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Hands On: Flashlight 1.0 (OS X)
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Apr 19, 2015, 05:26 PM
Those of us who have used Apple's built-in local search tool Spotlight through its early years to now often find they've outgrown it, and are now life-support-dependent upon Alfred 2. Yes, there was some notable improvement in Yosemite, but it was too little, too late. Now Flashlight could bring us back. It's a free application that extends Spotlight's searching facilities, and to give you quick access to different corners of your Mac. From the keyboard, you can search the web, start a phone call, email someone a file, or shut down your Mac.

Much of this is familiar ground to users of Alfred 2 or LaunchBar 6, products that are called application launchers because once upon a time that was all they did. Before Spotlight could do it, or before it was even here, Alfred and LaunchBar could open up Word at the tap of a keystroke or two. Now they have both blossomed out into rich and powerful applications, while Spotlight has caught up a long way too. Flashlight would like to be the thing that extends Spotlight into the same ZIP code as these application launchers -- and for the most part, it does.

When launch Flashlight, you get a dozen or more sections with different controls called plugins that are in them. Each is really an example of something you can do, and comes with an install or uninstall button: Flashlight switches some features on by default, and not others. Under a section called weather, for instance, there are currently three such plugins, with a time zone one and very specific service using something called Ninetan are switched off, and a general weather tool is on. That tool means you can launch Spotlight as you always do, but this time type something like "weather new york" and in theory you find out whether it's boiling or snowing in that city.

We found it somewhat slow -- Alfred felt instantaneous in comparison -- and also it was often frustrating. Typing "Weather New York City" didn't get us the forecast, it returned a standard Spotlight search headed up by a document that presumably has those four words in it somewhere.

Flashlight is only just out of beta, and it still feels incomplete because it is: there's controls that are a little confusing and inconsistent. It's a small confusion and a small inconsistency, but it's the first thing you see: the opening Welcome to Flashlight screen has many, many options, and none of them do anything at all until you click on the (admittedly) big Enable Spotlight Plugins button.

It's fine that this has to be a positive choice by you, that it doesn't just enable its Spotlight extensions because you've launched the app, but it would be better to show all the other controls after you've done that. Plus, once you have clicked that Enable button, it doesn't turn into a Disable one. To switch Flashlight off again, you have to go to the File manu and untick the Enable option.

There is something funny about having to use your mouse to click on controls in an application designed to keep your hands on the keyboard. Mind you, there's also irony in the way that, during the installation of Flashlight, we used Alfred to find where we'd put it and then later Spotlight to launch it. Irony, or a voucher code for a therapy session.

It is probably possible to become too dependent on the keyboard of your Mac, and that topic is going to come up the next time you meet someone with RSI. Nonetheless, taking your hands off the keyboard and reaching for the mouse or the trackpad interrupts you. Not by much, not by very much at all, but by enough. It's the difference between thinking "right, I must go look up my bank accounts" and instead just being at your account and ready to type in your passwords (we go the whole hog: we use 1Password to take us to our accounts and log us in too. And don't even get us started on TextExpander).

So we're prime contenders for this kind of application, and we do like Flashlight. We also like that you can develop your own Spotlight extensions, and Flashlight will run them as Automator actions, or you can propose them to the maker. We like that a lot, even though we'll probably not get around to either of them.

Flashlight takes some learning, and it takes some thinking about what plugins you do and don't want. Alfred 2 and LaunchBar 6 aren't exactly a walk in the park either, and all of these are better the more you look into and try them. So it's good to have a free one that lets you have a go at more heavy keyboard use, but as yet Flashlight won't get us away from Alfred 2.

Flashlight 1.0 requires OS X 10.10 or higher, and is free from the official website.

Who is Flashlight 1.0 for:
If you use Spotlight even a little, get this to increase what it does. The more you try the features in either Spotlight or Flashlight, the more you will come to rely on and enjoy them.

Who is Flashlight 1.0 not for:
Alfred 2 or LaunchBar 6 users need not apply -- though you can, you could get and run this right alongside those if you wished. Also, anyone who prefers the mouse or trackpad to keystrokes will not get any benefit until they mend their ways.

-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher)
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Apr 20, 2015 at 05:12 PM. )
Join Date: Dec 2007
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Apr 20, 2015, 01:18 PM
If there is something less often used on OS X than Spotlight then, er, we don't know what it is because we don't use it either. Spotlight, though, that's different. Those of us who have come to use Spotlight have found that it has grown and grown with us to the point where actually we've outgrown it and are now life-support-dependent upon Alfred 2.
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Apr 20, 2015, 04:33 PM
Can a copy editor please re-phrase that first paragraph? It's fairly confusing.
Charles Martin
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Join Date: Aug 2001
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Apr 20, 2015, 05:14 PM
I apologize for that, it escaped our usual proofread. I think it was a case where the author merged some sentences composed at different times to confusing effect. Sorted now.
Charles Martin
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