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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.
Launchy 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.
The 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.)
In 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.
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.
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
Find and Run Robot
Free Launch Bar
This software category is maintained by volunteer editor oblivion.
quick launch applications, start programs, launch programs, best free program luancher, top free program launcher