Gizmos Needs You

Gizmo's Freeware is Recruiting

 We are looking for people with skills or interest in the following areas:
 -  Mobile Platform App Reviews for Android and iOS
 -  Windows, Mac and Linux software reviews       Interested? Click here

                  

 

Best Free Program Launcher

In a Hurry?
Go to details...  Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
 
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

Back to the top of the article.

 

Share this
2.772725
Average: 2.8 (44 votes)
Your rating: None

Comments

by Anonymous on 23. April 2009 - 11:43  (20372)

My favorite launcher is Appetizer ( http://app.etizer.org ). It's fast, lightweight, looks great and I can carry it around on my USB key :)

by Anonymous on 12. May 2009 - 2:34  (21398)

*koff* thinked = thought

by Anonymous on 12. May 2009 - 5:39  (21401)

editoed

by fabrizio on 14. May 2009 - 9:44  (21546)

Shame on me

by fabrizio on 14. May 2009 - 9:57  (21548)

Please, add any suggestion to the Related Products and Links section.

Thankx!

by Anonymous on 14. May 2009 - 12:19  (21553)

nonsense! brilliantly done.

by Anonymous on 14. May 2009 - 12:30  (21556)

I think Fences is fantastic, it allows you to organise and categorise apps on your desktop; rather than through using these silly dock thingys

by Anonymous on 30. May 2009 - 5:39  (22621)

sTabLauncher is the neatest and most useful desktop launcher I've found. As you might have guessed it uses tabs to locate and launch programs, which works superbly. It's tabs take up a tiny portion of the screen, but they will pop up showing only the program icons for each labeled section when the mouse cursor is hovered over them. This makes it preferable in that not only is it extremely unobtrusive, but it allows you to store many more program launch icons than with other docks (where you can quite easily run out of space or get overcrowded), and it does this with greater accessibility and visual clarity than start menu/panel launcher type apps. Try it, unless you a staunch keyword app user, you will want to ditch your existing dock, panel etc launcher setup!

http://stablauncher.com/

by Anonymous on 31. May 2009 - 20:52  (22751)

You totally missed perhaps the best of them all ... Executor...

by Anonymous on 1. June 2009 - 3:33  (22762)

"sTabLauncher is the neatest and most useful desktop launcher I've found." +1

by fabrizio on 3. June 2009 - 7:24  (22962)

I've not missed it, I've used it for three months before deciding not to include it. The reason is low indexing speed and poor indexi accuracy. I think it is worth to mention it in the Related Products and Links section, but as I've said in a message I prefer to let you readers add items in that section.

by Anonymous on 3. June 2009 - 10:28  (22968)

Will you look at sTabLauncher please? I find it more useful, and flexible than the panel/dock type launchers in this article.

http://stablauncher.com/

by Anonymous on 4. June 2009 - 16:08  (23061)

With NET 2.0? No thanks.

by fabrizio on 4. June 2009 - 19:34  (23072)

I Know sTabLauncher and I've used it quite a lot when it come out. The Docks class - in my opinion - suite best, but anyway sTabLauncher cannot beat the power of the other contender like RocketDock. But it surely deserve a mention, so I invite you to add it in the links section.

by Anonymous on 19. June 2009 - 7:05  (24128)

A lot of the find as you type launch programs seem to be pretty buggy. Launchy versions 1 & 2 both seemed to crash and never work again after about two minutes.

Of the lot of them, Find and Run Robot seems to work best on my system, even if it is a bit complex. Plugins available for it also offer some pretty neat options, like typing in tz to bring up the current time in all the world's time zones.

by Anonymous on 26. June 2009 - 11:26  (24379)

I'm sorry but I strongly disagree. It's hard to define "power" in the context of app launchers, probably the most powerful programs are the keystroke launchers, BUT only to those you are comfortable operating that way.

The key issue here is usability. In my opinion, dock launchers such as RocketDock, ObjectDock are pretty gimmicky, their popularity comes from mimicking the Mac OS X Dock: style over substance IMHO.

I was giving up hope that I would never take to a 3rd party app launcher, or that they offered me nothing that the regular Window's quick launch bar, start menu and desktop didn't. Then I found sTabLauncher, and I love it!

The real limitation I find with apps like RocketDock, is that when running a full screen window, you either haven't to have them on top and thus obscuring some of the screen, or hidden away, in which case what do they really offer over standard desktop icons or quick launch bar? There is also the limitation of space, you can only fit so many icons into each dock.

sTabLauncher allows you to have an opaque, completely customizable named collection of colour coded tabs, which obstruct only against the outer boarder of a window. You can have, for example, Internet, Music, Office, Security tabs which pop up (or down) when you rest the mouse cursor (or click on) the area. In effect, it's like having many "pop up docks" for launching different types of apps, or folders.

Maybe it's just how my mind works, but whilst I sometimes forget the specific name of a program I'm wanting to access, I'm usually able to remember what it does, and then visually locating it's icon within a reasonably small collection of icons is quite easy.. but everyones' minds work differently I guess!

by Anonymous on 28. June 2009 - 6:27  (24445)

Bump - Didn't realise you could still add new comments!

The key issue here is usability. In my opinion, dock launchers such as RocketDock, ObjectDock are pretty gimmicky, their popularity comes from mimicking the Mac OS X Dock: style over substance IMHO.

I was giving up hope that I would never take to a 3rd party app launcher, or that they offered me nothing that the regular Window's quick launch bar, start menu and desktop didn't. Then I found sTabLauncher, and I love it!

The real limitation I find with apps like RocketDock, is that when running a full screen window, you either haven't to have them on top and thus obscuring some of the screen, or hidden away, in which case what do they really offer over standard desktop icons or quick launch bar? There is also the limitation of space, you can only fit so many icons into each dock.

sTabLauncher allows you to have an opaque, completely customizable named collection of colour coded tabs, which obstruct only against the outer boarder of a window. You can have, for example, Internet, Music, Office, Security tabs which pop up (or down) when you rest the mouse cursor (or click on) the area. In effect, it's like having many "pop up docks" for launching different types of apps, or folders.

Maybe it's just how my mind works, but whilst I sometimes forget the specific name of a program I'm wanting to access, I'm usually able to remember what it does, and then visually locating it's icon within a reasonably small collection of icons is quite easy.. but everyones' minds work differently I guess!

by allencch on 12. July 2009 - 2:38  (24953)

Yes, it is the best.

by Anonymous on 24. July 2009 - 5:31  (25690)

I like "runme" which is quite handy. ( http://www.ksoft.nm.ru/runme.htm )
It works well with XP but unfortunately not good with Vista.

by Anonymous on 29. July 2009 - 17:53  (25972)

Vote for "ToolBox v2.85" from cylog.org to appear in this list.
Note "convert path to relative" ability.
It's awesome for portable/encrypted drive etc.

by Anonymous on 20. August 2009 - 14:47  (31229)

Launchmate is what I've used for years.
http://launchmate.sourceforge.net/lmdwnld.htm

It supports drag 'n drop, multiple categories, auotohide (if you want), change of screen resolution, named shortcuts, gradient colours...

It even works in Vista.. docks to top, left or right.

Stablauncher is a very close second- and in fact can accommodate more shortcuts more effectively. However it cannot dock to the sides of the screen.

Its GUI is far smarter, one particular bug- it 'disappears' after resume from hibernate, leaving a process running.

Both accommodate folders too.

There has been an attempt to update Launchmate to v4, but that seems incomplete.

by Jojo Yee on 28. August 2009 - 6:58  (31713)

Tried sTabLauncher and it's quite appealing, helpful for grouping many launch icons when the space is limited.

Another alternative I like, build a launcher without installing any program.

by rhiannon on 18. September 2009 - 19:45  (32923)

Found this listed for a software award:

http://myeasyshell.com/

I don't use launchers so I have no idea if its good or not. It does seems to have some good features.

by fabrizio on 24. September 2009 - 6:52  (33207)

I've tried it and it is awesome.

But, it is too in an early stage (see the version number) to inlcude it in the article. But I personally reccomend it to who wants to try something really different (except perhaps Enso)

by Anonymous on 29. September 2009 - 8:57  (33519)

Been using Launchy for over a year now. It joins Total Commander as an app I would not like to be without.

One thing that isn't made clear in the product description is that it 'learns'. Although you may have to type 'firefox' initially, before long 'f' is sufficient.

by Anonymous on 4. October 2009 - 11:07  (33895)

Find and Run Robot (FARR) free from donation coder.

by Anonymous on 4. October 2009 - 18:33  (33934)

This Launchy is a load of rubbish. It will not run Word no matter how hard I try. I either get word pad or some radio software. Even creating a specific menu item and laboriously threading in the file address, it still did not work. Yes, Evedn typing "winword" did not do it. Utter tripe.

by Anonymous on 5. October 2009 - 7:27  (33954)

Launchy use what you type to search through file names in selected directories and within selected file extensions.

Being the filename of Word winword.exe, if the .exe extension is selected for the Programs folder in you settings, Launchy will find it. It is possible that the first time you search typing "word", Word will not be the first choice of Launcy, but if you'll scroll down the list you'll find it. If you'll launch Word, Launchy will remember it and the second time you'll type "word" you'll see Word as the first choice.

by Anonymous on 5. October 2009 - 11:04  (33966)

I found another Launcher. It is called "MouseExtender"
You can find it here at
http://me.codeplex.com/

by MidnightCowboy on 5. October 2009 - 11:10  (33968)

Looks interesting and certainly well laid out with a neat interface. Please note that it requires .NET Framework 3.5 SP1