Raycast Review as an Longtime Alfred UserEvan Travers
Raycast presents a lot of power for a free application, including some surprising integrations I've paid money for before. I recommend it… if only for the Calendar Extension.
Software launchers have been part of my workflow for a long time. I first encountered Quicksilver years ago when Merlin talked about the original Google talk by a1cor… and then I immediately bought a mac. There've been a couple different applications in use, but for over ten years it's been Alfred.
Wow, anybody else have usage this high? RT @evantravers: Ya’ll, I like @alfredapp a lot. pic.twitter.com/iGprUtKh— Alfred App (@alfredapp) November 9, 2012
When I first started using Alfred it answered all my automation needs for a long time… until a while back I played with Hammerspoon and discovered it was almost immediate for my hotkeys.
Since I moved Hyper Hotkeys from Alfred to Hammerspoon I have further diversified my automation. I use Alfred daily for the following:
- Clipboard history and search
- Starting searches online and custom search engines
- Snippets, mostly Slack style
- Launching applications (rarely)
- Finding and moving files (rarely, but useful)
- Some small file automations
- Switching out of Dark Mode for bright environments.
Raycast has been on my radar for a while, but automators.fm, a macstories post, and a new M1 mac for work finally pushed me to check it out.
While Raycast and Alfred share a similar look and purpose they have a slightly different feel based on a core interface principle: Alfred uses sentences, Raycast uses menus.
It took some getting used to. As an avid fan of OSX's readline features, I was used to modifying queries in Alfred by modifying the plain text sentence. Raycast doesn't work that way… you choose an item and enter a mode or menu… not continue to type a sentence. If you delete everything in the Input box, it doesn't cancel your current tool… you need to hit
ESC to back out of it. This is annoying at first, and then powerful… you don't have to retype the main command each time.
Raycast's decision is more expressive for certain custom interfaces (it's amazing Spotify extension is a shining example) and I imagine it is much easier for an extension developer to parse a "query."
I was also accustomed to web search being the default fallback, but that was a quick command away in Raycast
Everything is an Extension
Alfred has a core feature-set with optional and expressive Workflows that you can put on top. A command that you can type into the interface can be part of the core features, or added by a workflow or snippet. It sometimes can be hard to determine where a command is configured or changed. Without a distribution or update path, its been up to sites like the fan-made packal.org, the official Alfred forums, or the relatively new Alfred Gallery) to distribute workflows with no clear and universal update path.
Raycast learns from this weakness with a simple and strong Extension Store. In fact Raycast is merely a UI for navigating and controlling Extensions. The core settings control Raycast's appearance and that's pretty much it. All other configurations, hotkeys, and settings are located with their Extension. It's consistent and simple.
While Raycast ships with some impressive built in extensions to answer most of your launcher needs, Raycast's Store (predictably itself an extension) has a ton more. A couple extensions really jumped out to me:
Calendar is incredible. It lets you join upcoming meetings with a single
Enter keystroke. I more or less paid for Fantastical just for this feature… here you can have it for free.
Spotify is very good. I've used a Spotify workflow for Spotify, and it was endlessly difficult to set up. This is amazing.
Things has a plugin that puts your top task in your menubar… which is kind of nice.
Drafts (always one of my favorites) has all the quick-add options you could want… or Obsidian lets you quickly append to your Daily Note.
The list goes on! Fantastical, Elgato Key Lights, Emoji search, Clipboard History… it's probably already there!
I haven't dived into the documentation for making my own Extensions because the Shortcuts extension makes it easy to run Shortcuts: even allowing passing in input from Raycast to the Shortcut. More on that later…
Filed For later
File search and tools don't compare to Alfred. Alfred has built-in queries to search by filename or content. While I don't use the buffer feature that lets you select several files that much I do miss it on principle. Far more, I miss the Selection Hotkey Universal Action that let you grab your selection in the Finder and act upon it.
As it turns out this shortcoming doesn't hurt me that much. I don't deal with that many local files that I'm not interacting with in a terminal. Much of my work is in a cloud somewhere or through some application or other.
While I was worried about Raycast's speed it seems to be fast enough for all my uses. I'm able to quickly find any of my notes or documents.
The key to Raycast's success is the Extension architecture and store. Keeping the interface consistent and putting the tools in the hands of creative folk worldwide means that the tool is ever growing and changing.
If you have web programmer skills you can make your extensions. I was concerned about missing Alfred's Workflows1… but I quickly realized that if I need visual programming… I can use Shortcuts2. I'm writing a ton of shortcuts now, in fact it's upending my whole automation/productivity stack.
If you don't have a launcher or are on lots of calls, give Raycast a try. It has replaced Alfred for me.
The only custom plugin I wrote I rewrote as a shortcut, and now it works everywhere. ↩
This move was unavailable to Alfred when they started, but it's the right one now. Alfred Workflows struggled to find the balance between power and flexibility and ended up with neither. As a developer I would immediately shell out to get full programming power, and as a power user I was frustrated by the interface and API. ↩
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