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Making Choices: Desktop Launchers, Part III of IV

Welcome yet another installment of our series about desktop launchers. Parts I and II covered DragStrip and Square One, two commercial desktop launchers. In parts I and II, I said the series would have three parts, but given the large number of launchers and the wide range of features that they offer, this series will continue next week, when I do hope to wrap things up. This and the next article look at a wide range of launcher utilities with the goal of pointing out what you can do with a launcher these days, what applications are available, and how you might choose among them.

Many of these applications have features that require System 7.5 (or later) or System 7.1.1 with the Drag Manager installed. If you don’t meet that requirement, be prepared to forgo certain features, particularly those that involve dragging. All the launchers and patches mentioned (except for Launcher, which comes from Apple) are available in the /gui directory in any Info-Mac archive site.

Launching and Switching — Typically, a desktop launcher looks like a column, row, or grid of tiles, usually enclosed in a palette, which can be resized and moved about. Tiles are usually square and about the size of a thumbnail, and the palettes that enclose the tiles are often called bars or strips. Each tile represents a application, and sometimes tiles can represent documents, folders, and more. Desktop launchers typically launch applications and may help you efficiently switch among launched applications.

If you have Drag Manager capabilities, you can usually "drag-open" documents by dragging them onto tiles that represent applications, thus causing the application to try to open the document as though you had used the application’s Open command.

A desktop launcher is usually an application, and you would typically place it in the Startup Items folder in the System Folder, so that the application launches on startup and is always available unless you quit it. Some desktop launchers are control panels or extensions. This makes them available at all times, but can increase the complexity of troubleshooting extension conflicts.

Malph — Consider Malph 2.3 as an example of a typical desktop launcher application that helps with launching and switching, without adding many additional features. Written by Nitin Ganatra, Malph begins on your Mac as two bars: the first bar shows tiles for launched applications, and the second bar sports four tiles for tools that help you use Malph. Using the tools on the tool bar, you can create new tiles for applications, and those tiles are added to the first bar (enabling you to quickly launch the applications related to the tiles). You can also use the tools on the tool bar to remove tiles that you added to the first bar, hide a tile on the first bar belonging to a launched application, and open the parent window of an alias or of an application showing on the second bar.

Malph shows the active application’s tile with a dark outline, and you can click any tile to switch to or launch its application. Malph uses a hot spot (a configurable corner of the screen that you drag your pointer to) for bringing its bars quickly to the front. Malph bars can be oriented horizontally or vertically, display large or small tiles, and optionally display the names of items on the tiles. If you have Drag Manager capabilities, you can drag-launch documents. Malph has been around for some time now and is a standard on many desktops. Malph is free, though Nitin would like Malph users to send him a postcard. 23.hqx

QuickList — Not all desktop launchers take the bar and tile approach, though most do. QuickList 1.0.1, a $5 shareware program by Daniel McGloin, takes a window approach. When you launch QuickList, you get a list window which you can freely resize. If you wish, you can create additional windows, and any window can list documents, and folders, and applications, which you add by dragging or through an Add Item to List dialog box. As you would expect from a launcher utility, a QuickList window does not hold actual items, it just shows representations of them. You can open or launch any item in the list by double-clicking it. Although you can turn them off, the default settings make it so that when you double-click an item, the item’s QuickList window minimizes to the size of a large tile and QuickList beeps once. You can also minimize the a QuickList window by clicking its Zoom box. Maximize the window by clicking anywhere on the minimized tile. You can also have QuickList quit when you double-click an item.

QuickList windows do not list all launched applications, but if you do Option-click a launched application in its list, the previously active application will be hidden. QuickList does not support drag-launching documents and has only a few capabilities, but it’s easy to learn, easy to set up, and easy to use. list-10.hqx

Documents and Folders — Some desktop launchers let you add documents and folders to tiles, such that you can more quickly open them, or – in the case of folders – so you can more quickly look inside the folders or move and copy items into the folders.

DragThing — To better understand how all the common features mentioned so far might work in a utility, consider DragThing 1.0, written by James Thomson. DragThing is a solid, easy, elegant application with two bars: one that shows launched applications and another where you can set up tiles for documents, folders, and applications by dragging icons onto empty tiles on the bar. The bar can be large or small, and have just one row or have many rows, depending on how you size it. Once you have a document on a tile, you can click it to open it in its expected application. Once you have a folder on a tile, you can open the folder, or copy or move items into the folder. Once you have a application on a tile, you can click it to launch the application, or drag-launch documents on the tile. You can also open any tile item’s Get Info window, and open its parent window.

DragThing must be specifically activated if it is beneath a different window. You can minimize DragThing strips to a one-tile large strip that sports the name of the strip. DragThing’s tiles can be displayed by small icon, size, or name. Unless you view by name, files and folders do not show with their names, though most applications are easily distinguished by their icons. If you use and like DragThing, James requests that you send him a "cool thing," of which there is a list in DragThing’s ReadMe file. Postcards don’t count. thing-10.hqx

Launcher — Launcher 2.7, a control panel from Apple that comes with System 7.5 and various (but not all) earlier systems, also serves as an example of a desktop launcher, though it has limited capabilities. Launcher displays items on tiles (called buttons), surrounded by a colored background, inside a proper window. You can Command-click the Launcher window to bring up a menu for changing the size of the buttons. To create a button for an item, you either drag the item into the window, or add it (or an alias) to the Launcher Items folder in the System Folder.

Once you make a Launcher button for a application, you can open documents in that application by drag-launching them on the button. You can move items into a folder represented on a Launcher button by dragging them over the button. You can also copy items by Option-dragging them to a button. To have Launcher open up while you start your Mac, you turn on a checkbox in the General Controls control panel.

Launcher does not automatically create tiles for launched applications, so it doesn’t work well as a application switching tool, though if you do have a tile that represents a launched application, you can Option-click that tile to switch to its application and hide the previously active application. Launcher has very few additional features, and you could achieve similar results just by making a new folder, called perhaps "My Launcher Folder," and placing a bunch of documents, folders, and applications (or aliases) in the folder. The point of Launcher is to help inexperienced users more easily use the Macintosh, and though it succeeds at that, after you pass the novice level, you will almost certainly want to move to something more fully featured.

Control Strips — Desktop launchers have tiles that represent icons on your desktop, including – if you wish – icons for control panels, which you might put on tiles to make it super-quick to open them. Now, take that idea a step further, and consider a tile that doesn’t open a control panel, but enables you to change the setting in a control panel, such as the sound level, perhaps with a miniature pop-up menu. Tiles such as this have been around for years in various applications, some give you quick access to control panel functions, others perform a variety of helpful or fun tasks.

Recently, Apple took this concept and embodied it in a control panel called Control Strip, which they initially released on the disks that ship with the 500-series PowerBooks. A Control Strip strip can be minimized or stretched out, taking up about a small tile’s worth of desktop space when minimized. Control Strip tiles represent Control Strip modules (which you install in the Control Strip Modules folder in the System Folder). Each module helps you do something with your Mac, such as change the sound level, turn AppleTalk on or off, and put your PowerBook to sleep.

Control Strip modules are reasonably easy to write for programmer types, and additional modules have turned up here, there, and everywhere, including in the /gui and /cfg folders in the Info-Mac archives.

Control Strips caught on quickly, and owners of other PowerBooks began clamoring for Apple to make Control Strip available to them, while owners of desktop Macs clamored for a way to run Control Strip modules as well. Control Strip is now available as part of System 7.5 or 7.5.1, but it only works on PowerBooks. You can, however, patch Control Strip to run on desktop Macs, using ControlStripPatcher, by Robert Mah. Also, DragStrip (the commercial utility reviewed in Part I of this series) and Desktop Strip (reviewed here in Part III) can run Control Strip modules. Additionally, although PowerBar (reviewed next week in Part IV) does not support Control Strips, it does come with several special modules of its own, and those modules offer similar capabilities. -strip-patcher-20.hqx

Desktop Strip — Petur Petursson’s $20 shareware Desktop Strip 1.1.2 is a control panel that supports Control Strips and does a nice job at helping you switch among launched applications. Because it is the only shareware-type launcher that currently supports Control Strips, I’m using it as an example of a typical one.

I rather like Desktop Strip because it always stays in the foreground and because its limited rule set makes it easy to master. Desktop Strip respects your screen space, offering vertical or horizontal strips that can be shrunk to just a tiny title bar (though you cannot name the strips – the title bars are blank) and petite (though not miniature) tiles. Desktop Strip comes with three modules that – without any supplementation – make it a useful utility: application menu, a tile/pop-up menu of launched applications; Monitor Depth, a tile/pop-up menu that changes your monitor settings; and Program List, a module that displays a separate tile for each launched application.

Using Program List, you can drag-launch documents. You can switch to any launched application by clicking its tile (or Option-click to switch to it and hide the current application, or Option-click the tile for the current application to hide all other applications). Command-clicking a tile from any of the three Desktop Strip modules brings up a short menu of options for configuring the module. You can temporarily hide the Desktop Strip palettes and set whether Desktop Strip hides itself when a screen saver is active.

In terms of common features, Desktop Strip lacks the ability to hold items on tiles (such as inactive applications, documents, and folders) – it can only display Control Strip modules and launched applications. If you find this a fatal flaw, have heart. The next version should be released with an additional module, called HandyMan, which lets you put documents, folders, and applications on a strip. You can also expand the strip out into a grid, where each row (or column, depending on how you set it up) represents the contents of specific folder. I’ve seen a pre-release version of HandyMan and it fits nicely with Desktop Strip.

If you like the fact that Desktop Strip sits on top of other windows (a feature that I like enormously, especially since its easy to shrink the strips down to almost nothing), you may also want to try HoverBar – it’s not as fully featured as Desktop Strip, but it is the only other launcher that floats on top of windows, and I plan to discuss it more next week. -strip-112.hqx

Choosing a Launcher — Choosing a launcher is hard work if you have to look at them all, so I hope this part of the desktop launcher series gave you a better idea of the basic possibilities, and perhaps alerted you to an interesting utility that you hadn’t already tried. The desktop launchers that I mentioned in this part were those that I felt most cleanly illustrated how a set of common features might work in a real life application. Next week’s installment will focus on additional desktop launchers that do not as easily serve as typical examples or that are more fully featured. Also, thanks to everyone who wrote in plugging their favorites.

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