Alfred Remote is here and it's interesting

Alfred Remote Logo

Alfred Remote (US$5) is here, it's really well-designed, easy to use, and I'm not sure how I'm going to use it yet.

I can't even remember how long ago I first spotted the "Remote" icon in Alfred 2, but it has been there for so long I've kind of grown blind to it. There wasn't anything there, just a "Coming Soon" teaser, and I didn't hear anything more about it for many months. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear that it was finally going to be available.

First, let's talk about the good parts. Alfred Remote looks awesome. It has great icons and the whole app looks and feels like a great deal of care was taken in the design of it. At the bottom are several "pages" which are similar to browser tabs, or iOS folders, each one containing a grouping of related items. By default, "pages" exist for Applications, Preferences, Folders and Files, Bookmarks, iTunes controls, and System Commands. App icons are used where you'd expect, and custom icons exist for other actions. The icons are cleanly designed and look right at home in iOS. You can swipe between the various pages quickly and smoothly.

You can add your own pages as well, or rearrange existing ones. Creating new ones could not be any simpler, click a "+" sign and Alfred will show you what actions are available. If you are familiar with creating Alfred workflows, this will seem right at home. It's clear that as much effort was put into making Alfred Remote easy to use as well as looking good. (Insert standard "Design is how it works" reference here.)

Once you have "paired" your iOS device running Alfred Remote with your Mac running Alfred, you can start using the built-in actions: launch iTunes, open your mail app, fire up Safari, open the folder with that project you've been working on, etc. Alfred Remote can run scripts, AppleScripts, Terminal commands, and Alfred workflows, so if you want a command which isn't available by default, chances are good that you can create your own.

But after I finished going through the "demo" phase of "this is what it can do" I found myself stymied by a fairly basic question: "What would I use this for?" For example: with Alfred Remote, I can launch any app on my Mac from my iPhone. If I want to listen to music, launch iTunes from across the room is a clear win... except that once it has started, I don't have much control over what comes on. I can skip forward or back, I can adjust the volume, I can go to a random album. But if I sit down and really want to listen to a specific playlist, or a specific album, I can't control that from my iPhone, unless I am going to make separate workflows for each one. I can't use Alfred Remote to scroll through my list of movies in iTunes or pick an episode of a TV show.

Unfortunately, iTunes is the best example of what Alfred Remote can do when it comes to app control. Other built-in controls allow me to launch Safari, or even execute a saved web search... but then what? I still have to be seated at my Mac to use it. I can launch Messages, FaceTime, Maps, Contacts, Mail, Calendar, Reminders... but after I launch them, I still need to be seated at my Mac to use them, or I could just use the version of those apps on my iOS device instead, which seems much simpler. Again, there is an entire page dedicated to System Preferences, which will immediately launch System and bring the appropriate preference pane to the front, but then I still have to sitting at my Mac to do anything with it. I can open a file or a folder, but, then what?

To be fair, I only used Alfred Remote for a few hours. It's possible that there are ideas and use-cases which have not occurred to me yet, but after the initial burst of "Cool! I'm controlling my Mac from my iPhone!" I found myself stuck on "Now what?"

I had hoped that I might be able to use Alfred Remote, remotely. I imagined that I might be sitting down at lunch and wondering whether or not I locked my Mac, launching Alfred Remote on my iPhone and sending a message to my Mac to lock itself remotely. Unfortunately, Alfred Remote only works if the Mac and iOS device are on the same Wi-Fi network. (The Alfred team are looking into more "remote" functionality as a potential future addition to the app.)

Pairing Alfred to Alfred Remote was also a little clunkier than it needs to be. After starting the pairing process on the Mac and the iOS device, a 12-character passphrase (case-sensitive, letters and numbers) is displayed on the iOS device, and must be typed into the Mac. Contrast this with pairing a new Bluetooth device, where a message appears on both devices saying "Hey, is this code the same on both devices? Press Yes or No." I understand the desire for security, but I'm not sure about the actual risk involved. In order for the pairing process to be initiated, it has to be started from both the Mac and the iOS device at the same time while on the same Wi-Fi connection. Not much of a chance of that happening randomly, is there? And if someone happens to catch me at just the right moment, it would still be simpler just to confirm the code on both devices. Maybe it's just me, but I'm 0/3 when it comes to entering that code correctly on the first try. That being said, obviously the pairing process only needs to be done once per device and per Mac.

For me, Alfred Remote will probably be most useful when I create some workflows which will trigger Keyboard Maestro macros, which can be far more involved that Alfred workflows. For example, I could create a shortcut which will trigger my Keyboard Maestro macro to get ready to record a podcast. You could create a similar workflow in Alfred, at least one which would quit or launch specific apps, but even then I struggle to imagine the situation where it is easier to do that on my iOS device than just triggering the same workflow from Alfred on my Mac.

This app looks so good and works so easily, I find myself wanting to find some reason to use it. I hope the design team behind the atrocious OnStar RemoteLink app sees Alfred Remote and realizes what a terrible job they did by comparison. This is also only the first release of Alfred Remote – it will no doubt continue to get better and gain more features. But for me, for now, I can't find an answer to the question "What problem does this app solve?"

That being said, after having tested the demo version of it and written this review, I didn't hesitate to buy it. I expect that the app will continue to grow and improve, and I would not be surprised if the Alfred community comes up with some cool uses for Alfred Remote that I haven't even considered yet.