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 fabrizio on 3. July 2008 - 6:55  (3490)

Your appreciation is my reward. Thank you.

by Anonymous on 3. July 2008 - 9:21  (3495)

I'd like to see 2 sections in this category (or maybe even 2 different categories). One for keyboard-based launchers like Launchy and FARR, and another for "icon bar" type programs, like docks, PowerPro, button bars, etc. I use FARR, but I'd still like something a bit better than the standard "quick launch" bar as well.

by fabrizio on 3. July 2008 - 12:22  (3502)

I agree the two type are different, I'm working on a version of the category wich incoludes both with a winner for each one.
Thank you.

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 11:34  (3967)

I use "Fast Launcher" and think it is one of the best. If you want to review it here is the link.

http://www.dvasoft.com/fast_launcher/

by fabrizio on 10. July 2008 - 12:33  (3975)

From the site it seems a shareware applications, so I cannot include it. Thank you anyway.

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 13:33  (3981)

How is the new FARR 2 behaving now a days? Does it use more resources and its slower than Launchy? Is it stable, do the new plugins affect it's performance?

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 15:24  (3988)

Hi I just tried it and IT'S FREEWARE, looked too simple but when I opened the Help file ... :

- Hold Ctrl key while clicking to avoid launcher's disappearing.
- To add a seperator simply add new item and type minus as program title.
- To switch launcher's window into smaller size and back it again double-click on the caption
- Roll mouse wheel to switch to next or previous tab

by nscave on 10. July 2008 - 17:52  (4001)

I started out using Tray Command Line, then SlickRun, followed by Launchy all great programs in their own right. I probably used Launchy the longest until a little over a month or so ago when I changed to FARR. In fact I have a review of some of those on my site ( http://xrl.in/90w ). I have thoroughly used and tested FARR on both XP and Vista machines with nothing but praise for it.

I ran into a problem with Launchy on Vista with the "Launchy must close" senario after some time, usually after several hours of computer time. I will admit I did a minimum amount of troubleshooting, but was unable to find the problem and changed to FARR.

I do not agree that FARR has a more difficult learning curve. I would say because it has more features, it can have a longer learning curve. However it is very easy for a new user to use FARR's basic 'launch programs' feature and as time goes on - later learn to use the search and other functions listed under 'agroups'.

In my opinion FARR starts programs faster than any of the other listed programs, and if you are a keyboard person it has numerous other quick action features. Because I am involved in web pages and blog activities, I even use several FARRs at once on several computers via desktop remote. In all cases it has been stable, fast and reliable.

Everyone has personal opinions about programs like these and this would be my seven cents worth.

(¯`·._.·ns¢ävË·._.·´¯)

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 17:54  (4002)

Another one to watch is Executor (http://home25.inet.tele.dk/mb/executor/index.html). Seemed a bit complicated though, and I didn't have the patience to sit and figure it out. Staying with FARR2 for now.

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 17:57  (4004)

"I do not agree that FARR has a more difficult learning curve." That is true, I installed it and have never really tinkered with the settings, runs perfectly.

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 18:15  (4006)

Thanks, that answered my question. I was sticking with Launchy because a few months ago FARR was not an alternative for Vista. V1 was excellent, V2 must be even better, for keyboard guys there's nothing better. I do understand your scepticism on the review, but this is a wiki and let's hope our contribution is taken into account!

by Anonymous on 10. July 2008 - 22:24  (4023)

I use Executor (http://www.executor.dk/) and find it fantastic.
It's true setup can be a little anachronistic, but flawless once going.

by Anonymous on 17. July 2008 - 14:32  (4372)

I didn't known it, thank you for the hint. I'll chek it.

Bye

by fabrizio on 17. July 2008 - 14:33  (4373)

Added to the tools to review :-)

thank you

by fabrizio on 17. July 2008 - 14:44  (4374)

I don't think too that FARR has a more difficult learning curve, expecially if you don't use it in advanced mode, so probably what I've written is not as clear as I thought. I encourage everyone - being this a wiki - to correct me :-)

But I thing FARR is more difficult to understand and to config. The file extension mechanims used by Launchy and other is far more simple to understand to every average winodows user, and even if you spend little or no time configuring it, Lanchy still works well.

Instead, the scoring mechanism of FARR - while it is in my opnizion a true improvement for the category - is still a too complex concept for an average user that will not understand the reason of the order FARR will present the searched programs. If FARR will implement an alternative file extension indexing mechanism, it will be for sure the Launcy successor. But right now - of course in my opinion - is not suited for the average user.

But, hey, it is only my opinion and this category probably is one of the most "personal" for every user ... :-)

Feel free - as I've said - to contribute to the review.

by fabrizio on 17. July 2008 - 14:47  (4376)

Ops .. you're right .. sorry :-)

Included in the ever growing list of software to test...

bye

by Anonymous on 17. July 2008 - 15:11  (4377)

Someone suggested this over at the "Best Free Start Menu Replacement" category, but it fits in perfectly here: Guillotine (http://www.zchromosome.com/).

by kdyer on 17. July 2008 - 22:51  (4401)

For years I have used a Windows toolbar to do this..

(1) Create a folder, e.g. c:\somefolder > You may find it helpful to create this folder in "My Documents"
(2) Place shortcuts in to this folder
(3) Right-Click on your taskbar, select "Toolbars", select "New Toolbar..."
(4) Navigate to your new folder
(5) Right-click on the Taskbar and select "Lock the Taskbar" uncheck the checkbox
(6) Grab the bar: "somefolder" and drag it to dock with the top or side of the screen
(7) Right-click on the new bar and deselect "Show Title"
(8) Right-click on the new bar and deselect "Show Text"
(9) Right-click on the new bar and select "Auto-Hide", if desired
(10) Right-click the Taskbar and select "Lock the Taskbar" to check the checkbox

Now, you can launch applications at anytime and have quick access to them..
You can drag, delete, etc. the shortcuts too from the newly created bar.
It may take some getting used to, but it has always served well..

Most importantly, you don't have to install any third-party app!

Kent

by Anonymous on 17. July 2008 - 23:40  (4406)

Not a big invention I would say, you really just have to «(3) Right-Click on your taskbar, select "Toolbars"», select "Desktop" and there you have it. But you cannot acess it from keyboard, and you only have basic features; I use to work like that before FARR.

by Anonymous on 18. July 2008 - 7:31  (4438)

I've tried many different launchers (many not listed here) so it's obviously a very active and well populated category. My favourite is definitely JetAudio's jetToolBar v3.8.1. I particularly prefer its ability to use small icons where many others do not. JetAudio doesn't seem to be doing anything with it any more but I find it very good for the way I work. You set up categories which are accessed through tabs and the programs are simply drag-n-drop to add to the category. It can have an autohide (my choice) and can hold any kind of link to launch websites or files. Uses 2400K on my XP laptop but it's holding many, many links.

by fabrizio on 19. July 2008 - 16:11  (4525)

I have to admit that this was also my solution before getting addicted to launchy :-)

bye

by fabrizio on 22. July 2008 - 8:48  (4732)

Launchy si ligher on resources, but you shouldn't notice the difference. Except if you load thousands of plugins :-)

Bye

by InfiNeat on 25. July 2008 - 15:37  (4950)

I have been using PowerPro for many years and still like it a lot. Very powerful. You can do anything, which is scary at first... It took me a while to set it up just how I wanted. But after that it's great. I made a tiny self-hiding launchbar at the top of my screen for my usual programs and folders. It's much faster than the Start menu.
http://powerpro.webeddie.com

by fabrizio on 28. July 2008 - 8:01  (5113)

This software was already suggested by another site visitor. I've installed and used it for nearly a month, and I've found it powerful but sometimes instable (during some test I've got some errors, and one time even a system crash), this is the reason why it is not included. I still have 11 software suggested in review to add, not counting the software I've already exluded. This category is one of the more "populated", so I've to make choices because not all the apps can be included.

This is why I think are so important comments like yours, in order to let site visitor found also links to software for some reason not included in the review.

Bye, and thank you!

by Anonymous on 28. July 2008 - 9:49  (5116)

Maybe add a list of the alternatives that didn't make it or are still being reviewed at the end of the main review, that way people don't have to read through endless comments.

by fabrizio on 28. July 2008 - 12:52  (5119)

This is a good suggestion, but right now is not praticable because the review format requires the complete information you see right now for every software mentioned in the review itself. You can imagine the hughe and unreadable list it can became.
I'll ask permission to list alternatives not reviewed with only a subset of the information.

Thank you.

by Anonymous on 28. July 2008 - 13:38  (5123)

Some of the categories do it this way already, look at the "Best Free CD/DVD Burning Software" (http://www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-program-launcher.htm) as an example. I think the top choices can have all the details listed as it currently stands, just mention the others, however is interested in those can just Google it.

by fabrizio on 28. July 2008 - 13:54  (5126)

Yes, but it is not standard. Right now we are discussing on the editors' mailing list about the standard to adopt.
As soon as it will be released, I'll insert it.

Bye.

by fabrizio on 19. August 2008 - 8:23  (6288)

Added to the - very long! - list of tools to test!

bye

by Anonymous on 24. August 2008 - 14:40  (6840)

I use Winkey for the past 5 years --to start programs, to open folders/files/websites using shortcuts
http://www.softpedia.com/get/System/OS-Enhancements/WinKey.shtml 1.8MB

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