Acting without doing SOUNDS good, but...
September 30, 2007 8:44 AM   Subscribe

What's the deal with Quicksilver?

Everywhere I go on the internet, Mac users rave about Quicksilver. I've downloaded it a couple times, and I sort of get that it COULD be really useful, but I am not sure how.

I'm an academic, and my computer is primarily used for writing, research (including, but not limited to, reading and taking notes on PDF documents, and using online databases for journal articles), e-mail, browsing the Internet, listening to music, and occasionally watching videos.

So what am I missing with Quicksilver? I see so many other people who get a lot of use out of it, and I am sure I can fit it in somewhere, too, but I just can't seem to figure it out. I download it and then promptly forget that it is there, and after a while, delete it. This cycle repeats every few months. I fully admit, though, that I don't take as much time as I should with it before I lose interest.
posted by synecdoche to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I like it because it will launch anything without me having to get away from the keyboard. This can be an address, a program, a file or something else. I mostly just use it for that but I had some reasonable success adding some keystrokes that would do things like pause itunes from the keyboard (useful when you get a phone call or want to watch a youtube video) or skip to the next song. In short, I see it as saving mousing time and saving seconds, not minutes, but I just keep it running in the background, made the keystrokes to start it simple [apple-shift] and it's great for some things some times and has few downsides. Merlin has an intro here which really helped me understand what some of the fuss was about.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on September 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

command-space, type the name of the app. Uses regular ol' spotlight which comes on every Mac. I still don't get this Quicksilver thing.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2007

Got a set of files stored locally? QS can . Use something like DevonThink or Yojimbo to store notes? QS plugs into that, either with a dedicated plugin or by providing easy access to the under-used Services menu. Want to send a quick email or load up a bookmarked web page (stored locally or on QS does that too. Plus lots more.

And Merlin Mann is definitely your one-stop shop for all things Quicksilverish. Plus, faster than Spotlight on not-so-new hardware.
posted by holgate at 9:06 AM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Quicksilver and Spotlight are not the same.

As a launcher, I find QS's most useful feature to be its ability to recognize non-contiguous parts of a filename. For example, if I want to open Audio Hijack Pro, I can hit cmd-space, type "ahp," and hit return, opening the program in a fraction of a second without even looking at the screen. Spotlight is also a bit slower than QS.

As jessamyn points out, you can use it to do pretty much anything, and it can definitely be overwhelming. The best use I've found for it is to tie it to my web browser (there are plugins for all of the big ones; I use Firefox) and use it to open my bookmarks. Combine that with Smart Keywords and you can do something like this:

cmd-space > "imdb" > return > "dr. no" > return

That'll launch your browser and search IMDB for "dr. no."
posted by danb at 9:11 AM on September 30, 2007

I think people who love Quicksilver love it because it hooks into the apps they already use. I always found it way too deep to actually bother to learn to use properly.

I've got command-space hooked up to Butler's launcher. It also takes care of my multiple clipboards and web searching and puts a few other doodads in my menubar.

Spotlight is just awful for launching. I think Spotlight is awful for just about everything, actually. I prefer EasyFind for searching my disk.
posted by Plug Dub In at 9:19 AM on September 30, 2007

I use quicksilver on the macbook and launchy on the windows XP box. Launchy is less powerful but very interesting.
posted by Baud at 9:19 AM on September 30, 2007

Best answer: Quicksilver provides access to almost any kind of _stuff_ in your Mac's and your world -- contact information, bookmarks, files, Applications, system settings, and pretty much anything else -- and it lets you leap to any of these things by typing a few letters of the name (NB: Spotlight is more about _contents_ and QS is more about _names_; they're complementary, not competing). So, that's the neato, Day 0 stuff.

But the big sexy comes with how QS understands the potential verbal relationships between any of those objects, then gives you a single keyboard interface for making amazing things happen.

* add this new line I just typed to this text file
* email this file to that friend of mine
* zip this file then FTP it to this server
* play this song next in iTunes' Party Shuffle
* find out my IP address then paste it where my cursor is

And, again, it's all through a single key-driven interface, so you don't have to "change modes" so to speak. Plus, Quicksilver has a learning algorithm that learns from you. So if you want typing the phrase "applepie" to launch Microsoft Word? QS is totally cool with that -- plus when you do it often enough "ap" will be all you need to type. QS gets it.

As far as getting started, def. don't feel like you have to master the app in a sitting or even in a week. Get comfortable launching apps and switching iTunes tracks, etc. first. As it starts seeming less alien to you, you'll start discovering what all it can do for you. Mostly just by typing and seeing what happens. It's really fun.

If you give it a chance, you'll see Quicksilver is a little like a magic trick -- no matter how many times it's explained to you, it's just more fun to see it in action.
posted by merlinmann at 9:20 AM on September 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you don't mind using the mouse, Finder, and all that to control the machine, Quicksilver isn't going to seem to be that big of a deal. If you'd like to do everything via the keyboard, it's indispensible. With QS, I rarely use the mouse at all.
posted by rhizome at 9:31 AM on September 30, 2007

I use it to launch stuff fast. I press CTRL-Space, type calc, hit enter, and I have the calculator up. Much better than searching throug my Applications folder manually. Or using Spotlight, which does the same thing but somehow takes 5 seconds to find it and defaults to Show All, so I have to cursor down to the actual thing I want, even though it knows that Calculator is what I want.

Honestly, I don't use any of the other features because I can't remember what they are when I want to use them.
posted by smackfu at 10:17 AM on September 30, 2007

I downloaded and forgot it a few times as well before I really got the hang of it. Now I can't imagine life without it.

The trick that worked for me was to force myself to use it by removing everything from my dock -- everything but Quicksilver. This got me into the mode of only launching applications from the keyboard. Once I was doing that automatically it was a natural transition to searching for and ultimately manipulating files using the same interface.

Set up a few keyboard triggers to launch your favorite apps or frequently-accessed files, and once you realize you can open some buried file without switching gears--without having to hide the current application to see the Desktop in order to open the Hard Drive and find the Documents folder, open that to find the project folder and open that to find the specific file you're looking for, etc... -- you'll get it. (That, by the way, is exactly how I used to find/open documents before Quicksilver. One of Quicksilver's side effects is that the desktop interface begins to seem prettty clunky).

Bonus video: Quicksilver in Real Life
posted by EL-O-ESS at 10:20 AM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Personally, I find LaunchBar much more approachable, and it’s become basic to my Mac use. You might want to check out the videos at Screencasts Online, which demonstrate very clearly the basic and generally coolest features of both QuickSilver and LaunchBar.

I scarcely scratch the surface of what LB can do, but the parts I DO use, have become essentials.

I’ve also recently come to love FileSpot as a SpotLight replacement; really makes it easy to zero in on what I’m looking for. And there are great video demos for this, too, at the developer’s site.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:25 AM on September 30, 2007

I'm not going to tell you how to use it...

Instead, I'll tell you why to use it

It's essentially a graphical front end to the command line. Back in the day, all you had was the command line: At a dos prompt you'd type "msword" to launch word (and your computer had to know the path of where word was.)

Graphical interfaces came along, and you'd have to jump to your hard drive, open your applications directory, find word (at least it's alphabetical, shit, it's Microsoft Word not just Word...and it's in the Office Directory).

Or use quicksilver. Cntl-Space, type "MSW" and word comes up, press return, and it launches word.

There are a 100+ uses for this, but, at the very basics, it's a quick and dirty way to not have to hunt down everything.
posted by filmgeek at 10:50 AM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Check out a few of these (brief, I swear) tutorials to get started.
posted by stefanie at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2007

[Quick disclaimer: I learned almost everything I know about Quicksilver from Merlin's website.]

Quicksilver is indespensible if you hate mousing as much as I do (I use a laptop as my sole computer). But it goes beyond just the momentary physical inconvenience of mousing -- it makes all of the fiddly context-switching stuff just fade away into the background, so you can just concentrate on what you're actually doing. Once you get really good at it, it feels like controlling your computer by telepathy. Let's say I'm looking over an interesting conference paper in Skim. I think to myself: "I should send this to Bob", et voilà!, I've sent it to Bob. While I'm reading, I see a word I don't know, et voilà!, the dictionary entry flashes up on my screen. The radio starts playing something too distracting, et voilà!, it's switched to one of my preset classical stations. What's more, is that even though I'm working in full-screen mode, I never even had to leave Skim to do any of these things -- the paper's been right in front of me the whole time. Finally, I get to the end of the paper and notice an interesting reference from one of the online archives I've bookmarked -- et voilà!, I'm already in the archive, finding the article by typing in Firefox. "Act without doing" really applies. I didn't have to think about how to do any of these things -- it's all stored in the muscle memory of my fingertips and I've never taken them off the keyboard. It's as if I will things to happen, and then they happen.

Quicksilver doesn't have a huge learning curve, but you must use for a while for it to make sense. This is because it's a change in your workflow, and so you have to make a conscious adjustment to incorporating it into your workflow, just like you would with any other new application. At first, you might have to consciously remind yourself to use it for really simple things in your workflow (like launching or context-switching for apps). If you do this for a week or three, it eventually stops being something that you have to consciously remember to do, and becomes something that just happens.

Quicksilver is extremely customizable, so it is really easy to bind hotkeys to custom actions and scripts. As I said earlier, I like to work in fullscreen mode. All of my most-used apps are bound to hotkeys, so I can call any of them to the front instantaneously. Just to give you a feel for what it can do, here are some other things I use it for frequently:
  • Instantly call up an bookmarked webpages. I have the Google search page on a hotkey, so I can call it up from anywhere.
  • Quicksilver has built-in dictionary and calculator modules. Just type your word (or equation) and get the answer in a little popup window.
  • The clipboard: remembers the last N things that you copied to the clipboard (rather than just the last one). So, say you need to copy the author, paper title, and journal name off of a web page to copy into Mail, BibDesk, etc. I can just quickly Cmd-C all of them into the clipboard, then switch apps, and quickfire recall each of them into the new context without switching back and forth.
  • Keyboard access to the menu items of the current application (I learned this from Merlin).
  • IM -- I do most of my chatting via Quicksilver and Growl, so I never have to look in the IM window: I send message with Quicksilver, and I see the responses in Growl. This is great for answering occasional questions from colleagues without losing focus on what I'm doing.
  • To do lists -- I keep mine in an app called iGTD, and I can call up a Growl window containing all of my current to dos (or just the ones for a single context) in a single keystroke using a variant of this script.
To be honest, even though I've been using it for over a year, I'm pretty sure that this partial list barely scratches the surface.
posted by alopez at 11:12 AM on September 30, 2007 [6 favorites]

One of the very most useful uses for me is to move files around. For example, say I have a bunch of files that have landed on the desktop and need to get sorted into folders (yes, I still do that)--I call up Quicksilver, start typing the name of the folder I want to put the stuff in, and drag the files into it. You can drag files out of it, too.

(The hard-core Quicksilverer would select the file, hit command-G to get it into QS, then send it to its destination from there, but I like my way. Dragging gives me a sense of accomplishment.)

That is one tiny thing I do with it a hundred times a day and that I can't imagine living without. It is so much easier than navigating the Finder.

Oh, I also use a key command I set up to eject my iPod a lot too.
posted by bluebird at 11:13 AM on September 30, 2007

Abstractly, Quicksilver takes pieces of information from around your machine - URLs, files, pieces of text, images, etc. - and allows you carry out arbitrary actions on them - file actions like move/copy/rename, intra-application actions like the various menu actions in an app (you can invoke menu actions from the keyboard, universally - awesome), and inter-application actions like 'send this text as an IM' or 'attach to email' or 'open in Photoshop,' etc.

The program takes up to three essentially natural-language inputs:

* a direct object (e.g. a file),
* a verb (e.g. 'Open with...' or 'Send as an IM'), and
* optionally an indirect object (e.g. '[IM] your_girlfriend').

Plus it learns keyboard shortcuts, and is very programmable and plugin-able. So I hit cmd-shift-S and start typing, and Quicksilver presents me with my iTunes library, filtered by song name and listed in the order I gave it. Much of the power of a command line with the convenience of a GUI (you can drag from the GUI into the Quicksilver window too, damn).

I find Merlin's site technically shallow and obsessed with piddling minutiae - indeed almost solipsistic, in a 'wow our total lack of disciplined creativity is so cool' way - but it really is the best single resource for learning Quicksilver. Both are heartily recommended.
posted by waxbanks at 11:45 AM on September 30, 2007

Incidentally: start by using it as an app launcher. (I don't use Spotlight, and have Quicksilver bound to Cmd-Space.) Then make an effort every once in a while to integrate one or two functions into your workflow. You wouldn't expect to use every blade on a Leatherman in a single day, but you'll only get to each one if you carry it around all the time. Quicksilver is the Leatherman of OSX shareware.
posted by waxbanks at 11:48 AM on September 30, 2007

Response by poster: Merlin, what you (and others) have highlighted here is precisely the problem I’m having: I can get it to launch apps, no problem, and that is NICE. But I want to be able to do things like what have been described around here-- reducing multi-step things into a few keystrokes, so I don't have to start one program, get something from another program, and go back and forth and so on.

For example, I would like to be able to do something like start up Quicksilver, and tell it to create a new iCal event. No clue how to do that, though. I hit CMD-Space, type “Cal” and iCal comes up, but then what? This is the problem I have— getting from the run-of-the-mill use as a launcher to really unlocking its power. I can see it being very useful for me, if I could receive an e-mail, tell myself I need to make an iCal event with an alarm, and just hit a few keys. That is the sort of workflow that I’m interested in. But I can’t connect these things together.

Does that make any sense?
posted by synecdoche at 12:20 PM on September 30, 2007

alopez: for the love of god, and all that is holy, tell me how you do the instant messaging thing. I must know!!!!
posted by Freen at 12:21 PM on September 30, 2007


open quicksilver. Type "." type in event name, hit tab, type calendar, tab, type calendar name, hit enter.
posted by Freen at 12:24 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

addendum: to create an event on a specific date, where i had event name, insert date, then event name.
posted by Freen at 12:26 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

To email a file to someone: open quicksilver, type name of file, hit tab, type "mail to", tab, persons name in addressbook, enter.
posted by Freen at 12:27 PM on September 30, 2007

synecdoche, there doesn't seem to be a ical plugin for QS, but usually you launch QS with your keystroke, but then hit Tab when it pops up instead of Enter to launch. In the sub-menu are a bunch of actions. There's a Google calendar plugin and you can map a keystroke to Add an Event there.
posted by mathowie at 12:32 PM on September 30, 2007

I'm definitely one of the "don't remotely see the point in qs" types. But then, I have (nearly) all the applications I want open all the time in multiple Desktop Manager screens, and one of them has a Terminal. I know Unix; all else shall pass.

But I'm glad other people get qs, and they're usually polite enough not to proselytize.
posted by scruss at 12:41 PM on September 30, 2007

Response by poster: Right, thanks-- that is cool.

But. I mean that example as more of an example, rather than one concrete thing I am having issues with. I don't know where to begin with these complex things, or what QS is looking for.

I like this whole idea of taking objects and then performing actions, but it is the step from the basics to the oh wow factor that I am missing, I think. The inter-application type stuff, I guess.
posted by synecdoche at 12:44 PM on September 30, 2007

Your question gets to to biggest shortcoming of Quicksilver, which is that it isn't well-documented. At least, it's not all documented in one central place. You have to use a different strategy to understand it.

I typically use two strategies. The first one is exploration. There are couple of ways to do this. You can type in an application and see what shows up. For instance, type in "itunes", then the right arrow key, and you see all of the things you can access in iTunes from Quicksilver. Another strategy for exploration is to open up its preferences window and see what's there. There are dozens of actions and modules -- what do they all do? Some of them will be useful to you and some won't; it depends on what your personal workflow is.

The second strategy is when you find yourself doing something repetitively, to ask: how can I do this in Quicksilver? A lot of times, someone has already posted an answer somewhere (you'll have to Google; this is a problem with not having the documentation in one place). For instance, in answer to your question about how to set events in iCal, I found this (first impression: it works but it's a bit brittle).

In answer to Freen's question: open the preference pane, go Preferences, and find the Handlers item. There is an option to set your IM application. Once you've set it, to IM someone, invoke Quicksilver, type your text, select "IM to account..." and then select the recipient. I have used this with both iChat and Adium, it seems to work for both. You will need to set your IM client up with Growl to get the full impact.
posted by alopez at 1:22 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

The only thing I use it for is to launch programs.. and for that use it's great. I have no icons on my dock (except those of running programs) and I never have to go clicking around in Applications. If I want any one of hundreds of apps running, I press my Quicksilver keys then type the first two characters of the app name, and bam, I'm in.
posted by wackybrit at 1:45 PM on September 30, 2007

odinsdream -- it sounds like what you're doing is the same as (or as fast as) what I do... but just for the record:
  • To look up words: You must have the Dictionary plugin installed. Invoke QS, type word in text window, tab, select "Dictionary", enter. The definition will appear in modeless window. This is slightly different from "Look up in Dictionary", which is an OS X service, and causes the actually dictionary application to launch. Also note: you can use the "Current Selection" proxy object to make this faster: double click word, invoke QS, select "Current Selection", select "Dictionary", hit enter.
  • To use calculator: You must have the Calculator module installed. Invoke QS, type "2^10" or some other expression, tab, select "CalculatorCalculateAction", enter.
  • To use clipboard: You must have the Clipboard module installed. Cmd-C several different selections. Invoke QS, and type "Show Clipboard". This will bring up a modeless window from which you can select any of the last N objects that you've copied to the clipboard. You can select with the mouse, arrow keys, or the number associated with the selection. The number of items stored is configurable in the Preferences->Clipboard pane.

posted by alopez at 2:14 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your question gets to to biggest shortcoming of Quicksilver, which is that it isn't well-documented. At least, it's not all documented in one central place. You have to use a different strategy to understand it.

As someone who has tried to document Quicksilver (to varying degrees of success), I've become convinced that it'll never be possible to get it to a "well-documented" state. There's a few side reasons for this, but let's focus on the big one: Quicksilver is more than the sum of its parts.

It's like Photoshop, in a way. You can sit and perhaps learn all the little things that make Photoshop tick - basics like cropping, intermediary topics like level curves, advanced stuff like paths and layer masking. No one of these things will necessarily fix whatever you need to do with any given graphic - but in combination, you can do useful things.

Learning any single point of Quicksilver is good, but it's learning all of those individual parts and then combining them in new and interesting ways that really makes Quicksilver click.

If I was to pick seven individual parts to learn, they would be:

1 - The command window (what each pane means, how to move between it)
2 - The scoring system (how your results are sorted, and how to manipulate it)
3 - The catalog (how to control what objects do and do not appear in your QS interface)
4 - The plugin system (how to tell what a plugin does, etc)
5 - Triggers (saving canned commands as macros)
6 - Proxy objects (special objects for manipulating particular objects)
7 - The action catalog (how to rearrange/enable/disable your action list.)

If you can learn these, you'll be able to pick up most anything else QS throws at you, and will certainly let you wei wu wei way up the wazoo.
posted by Remy at 3:25 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

odinsdream -- here's one more thing to try.

Those items that show up in the first pane of Quicksilver come out of something called the catalog, which is basically a list of sources that Quicksilver understands how to parse. The first pane of the QS interface is populated from this catalog. If you want to find out where an item is (or where it probably should be), then this is where you should look.

Open QS preferences, click on "Catalog" on the top menu bar, "Quicksilver" on the side menu bar, and "Internal Commands" in the list. Now click on the information button at the bottom of the preference pane, and in the drawer that opens up, click on "Contents". Assuming that you've got everything installed correctly, you should find "Show Clipboard" in the list. Make sure that it's enabled. If you've got everything installed and restarted and you still don't see it in there, then I'm at a bit of a loss as to what else you might need to do.

btw, you should also be able to access the clipboard history from the QS menu bar item. IIRC it also has a preset hotkey of Cmd-L (you can change this to something else).

For instance, where did the clipboard module come from? If I knew that, I'd try and visit the website and read about how it's supposed to function.

I agree this would be great, but as I said, I don't know of any website with such comprehensive documentation, though there are some good suggestions above for the various information hubs on Quicksilver.
posted by alopez at 4:19 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

The clipboard module (not sure if it's installed by default) gives you a floating panel with your last N clippings. You can dock it to the edge of the screen just by dragging it there; it will disappear when you move the mouse away, and appear when the mouse approaches that spot. This is the surprisingly mouse-oriented way of using it; I'm sure you can set up a hotkey to invoke it as well.

QS' power really comes from having information in a form it can parse in the first place; eg storing your contacts in Address Book. When my wife sends me a chat message asking "what's Bob's phone number?" I can invoke QS, type "Bob", right-arrow into his entry, scroll down to the phone number, tab, type "paste" and it just appears in chat.

You can learn some of the tricks QS offers simply by arrowing down through the actions in the command window, and exploring the catalog (which is confusing but important) in the Prefs window.

A couple of cool tricks:

1. Select some text and type command-escape. This brings up QS using the selection as the text to be acted on. You could use this to define a word, calculate a formula (if the selection is a formula) or append some text to a file.

2. Enable the Services menu module. This allows you to execute anything in the services menu inside QS.

I'll agree with the others that QS is deep enough that an exhaustive how-to may be impossible. Like any powerful tool, people will always figure out new tricks for it.
posted by adamrice at 6:56 PM on September 30, 2007

I have another question for the Quicksilver users:

Suppose you use a few different Macs, but you're only able to put Quicksilver on one. I have my desktop, my wife has a MacBook (which I surf on when we're away or in another room) and I have my desktop at work. I can put Quicksilver on my Mac Mini, but my wife doesn't want me cluttering her laptop with applications (which is probably a good call on her part) and I cannot install anything on my work desktop, as IT won't allow it and it would be a fire-able offense if i figured out a way around.

Will learning Quicksilver (which would tie awesomely into the way I use my computer) be a hindrance on the other computers, especially my work machine? Or is it easy enough to switch gears?
posted by azpenguin at 10:48 PM on September 30, 2007

Will learning Quicksilver (which would tie awesomely into the way I use my computer) be a hindrance on the other computers, especially my work machine? Or is it easy enough to switch gears?

You will be hitting Cmd-Space (or whichever launch trigger) all the time and it won't work. It's bad enough doing it on Windows.

(But you can install it on your wife's laptop with neither a dock icon or a menubar icon, and it'll still work fine, just on the sly. Also, I bet your IT people use it, the philistines.)
posted by holgate at 11:04 PM on September 30, 2007

I do what scruss does. UNIX isn't going anywhere. Who knows where Quicksilver will be in $timeframe? Learn UNIX.
posted by Kwine at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Quicksilver offers GUI integration and context-switch-free command initiation that you can't quite get through the command line. I've got Quicksilver triggers to bring certain windows to the foreground, QS triggers to start shell scripts, QS triggers for controlling iTunes, etc.. Between QS and enabling the full keyboard access on the Mac, you hardly ever have to touch a mouse. And as they say, every time you touch a mouse God kills a kitten.

It's complementary to the command line, not competing. How would you select some text and do something arbitrary to it from within a GUI app with a command line in a couple keystrokes? Can the command line give you access to your clipboard history on the fly within any app in the system?

Sure - QS won't endure as long as Unix, but that doesn't mean it's worthless.
posted by voidcontext at 3:00 PM on October 2, 2007

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