can now specify the Depth for your Home folder.

While it’s technically possible to specify the level of depth to be scanned for, I encourage you to think twice about it: don’t go too deep into sub-folders so as to keep things snappy (but it’s largely dependent on the power of your machine). You can always access any item by browsing and adding specific, deep-buried folders later as needed.

Now let’s look at your Downloads folder. Keeping the drawer opened, choose Downloads in the Sources list, just underneath your Home folder. You can see that Depth is set to 2. This way, the Catalog includes your Downloads folder, its subfolders, and items contained in these subfolders, but nothing deeper in the filesystem hierarchy.

Adding Files and Folders to the Catalog

If you need to add a folder to the Catalog, click on the + button at the bottom of the window and choose File & Folder Scanner.

Screenshot showing how to add a File & Folder scanner

Here’s how to add a new folder to the Catalog of Quicksilver.

This folder will show up in the Custom list. Remember you can specify the depth of scanning with the info drawer. You can also limit items to be included using the Types: and Exclude types: lists.

If you use Dropbox, you might want to add your Dropbox folder as I did. I’ve set Include Contents: to Folder Contents as well as chosen a Depth of 1. This way, first-level sub-folders of my Dropbox folder are accessible by searching. However, the content of these sub-folders is accessed by browsing, so as not to overload the Catalog.

Screenshot showing the info drawer after adding the Dropbox folder to the Catalog

Here, I’ve just added my Dropbox folder to the Catalog, but chose to get just one level deep.

Adding Some Special Items to the Catalog

To take full advantage of Quicksilver, I suggest you include a couple more things in the Catalog. Inside the “Quicksilver” list, make sure you check all Sources lists, especially Proxy Objects. You’ll see in a short while how this can be useful. By including Internal Commands, you can also get access to Quicksilver Preferences and other useful tools from the Quicksilver interface itself.

Screenshot showing the Quicksilver Sources list in the Catalog.

Unleashing the Quicksilver beast demands including some special items in the Catalog.

Here are the things you can now do:

  • Access any Preferences by running the Show [panel] Preferences > Run command, where [panel] can be Triggers, Catalog, Plugins, or just nothing (thus just typing Show Preferences) to open the related tab.
  • Rescan the Catalog if you can’t find something you’ve just added, by issuing the Catalog Rescan > Run command.
  • Check for Quicksilver Update > Run – this is pretty obvious.
  • Show Guide to access Quicksilver documentation.
  • Access, with Proxy Objects, the current application, the current window, the current web page in your browser, the last commands you typed, and so on.


Now that you know how to include items in the Catalog, it’s time to do things with them, with Quicksilver “Actions”. There are at least 50+ built-in actions and even a whole lot more when you install plugins and other applications Quicksilver can interact with.

Screenshot showing the Actions Preferences.

Discover and organize all available actions by visiting Preferences > Preferences > Actions.

You can enable/disable actions by visiting the Preferences. You can also re-order them in order to modify their “Rank”. This Rank reflects the order in which actions appear: those ranked 1 in each category appear as default ones in the second pane of the main interface of Quicksilver, while others actions can be browsed, searched and filtered out within the Results list (i.e the dropdown list showing up when you press the right-hand arrow).

It’s worth noting that some actions have Alternate Actions. An alternate action is accessible when you press Command whilst you’re in the second pane. Try searching for something, and when the Open action shows up, press and hold Command to change it to Reveal. Pressing Enter while holding down Command executes the Reveal action, which opens a new Finder window with the item selected. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, you can’t modify an alternate action or assign your own (but now that Quicksilver is in super active development again, maybe you could ask the developers for it!).

Screenshot showing the Reveal action.

Press Cmd-Enter to run alternate actions.

Working with Files and Folders

One of the things you’ll probably most use Quicksilver for is replacing the Finder. Let’s see how you can accomplish that.

Searching and Browsing

As you now know, you can find everything that’s in the Catalog, either by searching for it directly (typing its name or an abbreviation) or by browsing through the filesystem, with any imaginable combination of searching/browsing in between. If the content of a folder is not directly searchable, you can still:

  • search for the folder by typing its name or any abbreviation matching it…
  • …and then browse its content with Right arrow.

When browsing, the content can be filtered out by searching again. Just make sure that the Search Mode of Quicksilver is set to “Filter Results”. To access this setting, you must have a Results list displayed on screen: just type any letter and wait a few seconds for this dropdown list to appear. Then click the little icon in the upper right of the Results list window, or simply press Command + Left Arrow or Command + Right Arrow several times to cycle through the three available modes. Since the release of Quicksilver 1.1, “Filter Results” should be the default search mode, but it’s worth knowing how to change it, just in case.

Screenshot showing the different Search Modes within the Results list.

Filter results is probably the most useful Search Mode.

For instance, finding a file named “Invoice September 2013” sitting in your Downloads folder is as easy as typing “down”, pressing the Right arrow, then typing “inv”. If you access this file super frequently, then typing d, Right arrow, I should be enough, because Quicksilver learns from your habits and means you have to type less and less over time.

Assigning Abbreviations and Synonyms

By default, Quicksilver ranks your search results by score. It means that the more frequently you access something, the higher it will be in the list of results, and the less letters you have to type to select it. For instance, if you use the “down” abbreviation to access your Downloads folder, there’s a great chance that, the third or fourth time you start typing “do”, the Downloads folder is already selected. In short, Quicksilver auto-assigns abbreviations based on your typing habits. If this is not fast enough for you, or for any other reason, you can manually assign abbreviations.

For instance, I’ve assigned the “D” abbreviation to my Downloads folder in just one command:

  1. Select your Downloads folder in the first pane,
  2. Press Tab to access the second pane, and start typing Assign Abbreviation…, then press Tab again to go into the third pane
  3. Here, in the text box, type the abbreviation you want to associate your Downloads folder with, like “D” for example, then press Enter. This closes the Quicksilver window and your new abbreviation is now registered.

Keep in mind that the letters you use as an abbreviation should be included in the full name. If not, you should use what Quicksilver calls a Synonym, instead. For instance, if you’ve used OS X for years, the name iCal might be hard-wired into your brain. But you also know that the iCal name has been changed for “Calendar” since Lion. Therefore, if you’re like me, you might want to type iCal to reach the Calendar. Quicksilver won’t find iCal because the letter “i” is not in the word “Calendar”. This is where Synonyms are useful.

To add a synonym, go to the Catalog Preferences, click on the Plus button at the bottom of the window, and choose Synonym from the list — the drawer opens up. In the “Synonym” text field, type the Synonym you want to use, here I’m using iCal, then click on the big exclamation point that reads Target name, Click to Change. Then select (by typing) the item you want this synonym to be associated with, here Calendar. Finally, hit Enter. You should see a new line in the Sources list that reads “iCal → Calendar”.

Screenshot showing how to create a Synonym

Old habits die hard but Quicksilver has got you covered.

The Comma Trick and other useful tips

  • Use the Comma trick to select multiple files and folders: Select an item first either by searching or browsing, press Comma, select another item, etc. You can select as many files and folders as you wish.
Screenshot showing an example case use of the Comma trick

The Comma trick in action. Notice the mini previews, indicating there are multiple items, below the big icon showing the last selected item.

  • Grab the item currently selected in any Finder window, including the Desktop, by pressing Cmd-Esc (you don’t even have to invoke Quicksilver first). This is a preset HotKey Trigger (more on HotKey Triggers in a forthcoming article).
  • Press ~ to access your Home folder
  • When browsing a folder, press Alt-Right arrow to reveal hidden files (so, for instance, the sequence “~”, Alt-Arrow, “L” should help you find your Library)
  • Press Cmd-Y to Quicklook what’s selected (you can assign Quicklook to the Space bar, if you prefer, in Preferences > Preferences > Search > Spacebar behavior)

Finally, I suggest you go to Preferences > Preferences > Actions, and in the “All Actions” list, search for “Add to Catalog” and check its box. Now, if you can’t find a file or folder by searching, just access it by browsing first, then use the Add to Catalog action to, well, add it to the Catalog without having to dig into the Catalog preferences. Neat, isn’t it?

Perform Finder Actions

Here are the actions you’d usually do with the Finder, that you can access directly within Quicksilver. To use each of them, first select a file/folder in the first pane, press Tab and then type (you don’t need to use upper case):

  • “Move to…”
  • “Copy to…”
  • “New Folder”
  • “Rename”
  • “Move to Trash”
  • “Set Label”
  • “Get Info”
  • “Make Alias”, etc.

You can also empty the Trash with the Empty Trash > Run command. There’s no need to type Run, because it already is the default action for emptying the Trash. In fact, typing emp then hitting Enter should be enough.

What’s Next?

By now, you should know how to find files, folders and applications easily, with just a few keystrokes. You also know how to perform usual Finder tasks without the Finder.

Next week, we’ll dig into some of the things you can do with Plugins, such as emailing files, searching over the web, navigating your browser history, controlling iTunes, tweeting, scaling images, etc. In the meantime, have fun playing with Quicksilver! And feel free to ask anything in the comments below.