Productivity Boost: Key Stroke Launchers


Productivity is a tricky thing. Once you’ve found your way to get things done, you aren’t likely to change anything until the system (your workflow or your tools) doesn’t work any more. For instance, many developers tend to use the very same versions of applications they’ve been using over years. After all, you get things done and you’ve got used to it — so why should you introduce any changes? “Never touch the running system” is the principle which is often followed in such situations.

Touch The Running System!

However, this approach has its drawbacks. For instance, you might simply be not aware of some useful tools which would save you many headaches, a lot of money and dozens of sleepless nights. Using them, you can become more efficient, more productive and consequently minimize the time you spend on tiring, monotonous daily routine tasks.

Over the next months we are going to cover a number of useful tools, services and applications which might help you to improve your workflow and increase your productivity. Most of them will turn out to be life-savers in practice, as they help you to accomplish some tasks automatically and you would need to do them manually otherwise.

In this article we present some free key stroke launchers — desktop-applications which you can use to start some other applications without a single mouse click.

Key Stroke Launcher?

If you are a professional web-developer you might have dozens of different tools you use on a regular basis. And, once you have them, you also want them to be ready to hand once you need them. However, the regular Windows start menu consists of a long list of applications, and the desktop is usually full of icons, so it’s pretty hard to have a big picture of what is where placed.

Not every application’s shortcut is perfectly arranged for a quick launch, because the programs are not sorted in an alphabetic order or the desktop looks like an icon-jungle. So you need to navigate through the Start menu or minimize some windows to finally click on the desktop icons. That’s not effective.

Good news: you can do better. In such cases you can use Launchy, KeyBreeze or Google Desktop to improve your productivity.


Launchy1 is a free, lightweight Windows utility which helps you to open files, folders, web-sites and applications with a few key-strokes. In the shape of a little search bar, the tool appears to your service by pressing the Alt + Spacebar key combination.

Just type the first letters of the program you’d like to start or site’s URL you’d like to visit and the tool provides you with possible matches of your query.

Launchy 2
Image: Launchy3

Apart from a number of plug-ins, Launchy also offers some further functionalities for specific search. To look up some topic in Wikipedia or Google, type in "wikipedia", or “Google” then hit the tab key and enter the topic you are interested in. If you’d like to check the weather, type in "weather", then input the zip code, city name or state. Similarly, you can also play your favourite tracks and search local directories for some file.

If you don’t like the default look or would like to change it from time to time you can can select one of the skins. You can find a number of Launchy skins here4; however, most of them don’t work with the latest version of the tool, so you might need to download the previous version (1.25).

“Aero” skin

Launchy is the winner in the category “Best new project” in the Sourceforge.Net 2007 Community Choice Awards.


Similarly to Launchy, KeyBreeze5 is a free key stroke launcher which tries to guess the application, document or site you’re looking for. However, it has a dozens of further features which can serve as little productivity tweaks.

The tool also enables you to perform system tasks, control windows on your screen and use macros for some repetitive tasks, such as backing up files and folders.


If you’d like to insert some phrase you tend to use often in your conversation, you can instead of using some data stored on your PC, you can use text functions which will paste predefined text automatically into the document or text field which is currently active.

What makes KeyBreeze particularly useful is that you can create notes and to-do lists on the desktop and also set reminders — instantly.


There is also a portable USB version of the tool as well as a number of plug-ins which are available on the official web-site.

Google Desktop

Actually, Google Desktop8 has proved to be the ultimate solution when it comes to desktop search. Coming with a Google Sidebar, Desktop brings the advanced search functionalities as known from the conventional Google search.

Launchy 9

However, Google Desktop can also be used as the ultimate key stroke launcher. Once the tool has finished indexing your data, you can hit Ctrl twice and the quick search box will appear. As Google Desktop provides full text search over email, files, music, photos, chats, Gmail and web pages that you’ve viewed, you can launch applications, open files and load web-pages in a browser without a single click.

Apart from that, there are a number of great uses for Google Desktop10, such as file versioning or file recovery. You can also place gadgets on your desktop to show you new email, weather, photo and personalized news. In fact, we’ve covered a number of useful gadgets and modules for Google Desktop in our article Google Gadgets, Widgets and Modules11.


Whatever tool you choose in the end, used properly, it will save you a number of unnecessary clicks and help you to get a little more productive without any effort. On a large scale these small changes can completely reduce annoying tasks you needed to do on a regular basis. Just getting rid of them is a significant step towards a more effective and productive workflow.


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  1. 1

    I think you forgot to include “enso” it’s awesome and it recently moved to freeware

  2. 2

    did you ever user activ aid application launcher?
    included in:

  3. 3

    I agree with John Shaw.
    It’s a pity you haven’t used or featured Enso.
    It blows away all these tools you featured, and it just got free.

  4. 4

    It seems to be a windows oriented post but Quicksilver is definitely a timesaver for me on OS X.

  5. 5

    What, no linux love? What about Gnome-Do. obviously for the gnome desktop environment for the other linux users out there!

  6. 6
  7. 7

    Vista offers a very good search option too, in the “start menu”. Just press the Win-key and start typing.

  8. 8

    I’m the 5th comment! WEEEE!

  9. 9

    I don’t understand why Quicksilver isn’t on this list…. definitely THE BEST choice for mac!
    Quicksilver is the first app I install when I have to reinstall macosx (two times in 3 years). I can’t live without it ;)

  10. 10

    Don’t forget about SlickRun.

  11. 11

    Launchy is definitely the key stroke launcher for me. Whilst I love gmail and the search, I don’t *really* want google to be taking over my desktop (new Microsoft that way?) However, the notes function on KeyBreeze seems pretty nifty as well so I might try that one out, thanks Smashing Magazine!

    p/s: Launchy uses minimal to no system resources.

  12. 12

    You definitively missed out Enso, which is totally awesome, and since some days ago it became freeware. Link

  13. 13

    There is also
    is an littlebit more then only an keystroke launcher, but it’s quite nice.

  14. 14

    As already mentioned, it seems like this is a more Windows-based article. On the Mac side, there’s the excellent Quicksilver (my preferred), LaunchBar, Butler, Google Desktop and Apple’s Spotlight.

  15. 15

    As already mentioned, it seems like this is a more Windows-based article.

    On the Mac side, there’s the excellent Quicksilver (my preferred), LaunchBar, Butler, Google Desktop and Apple’s Spotlight.

  16. 16

    Launchy is the shit .. easy FAST, extendible and . . looks nice

  17. 17

    Add another vote for Gnome-Do from me. I’ve been using it for about a month and loving it. More functionality is added with every release.

  18. 18

    Linux users (KDE, Gnome) are well used to this functionality as standard.

    KDE users (I use Kubuntu) have a whole load of options, even keystrokes that do something based on the content of your clipboard (of which Linux users have two – the normal manual Ctrl+C etc. one and another that is automatically filled with the latest selection). You can also set up akeystroke to find and switch to an application (eg. I use Alt+1 to focus on Firefox, Alt+2 for Thunderbird, Alt+3 for Gvim (text editor).)

  19. 19

    I’m pretty sure it’s a Windows-oriented post. I’ve been using Launchy for a while, and I love it. For Macs, Quicksilver just blows everything out of the while. I’ll try Enso though.

  20. 20

    +1 for SlickRun

  21. 21

    ++ for quicksilver

  22. 22

    I’m the type of geek that should love key stroke launchers but in fact I consider them too slow. I use Winkey to launch my apps. It turns the Win key into a useful dead key like Alt, Ctrl and Shift.
    You learn it where Thunderbird is on your hard disk and that you want to use it with the T key by example; then you just have to press the Win key + T and tada!
    I launch Internet (well, Firefox) with Win+I, add Shift and it’s IE6, add Ctrl for IE7, both for Opera. And there are others for spreadsheet, word processor, graphic software, filezilla, putty, etc

  23. 23

    using fte (faster than ever)
    free as well.

  24. 24

    I did some research on this a couple months back and tried every single one for windows, including the ones mentioned in the comments above, and the ones you covered in the article. The best one hands down is easily Find and Run Robot

    It’s so customizable, has plugins, and just overall is better than anything else out there, give it a shot for a couple days and you’ll never know how you worked without it.

  25. 25

    You should re-title this post to say Key Stroke Launchers for Windows. There are others for other operating systems. I adore Launchy, it doesn’t require the overhead or invasiveness that Google Desktop does (sorry, Goog, still love ya though) but I’m looking for something for my Ubuntu box. I’ve seen screencasts where Linux users have slick ones installed but not sure what any are called yet, a roundup of all my keystroke launching options would have made this a useful post.

  26. 26

    I discovered Launchy 6 months ago and I just love it. Best shortcut ever. Incredible gain of time and major gain of space (all those shortcuts on the desktop or the taskbar are just gone). You may just have to type one letter for the most used softwares. I was considering posting about it too, it’s just too good.

  27. 27

    I wrote an article about Launchy and Quicksilver for the Mac here:

    Check it out its good material!

  28. 28

    Quicksilver is nice, but a lot of the functions seem to be jacked on Leopard. I’m really hoping they fix that sometime soon.

  29. 29

    Actually these applications are not very helpful when you have a neat desktop. All you need to do is to group icons that belong to a certain type together, then you know where to look for what.

  30. 30

    Launchy is a great tool

  31. 31

    In my opinion AutoHotKey is much more powerful and much better than anything that has been listed here. I’m really surprised that it hasn’t been mentioned.

    In a nutshell, AutoHotKey is something that allows you to map any key combination to do anything you’d like it to do. You can map directories, websites, applications, series of commands, custom code, etc. to any key combination imaginable. There is a whole programming language that is built up behind it that allows for some pretty intense things to be done. I use it, along with Launchy, and a number of other productivity boosters that have completely changed how I use my machine.

  32. 32

    I think quicksilver should be included in the list~

  33. 33

    enso makes all the above look ridiculous.

  34. 34

    Here is another one , they have a product thats called Enzo and its free and powerfull

  35. 35

    To enso praisers : this tool was not free and is not opensource ; this has to be taken into account. As for me : launchy + autohotkey are great time-savers.

  36. 36

    you don’t mention Find and Run Robot from Donationcoder. What a BIG mistake :). It’s cool and damn fast, and great plugins too. Check it out at

  37. 37

    Count me as another vote (along side #24) for Find and Run Robot.

  38. 38

    Count me as another one who supports the inclusion of Quicksilver. By far the best application launcher ever, with myriad extensions for extra programs and commands.

  39. 39
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    I’ve been using Launchy for over a year now and i think that it has saved me a FEW DAYS in clicking. I’ve not used it much further that the basic setting, yet it works great! I Wrote a post on it quite some time back highlighting it’s best qualities and i still recommend it to anyone. See the Review here >

    Great Post.

    P.S. Google Desktop is also an excellent Contender!

  41. 41

    you also forgot quicksilver for mac .

  42. 42

    for the mac; overflow is the best

  43. 43

    Props for trying to help the windows users out. They truly need all the help they can get with that horrible OS.

    Yet I was expecting this post to be as in depth as your web design focused entries. You could have addressed a linux lancher or two.. or even some quick tips for spotlight and quicksliver for OSX. That would have pleased me and many others.

    Yet unhappy we are with an off topic post that does not even address the majority of designers.. you know the ones smart enough to use OSX in a production environment… or smart enough to use linux.

    Smashing don’t go the way of Lifehacker with your update frequency and quality… you know with pointless updates just to serve as link bait.

    In retrospect, if this post is just link bait its perfect. And a whole year or so behind the times.


    :: unhappy moves SM one rank down on my feed reader ::

  44. 44

    I use PhraseExpress to reduce typing:

    Try the new beta version. It has a unique text prediction feature.


  45. 45

    I love SlickRun, it’s so lite and lets you set your own keywords so it doesn’t have to scan your system for changes all the time.

  46. 46

    A wonderful tool, so easy but so powerfull !!
    I tried Launchy and adopt it. Windows Taskbar launcher isn’t very intuitive.
    A great replacement !!

  47. 47

    To get the most out of any key stroke launcher, install YubNub. YubNub allows you to search a huge list of sites using simple shortcuts. It’s “a command line for the web.”

  48. 48

    I’m using SlickRun. Simple and powerful.

  49. 49

    When I read this post in my Google Reader, I clicked over to talk about Enso here but was amazed at the number of people already recommending it here! I just posted a cheatsheet for Enso Launcher commands and will link it to my name instead of boring ya’ll again! :-)

  50. 50

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    January 24, 2008 4:12 am

    Thank you for your references. We’ll add these tools to the list as well.

  51. 51

    What about Mac Software? And Mac OSX itself, there are a lot of productive tools build right in the OS.

    One nice trick in windows:

    Double your taskbar and add the address field. So you can quickly access folders and files.

    Maybe you should write about some productivity enhancements in the operation systems, some are not difficult to discover but they are worth a lot of time!

    Great article by the way!

  52. 52

    Are you shure that launchers is absolutely free ?

  53. 53

    Guys, could you please make an overview of the Opera’s address bar functionality, which is a built in high-functional thing, that only can’t open apps from the desctop, but everything else is done in a very convinient way, and you dont have to install any extra software…

  54. 54

    ENSO ENSO ENSO! Great.

  55. 55

    I’ve tried enso from humanized, but I won’t recommend it. Short review

    + very handy interaction model
    + nice layout

    – resource hog, eats lot of main memory.
    – startup time of windows becomes longer.
    – no multi-user installer. If you install it in an administrator-account, then it won’t launch on a normal user account.

    Keybreeze uses between 1,500 K and 10,000 K of memory. It doesn’t index your filesystem automatically, you need to add shortcuts.
    Launchy weight 12 M in main memory, looks nicer, but has less functionality.

    I” try launchy.

  56. 56

    We are using AutoHotkey to do more than a hundred often-used tasks:
    Open files/folders/websites, start programs/emails, enter accounts, change fonts, select default printer, track shipping and so on. We use an Enterpad keyboard to start each task so we don’t have to remember any hotkeys.

  57. 57

    Vista uses an index search system to keystroke launch anything in the start menu, or instantly find anything in a folder/control panel/etc.

    Firefox 3 also features a great keystroke launch system in the browser address field. A massive time-saver!

  58. 58

    I am using Typing Assistant, it reduces my repetitive typing a lot, worth to try.

  59. 59

    I’m using Launchy and this is quite good piece of software. I found nice review here:

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