TUTORIAL: How to launch apps from your Mac’s keyboard with Spotlight

ICON Mac OS X SpotlightThere are oodles of ways to launch apps in OS X. You can double-click an app in the Applications folder, click an app icon in the Dock, invoke Launchpad and click the desired app, or choose an app from the Apple menu’s Recent Items > Applications submenu. You can even add commonly used apps to the toolbar of Finder windows by Command-dragging them up there.

But what if you don’t want to take your hands off the keyboard? Is there any way to open an app without touching the mouse or trackpad? Indeed there is, courtesy of Spotlight.

You’re probably familiar with Spotlight as a search tool, both for finding files and folders on your Mac, and for ferreting out information on the Internet (in OS X 10.11 El Capitan, Spotlight can even find weather forecasts, sports scores, and stock prices). But what you may not realize is that among the files that Spotlight can find are all the apps on your Mac, and you can launch them with just a few keys. Follow these steps:

  1. Press Command-Space to display the Spotlight window.
  2. Begin typing an app’s name, such as “ac” for Activity Monitor. For apps whose names have multiple words, you can type the first letter of each, as in “ic” for Image Capture. And if an app name is a single InterCapped word, it’s fine to enter just the capitalized letters, as in “ft” for FaceTime. Spotlight searches, and while it should be nearly instantaneous, if it doesn’t show the app you want at first, give it a few seconds.Activity Monitor detail
  3. If the app you want to launch is highlighted as the top hit, press Return to launch it. If it’s not the top hit, you can either continue typing to narrow the search or arrow down to it in the list, and then press Return.

That’s all there is to it! As you might guess, you can use the same technique to open documents or even System Preferences panes.

Cleverly, Spotlight is adaptive so if the first time you type “ac” it suggests Adobe Content Viewer, once you select Activity Monitor instead, it will know that “ac” should open Activity Monitor in the future.

On the downside, Spotlight isn’t always as fast as you might like, and while it guesses relatively well, you may find that its conception of what an app is called doesn’t always match with what you want to type.

So give Spotlight a try, and if you find that you like launching apps from the keyboard but want the best possible experience, try one of the four excellent keyboard launcher utilities on the Mac: Alfred, Butler, LaunchBar, or QuickSilver. Alfred and QuickSilver are both free, whereas Butler costs $20 and LaunchBar—the most powerful and popular of the pack, is $29.