Quicksilver: The Best Free Way to Do Everything With Just Your Keyboard

OS X is already powerful by itself, and it’s packed with a lot of built-in apps that can help you accomplish everyday life tasks. However, it’s only when you’re using something like Alfred, LaunchBar or Quicksilver that you actually unleash the full potential of your machine. Things that are already simple on your Mac turn into lightening-fast tasks with these apps.

Though Quicksilver has been available for 10 years, it’s been kept a bit too much under the radar compared to its alternatives like Alfred. By popular demand, here’s our in-depth dive into the original app that puts “Mac OS X at your fingertips”. Let’s give this gem of an app the love it deserves.

This article is the first of a new series we’ll be running about Quicksilver that will help you get the most out of this extremely feature-packed — thus maybe a bit overwhelming — program.

What is Quicksilver, Anyway?

There are several ways to describe Quicksilver. You could say it is a launcher. I don’t like this word, though, because it implies that it’s only useful to launch apps. If you’re not familiar with Quicksilver, your default reply would then be: the built-in Spotlight already does that. But Quicksilver does way more than that. As it is humorously put on the official website:

“Saying that Quicksilver is an application launcher is like saying a car is a drinks holder.”

Another way of describing it, to people already familiar with this kind of apps, is: Quicksilver is the only powerful and totally free alternative to the young-but-subject-to-hype Alfred or the veteran LaunchBar. I would personal say that Quicksilver is the best way to do everything on your Mac with only your keyboard.

As these translated words from Lao-Tze, which also used to be in the Quicksilver ‘About’ window, say:

Act without doing:
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

That just about sums up what Quicksilver is all about. For the curious, Quicksilver icon is based on the alchemical symbol for mercury, the element that’s otherwise known as quicksilver.

A bit of history

If you think Google held the record for having the longest software betas, think again. Quicksilver development started June 29th, 2003, by ‘Alcor’, aka Nicholas Jitkoff from Blacktree. It remained a free but proprietary software until 2006, the year Google hired Nicholas to work on a project largely inspired by Quicksilver: Google’s Quick Search Box. Nicholas thus took the decision to make Quicksilver open-source, the code being first hosted on Google Code before a shift to Github in 2009. From then on and as far as I can remember, though beta versions remained remarkably stable, development almost halted. In fact, 2009 was the year almost everyone thought Quicksilver had died.

But just like a phoenix, Quicksilver never really dies. As of the end of 2010, a collective of developers known as the QSApp team decided to launch a new home for Quicksilver on the web, simply named QSapp.com, teasing the relaunch on their blog with some mystic posts. Finally, as both a final point and the beginning of a new, epic journey, Quicksilver got out of its almost 10-year long beta with the release of 1.0 version on March 25th, 2013. As I write these lines, version 1.1 has been released a few weeks ago. It’s finally come back to reclaim its spot as the OS X launcher tool of record.

How quicksilver Works

Screenshot showing the default interface of Quicksilver.

After the initial setup, here’s what the default interface of Quicksilver looks like.

There is no better way to learn Quicksilver than just start using it. It’s flexible enough to let you do things the way you want. However, understanding a few basic concepts might help you find your way through this incredibly powerful and versatile tool. If you want to go deeper and unleash the full potential of Quicksilver, I strongly encourage you to dig into the manual or the wiki (with a new version coming soon).

Basically, doing something with Quicksilver involves 4 quick steps:

  1. Open Quicksilver with a keyboard shortcut of your choose (I use CMD+Space, which is Spotlight’s default shortcut)
  2. Type to Search
  3. Tab to Act on
  4. Enter to Execute

Before being able to find something with Quicksilver, you first need to make sure it is in its catalog. Quicksilver does not use Spotlight indexing. The good thing is you can browse folders from Quicksilver even if they’re not in the catalog, and then adding them to the catalog can be done from within the app itself. With that bit of setup behind, it’s time to dig into the app itself.

Fuzzy search

Screenshot showing how to open your Downloads folder with Quicksilver.

Opening your Downloads folder with Quicksilver is as easy as typing a few letters and pressing Enter.

Once the Quicksilver window is opened, start typing to match something you want to use. This can be a file, a folder, an application, an external hard drive, a browser bookmark, the name of a contact, a mathematical operation, or just some text. While you’re typing, the powerful fuzzy matching algorithm of Quicksilver both starts to match and offers a default action for what is being matched.

Say you want to reach for your Downloads folder. Start by typing “down” and Quicksilver will both select your Downloads folder in the first pane on the left and offers the default “Open” action in the second pane on the right. If you really wanted to Open your Downloads folder, you just have to press Enter and you’re good to go: your Downloads folder opens in a new Finder window.

If you just type “do” and wait for a few seconds, you’ll notice a drop-down list appearing underneath the left pane. This gives you the choice to browse all results matching “do” including the Downloads folder, but also, for instance, the Dock preference pane from System Preferences, your Documents folder, your Dropbox folder, the Dropbox application, and so on.

Screenshot showing Quicksilver dropdown list for other results

If the first match is not what youre looking for, just browse the dropdown results list using Down arrow.

Getting the Dock, Downloads, Documents when typing “do” is no surprise. Getting Dropbox, though, is a little bit more than what you probably expect. This is where the magic of Quicksilver and its fuzzy search engine kicks in: you can match any letters from any word. You might type “dwn” to reach your Downloads folder. Or you could type “db” or even “dx” for your Dropbox. If you’re so inclined, you might even type “xd” to reach Dropbox — though, in this special case, you will need to teach Quicksilver first, because the x is not before the d in the “dropbox” word.

This fuzzy search thing is the first example of the incredible flexibility of Quicksilver. Also, Quicksilver learns from your habits, and the more you use something, the less you’ll have to type next time to reach it. For instance, after typing “down” for your Downloads folder a couple of times, chances are the next time you type “do” or even just “d”, your Downloads folder will come first.

A few keys to do almost everything

Here are the few keys you might want to use:

  • Down arrow lets you browse the result list for the active pane.
  • Tab navigates to the next pane (and consequently, Shift-Tab to the previous one).
  • Right arrow lets you browse through what is selected in the pane: if it’s a folder, browse its files and subfolders; if it’s a contact, get contact details; if it’s a text file, browse its content, line by line; if you’re in the action pane, display a list of other possible actions, etc.
  • Enter will execute what Quicksilver is showing in all of its pane.

The 3-pane Thing

In most cases, Quicksilver interface will show two panels:

  1. a left pane containing something you want to act on,
  2. and a right pane corresponding to what you want to do with what is selected in the left panel.

In some cases, however, you will see a third pane. There are actually three kinds of things you will use in Quicksilver:

  • Objects you want to act on are in the first, left pane
  • Actions to be taken on objects are in the second, middle pane
  • Arguments needed by some actions are in the third, right pane

Here are a few example cases where Quicksilver shows a third pane. Suppose you want to open a file with an application that is not the default one, say open an image with Pixelmator. In the left pane, start typing to match the file, press Tab, then start typing to match “Open With” instead of the default “Open” action. As the “Open With” action is selected in the second pane, Quicksilver automatically adds a third pane. Press Tab again to put the focus in this third pane and start typing “pix”. Once Pixelmator is selected in the third pane, press Enter, and your file will be opened with it.

Screenshot showing how to open an image file with Pixelmator, using Quicksilver

Thanks to the optional third pane, you can choose which application to open your file with.

This is quite a mouthful to describe, but for real you do this with just a couple of keystrokes. Try [whatever letters match your image name here], Tab, “ow” (for open with), Tab again, and finally “px” then Enter. Done.

Another example of the third pane is when you want to send a file to someone by email:

  1. In the first pane, search for the file,
  2. in the middle pane, type whatever you want to match “Email (Compose to…)” (try “emc” for instance),
  3. and finally, in the rightmost pane, type a few letters to match the name of the contact you want to send this file to, then press Enter.
Screenshot showing how to send a file by email with Quicksilver

Sending a file by email to a contact is another example of when the third pane is useful.

This way, Mail opens up with a new Compose window, where the selected file is already added as an attachment and the email address of your contact already filling up the “To:” field.

What makes Quicksilver special

You should now have a really quick overview of what you can do with Quicksilver. However, if you’re a frequent Alfred or LaunchBar user, you might be tempted to think that Quicksilver offers nothing new. That would completely overshadows that the free Quicksilver app is incredibly more flexible and complete than its two commercial counterparts (Alfred requires you to buy its PowerPack to unlock all of its power user features). Below you will find some of the ways you can customize Quicksilver to suits exactly your needs.

Flexibility in using the app

Let’s get back to our second example of the third pane of Quicksilver: sending a file to a contact. Actually, with Quicksilver, you can either:

  • search for the file in the left pane, choose the “E-mail to… (Compose)” in the middle pane, and select a contact in the third pane
  • or you could do it the other way round: first search for the name of the contact in the left pane, choose the email action in the middle pane, and search and select a file to send them to in the third pane.
Screenshot showing another way to send a file by email with Quicksilver

This is another way of sending a file by email to a contact.

You choose the way you want to do things, you don’t have to learn how Quicksilver works: it simply adapts to your workflow, your way of thinking.

Also, although Quicksilver is designed so that you never need to reach your mouse or trackpad anymore, you’re not forced to abandon it completely. You can for instance search for a file with Quicksilver then drag it to an icon in the Dock. Or else, drag something onto Quicksilver interface to select it in the first or third pane. Again, flexibility is one of the key aspects of this app.

Full UI customization

Quicksilver’s interface is completely customizable. This means two levels of personalization:

  • You can choose the colors and transparency levels of all panes, texts and lists
  • but you can also choose a completely different interface if you don’t like the default “Bezel” one: there are interfaces for everyone, from the sophisticated Cube with its 3D rolling dice effect to the minimalistic, pre-Lion Spotlight-like “Flashlight” interface, to name just a few. And of course, for each of these interfaces, you can customize colors as well.
Screenshot showing the Flashlight interface of Quicksilver

This is Quicksilver…

Screenshot showing the Cube interface of Quicksilver

…but this is also Quicksilver.

Screenshot showing the Nostromo interface of Quicksilver

And this is yet another Quicksilver interface called Nostromo that should appeal to Alfred fans.

HotKey Triggers

If you’re not satisfied enough by the time Quicksilver already makes you save, you can speed up things further by adding “HotKey Triggers”. Want to use the Cmd-Alt-Shift-D shortcut to open your Downloads folder in a new Finder window, whatever app you’re currently using? This is possible.

Screenshot showing a short list of configured Hotkey Triggers.

Some examples of what you can do with Hotkey Triggers.

I’ll get into details with Hotkey Triggers in another article.

Plugins

You can add new features to Quicksilver by installing plugins, which is as easy as ticking a box in the Preferences. In fact, when you run the app for the very first time, the setup assistant even suggests some recommended plugins to install right from the start.

I’ll cover what you can do with some plugins in much more details in forthcoming articles. In the meantime, here’s a short, non exhaustive list of apps whose features can be accessed within Quicksilver (it’s up to you to install any or all of the 100+ plugins available, all for free):

  • iTunes
  • Mail
  • your favorite web browser (Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Opera…)
  • iPhoto
  • Calendar
  • Calculator
  • Terminal
  • 1Password
  • BBEdit

Another plugin lets you perform web searches with any search engine. With another one, you get access to Clipboard history, etc. And with the User Interface plugin, you can even access the menus and windows of running applications. As you can see, this app has many tricks under its sleeves; in fact, when using Quicksilver, your trackpad might accumulate dust more than you expect it to.

Text Mode

Quicksilver is also, as far as I know, the only app in its category that gives you a real, full-fledged text box: it’s called the Text Mode (and you can open Quicksilver with the Text Mode ready using a Hotkey Trigger, for instance).

Screenshot showing the Text Mode of Quicksilver through the Nostromo interface.

The Nostromo interface is the best to take full advantage of the plenty of space you get in the Text Mode of Quicksilver.

So, Are You Convinced Yet?

You’ve just get a tiny overview of the incredible sense of power you get when using Quicksilver. Covering everything about Quicksilver will require other articles, as it can show several layers of complexity (you can for instance chain or even combine commands).

The only advice I’d like to give you right now is: just give Quicksilver a try. It’s free, powerful, and utterly flexible. What else? And if you fall in love with this wonderful tool, you might even donate to support its development.

Have you ever tried Quicksilver? If not, what’s keeping you from trying it? What would you like to be covered in the next weeks? Please let us know in the comments!


Summary

Quicksilver is a "launcher", like Alfred or LaunchBar. You can use it to do almost everything on your Mac just by typing a few letters. It's fast, powerful, feature-packed and flexible.

9
theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow
theatre-aglow