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, 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 appraoch 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.

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
5.06 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows 95 to Win7

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 Magnolia on 20. April 2010 - 8:23  (48022)

If you are at a loss for launchers, you might try taking a look at some of the comments in Best Free Start Menu Replacement (http://www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-start-menu-replacement.htm#com...) Some members have confused launchers with start menu replacements, which is understandable since they are so close in what they provide as far as an application goes.

by louis058 on 12. May 2010 - 16:47  (49658)

Enso is never updated these days (I think the last update was in 2007), are there any alternatives out there?

by brunetu on 25. June 2010 - 1:24  (53052)

sTabLauncher is my second choice, after my favorite, FaRR (in fact, they complete each-other).

The latest version uses .NET FX 3.5, which is way larger than the previously required version 2, so the program needs space, but it doesn't occupy much memory at all (when running). Maybe a bit slow on old computers. The price for customizability.

These said, I vote for it to be at least mentioned. It is exactly the kind of simple, customizable, nice, categorized (but not too eye-candy or resource-hog) launch-bar that I was looking for.

by Vijay Gopal (not verified) on 16. July 2010 - 15:21  (54386)

Have you guys forgotten about the "basic" keystroke launchers which are the most powerful in the Internet. "Slickrun" and it's customized "Promptu". And also forgot "Blaze app launcher" which is kinda good. I'm still in a confusion on what to use. Launchy doesn't work on my comp ( it doesn't show the icons ), FARR is tooooo complicated, sTab....docks.. blah,blah,blah.... is not what I'm looking for, I'm looking for keystroke launchers. I would like some advice .

by Mr. Mitch (not verified) on 24. July 2010 - 11:29  (54862)

I've been using sTabLauncher for a while now as a replacement for H-Menu, which is no longer being supported by it's author, but I have to admit H-Menu is by far the best program launcher ever created. Completely stable. You can have 8 launch bars (1 in each corner of the screen and initiated at the click of the mouse or mouseover or shortcut key), with as many program or folder shortcuts as needed. Say, 30 or more shortcuts in each bar-- that's 240+ programs/folders/files you can launch. If you have that many programs, your computer probably takes a month to load... In the ten years I've been using it I have never used all the launch bars.
Anyway, sTabLauncher won't dock to the sides, and I am always moving the launch bar out of the way, which is becoming annoying. I tried the HIDE COMPLETELY option once and it took reconfiguring the .xml file to get it back again. Geesh. I like the concept of sTabLauncher, but I need it to stay out of the way of the other windows AND did anyone notice, that when you use the Show Desktop feature of windows sTabLuncher disappears. Geesh.
I have tried every single luncher available I can find and H-Menu still comes out on top in the launchbar category IMNSHO.
I would like to find a replacement for sTabLauncher. That's unfortunate, because it is a good, intuitive program. I have contacted the author and he is unwilling to add a side dock feature.

by Geert on 29. July 2010 - 10:02  (55114)

I can recommend Executor as a basic keystroke launcher.

by Hint (not verified) on 29. July 2010 - 16:01  (55128)

PowerPro is better, but it's not for beginners.

by infinice (not verified) on 30. July 2010 - 18:17  (55203)

If Launchy finally fixed this problem, ignore the following, but...
Its fatal flaw [if you have a lot of folders] is that it won't auto-
index folders. It forces you to manually add each @!$%ing folder, one
by one. Congratulations if you're diligent and patient enough to do that because otherwise it is great.

by Anonymous4 (not verified) on 30. July 2010 - 19:12  (55206)

http://sites.google.com/site/chaosplaceorg/tools/traylauncher

Not the best choice for beginners, but I really like Tray Launcher. Really low resource usage and easy to create skins for.

by Scoox (not verified) on 17. August 2010 - 9:04  (56175)

Has anyone tried this??:

EVERYTHING - WWW.VOIDTOOLS.COM

The portable version is less than 300 kb in size and does not need to be installed.

Everything is is not a launcher per se but can be used as one. Everything runs real smooth and will search your ENTIRE computer as you type, in a fraction of a second, without having to create massive search indexes like most other search utilities. The trick is to use the existing NTFS file index. I can't imagine why Microsoft don't include this as standard in Windows...

I have tried all apps recommended in this thread and Everything is superior in every way. Do give it a try.

by Anupam on 17. August 2010 - 10:12  (56177)

"Everything" is a file search tool and not application launcher. It won't be included here. It is covered in the file search category.

by oblivion on 23. August 2010 - 11:47  (56559)

I can see the appeal of Everything to you in this respect, but -- to echo what Anupam says -- its primary function is a filename search tool not a launcher.

There are obvious disadvantages, the most immediately obvious of which is that you need to know the name of the executable or link you're looking for. If you're a bit disorganised -- like me! -- you might know that you want to run a program of a particular type or in a particular category but forget its name or know you have several options but want a list so you can choose between them.

To an extent, then, it's a bit like Launchy without the shiny chrome, and it does what it does very well. But the fact that it CAN be used to launch programs doesn't make it a real member of this category, in the same way that although OpenOffice.Org Writer can be used to write program code, it's not a natural member of the Best Free Programming Editors category!

by Anupam on 23. August 2010 - 14:01  (56570)

Well explained oblivion. I wouldn't have been able to explain like this... that's why I just left a small note :D.

by oblivion on 23. August 2010 - 16:48  (56585)

It was thinking out loud, in some ways, because it was intuitively obvious to me that Everything didn't belong here, even though I've also used it to launch programs from. (I like Everything a lot. It's still not a launcher!) So I explained it to myself, and typed my explanation!

by Anupam on 23. August 2010 - 17:52  (56588)

Well, that worked, and it was good :D..

by veekay on 29. August 2010 - 21:00  (56965)

I like Everything due to its lightning fast filename search feature, though I agree it is not a Launcher, per se. And Launchy is a good tool, though I don't really use it much.

That said, we can integrate Everything with Launchy (and perhaps other launchers), to get the best of both worlds:
http://lifehacker.com/5274774/integrate-everything-search-tool-and-launchy

by RedFox on 31. August 2010 - 11:20  (57037)

The main drawback of "Everything" program is that you need to remind the name of file, as the real indexing services like MS or Google desktop index _content_ of files, so you can search not just by name of the file but also by its content. But for search by names Everything is very nice. Especially because it can display search results through web-interface, so it can be used in LAN on the file server.
P.S. And of course this program is for another section of TechSupportAlert, not for launchers ;)

by oblivion on 1. September 2010 - 10:34  (57092)

I used to use SlickRun myself and have already planned to investigate its current status and see if it's suitable for inclusion. I used to have some problems with it moving itself off-screen, even when it was set to be locked to a specific location on the desktop, but that was a long time ago and (probably) on Windows NT, so I probably owe it another look!

(For the interested: http://www.bayden.com/SlickRun/ )

Promptu appears to have been written by a SlickRun user who wanted something similar but more features. It seems to be in active development. I shall investigate that in more depth too.

(For the interested: http://www.promptulauncher.com/ )

Blaze looks interesting but a less obvious member of the category; Lifehacker says it's a launcher much like Launchy but that also embeds task automation facilities. It also seems to require .net 3.5 which might make it a bit heavyweight for some users.

(For the interested: http://blaze-wins.sourceforge.net/index.php )

Vijay, if you can be a bit more detailed about what sort of advice you need within this category, I expect we'll be able to help!

by Anonymouse (not verified) on 9. September 2010 - 18:52  (57534)

Have you tried MouseExtender? I'm if it's quite what you are looking for, but I actually use to use sTabLauncher before I found it.

by oblivion on 9. September 2010 - 22:19  (57545)

A quick look later... open source, GPL v2, seems to have a number of enthusiastic users... I shall investigate further later. Thanks for the tip!

Oh, it needs .net 3.5, which some people will find an unwanted overhead. Nevertheless, it's at

http://me.codeplex.com/

by toad (not verified) on 18. September 2010 - 1:43  (58032)

One I use now all the time as it is simple and looks simple and nice is Pretty Run found here:

http://delphistep.cis.si/freeware.htm

by oblivion on 18. September 2010 - 10:47  (58048)

Thanks for that. Looks like it shares a category with Launchy: I shall investigate further and post a review if it seems appropriate. However, I haven't seen confirmation of the licensing yet...

by oblivion on 23. September 2010 - 18:17  (58319)

I'm going to correct myself slightly here. While my comments above relating to Everything stand, there's a FARR addon that allows a running instance of Everything and FARR to work together, effectively allowing FARR's results window to be used to display Everything's results. Because FARR can be slow to search large drives (if the search isn't constrained to standard locations) this is a good way to work around that limitation.

It's a relatively complex thing, though, for users running later versions of Windows than XP, and I'd definitely say this solution was an "experts only" choice.

by Anonymous man-1 (not verified) on 16. October 2010 - 14:25  (59631)

I found a new product launcher called zum.
Website here:http://zum.codeplex.com/

by oblivion on 17. October 2010 - 9:31  (59660)

Thanks for the suggestion -- however, my first look resulted in a non-running application immediately after install (on XP) which isn't a good start! Looks nice, though, so hopefully they'll kick the bugs out and we can have another look later!

by Andy Cook (not verified) on 1. December 2010 - 5:45  (61856)

Re sTabLauncher, Mr Mitch said:- " I tried the HIDE COMPLETELY option once and it took reconfiguring the .xml file to get it back again. Geesh. " It works Okay on W7. When dock hidden just click off screen below dock and it pops back. This is certainly the best dock I have tried. Not all eye candy. It's multi tabbed so you don't over fill your dock with icons. A good tip if you want to have a browser button launch to a specific web page paste the web page address into the arguments box of the icons properties page. I think this dock is so much better than your current top choice.

Andy

by gggirlgeek (not verified) on 26. December 2010 - 16:53  (63301)

Everything is, very simply, my favorite program, period. I have suggested to Microsoft that they should hire the programmer and pay him a lot of money to replace Windows Search. I'm sure he could figure out a much better version that includes indexing of properties if paid enough.

How to use it as a program launcher? Simply limit it's search to INCLUDE only C:\Users\Mel\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch

Then it will sit in your system tray awaiting your every wish. :)

You can add any other folders path to this include list to expand your shortcut search. Just place shortcuts to the programs you want in the desired folder and rename them so they're easy to remember. I tried adding my Start Menu paths but found it confusing because the list is a "flat" rather than a list with expandable directories.

Best of all you can run multiple instances of Everything at the same time with different folders included/excluded and with a different icon. To change the icon, find one you like on your system by searching (in unfiltered Everything) for .ico. Copy it to your Everything folder in Program files and rename it to Everything.ico. Restart everything to see the change.

To run multiple instances, make a second copy of the Everthing folder in Program files. Rename it conveniently to, say, Everything_Launcher. Rename Everything.exe to Everything_Launcher.exe. Make sure "Allow Multiple instances" is enabled under the View tab in options. Also, make sure you change the icon in this second folder to avoid confusion. It must say Everything.ico, not Everything_Launcher.ico.

Using this method you can have various instances of Everything open that search any number of locations with limitless options... such as recently changed files in your downloads folder! (on the menu bar: Search>>Recent Changes>>Changes in the Last 24 hours.) Add the new Everything_xyz.exe shortcuts to whatever launcher you're using for quick access.

Didn't see a forum link for this topic so hope it's alright to post this long tip here. (Should I have started one?)

by MidnightCowboy on 26. December 2010 - 17:36  (63306)

We only discourage long comments to protect the space for subsequent posts but fully appreciate that sometimes you just can't squeeze a topic into a couple of lines:)

So long as the content is relevant and useful, then we're pleased to receive them, even at this length :D

Ongoing discussion though should be directed to the forum and if you can't see an appropriate thread then please start one. If you have doubts about where to post something in the forum, please contact one of the moderators who will be happy to assist.

by Anonymouse (not verified) on 4. February 2011 - 7:50  (65824)

This category should really be called "Best Free Program Launcher for the Small Minority of Users who Actually Prefer Using Keywords to Visual Point and Click"

by MCHAL on 8. February 2011 - 12:02  (66027)

Hi,

Have anyone mentioned AltRUN? Available at: http://code.google.com/p/altrun/

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