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Is Alfred 2 the Butler for You

by Kerry Dawson

When I wrote “Automating your Mac: Beware of Over Automation“ I wrote it with the intent of indicating the value of automating your Mac, as there is great value in this but I had just watched Don McAllisters tutorials on the revamped Alfred called Alfred 2 and wondered could one actually over-automate their Mac. Clearly, it is possible to go too far with automating your Mac for a variety of reasons but two of the most important would be the investment in time involved in learning a variety of automation tools and the confusion that might ensue if there’s just too much that’s automated. In that article I referenced Alfred 2 as an interesting looking tool but I didn’t see it for myself. I did though feel that it might fit others work styles quite well so my focus was on that which I found had worked for me and worked for me well.

Doing a 180

Something about Alfred 2 though captured my attention. I can easily say that I’ve done a complete 180 degree turn on this for myself. Alfred 2 is a program that I now use all the time. In essence, if you look at the way I used my tools in the article I did that I reference above, I’ve really in essence replaced Launchbar with Alfred 2 yet using a lot more of the functionality of Alfred 2 than that of Launchbar.

To be clear, Keyboard Maestro remains my number one tool to automate my Mac. I’ve used macro utilities for as long as I can remember and could not do without Keyboard Maestro. That doesn’t mean that Alfred 2 isn’t playing a valuable role in my workflow. It is. It’s carrying out functions different from that which I use Keyboard Maestro. There is some overlap but with careful consideration and just what feels right to you, you’ll just naturally veer towards one tool over the other for the things that overlap. There are though some things that Alfred 2 just can’t do that Keyboard Maestro can and it’s not meant to be a Keyboard Maestro. In some ways, I’d almost consider it yes a launcher utility that goes way beyond that to a mini applications development toolkit. Keyboard Maestro Is intended to automate repetitive functions whereas Alfred 2 via its workflow capability can actually generate appliction functionality (e.g. Alfred what time is it in London).

My Naughty Butler

My initial introduction to Alfred though was rocky to say the least. I wondered did I hire the wrong Butler. Did the agency not train him correctly. He’d do mysterious things and not follow my simple instructions. I thought did Alfred come with a manual and I’m just not handling him right.

Unfortunately, Alfred doesn’t come with a manual as one would be useful. However, utilizing the forums, articles and reviews and grabbing other people’s workflows I was able to start to get a handle on Alfred. This time, I decided to watch the Alfred series at ScreenCastsOnline for a second time. However, this time I watched them slowly and one at a time rather than the shotgun approach I took on the first go around where I watched all the series at once. That approach only overwhelmed and lost me. I also began to realize I never did a background check on Alfred. Don’s tutorials on Alfred was the first time I had ever heard of Alfred and the introduction left me confused.

Understanding Alfred

What at first seemed confusing and complicated leaving me bewildered actually turned out to be excellent. In my first go around with Alfred I’d ask him to do this or that and he just didn’t do it or if he did something it certainly wasn’t what I asked for. However, a lot of people seemed to think Alfred was a great butler. I decided to approach Alfred completely differently. I decided to apply myself as much as possible to understand the means and ways of Alfred.

I started to spend a lot of time in the forums and looking at the brief help notes on Alfred to get to know him. At first, I think the forum thought Napolean came to conquer. I was a little miffed with my butler.

However, time and energy expended to get a handle on Alfred paid off handsomely. To do this I’ll tell you what I found to be the best approach if you’re not familiar with Alfred. I’m going to refer you to the three tutorials at ScreenCastsOnline. Although this costs money to join it’s well worth it as a show is done every week. What is recommended is usually top notch and the quality of the shows/tutorials are excellent. You could join for three months and see what you think and explore the database of tutorials beyond the ones I’ll refer you to. Or as an option, you could purchase a subscription to the magazine but the Alfred tutorials are in back issues which have to be bought outside the subscription. My recommendation though is just to become a premium member as you’ll be surprised at what you get from this highly rated show.

Let’s Start to get to know our Unruly Butler who really isn’t at All

First you’ll want to go to either iTunes or Alfred’s home. You can either just download the free version but Alfred really is not that effective unless you have the PowerPack which unleashes his true potential. It’s only about $25 and it’s well worth it. After you buy Alfred, look at the quick start material. It won’t tell you much though but it’ll start to give you an idea of Alfred’s capabilities. Now it’s time to go to first episode of Alfred at ScreenCastsOnline. Watch the tutorial which will tell you really what you don’t get if you don’t have the PowerPack and if you do it will start with a nice overview of Alfred with the Powerpack. Loaded with functionality, it’s time to go and ask Alfred to assist you and done correctly he does an excellent job. After having played around with Alfred my recomendation is to watch the show a second time. Stuff that didn’t make sense the first time will start making sense the second time.

After you start getting comfortable with Alfred and he begins to do his duties as you’d expect it’s time to go on to the next episodes. Do the next episodes exactly like the first however, the third episode should be handled differently and I’ll shortly tell you why. So click this link to go to the second episode on Alfred. Finally, after becoming better acquainted with Alfred it’s time to watch the third and final episode in the series.

Alfred’s Workflows

Alfred is actually very easy to use and once you start using it things about Alfred become second nature. You’ll find yourself going to use Alfred all the time in place of the way you used to do things. As an example, instead of looking up a contacts name in Contacts you’ll look it up in Alfred. You might actually feel like sending that contact an email and Alfred will do that for you by opening a new email and inserting your contact’s email address. If you use 1Password, a tremendously effective login and Password management utility for all kinds of things, Alfred can even use 1Passwords capabilities and log you into your bank account. As an example, I just go Alfred or command spacebar BMO for log me into the Bank of Montreal and I’m logged in all without having to go into 1password.

However, as you’ll have noted in episode three of the tutorials Alfred has some very powerful functions, some of which are not difficult to implement and some of which might be if you don’t know scripting languages. Workflows unleash Alfred’s true potential. The ability to carry out not only functions but to almost create mini applications for you. If you are a scripter, creating workflows in Alfred will be a piece of cake. If you’re not, there are two ways to approach this. In the Alfred forum look at the shared workflows. Many people have created workflows for all kinds of things from telling you the weather all over the world to searching your email for stuff you’ve long since filed. If you like the sound of a workflow download it and run it. You’ll probably find a lot of stuff of appeal.

If not and you’re not scripter the forum is a great place to ask someone if they know of an application that you had in mind or do they know how you build it. What you’ll find is that people will actually come back and build the workflow for you. They’ll ask you to test it to make sure it’s what you want and if it’s not right on through an iterative process they’ll end up building it for you. At the end of the day, you’ll have a very powerful Alfred and running one of Alfred’s workflow is as easy as entering a hotkey or some characters in Alfred’s command line like BMO.

So is Alfred 2 the Butler for You

So back to our original title, is Alfred 2 the Butler for You. Well at the end of the day only you can answer that question for yourself. My answer would be most definitely. Once you know Alfred’s ways, you won’t be able to live without him. Always there at your beckon call and extremely reliable he’s very agile. Alfred has many skills that will fit a variety of needs. Just to launch applications and login to my various sites I find Alfred to be a wonderful assistant saving me tons of time. However, as you’ll see from the tutorial he does so much more. It’s up to you of his many attributes what you’d want to take advantage of. You’ll find as you and Alfred grow more comfortable with each other you’ll be asking him to do more for you and he will deliver.

Just a word of caution though. Don’t let Alfred’s powerful workflow capability frustrate you. If you’re not a scripter or not accustomed to his manner in which his workflow operates, take advantage of the shared workflows. They’re free and extremely easy to run. If you want to venture beyond what’s available reach out to others in the forum. It’s a friendly place and people are happy to help. If you really though want to be in charge and build your own workflows either already be a scripter (Alfred supports various languages including Applescript) or brace yourself for a new learning curve. Frankly, for me scripting isn’t my forte so I’m delighted that others have assisted in making Alfred so powerful or will help me enable capabilities in Alfred I thought impossible.

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