Best Free Program Launcher

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Introduction

Windows provides a number of ways to launch installed programs or features. There's the Start Menu, there's shortcuts on the Windows desktop, there's even the Windows Search and Run features. For many people, the facilities already available are quite sufficient.

However, without organisation, the Programs section of the Start menu can become a very busy place. Programs have shortcuts placed in folders named after the program itself, or sometimes the publisher, or sometimes the category the program belongs in. If you're anything like me and you install programs a lot, you probably put the program you're installing in the default location and allow it to put a shortcut on the desktop and sometimes in the Quick Launch bar -- and once it becomes almost impossible to see your wallpaper for icons, you start deleting shortcuts you don't often use or dump them in folders on the desktop, or some other location and, over time, the natural entropy of the Universe and your own need to do stuff WITH your computer rather than spend time organising it conspire to make you wish for an easier way.

Program Launchers try to provide a more efficient way to work. Some try to help you find the program you want to run but can't find the shortcut for; some help you impose order on your system by giving you organisational tools that supercharge the facilities you have, or replace them entirely.

The approach adopted varies from product to product and ranges from dockable windows to tray icons through to keyword typing.  There's no "best" approach -- what works for me might not work for you, and your next door neighbour may very well have different needs again. In my case, I use products from two different categories: I use a keyword launcher when I know exactly what I want to run, and a Start menu replacement when I know I want to run one of the programs I have in a particular category but can't remember what it's called -- or want to think about different approaches or options that I may not have considered for a given task.

Because of the sheer variety of possible approaches, you may well find that nothing presented here is perfect for you. If, for instance, you like the visual appeal of a dock-type approach but just can't find one that you're comfortable with, it can often be worth parking the idea and trying another approach entirely. Even if the alternative approaches also don't quite work for you, I often find that a way of working championed by one program can be used in another and suddenly a hybrid approach becomes the perfect way to work!

So although it can be said that each approach and product has its strengths and weaknesses, you may find that many alleged weaknesses are irrelevant and that some trumpeted strengths don't do anything helpful for you at all.

Just to stop this section from being completely chaotic, the suggestions here will be divided in five subcategories: keyword search, keyword command, panels, menus and docks.

 
Discussion
Keyword Search

LaunchyLaunchy is currently the top product in the keyword search class.  The current stable release is version 2.5, it is simple to understand, simple to configure, simple to use, simple to extend, unintrusive and open source. It has a really small memory footprint too.

With Launchy you can not only launch applications but also -- using the same keyword philosophy -- launch your preferred media player with a specific MP3 file; invoke your preferred desktop search tool while entering a search term of your choice; or have your preferred browser open on a specific bookmark or page from the history. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Some users have reported some stability problems but Launchy has an enthusiastic userbase and, because it doesn't need you to organise it or your system before you can get anything out of it, is well worth a try, particularly on busier systems.

FARRThe main alternative in this category is Find and Run Robot (FARR). FARR is actually a very similar product and now version 2.2 makes it the most powerful yet. While FARR hides a lot of power, extensibility and configurability under its hood, it works well straight out of the box and even new users will be able to make effective use of it straight away. While average users may never need (or even see) the extra features, power users will be delighted with the huge possibilities of customization, including full support for plugins, and the scoring mechanism that goes well beyond the simple extension mechanism of Launchy. (One of my favourite plugins, GooglePlus, allows FARR to search Google without opening a browser first!) For this reason, I have, perhaps unusually, also awarded FARR Top Pick status as its only obvious shortcoming -- the lack of an internal indexing feature -- is more than counterbalanced by its advantages. (The author argues that indexing is not usually necessary when the primary search locations are kept at the defaults or carefully managed and in this way FARR is kept generally undemanding of the user's system.)

Keyword Command

EnsoIn the keyword command class, the clear winner is Enso. Even though almost all the keyword launch programs on offer provide some way to configure commands, they seem inadequate alongside Enso. And once you've grown accustomed to its unique quasimodal ('humane') interface, you'll find yourself asking why no one thought of it before!

Please note that a previous note here regarding the site's suspicious rating by Google's Safe Browsing service no longer applies, as the site is now reported to be safe by it and by WOT.

A simpler alternative is SlickRun. Slickrun is minimalist but extremely easy to work with. At its heart is a concept called MagicWords which, as you might expect, are typed shortcuts to programs or functions.

Helpfully, it guesses which shortcut you want before you've finished typing it, so it can be very quick to use. New MagicWords can be added through an easy dialog, or by dragging shortcuts to its command window. It also incorporates a simple note-taking feature.

Well worth a try. For anyone who wants simplicity and ease of use without too many bells and whistles, it's a very good choice.

Panels

Coming to the panels class, there are a lot of good choices, including FSL Launcher, Fast Launcher and 8Start. But 8Start comes out on top in many key areas like footprint and functionalities.

Menus

In the menus class, readers suggestions have led me to change my mind and suggest as the best solution Free Launch Bar: this is an extremely stable piece of software that will give you exactly what you want from it. A good contender is JetStart, but the free version is limited to 5 pre-set general categories. You might also want to look at LaunchBar Commander - it's by the same author as FARR but takes a hybrid approach, between docks and menus, being able to do both with equal facility.

Docks

Finally, the docks class. These tend to be graphically interesting, often featuring a configurable background shape on which appears icons for applications, documents, shortcuts or controls. They can usually be persuaded to stick themselves to a screen edge or some other location. They're often a bit like toolbars, but prettier. I have to admit I'm not an enthusiast of these type of launchers, so my tests may be limited by my lack of imagination or insight into their good points.

Two specific programs of this type are worth a look.

I can say that a good choice is RocketDock. It is well supported, has a small memory footprint and can probably do whatever you'd expect from a dock. It's very configurable, with good options for visual style, behaviour and docking position.

Another excellent choice is Magic Formation (thank you Anonymous reader!).  It sits somewhere between panels and docks in function but is included here because it's visually more dock-like than panel-ish. It doesn't require installation (although I have yet to check if its truly portable). Its default behaviour is to display a circle of icons around a colourful centre circle when a circle gesture is performed with the mouse anywhere on the desktop. This means it's there when you want it and not when you don't. (Although as I use a graphics tablet rather than a mouse, I occasionally find I get it by accident!) New icons can be added by dragging them to the centre circle. Documents can be dragged to application icons too. By default, the circle of icons contains shortcuts to favourites, My Documents, the desktop, My Computer, the command prompt, calc.exe, notepad.exe, mspaint.exe and the volume control, but any or all of these can be modified. The program allows the selection of any one of up to 25 pages of icons. If I had to choose a launcher of this type to use, this one would definitely be my choice.

MagicFormation is a real grower, and has already notched up a Lifehacker recommendation. Congratulations! Both are winners.

Other software suggestions:

 
Related Products and Links
 
Quick Selection Guide - Keyword Search

Launchy
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Simple and fast, cross-platform.
Some glitches since version 2.
http://www.launchy.net/
2.5
4.6 MB
Open source freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows, Linux, Mac OS X

The program can run as an installed application or in portable mode.

Find and Run Robot
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Effective, comprehensive, extensible and extremely configurable
Unindexed searching can make it slower.
2.104.02
5.87 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows 95 to Win8

Quick Selection Guide - Keyword Command

Enso
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Remarkable interface!
Not a convenient way to discover all applications in your computer.
Build 3268
12.1 MB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 2000 to Vista
SlickRun
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Tiny footprint, simple interface, unobtrusive, easy to work with, mature and well supported
Requires customisation beyond the basic, so not ideal for everyone
http://www.bayden.com/SlickRun/
4.0.5.3 beta
499 KB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista/2008/Win7

Quick Selection Guide - Panels

8Start
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Top in many key areas like footprint and functionalities.
Configuration can be complicated.
http://www.8start.com/
1.9
1.4 MB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 2000 to Win7
FSL Launcher
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Shortcuts management with categories organization.
1.1.4.4
3.1 MB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows XP to Vista
Fast Launcher
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Easy to use, with grouping, drag and drop, bundles, tray support, etc.
3.5
1.1 MB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 98 to Vista

Windows 98 to Vista

Quick Selection Guide - Menus

Free Launch Bar
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
A good replacement for the standard Quick Launch Bar, with added features such as grouping of shortcuts.
http://www.freelaunchbar.com/
2.0
1.7 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 9x to Vista
JetStart
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Quick access to categorized shortcuts, recently launched programs and system commands.
4.4
0.9 MB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 98 to XP

Quick Selection Guide - Docks

RocketDock
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Nice clean interface, easy to drop shortcuts for easy access and organization, portable.
http://rocketdock.com/
1.3.5
6.2 MB
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available but not from the developer.
Windows 2000 to Win7
Magic Formation
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Appears anywhere you like on the desktop, just draw a circle by mouse.
No ability to distinguish between different pages of icons.
0.981e
312 KB
Unrestricted freeware
Windows XP

 
Editor

This software category is maintained by volunteer editor oblivion.

 
Tags

quick launch applications, start programs, launch programs, best free program luancher, top free program launcher

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Comments

by dlibertine on 20. April 2014 - 22:20  (115819)

Quick Launch - Qsel has worked well for me for a number of years.

http://www.horstmuc.de/wqsel.htm

by crombierob on 7. February 2014 - 5:09  (114294)

I feel that I have lost the battle.
I loved the XP classic Start Menu, particularly once one learned how to create your own high level (Main list on the left) categories.
I dislike fancy graphics and Icons, and other 'candy'
I will concede that some of the population are the opposite of me, but then MS decided to make you all the opposite of me -
- They banned the XP Classic Start Menu style in Win7 and Win8
- They foisted the 'hunt and peck' 'Lucky Dip' start menu on to us
And it appears that the majority of the applications that are discussed here, fall into that category.
Surely ('Airplane'), there are some of us left out there, that prefer to organize our shortcuts into predefined categories, and then be able to easily/quickly locate and launch any of them ?
Ideally such a program would have an icon in the Sys Tray (now called Notification Area by MS), that with a single left click, will raise a menu, with sub menus appearing as you move your mouse. A single click will launch whatever, and the menu will disappear.
Is there anyone left out there that likes to live in an organized way ?
I will continue my search for such a program, and will report back, if anyone expresses an interest.
Rob

by oblivion on 20. April 2014 - 15:42  (115814)

I think, given your expressed needs, you should have a serious look at a stablemate of FindAndRunRobot's called Launchbar Commander.

I haven't included it in the main list of recommended programs primarily because it takes work -- much of the type you profess to prefer! -- to get it set up properly.

It can do one or more floating or docked docks, popup menus, autohidden menus, and it can be as stark as you want it to be.

I use it myself -- as a launcher for the apps on my portable HD.

Find it at:

http://www.donationcoder.com/Software/Mouser/LaunchBarCommander/index.html

DonationCoder -- a site I am a big fan of -- makes their applications and utilities available for free or for an optional donation. You DO have to register, but nobody's going to make you hand over money. And there's an extremely active forum where you can find help on any of their products.

by crombierob on 8. February 2014 - 4:50  (114311)

Thanks guys for responding.
I had tried that program in the past, and had left warning notes for myself that it took over too many Hot Keys, including those that I need in the VB6 IDE (development environment)
I just tried the latest version, and there is an option to turn off Hot Keys. That appears to have solved my earlier problems.

I will now attempt to learn how to use it fully.

Thanks again,
Rob

by sicknero on 7. February 2014 - 9:09  (114299)

Indeed, Quick Cliq is just one such free program - there are plenty of decent freeware options for such a function.

Alternatively ClassicShell allows you to organise the native Start Menu however you like as well as restoring the old XP look if you wish.

by Rydeck on 7. February 2014 - 8:41  (114298)

I might be wrong but doesn't 'Quick Cliq' just do that?
i use my mouse to call the menus (with submenus) and just click om the desired link.

by sicknero on 22. January 2014 - 22:07  (113905)

Keep an eye out for Listary (http://www.listary.com/)

The latest beta now incorprates an application launcher (along the same lines as Launchy) but because Listary scans MFTs and is a search-as-you-type engine, it's very quick about it.

The launcher component in the beta is not excellently implemented yet but I'm expecting good things when it has been refined for the next stable release.

Similarly, another MFT scanning search-as-you-type engine, Everything (http://www.voidtools.com/), now has a dropdown menu to filter results by filetype which makes it a viable option for application launching. E.g. type "iced" ... select "exe" in the filter to launch IceDragon. Or vice versa - leave the filter set to "exe" and just use it as a program finder and launcher. Very usable anyway if you have a large collection of software.

Note that MFT scanners only work on NTFS drives and require UAC permissions.

Lastly Win+R Alias Manager from WinAero (http://winaero.com/comment.php?comment.news.76) is pretty neat although you have to add your own shortcuts.

The advantage with this one is that it uses the search box in Windows Start Menu and the existing Windows capability for exec aliases, so there's no extra autorun. For instance I might set "id" as my alias for IceDragon and then to run it just key WIN+R for the search box then type "id". Very nice program but time consuming to set up if you have a lot of software. I use it just to set aliases for programs that I use very frequently.

by oblivion on 23. January 2014 - 8:09  (113915)

Thanks!

I like (and use!) Listary a lot, so I'll be interested to see how that develops.

I used Everything until Listary incorporated similar functionality; because of the requirement for admin privileges, making Everything run reliably at startup is a little too complicated for many users, I think, but Listary seems to have the startup issue cracked.

As far as aliases are concerned, I use FARR's capabilities in that regard -- particularly helpful is its ability to assign multiple targets to a single alias, so -- for instance -- I have an "edit" alias that points to two different plaintext editors and a couple of richtext editors, and FARR just produces a list of the targets so I can pick the one I want. More useful (to me) than a straight one-to-one relationship... :)

by Jacal on 22. January 2014 - 17:58  (113894)

RocketDock is still not available for 64-bit operating systems. That should probably be mentioned under system requirements.

by namurxxi on 22. January 2014 - 20:55  (113901)

I have used and still use RocketDock daily without any problem on my laptop with operating system "Windows VISTA Home Premium x64".
Similarly and SIMULTANEOSLY job - successfully - the dock called sTabLauncher, in this 64-bit system.

sTabLauncher:
http://stablauncher.com/skins.htm

by MidnightCowboy on 22. January 2014 - 20:59  (113902)

Caution! sTabLauncher is bundled with unwanted components. MC - Site Manager.

by Joe A.TT on 22. January 2014 - 19:41  (113900)

It's true RocketDock's documentation says it does not support 64-bit, however, I've used it successfully on W7x64. What's more, you can make it portable by following the instructions here: http://www.portablefreeware.com/index.php?q=rocketdock&m=

by deemadeep on 22. January 2014 - 21:26  (113904)

You fellas seem to be confusing "working" in a 64-bit architecture and actually BEING a 64-bit app. Way different meanings.

by TonyHowert on 26. October 2013 - 10:22  (111774)

Hi!

Recently I started using this very simple tool:
http://gimespace.com/quickmenu.html
It is for free, and I must say, I'm impressed. It makes the way I work in windows so much faster. I assigned the popup key to my left extra mouse button and switching between tasks and launching new onces has become a delight!
This really changed the way i work in windows, I made the taskbar hide away and enjoy my whole screen space for my full screen applications and know that all my open windows are just one mouse click and a tiny little mouse move away.
simply great!
Tony.

by MidnightCowboy on 26. October 2013 - 11:03  (111776)

Caution! The GiMeSpace site links to Brothersoft which has a poor WOT (web Of Trust) rating and is not a recommended download source. The program is also available from Softpedia but it will attempt to include unwanted components such as toolbars during the installation and try to change your system settings. MC - Site Manager.

http://www.softpedia.com/get/System/OS-Enhancements/GiMeSpace-Free-Editi...

by TonyHowert on 18. November 2013 - 13:12  (112331)

That is another program, the right link is this:
http://www.softpedia.com/get/System/OS-Enhancements/GiMeSpace-QuickMenu....

But the brothersoft link does like back to this link directly to their site:
[Direct file link removed - not permitted]

by plasticpig72 on 24. September 2013 - 12:42  (110974)

I am sorry but with CPU usage at 45 - 100%, however much I like Launchy, I need to find an alternative. No matter what I change in the settings I cannot get the usage to drop below 45% and that is unacceptable.

by oblivion on 24. September 2013 - 15:47  (110978)

Launchy creates and -- presumably -- constantly maintains an index. Try, as a similar but non-indexing alternative, FindAndRunRobot. Although it doesn't use an index, its default settings -- basically, to look first in the places your program shortcuts are likely to be and work down a list (that you can, but don't have to, tweak to fit your own specific needs -- are very effective and usually as fast as you need.

One small caveat: under some circumstances, Microsoft Security Essentials can cause FARR to run much more slowly than it otherwise would. I haven't seen any issues with other security software, though, and it is possible to persuade MSE to leave FARR alone.

by Panzer on 11. September 2013 - 7:51  (110651)

LaunchQ (2/47 on Virus Total):

Features:

* Portable, free, light, open-source, runs in system tray and consumes minimal memory and mind.
* One shortcut (Shift + Z) does it all . Press it to show/hide LaunchQ GUI. This shortcut is customizable.
* Supports unlimited number of launch items.
* Window Size, Background color, Text color and transparency can be changed a/c needs.
* Auto-Scrolling - Move your mouse pointer above the LaunchQ window to scroll up, below the window to scroll down OR
use Mouse wheel for scrolling.
* Easy Add - Wanna add a file or folder to LaunchQ, drag it into the GUI, choose a name and you're done.
* Easy Remove - Deleting a shortcut is even more easier. Hold a shortcut and drag it out of the the LaunchQ window.
* Multi-Launch - Launch multiple shortcuts with a single-click. See Guide to know more.
* Launch Web-sites too, just click on the bottom Add Web-Site button in the GUI and paste the link.
* Shortcuts are auto-named intelligently.
* It can start at system start up, check for updates and get path links from temporary (Desktop) shortcuts.

http://avi-win-tips.blogspot.in/2013/05/launchq.html

by oblivion on 11. September 2013 - 14:08  (110656)

I hope the shortcut isn't fixed to shift-Z -- or Zachary Zephaniah Zob might have trouble signing his letters. ;)

(I note from the website that it's customisable but I couldn't resist...)

by dlibertine on 14. August 2013 - 18:51  (110113)

I've been using Quick Launch for years and am satisfied.

http://www.horstmuc.de/wqsel.htm

by g2mXagent on 14. August 2013 - 10:52  (110100)

FSL Launcher is The BEST !!

FSL Launcher + dexpot + rocketdock = Perfect “OSX”.

by oblivion on 14. August 2013 - 13:41  (110105)

Thanks!

I found FSL Launcher at http://fsl.sytes.net/launcher.html

It doesn't look like it's under active development: the forum looks pretty moribund.

However, it's new to me and I'd be interested to know why you think it's better than the alternatives.

Also, why is combining it with Rocketdock is better than just using Rocketdock? (Or, for that matter, what part of Rocketdock gives you facilities that FSL Launcher is missing?)

Adding Dexpot is fair enough: I'm a big fan of virtual desktops myself (although I didn't get on with Dexpot and rather prefer Virtuawin: this is significantly offtopic, though :) )

by g2mXagent on 15. August 2013 - 3:57  (110117)

Windows Start Menu, 8start, Free Launch Bar, ... ...
there exists a serious flaw: Screen utilization rate is LOW! and I think there will be some useless features.

I want to Launcher can be like in OS X that:
1. Activation (show) in Screen HotZone(corner of the screen).
2. Hotkey.
3. Easy to manage a large number of programs.
4. No keyboard operation.
5. Can take advantage of screen space.
6. Simple & easy used.

I found a list of launch programs (http://en.softonic.com/windows/program-launch-toolbars), many of them tried. I found that best meets my requirements is FSL Launcher (worked on Windows7 x64), although it has not been updated for a long time.

Dexpot = OSX Mission Control + Spaces
FSL Launcher = OSX Launchpad
Rocketdock = OSX "Dock"

by MidnightCowboy on 15. August 2013 - 4:51  (110118)

Beware! Softonic uses a wrapped installer like cnet.

http://www.thesafemac.com/tag/softonic/
http://www.techsupportalert.com/content/cnet-downloadcom-wrapped-install...

Users are advised to source their downloads from clean sites such as Softpedia and MajorGeeks that do not resort to this underhand practice. MC - Site Manager.

by g2mXagent on 15. August 2013 - 8:29  (110121)

Thank reminder! I did not actually download it from there, I get the software information from that site, such as website, then go to the official website to download. I hate them downloader.

by Panzer on 1. August 2013 - 8:06  (109851)

Start Menu 9 - "Floating" Start Menu + Art Module + Data Module + More Cool Stuff ...:
http://papatsoftware.com/
http://www.softpedia.com/get/System/Launchers-Shutdown-Tools/StartMenu9....

by oblivion on 13. August 2013 - 7:03  (110085)

Mm. Thanks for the find; looks interesting, although the impression the website gives is of a launcher that's more oriented towards children. The free version -- limited to 55 "slots" -- may be enough for many people but on first glance I'd struggle to justify choosing this over -- say -- Magic Formation.

The installer is an MSI, which suggests a lack of portability too.

by Panzer on 6. May 2013 - 8:30  (107481)

Concord Free Version:
http://www.concordapp.com/

by oblivion on 8. May 2013 - 7:02  (107544)

Thanks. The licensing looks like freeware unless you want extra features or program customisations; I'm trying to get some explicit clarification, though.

It has a prerequisite of one of the .net frameworks, which I know can cause some people concerns, and I'm also trying to find out if there's a portable version available. I'll post more once I've found out some more. :)

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