How-To Geek

Keyboard Ninja: Launch any Application Without the Mouse

Don’t get me wrong, I think the mouse was probably the greatest innovation in computing since the silicon chip, but for a power user it’s really the slowest form of input.  Taking your hands off the keyboard to reach for your mouse takes easily 500 ms of time, if you’re fast.  Add to that the time to actually find the cursor (no small feat on high resolution screens), and the time to find and click on that one tiny icon you need, and you’re talking some serious productivity cramping.  Of course, you could always be one of those *nix rebels who refuse to use any graphical environment, but what’s the fun of using bash, VI and command-line compilers for the rest of your days?

The ultimate solution is of course to use the mouse as little as possible within your lush, translucent-window-bordered environment.  And since launching applications is a key part of anyone’s workflow, the ability to accomplish this task mouse-less is a big step in the right direction.

Vista Fortunately, every major operating system now offers a way to do this easily and quickly.  In fact, these mechanisms are flexible enough to even launch documents, pictures and even emails (depending on settings).  We’ll start with Windows Vista:

Hit the Windows Meta key (the one with the Windows logo on it).  The start menu should pop-up and the search field will get the keyboard focus.  You should be able to type just the first few characters of the application you wish to launch and it will be automatically highlighted in the search results.  In the screenshot, I typed “vmware” and the selected result is “VMware Workstation”.  Hitting Enter launches the application.  If the text you typed is a command available in your PATH, Windows will automatically run that command rather than executing any search results.  Thus, I can hit Meta, type “ping /t” and hit Enter and that fancy-schmacy DOS window pops up showing me my scrolling ping.

This, I think, is one of the few features which really makes Vista worth the upgrade.  Windows will even “learn” (a fancy word for statistical analysis) from your choices based on search text and properly rank the search results in future.  For example, after typing “live” a sufficient number of times and selecting the second result, Windows Live Writer, Windows eventually ranks Windows Live Writer at the top of the list.

Of course, this feature was more or less copied from a feature Mac has had for a while now, Spotlight.  Ironically, I think the Windows copy of Spotlight is better done, but that’s another issue…


By default, Spotlight is activated with the Command+Space (sometimes referred to as Apple+Space, since the key usually has an Apple Inc. logo).  Hitting this key combo drops down the menu from the upper right-hand side and allows you to type search text.

As you can see from the screenshot, Spotlight searches applications, Dashboard widgets, System Preference panes, documents, and finally (clipped by the screenshot) all files.  If the text “itunes” had matched any of my emails in Apple Mail, those would have been found as well.  As would have any pictures in iPhoto, any songs in iTunes, and so on.  Apple’s outstanding application integration is really apparent in this feature, but the price is that the search is a bit slower than the Windows Vista clone.  Also, the Top Hit (in this case, the iTunes application) isn’t selected by default.  This means that we need to hit the Spotlight key combo, type our search text, hit the down arrow (moving our hands), and then hit the Return key to activate the result.  A bit less convenient than just typing and hitting Enter.


Not to be left out, Gnome2 does include a gpanel applet called “Deskbar” which offers identical functionality to the Mac Spotlight.  As with Spotlight, you can activate the deskbar by a key combo, and then enter the appropriate search text within.  Deskbar will consider the search for a moment, and then return any applications contained within the Gnome menu, any files, etc.  However, my favorite bit is that if you don’t select any results manually (again, using the arrow keys), Deskbar will attempt to execute the specified text as a command.  Thus, like in Vista I can simple type “java -jar ~/MyApp.jar” and away the app goes.

Unfortunately, by default deskbar is a) not added to the panel, and b) not bound to a sane keyboard sequence (Alt+F3 is rather difficult to hit).  Adding deskbar to the panel is as simple as right clicking the panel, selecting “Add to Panel…” and then choosing “Deskbar”.  Rebinding the keyboard shortcut is almost as simple.  Right click on the deskbar icon, choose “Preferences”.  Then select “View” and click on the “Keyboard shortcut to focus” field.  Now, press the key combo you wish to assign to deskbar.  Personally, I use Alt+Enter, but you can use whatever best fits your workflow.  (warning to Mac fans, Alt+Space doesn’t work)


When not writing articles for How-To Geek, Mr Linux is coding in Java, Ruby, Bash, SQL and anything else which comes to mind. Mr Linux unfortunately cannot link to his blog. However, when the time is right he will use it as the means to control all thought and opinion.

  • Published 06/24/07

Comments (25)

  1. Nameless

    The keyboard is not faster than the mouse, even for power users. It does, however, seem faster.

  2. truman


    The articles you linked to are 18 freaking years old.

    I hardly think that apple research done before 1989 has even the slightly bearing on the subject of this article.

  3. The Geek

    I trimmed that comment down to just one link…. posting multiple links in a comment is very close to spamming.

    The comment got caught in the spam filter in the first place, so I’m not far off.

  4. Mr Linux


    Open Firefox: Reach for mouse; select start menu; find “Firefox” icon with eyes; cursor over to icon; click (approximately 2 seconds when I just tried it)

    Open Firefox (keyboard): Move thumb to type meta key; type “firefox”; hit enter (less than one second when I just tried it)

    Open Java Class in Eclipse JDT: Reach for mouse; find “Package Explorer” icon with eyes (assuming it’s docked); cursor to icon; click on icon; expand successive package nodes until class file is found; double click (depending on where the class is, 5-20 seconds)

    Open Java Class in Eclipse JDT (keyboard): Move thumb slightly and press Ctrl-Shift-T; enter either part or all of type name; hit Enter (less than 3 seconds, for any type)

    Obviously the Eclipse example is a bit contrived, but you get the picture. I could have just as easily have mentioned printing a document in Firefox, bolding text in Word, etc… The point is, thousands of usability experts around the world have agreed for the last *two decades* that the keyboard is a more efficient input device than the mouse. So now we have *one* who disagrees…

  5. wofl

    katapult works great for kde

    even uses the alt+space shortcut

  6. Joe

    with quicksilver I hit apple-space and hold down s for a half second. Bam, safari. Why didn’t they mention QS. It does so much more than launch apps and open files.

  7. Nameless


    Yes, they are old articles. The keyboard shortcuts mentioned, however, are the same or in the same format as keyboard shortcuts used today. The mouse has also not changed much, though one could argue, I suppose, that has improved a bit when the roller ball was abandoned, and the GUIs have been further refined. So the articles are, if anything, more relevant today than when they came out.

    @The Geek

    Sorry. I wasn’t trying to spam. The followup articles addressed some of the concerns expressed here, and most everywhere else this discussion comes up, which is why I included them.

    @Mr. Linux
    I don’t use Windows; I use OS X. I don’t use Firefox because the Mac port is quite lacking. Having said that, I can open a browser from the Dock in less than a second, including the time it takes me to acquire the Dock. I suspect in Windows, the mouse method you describe is not the fastest way to launch an application. With proper settings, you should be able to acquire your Windows Start menu nearly instantaneously. It’s been a long time since I’ve used XP, but it should not take two seconds to find your browser within the menu.

    The start menu is in a screen corner, and in XP’s default skin can be opened by clicking the lower left corner pixel of the screen. There are only four pixels on the screen which can be acquired more quickly, these being the other three corners, and the pixel the mouse is pointing to at any given time. Move the mouse quickly in the general direction of any corner, and the corner pixel is acquired, almost instantly, because you can’t mouse past it. As a target, it is infinitely large in two dimensions. This is consistent with Fitts’ Law, which has been verified experimentally many, many times.

    Similarly, Apple uses screen edges for the Dock and Menu bar. Screen edges are exceeded only by screen corners (which Apple also uses extensively) in minimizing access time. (Incidentally, this is why it takes so much longer, about 5x, to access a non-fullscreen Windows menu compared to Apples menu bar.) Using the Dock I can easily and consistently use the mouse to launch applications much faster than with Spotlight, Finder, Quicksilver (claimed by many to be the best keyboard based launcher on any platform), Butler, Launchbar or other keyboard based methods.

    Of course, there are much slower methods of launching apps with the mouse than with the Dock. It is usually the slowest mouse method to which keyboard shortcuts are compared to demonstrate the “superiority” of keyboard shortcuts.

    I don’t have Eclipse JDT, so I can’t say anything about that UI, nor try your “contrived” test.

    In all my research I’ve yet to come across any credible source that contradicts:

    “We’ve done a cool $50 million of R & D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:

    – Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
    – The stopwatch consistently proves mousing is faster than keyboarding.

    This contradiction between user-experience and reality apparently forms the basis for many user/developers’ belief that the keyboard is faster.” (from the article I linked to previously)

    Apple even found the mouse to be faster in text editing experiments that were designed to show that in some cases the keyboard was superior. And not just a little faster, but very near twice as fast. Guess which method the users in those tests thought was fastest?

    Perhaps you will link to (or offer relevant search terms for) some of the “thousands of usability experts around the world” who have agreed that the keyboard is more efficient means of input in a well designed GUI. Even better if they are as accomplished and respected in the HCI field as Bruce Tognazzini.

    If keyboard shortcuts are your thing, by all means, use them. Most of us are not going full speed at the keyboard day in and day out, so the extra time the “shortcuts” require isn’t critical. Using the keyboard feels faster and sounds faster. Perception is very important part of the user experience. We should, however, be careful not to confuse our perceptions with reality, especially when there is evidence the two do not coincide.

  8. mark

    I like AppRocket for quick application launching. Consumes very few resources too. Nifty little app.

  9. Chris D


    Some tasks are clearly better with a mouse however there are many tasks that are much faster with a keyboard.
    The obvious example is typing a letter. So we can’t just say mouse or keyboard is faster.

    One example that I would guess is faster with a keyboard than a mouse is searching a large list. I can type a few letters and it filters it. Or I could sort it alphabetical and scroll. Now selecting from a small list is probably faster with a mouse.

    The question is whether starting an app is more like a large list or a small list. If you are starting an application you use frequently then it’s probably more like the small list (using a dock or icons dragged to the desktop) However I now use more like 40-50 applications. It’s getting to be more like searching a large list.

    Anyways, I use Launchy and my only complaint is that it isn’t Quicksilver. I am also a Java programmer and I use the Eclipse JDT example above daily. It is MUCH faster and really not that contrived.

  10. bipolarmorgan

    Are you guys seriously arguing over 2 seconds? HOLY COW … just do it the way you prefer, don’t try to tell people that one way is better and then argue about it. If you don’t have useful input, then rant like me. :)

  11. The Geek

    It’s just healthy discussion, honest! =)

  12. Mr Linux

    Oh I don’t know; ranting’s fun too… ;-)

  13. Nameless

    @Chris D

    I agree that the mouse is not good for text entry! Navigating long lists can be very fast with a mouse. Personally, I have my mouse set to “jump to here” when I click in the scroll bar (outside of the scroll bar’s sliding button), so navigating a long list with the mouse can be done quickly. I don’t believe keyboard scrolling is fast at all in comparison to the mouse. I’ll admit to using the keyboard for filtering fairly often. I don’t know that it actually saves time, but it is very convenient.

    I keep about 30-40 items in my Dock, which stays hidden to save screen space. However, by grouping the items in a meaningful manner (for example, Word, TextEdit and Text Wrangler are grouped side by side), at any given time I’ve got a fairly accurate idea where an item is located in the Dock even without seeing it. I don’t think I could launch as quickly using the mouse if I were clicking on icons on my desktop. It’s the Dock’s location on the screen edge that makes it so efficient.

    I’ve found that the (two key) keyboard shortcuts I use most tend to be left handed, since I don’t need to leave the mouse to use them. I didn’t plan that, it just worked out that way. (CMD-z/x/c/v/a/s/f/g/q/w/space on the left compared to CMD-i/down on the right).

    I also tend to keep my desktop and preferences tweaked for efficient mouse use, using Fitts’ Law (Bigger targets can be acquired faster than smaller targets; closer targets can be acquired faster than more distant targets.) as a guideline. For example, hovering in my upper left corner(huge target) shows all windows via Expose. I keep a Finder window in the same corner, as high as possible, and moved slightly off screen, just enough so the close button is no longer visible. This serves two purposes. First, it puts the sidebar items on a screen edge, effectively increasing their size, greatly reducing access time by mouse. Second, it ensures that that particular Finder window is close to the mouse when “show all windows” is activated, which also reduces access time.

    Do such tweaks save time compared to other methods? Absolutely. Do they save enough time to make a big difference at the end of the day? For the overwhelming majority of cases, not really. Once in a great while it might make a difference, but there are a hundred and one ways in which I can squander away any time savings. Generally speaking, keyboard versus mouse is all about personal preference.

    I have nothing against keyboard shortcuts. I use a handful of them myself on a regular basis. However, it sometimes bothers me when keyboard shortcuts are promoted as a way to save time and increase productivity, since that is not the case. Personally, I think people are best served knowing as many different ways to accomplish a particular task as possible, including keyboard shortcuts. I think increasing our familiarity with our OS and applications can save us time (I’ve no evidence to support this assertion, but it seems quite reasonable.), regardless of our preferred method of input.

  14. john methven

    dear sir i take a drop in at our local community centre so get quite a few senior citizens with shaky hands & arthiritis so learning as much as poss with a mouse is very useful. John

  15. M-RES

    Just an addendum to your useful article (for those not already in the know) – in OS X, using spotlight (much much faster under 10.5 now, thanks to some improved back-end tech adpoted from Unix – you can find out more on Ars Technica about that) to search/launch apps is quicker than you describe. The magic key is of course Command (sometimes called ‘Apple’ by newbies).

    Basically, perform your cmd-space shortcut to pull up spotlight and start typing the app’s name. If the app you’re after is first in the list, you don’t need to to cursor down to it, just hold CMD and it’ll auto-highlight the top hit, then whilst holding CMD, hit enter (aka return) and Bob’s your Uncle!

    You can also navigate the menus from the keyboard in OS X. Hit Ctrl-F2 and it’ll highlight the Apple menu. Then just start typing the name of the menu you want and it’ll highlight. Use cursor-down to open a menu and again start typing to jump to an item. Hit enter/return (same thing on a Mac) to activate the highlighted item. Hit Esc at any time to exit the menus (similarly, if dragging a bunch of files and you want to stop the process mid-drag, hitting Esc aborts the action and leaves the files where they were).

    There are a multitude of keyboard shortcuts for things like this that aren’t widely documented in OS X, but if you do a google you’ll pick up some new ones.

    From my own personal experience, I use kbd shortcuts all the time to save trawling to the menu time and time again, so even when using the mouse my left hand tends to rest on the kbd, which means that a combination of inputs is the fastest method for me. Most people save a lot of time with the basic mnemonic shortcuts (Cmd-O for Open, Cmd-A Select All, Cmd-S Save, Cmd-P Print, Cmd-Q Quit etc etc etc), which once second nature ARE much faster. This sets them on the road to learning the shortcuts for their most commonly used functions in apps (esp. ones using additional modifiers such as shift, option, and/or ctrl) – which is a hell of a lot fast than navigating the mouse to the menu, dragging down, opening sub-menu, dragging down, selecting item with a click – FACT! But basically the fastest input method is a combination of keyboard AND mouse (whichever’s nearest at that moment).

    Additioanlly – in OS X it’s also possible to configure your own kbd shortcuts for items that don’t have them by default through the System Preferences>Keyboard & Mouse>Keyboard Shortcuts. For anyone with arthritis, you can turn on additional aids, such as sticky keys or trackpad/mouse gestures (which allow things like click-lock for dragging without holding down the mouse button if it’d be otherwise painful) in System Preferences>Universal Access.

    Just some info. :)

  16. Chris F

    Chris D – “Are you guys seriously arguing over 2 seconds?”

    2 seconds ain’t a lot, but if it’s a common operation that is repeated over and over again, those seconds quickly add up to minutes of wasted time. Couple this with the idea that there might be hundreds of thousands of people using a program… And suddenly every tiny change to the interface results in net global savings of years worth of “labor” daily… Cutting 2 seconds out of an operation * repeated 30 times a day by * 100,000 users… It adds up quickly.

    Bad microwave designs have cost the human race millions of years worth of wasted time collectively…


  17. jed

    anybody heard of applescript? then create a hotkey. repetitive tasks no longer.

  18. Anthony Aziz

    Interesting debate folks. In my opinion though, it’s the combination of keyboard and mouse working effectively together that are the fastest. In coding or writing up web sites, I’ll find myself copy/pasting the same structure a few times and changing some things (for example, I recently did a that had 50 options). Double-click work, CTRL+C, Double-click other word, CTRL+V, repeat. Speedier than using Edit>Copy/Paste, or Right Click, and also speedier than using keyboard to navigate text. Of course, if the situation calls for it… “Ctrl+F, , Tab, Enter” and done :)

    GNOME Do is a nice app for GNOME. The default keybinding is Super+Space and it searches through many contexts, including your favourite music player, IM contacts, and bookmarks, as well as launches apps.

    But then again, I just realised the last post was 5 months ago =/ Sorry for bring back a dead conversation, but I already typed it all out so might as well post :)

  19. linuxjuicer

    O and I use Launchy, because it is versatile.

  20. Salman, Khwaja

    Sadly to say, that Desk bar is removed from Jaunty release. I really do not understand why UBUNTU Team decided to abandon this project. I am missing that app. but still, the same functionality is achieved by GNOME DO, although with time, it is getting costlier in terms of performance and indexing it does.

  21. Mlenord

    2 keystrokes to open apps. This is on XP, though a similar method should be possible on any other OS. No scripting necessary – should you be among the non-scripting crowd.
    Step 1) Place shortcuts to the most frequently used and/or preferred programs into the Short-cut section of the menu
    Step 2) Rename shortcuts with unique leading characters, For example: “1 FIREFOX”, “2 EXCEL”, “Z PHOTOSHOP”, “Y POWERDVD”; etc.
    Step 3) To open the desired app, activate the menu using the Windows Key, then type the leading character to launch app. From the examples above: Windows Key, Z – will launch Photoshop.
    OPTION 1: Select a series of leading character if you prefer your apps in a specific order when if you choose to sort-by-name.
    OPTION 2: Any shortcut you can create can be used this way, i.e. shortcuts for folders, websites, files, remote server/printer folders, control panel apps, etc.
    NOTE: If any of the leading characters used when renaming the shortcuts are duplicated by system shortcuts within the Menu, you will need a third key-stroke by hitting ENTER to launch the app. For example, in the XP Classic menu – “S” is for Settings sub-menu, and “P” is for Programs sub-menu, so if you use either of those as a leading character, you will also need to ENTER to get the program to launch.

  22. bendover

    Isnt this the same as gnomedo? Except u dont get that irritating icon on the taskbar from gnomedo?

  23. matthieu

    Short-cuts should be promoted for the sake of health, there’s nothing as bad as the mouse for your arm and wrinkle. Happilly there are ergonomic mouses but so few people know about it. Personally I installed mouseless browsing on firefox, put some shortcuts in windows for my current tasks, and learned the shortcuts for navigation and of notepad++, my arm is happy and I do believe it is quicker for much things.

    It’s simple, typing a short-cut is shorter than to just reach the mouse, and someone who works 9-10 hours per day on a computer, like me, can’t afford to have his right hand on the mouse all the time. I did it, and my right arm is in great pain now…

  24. hfljkd

    i always feel like a sniper using the mouse. take one tiny target and hit another tiny target.

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