It's time for the final installment of our desktop launcher series, which began back in TidBITS-275. To review, the first two parts discussed two commercial desktop launchers, DragStrip and Square One. Both products cost only slightly more than some of the pricier shareware options, but they also offer more features than many of the non-commercial alternatives, and are worth a look if you have the money to spend and want a printed manual backed up by phone support.
Part III veered away from commercial software, attempted to give less experienced readers an idea of typical desktop launcher features, and reviewed non-commercial applications that exemplified typical feature sets. If you read part III, I hope it alerted you to the wonderful variety of available applications and whetted your appetite for learning more of them. Part IV covers several more applications, and I saved some of the best for last.
I want to include a correction to part III, where I failed to mention one of Launcher's important features. (Launcher is Apple's entry into the desktop launcher field.) Two readers wrote in to correct me on this point. Stephen Trujillo <email@example.com> explained that "by creating a new folder inside the Launcher Items Folder in the System Folder, and preceding the name of that folder with a bullet (the character created by typing Option-8 in most typefaces), you can create a "button" which then appears as a "category," for want of a better term, along the top of the Launcher." Suman Chakrabarti <firstname.lastname@example.org>, an enthusiastic Launcher user, added that "Launcher can handle up to seven such folders for a total of eight categories, with a capacity of 30 items per category."
As an additional note, several readers have pointed out that placing carefully selected and arranged aliases on the desktop also provides basic launcher functionality, and this is certainly a pragmatic and inexpensive option. Also, there are various products that provide launcher-type capabilities and limit users' access to the contents of a disk. I'm not going to discuss those products in this series or my original trilogy would never end.
Another type of product that deserves a mention is the droplet launcher - an application that serves as a launcher by letting you drop documents on it. My fellow TidBITS editors tell me that this is another article topic in its own right, but I want to mention one such droplet, DropZone.
DropZone -- J.S. Greenfield's shareware DropZone 3.1 does only one task: it provides a quick way to open or print documents in any application, not just the documents' default applications. For example, it could help you easily open a Word document in Word 5, not Word 6. To use DropZone, you set up two folders (or just one) with programs (or aliases to programs) that you want to open documents with. For example, I set up one folder with word processors and a second folder with compression utilities.
Drag a document on the DropZone icon and DropZone responds with a dialog box where you can quickly choose a program to open the document. You can most easily choose from the programs in the two folders you set up, but you can navigate to any folder. If you notice that you always open certain types of documents with certain applications, you can use the DropZone Valet to make DropZone automatically open these documents with a specified application, without asking you to choose the application. DropZone Valet lets you match creator codes (four character codes that indicate the program that created a file), file types (four character codes that indicate the type of file, such as TEXT), and extensions (such as .sea or .etx). DropZone can be rather simple or somewhat sophisticated, depending on the level to which you employ and configure DropZone Valet.
PowerBar -- Some desktop launchers work best if you have monitor space to spare. In particular, the $25 shareware PowerBar 1.1.4 really shines if you've got the space for it to get comfortable. Written by Scott Johnson, PowerBar helps you switch between launched applications and launch new applications - plus it has a number of less-standard tricks up its sleeve. PowerBar is a control panel: when installed, you'll see a bar and several Status Pads when you switch to the Finder. Though PowerBar has a few rough edges, many of its features work together fluidly.
PowerBar is fairly flexible, complete with tiles that accept documents, folders, and Special Commands. Special Commands are similar to Control Strip modules in that they add special functionality. One Special Command, the Alias Boss, has several alias-management functions, including the feature of letting you drag an icon on the Alias Boss tile to make an alias of the icon and also quickly place the alias in a specific folder. PowerBar does not accept Control Strip modules and it does not automatically display tiles for launched applications.
PowerBar also offers Status Pads, informative buttons that tell you something about your Mac and give you one-click access to a related control. For example, the Printer Pad shows the name of the selected printer driver and whether or not AppleTalk is on. Clicking the Printer Pad opens the Chooser.
I won't attempt to list every PowerBar feature, but I found two notable. First, you can Command-click a folder in the bar to display a pop-up (non-hierarchical) menu of its contents. Second, PowerBar can make the Applications menu into a hierarchical menu that lists open windows for each launched application.
List Launcher -- If you don't have much monitor space, you might like Glenn Berntson's List Launcher. Although you can set up List Launcher a number of ways, I get the impression Glenn expects people will press a keyboard shortcut to launch it, use it to switch to a different application, and then automatically quit List Launcher during the switch. List Launcher marches to its own drummer, and may be a good option for people who need one of its specific features.
List Launcher displays of a long list of files and folders (which you can add to through an SF-type dialog box or by dragging things in). Beneath the list, List Launcher offers a few buttons, which enable you to show selected items' path names and (optionally) copy the path names to the clipboard, open selected items' parent folders, launch selected items, and rename selected items (an easier way of renaming a batch of icons than renaming them in the Finder). Any button can operate on just one item or on a group of items. List Launcher does not support drag launching, but it does have a nifty rocket button for launching things.
PowerLaunch II -- Roby Sherman's Power Launch II, version 2.0.1, sports an eight-tile "application palette three parts. The top part shows the tiles, the bottom part (which can be hidden) shows buttons for various functions, including adding, moving, and removing tiles, and changing your monitor or sound settings. The middle part is perhaps the most unique. It shows a nicely-done status bar, which can (optionally) list the name of the tile that the pointer is over, or can be used as a pop-up menu to switch to a different palette.
PowerLaunch II offers many standard features, including a number of different orientations and layouts for the application palette. You can only use it as an application switcher for applications stored on its tiles. It does not support Control Strips, but it does come with its own set of extensions that let you add more functionality. PowerLaunch cannot present you with a list of recently opened documents for a specific application, but the tiles of applications do act as pop-up menus, and you can add documents to those menus.
One of PowerLaunch II's more unusual features allows you to set up special monitor and sound settings your Mac switches to if you launch (or switch to) a certain application from PowerLaunch II. You can also set the time that you want certain applications to launch and set an optional simple lock-out feature that password protects your Mac if you leave it unattended for a configurable amount of time. You can also (apparently) group documents in order to open them all at once - the documentation is sketchy on the capabilities and limitations of this feature.
PowerLaunch II is a commercial application, though you'd think it was shareware unless you carefully read its ReadMe files. The program appears to function correctly without "activation," but you are supposed to pay for it. The cost is normally $30, though there is a $10 discount in a number of cases. Frankly, compared with other products I've discussed in this series, I would expect more of a $30 product that billed itself as "commercial."
HoverBar -- HoverBar 1.2, written by Guy Fullerton, is a $5 shareware application. Besides easily winning the award for inspiring the most laudatory comments from TidBITS readers, HoverBar's claim to fame is that its bars hover above your windows at all times. In this respect, HoverBar works like Desktop Strip (reviewed in part III, in TidBITS-277), though the applications differ in other ways.
HoverBar's features cover the usual bases. Bars can be horizontal or vertical, and tiles can display in small, medium, or large sizes. Names of tiles don't show on the tiles, but if you move the pointer over a specific tile, the name shows in the status field, a narrow strip below or alongside the bar. Bars never have blank tiles that you must ignore or try to eliminate by changing the size of the bar (typically blank tiles exist so that you can drag an item on them, thus adding the item to the tile); instead, you add items by dragging them to a special tile that has a plus sign on it. Launched applications' tiles have a slightly darker gray background than do inactive applications' tiles. You can put documents and folders on a bar, and you can move or copy a file into a folder by dragging it to a folder's tile.
Besides its hovering abilities, HoverBar's main special feature is that you can set up a bar to only show when a specific application is active. HoverBar also has several options for hiding and displaying its bars, though you cannot minimize them. HoverBar's ReadMe file notes that it does not work with WindowShade, a window-shrinking utility that comes with System 7.5 and later. It also vaguely notes possible problems with Word, Excel, and Quicken.
The Tilery -- The Tilery 3.0, (formerly Applicon) a freeware application written by Rick Holzgrafe of Semicolon Software, does a lot of things right. Its Preferences dialog box brought a grin to my face by not only including relatively standard options such as setting a hot spot to bring The Tilery to the front and changing the appearance of icons on the tiles (small icon, large icon, or name), but also by letting me color the tiles (one color for launched applications, another color for everything else). I also got to choose a color for the sides of the current application's tile.
The Tilery includes a Help menu, which lets you easily find answers to questions like "how do I add a tile?" Because The Tilery has been around a while, I think Rick has had a chance to carefully consider and smooth some of the rough edges that often come with a desktop launcher.
Most launchers employ at least two strips: one for launched applications, and one for things you want to keep around. The Tilery has no strip per se; it just has tiles that you can drag about independently and arrange as you like, in neat columns and rows (or not) as you wish. Like HoverBar, the Tilery never shows blank tiles - to create a new tile, you drag an item over Tilery's own tile (which sports the Tilery's application icon).
The Tilery has two kinds of tiles: regular and remembered. A regular tile appears when you launch an application, and that tile lets you do things relating to that application while it is launched. If you launch an application for which you don't want to see a tile, you can hide the tile, and it won't ever show again unless you unhide it. Remembered tiles can be applications, folders, or files, and they stick around until you ask The Tilery to forget them. This process is nicely implemented and clearly explained; you can just fall into this method of using the program without devoting many brain cycles to figuring it out.
The Tilery does not support Control Strip modules, but besides that it has all the basic features and many more subtle niceties than those I've mentioned. The Tilery also gets the nod for an excellent ReadMe file, which is incorporated in a rather nifty little reader called PocketDoc that Rick Holzgrafe also wrote.
Winding Down -- In preparing this series, I briefly played with each launcher. I set up a number of them and tried to use them in my daily routine, including Square One, DragThing, Desktop Strip, HoverBar, and The Tilery. All in all, I've discovered three things about myself: First, I love using keyboard shortcuts to launch and switch to frequently used applications. Now Software's Now Menus is one of many utilities that offers this feature, and I'm still a dedicated Now Menus user. Second, I don't have enough monitor space for hovering. I initially thought Desktop Strip's and HoverBar's hovering features were way cool, but my 16-inch and 13-inch dual monitor setup is already too full with all the information that I'm typing or looking at. Third, I'm a sucker for eye candy. The Tilery ultimately won my pick as my desktop launcher of choice. It has a number of features that work well, and its unique ability to color its tiles decreases eyestrain and adds a fun touch to my desktop.
That's it! I know I didn't cover every desktop launcher available, but I hope you have a better idea of what's out there. If you think a desktop launcher will make your Macintosh more efficient, more elegant, or more fun, I encourage you to take a few of them out for a test drive. If you already use a desktop launcher, I hope this article has confirmed your desktop launcher of choice or helped you choose upon a better one.