For many power users, it seems that the tools provided by the system are never enough. When speaking about tools for searching documents and launching applications, many will point you straight to their favourite third-party solution, and can be quite vocal about it. Lots of geeks cannot function without their Quicksilver, LaunchBar, DragThing or Alfred (to name the most popular).
I believe these are all great tools: their aim is to provide you with a centralised facility where you can search for stuff, launch applications, open documents, play media content, and more. All these actions can be performed from the same software interface, often with great convenience.
For my needs, however, I mainly rely on the built-in features of Mac OS X: Spotlight and the Dock. I tried using the aforementioned third-party solutions in the past, but they either were overkill (LaunchBar, DragThing), or they presented a frustrating learning curve which ultimately wasn’t worthwhile for the relatively simple tasks I needed to perform (QuickSilver).
My approach may look more fragmented to those accustomed to such unified tools, but I find it effective nonetheless. I use the Dock as Apple would want: to keep the applications I use most often. I keep it at the bottom, always visible but with ‘Dock Size’ set almost to the smallest setting, and ‘Magnification’ to the Max. I don’t care how many app icons end up there, my minimalistic needs are elsewhere.
The application icons I put there are roughly grouped according to function: near the Finder icon on the far left are system-related apps (System Preferences, Terminal, Activity Monitor, etc.), then email apps and the browsers I use most frequently (Safari, Chrome, Stainless), FTP and graphics applications, and PDF and text-handling tools; by now we’ve come to the far right of the Dock’s applications side, where you can find other three pieces of software I use on a regular basis: Reeder, Notational Velocity and Find Any File.
The document side of the Dock is populated by three folder aliases (Downloads, iLife and iWork) plus another folder alias called +Browsers where I’ve put shortcuts to other browsers I occasionally use (Camino, Firefox, Opera, etc.). Before the Trash icon there’s the Recent Items stack I activated a long time ago with this hint.
For quick searches and launching applications I use less frequently, Spotlight does the job. When I need to perform searches that dig deeper into the system, or I need a more readable & customisable search results window, I resort to Find Any File, which I love because its UI is based on the Find File application in the Classic Mac OS, and also because it lets me search for files even inside application packages and in places of the System where Spotlight is not allowed to snoop.
Finally, every now and then I might need to know where an application keeps all the usual related luggage that gets disseminated in various folders (Preferences, Library, Application Support) during installation or after the first launch. For this, I’ve found AppZapper to be a great solution. (Read this old article for more about it).
As I said, my method might seem limited and fragmented. I know that using a single tool for searching and launching is probably a more intuitive and elegant solution. What I like of the Spotlight+Dock solution is that it’s rather unobtrusive: my Dock, which I keep in 2D mode, is only 38 pixel high; Spotlight is always there in the menubar and in every Finder window. I’m quick with the mouse, but when I don’t feel like moving my hands away from the keyboard, I just tap the keyboard shortcut for Spotlight (⌘-Spacebar) and launch the app I need.
Another advantage of mainly relying on built-in tools is that it doesn’t slow me down when using other Macs, which means other Macs I own (I regularly use 3 to 6 Macs), but especially Macs of other people I may be called to assist. When you’re accustomed to using tools like QuickSilver, LaunchBar, DragThing and Alfred, when your muscle memory is fine-tuned to their shortcuts and interface, finding your way around another person’s Mac during a troubleshoot session can be frustrating if this person doesn’t use any of those tools. Of course, I’m not suggesting that my way is better than yours. With tools, whatever they are, is always a matter of personal preference and taste.