Mac OS X: Keyboard shortcuts to launch any application

The Spotlight feature in OS X can start any application from the keyboard, and you don’t even have to program it. But if you want to assign a specific keyboard shortcut to an application, that capability is not built into OS X so you’ll need to use additional software for that (see the comments at the bottom for a discussion).

And if you came here looking for an Activity Monitor keyboard shortcut (as my blog stats suggest), read all the way to the bottom to learn why you might not even need one.

(Update: If you really want to assign a keyboard shortcut to a file like you can in the Properties dialog in Windows, conroy in the Adobe User Forums suggests an OS X tip involving Automator and Services.)

The secret weapon is Spotlight

With Mac OS X 10.4 or later, you don’t need to create or even learn shortcuts for applications. They’re already there, but not in the form you may be expecting.

The key is Spotlight, the search utility built into OS X, which is a decent application launcher. Just hit the Spotlight keyboard shortcut (Command+spacebar unless you changed it), type the first few letters of the application’s name, and if the application’s name is the Top Hit, press Return to launch it. (In OS X 10.4, you need to press Command+Return; In 10.5, Apple simplified it to just Return.) If it isn’t the Top Hit, use the usual Spotlight shortcuts to get to it in the list: Use the up and down arrow keys either alone, or with the Command key to jump categories.

So for example, if I want to use Activity Monitor, I press Command+spacebar, then type “act” and boom, there it is. Depending on which files and applications are on your computer, Activity Monitor may appear before you get to the third letter.

If you’re annoyed because you have to type a few letters before Spotlight narrows it down to the application you want to launch, have patience. If you keep picking the same item from the search results, OS X will eventually turn it into the Top Hit, and over time you’ll need to type fewer and fewer characters to get your preferred result. (You can accelerate searching for multiple words through abbreviation; read about it here.)

By now I’ve got my Mac trained so that after pressing the Spotlight shortcut, Photoshop becomes the Top Hit as soon as I type “p”, and Mail is selected as soon as I type just “m”. Yeah, it’s more than a single keystroke, but on the other hand, to get this feature I didn’t have to modify my system, spend an hour configuring shortcuts, or add a utility such as LaunchBar. Spotlight is already capable of launching any application on your system without any further setup.

Spotlight launching Photoshop by typing one letter

There’s a second benefit to leaning on Spotlight for this purpose: You never have to dig down to open an application or utility that isn’t already in the Dock. You don’t even need to know where it is on your hard drive! Using Spotlight as an application launcher can also let you reduce the number of application alias icons littering your desktop or Dock. Since I usually launch via the keyboard, I actually have my Dock hidden by default.

I took it one step further and used the Keyboard Shortcuts customizer in the Keyboard system preference to change the Spotlight shortcut to F12 on my notebook and F13 on my desktop so that I could get to Spotlight by pressing just one key.

Before OS X 10.4 brought us Spotlight, I used to be a devotee of LaunchBar, and I tried Quicksilver. The problem is that even if a launcher app is free, the second indexing engine drags on the system and adds complexity, another database to store and manage, and removes another set of keyboard shortcuts from the pool. When Spotlight came out, I realized that it does most of what I need, and well enough. The things Spotlight can’t do that the other utilities can do I’ve mostly covered by having Spotlight trigger AppleScripts…but that’s a subject for another entry.

You don’t really need to launch Activity Monitor

Update: There are so many Web searches that come here looking for an Activity Monitor shortcut that I have to add this: If you frequently want to monitor Mac system status information, you should download iStat Menus (used to be free, I decided to pay) atMonitor, or MenuMeters (those last two are both free). They put all of that CPU, RAM, drive, network, etc. information right up there in your menu bar. Ultimately, iStat Menus is why I don’t need to open Activity Monitor, because what I want to see is already visible or accessible in one click, and without blocking what I’m working on.

In the picture above, you can see part of my iStat Menus setup in the menu bar: current network throughput, hard drive activity and free space, RAM usage, and multi-core CPU meter. Clicking any of those items drops a menu with much more detailed information.

23 comments

  1. I have recently switched from PC to Mac and have used this exact same method to launch any application. However, I find that a keyboard shortcut (KS) is more efficient if you must switch between applications frequently. Windows made assigning a KS to a program very easy – and it worked *almost* always 😉

  2. That is true, I don’t know of a way to assign a single keystroke to a specific application in Mac OS X without using one of the many third-party utilities that can do that.

    However, if you’re just switching applications, you can at least press Command+Tab to use the application switcher, which is analogous to Alt+Tab in Windows.

    The Mac’s application switcher is actually superior to the one in Windows XP, because once it’s up, you can point the mouse at a program icon so you don’t have to keep pressing the Tab key, and when an application icon is selected in the switcher, you can use Command+Q to quit or Command+H to hide the selected application without having to switch to that application. (I hear it might work better in Vista.)

  3. The first one I tried was Adobe Lightroom. I just typed one letter “l” and it was the top hit before it was even trained!

  4. And it learns quick. Most of mine are one key now. Thanks again, great idea. Not sure why I didn’t think of it; I use spotlight a lot.

  5. I can’t get command-return to work to open an app. after I have spotlighted it. I have leopard os. Please help me with a work around.

  6. Anthony Y,
    Sorry, I still had the old 10.4 shortcut in there. I just edited the post for Leopard. In Leopard, you only need to press Return.

  7. Hi,
    I was looking for a tip to make an application run with just a single keystroke because i have an alu external keyboard with my mac and there are function keys to f19 and i wanted to assign some programs to those…

    anyways this is not the place to look for a solution to that but i wanted to add it is better to use quicksilver than spotlight as for me. Quicksilver gets the results much faster and accurate, but of course your mac, your experience your choice… that is what i think… Cheers,
    Sinan.

    Yes, Quicksilver is great, and it has more flexibility in launching. I used to use it, but as Spotlight has improved, I decided to remove Quicksilver to simplify my system. -Conrad

  8. I use Spotlight as my launcher but the application I want to launch starts so fast that I can do it quickest by clicking the icon on the dock using the mouse, but still halve that time and speed up my overall start up if I can get a shortcut to launch the app.

    The application is “Fresh”, there is no option such as “New File” or “Open” which would start the app, it’s to help manage new files created everywhere else on the system.

  9. four years on…. spotlight’s still great but it still doesn’t beat windows’ way of jumping between applications/files. When you have a couple dozens of them open, nothing beats using shortcuts such as Ctrl+Alt+H or Ctrl+Alt+P to make a certain window active. Anyone knows of a Mac App that could give OS X the same functionality? LaunchBar does not seem to tackle this well.

    1. I just pressed Ctrl+Alt+H or Ctrl+Alt+P in Windows 7 and they did nothing, and Google only lists those shortcuts for third-party Windows applications. Are you using third-party software on Windows to enable those shortcuts?

      On the Mac, see if the useful Witch utility will do what you want, because it lets you access any open window immediately with a keyboard shortcut.
      http://manytricks.com/witch/

  10. Thanks Conrad, I’ll check Witch out later today. As to shortcuts in Windows 7, you don’t need a third party software. Right-click (almost) any icon, pick “properties”, you’ll find a field labelled “Shortcut key”: you can enter (almost) any combination there. If you do this with one-window programs (such as the Palm Desktop) or single files, you can jump to that program/file immediately, no matter how many windows/programs you have open. It is definitely faster than CMD+TAB or ALT+TAB.

    1. You are correct, of course; I’ve known about that Windows feature for years and Mac OS has never had a way to assign a key to an application. And in that case Witch will not be exactly what you’re looking for. To assign a single key to launch an application on a Mac, you need to use a third-party utility such as QuicKeys (http://startly.com/products/quickeys/mac/4/), but their web site says they’re not Lion-compatible yet.

      What I wasn’t sure about were the Ctrl+Alt+H or Ctrl+Alt+P shortcuts you mentioned…what do those do in Windows? Or were they simply examples of the shortcuts you had chosen for your application?

      1. They were simply examples… If you’re curious: I set Ctrl+Alt+P to launch (and subsequently switch to) the Palm Desktop, which is (still…) the software I use the most. Ctrl+Alt+H launches an excel spreadsheet with my time sheet and other useful stuff (for the life of me I can’t recall when or why I opted for that combo!).
        Thanks for suggesting QuicKeys: I am not upgrading to Lion yet, so it could be worth a try

  11. follow-up to my Aug 6 post: have been trying Nulana’s Shortcuts 1.3. It’s very simple, not intended for power users, but – so far – it’s doing the job.

  12. The problem with this spotlight solution is that Spotlight does not allow nor use the full index available on the Mac. So many file and or folders are not available via spotlight. A free search utility, NotLight by matt neuberg does use commands that will allow a user to search for files, including via file name, content, kind and others, that Spotlight and even 3rd party apps such as Houdah Spot will not find.

    1. Thanks, I didn’t know about NotLight, even though I’m a fan of Matt Neuberg’s work including MemoryStick. That’s a great tip for finding anything with Spotlight, although the scope of this post is largely concerned with software in the Applications and Utilities folders, which are successfully found with Spotlight itself.

      Where NotLight might come in handy with applications is when you’re trying to launch one that’s buried in a folder hidden from Spotlight, like an Epson print queue or the Character Viewer.

  13. iStat Menus (Bjango) is elegant, really useful and, I hate to say it, messes up resource critical applications. I wanted to continue using it, but it caused audio recording applications and plugins to crash regularly. I use a DAW called Reaper and many third party plugins on a high end iMac and struggled to determine the source of my problems. Unininstalling iStat Menus fixed everything. If I wasn’t doing processor intensive audio work, I would still use it.

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