OS X’s LaunchPad actually kind of great

“Surprisingly useful” would be my two-word review of Apple’s new-with-Lion LaunchPad feature: “A home for your apps. Say goodbye to hunting for the app you need in an applications folder. Launchpad gives you instant access to all your apps.” Novice users, particularly those coming to Mac in droves from iOS, will find it much easier to find apps this way.

That much was obvious. What I did not expect is that an old power user like me would find it so handy. Here’s a review with a lot more than two words…

The old way, the old problems

I know my way around my file system like the back yard I grew up in, but that’s never helped much with the clutteration in the Applications folder — it has always been inefficient to explore my own apps, even though I know where they live. My craving to organize apps into folders has been suppressed for years by annoyingly inconsistent rules about where apps can go. Supposedly you can put apps anywhere, but just try it in practice and see how long it takes to have some kind of problem. In particular, Apple’s own apps tend to cause trouble if you dare move them from their default locations.

The sole category of app with it’s very own folder — “utilities” — has always contained a maddeningly illogical mix of useful and arcane apps. I think of the utilities folder like a garage or tool shed. It’s where you should look for tools that relate to the function of the machine itself. Certainly those things are there — some so strange and I have literally never opened some of them, ever, even though some have been there since the dawn of OS X — and yet invariably you end up with some “real” apps in there too, the default install location for some reason. It’s always been a mess, and it boggles the mind to think how many times I’ve had trouble finding something because it was (or wasn’t) in that stupid folder.

Tags! My kingdom for some #%$@*!&@ tags!

What apps (and much else) have always really needed is a way to classify them by tags or keywords, so that you can see “all my web design apps” or “all my productivity apps,” as defined by the user — and of course some apps could be in more than one category. It’s not much to ask — and I could go on a super ranty tangent about the lack of file metadata support in “modern” filesystems — and I thought for a while that this itch would finally be scratched by a file tagging and browsing app called Leap. Leap does indeed do exactly this (and much more), but with two exasperating deal-breakers:

  1. it’s not super quick about it, so if you want to see “all your productivity apps” from a cold start, you’re going to have to wait;
  2. your lovely tags are destroyed by every app update, which these days means “constantly.”

So the dream of organizing my apps with tags is unfulfilled.

Much better than nothing

LaunchPad gets me a lot closer to the tag dream, and for that I am grateful. It’s super fast and pretty easy on the eyes. And — hallelujah — I can finally arbitrarily organize apps, just as if I was putting them in categorized folders (while leaving actual apps stored wherever the hell they think they need to be). The organization also holds firm through app updates — another clear win over the Leap option.

The great remaining limitation, of course, is that an app cannot be presented in two places at once, which limits organizational options quite a bit. For instance, it drives me nutters that I can’t have an app like BBEdit in both a “most used” category and “web development.”

But it sure is a major improvement.

All your apps, like it or not

Another interesting property of LaunchPad is that it displays all apps, no matter what. This might seem like a cluttery annoyance at first, but anything lame or minimally interesting can be quickly stowed in a category for such things.

The advantage is that LaunchPad guarantees to show you every app you’ve got. It exposes them all, regardless of where they are on your Mac. If it’s installed, it’s on the LaunchPad. The Applications folder has never offered any such assurance, because apps can and do get installed elsewhere. LaunchPad automatically takes care of the most important app category of them all: “everything,” with no exceptions, which imbues is with a sort of trustworthiness.

So it may be a bit simplistic, but LaunchBar reliable and surprisingly more functional than the Finder.