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Getting started with Quicksilver: understanding the basics

David Chartier

Prompted by a TUAW reader comment on my post the other day about some Quicksilver fundamentals, I thought I would take a crack at posting some short tutorials on what Quicksilver actually does, and how to get started with it. I'm talking about the most basic of the basics here for anyone who is curious but still confused as to what the heck they're looking at the first time they launch Quicksilver. To anyone who can't make heads or tails of it: I don't blame you. It took me quite a while to wrap my head around all this stuff, so I hope I can do you some justice with this post.

Disclaimer - I use a somewhat modified version of Quicksilver and I've added a lot of extras, but for this demo I *think* I've properly fixed my copy to look like a default Quicksilver install.

Speaking of my screenshot - let's get started.

Quicksilver's website says it is a "unified, extensible interface for working with applications, contacts, music, and other data." Basically, that means it's an easy way to search for just about anything on your Mac and *do* something with it - kinda like Spotlight except, as of this writing, Quicksilver can't really search inside of files like Spotlight can. Quicksilver rises above and beyond Spotlight in that it allows you to do far more with Mac OS X and the items you search for, as you'll soon find out.

By default, you can invoke Quicksilver with ctrl - space, and you should be presented with a window like the screenshot above (yes, you can change that shortcut in the preferences). This window contains two main sections called "Subject' and "Action." These sections are Quicksilver's bread and butter: the Subject section allows you to search for something, just like you would with Spotlight. You can begin typing and Quicksilver will immediately begin to show you results, as seen in my next screenshot:

One of the first "gotchas" to remember is that Quicksilver will reset your input (near the top left of the window, in this case I typed "TUAW") if you pause for about a second and begin typing again; it doesn't act like Spotlight. If this irks you, there is a setting in the preferences that will allow you to extend the amount of time Quicksilver waits to reset the input field.

Once you stop typing, Quicksilver will open the fly-out window you see on the right containing a list of other choices it found based on your input. Its first choice is already placed in the Subject section, but in case you want to chose something else, you can simply arrow down to the selection you want and the Subject section will change to reflect the items you're arrowing to.

This is where the Actions section, on the bottom of the Quicksilver window, comes into play. That Action section tells you what is going to happen with the item in the Subject section once you hit the return key. In this case I have selected a bookmark for TUAW, and the Action will be to open that bookmark in my default browser. It's pretty straight-forward, and not much unlike using Spotlight so far, right?

This Action section is where I believe Quicksilver becomes truly useful. Instead of hitting enter on the item you've found with Quicksilver, hit the Tab key to move from the Subject section down to the Action section (notice how the blue highlighting shifts down the Action. You can also use shift-tab to jump back up to the Subject section). Now, hit the right arrow, and you'll get another fly-out window to the right that contains a list of actions. These allow you to chose what you want to do with the item you've found, and this list will change depending on the item you search for. In this case, with a bookmark, I can chose to (in order on this list): open it (the default action), copy its URL to the Clipboard (a plugin I've installed), open it with a specific browser, amongst a few other actions we won't get into for now. For an example of how Actions can change depending on the item you've found, check out the actions that are possible with a contact that I searched for from Address Book in my next screenshot:

Here, I searched for the TUAW Team contact that I have in Address Book. Now the default action, as you can see, is to send an email to this contact, which I think is far more useful than Spotlight, since it merely opens the contact in Address Book. If I hit return, Quicksilver will open a new message in my default email client ( and automatically address that message to the TUAW Team address. But let's not stop there - check out all the other actions that are possible. I can still show that contact in Address Book, open that contact in Address Book immediately for editing, copy the TUAW Team email address to my clipboard, and all sorts of other stuff. Try searching for other types of items, such as applications, and tab down to the actions section to see what's possible with them. Hopefully, this will help get your first foot in the door with how Quicksilver works, and what is possible.

If you don't like the default action or the order actions are arranged, you can check out the Actions panel in Quicksilver's preferences like I recommended in my last post (either through the icon in your menubar or by hitting cmd-, when Quicksilver is invoked) for a complete list of all the possible actions, in which case you can toggle some on/off and reorder them. Looking through those might also help you explore all the things that are possible with items you find.

One last tip before I wrap this up is that Quicksilver, as its website states, is incredibly extensible. If you aren't a Safari/Address Book user, you can get plugins for most other browsers as well as a plugin for Entourage support. There are a boatload of plugins available that allow you not only to find stuff but control applications too, like changing music in iTunes with hotkeys, browsing through NetNewsWire headlines, searching the web with hundreds of search engines, creating archives of files/folders you search for and much, much more. Once you get used to the fundamentals in this tutorial, feel free to start exploring, as that becomes part of the fun of learning how Quicksilver can completely change the way you use your Mac.

Hopefully this tutorial did you some good, but if it didn't, feel free to post questions and requests in the comments. I'll try to do my best to help you out, and you can always check tutorials from other sites that have already posted quite a few of their own such as 43 Folders and Blacktree themselves.

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