Jun
21
2012

Launch Center Pro Review

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Launch Center Pro has become my second SpringBoard. I have been testing the app for the past month, and it’s a fantastic upgrade over Launch Center, which we have covered on multiple occasions on MacStories. If you were a Launch Center user before, you’ll most definitely want to check out the new, separate Pro version.

For many, it’s difficult to see the appeal of software like Launch Center. Originally conceived as a Notification Center-based launcher for common actions such as toggling Bluetooth settings and custom URLs supported by third-party apps, Launch Center turned into a powerful hub to collect shortcuts for system actions and app-specific URLs. The discontinuation of Settings shortcuts in iOS 5.1 didn’t diminish Launch Center’s functionality, which gained support for several third-party applications and a nicer interface with support for icons and even more actions.

What started as an interesting hack to put shortcuts in Notification Center eventually became a utility that, in its niche, is redefining the concept of “launching actions”, rather than apps. This goes back to a fundamental issue behind the nature of the iOS Home screen – as I have previously written – and Launch Center Pro, while retaining the basic functionality of Launch Center, doubles down on this very distinction between finding apps and launching actions.

Like its non-Pro sibiling, Launch Center isn’t for everyone. The majority of iOS users is okay with finding the app that performs a specific action amidst pages of icons and missed alerts in Notification Center. What Launch Center does – and Launch Center Pro tries to improve upon – is adding the convenience of collecting a user’s most-accessed apps and actions into a single interface that isn’t an app – it’s a powerful link to other apps installed on a device, possibly buried inside folders.

More importantly, Launch Center makes it easy to access app functionalities that are only available inside an app’s own navigation. So, in a way, Launch Center can become a second SpringBoard: a new level of interaction for actions that the regular Home screen can’t display. Launch Center Pro is a complete rewrite of the original Launch Center, yet most of the core functionalities are the same: you can create shortcuts for apps (through a list of built-in URLs or by manually entering your own), schedule actions to fire off a local notification, and, generally speaking, fiddle with customizing system features such as composing a message, calling someone, or opening the native iOS tweet sheet.

However, whilst the underlying concept is held true by a familiar feature set, Launch Center Pro immediately reveals its new nature (and focus on offering a more visual approach to shortcuts) with a new layout designed by App Cubby. Launch Center Pro looks different. Gone is the list-based interface of the regular version, leaving room for a grid UI that showcases an app’s icon whenever available, and allows you to set up custom icons for any action through a built-in template editor. Curiously enough, after the WWDC ’12 keynote, it appeared to me as if App Cubby somewhat predicted the more visual direction Apple is taking with the iOS 6 sharing menu, enabling apps to inject their own icons for more intuitive and familiar tapping. Launch Center already supported native icons; Launch Center Pro makes them bigger and easier to scan thanks to a 3×4 grid layout that makes perfect sense for a utility that is supposed to let your thumb quickly reach out to a message shortcut or pre-installed bookmarks.

The new design of the app gets out of the way and is functional to the end goal: speed.

Creating a new action in Launch Center Pro works the same as Launch Center: actions are organized by common, installed, and featured apps; some apps support more speficif shortcuts such as “Instagram Camera” and “Instagram Tag Feed” rather than just “Launch Instagram”; actions can be re-arranged on screen and modified to contain a custom icon or a different URL. And it is the URL section of Launch Center that got the most significant upgrade with support for three different templates to customize the way actions are passed from Launch Center to another app. Say you want to create an action that takes you to OmniFocus. In Launch Center, you can ask the app to launch OmniFocus, or, going more in-depth, load its New Item task creation screen to save precious seconds. In Launch Center Pro, the overall workflow is the same, but the addition of an Input Prompt button in the action composer makes it dramatically more powerful and faster. By adding the prompt to an action, you’ll be able to write down text before launching an app, and consequently have its text field already filled with what you wrote in Launch Center.

The new action composer buttons aren’t limited to manual text entry. There is a new contact picker button (useful to create shortcuts to quickly call, email, or iMessage someone), a dedicated numeric pad (so you can create your own dialer inside Launch Center, like I did), and a clipboard button to have an action automatically pass along whatever you had copied in your system clipboard alongside the main command. While relatively common (these buttons have been implemented, with different results, by several third-party apps that give users access to native frameworks such as Address Book), their role in Launch Center Pro is to allow for much faster and more powerful shortcut launching and personalization.

In my Launch Center, I set up shortcuts to “Google my clipboard”, fire up an input prompt for Google Search and OmniFocus (so I don’t have to wait for Safari and OmniFocus to load), and send a message to my mom. Part of this was already possible in the former Launch Center by manually altering values in the URL field; the new clipboard and prompt buttons have allowed me to set up actions that, by shifting some functionalities into Launch Center, helped me save time and be more efficient.

The best example is probably provided by the email action: with a combination of contact picker, clipboard, and input prompt, you can tell Launch Center Pro to send a message to a specific contact using text you’ve already copied as subject, writing the Body directly in the app using input prompt.

There are two other major new functionalities that have been added to Launch Center: brightness controls and groups. The latter is fairly self-explanatory: you can create actions to toggle the brightness of your device, choosing to set brightness at a specific value (example: set at 40% at night), between two separate values (with “high” and “low” options), or, with a third action, always between 10% and 100%. I tend to keep my devices’ brightness at Apple’s recommended setting, but with Launch Center Pro I have found myself enjoying the new brightness controls as a quick way of toggling between “normal day usage” and “Pocket reading mode at night” (I don’t use dark themes in read-later apps, but I don’t like excessively white screens at 4 AM either). Combined with the scheduling features, you could have Launch Center Pro remind you in the morning to set the brightness back to its original level, too.

Groups, as the name suggests, allow you to group actions into “folders” that are accessible from Launch Center Pro’s “Home screen”. Like actions, groups can be assigned a custom icon (again, the selection is decent and it can lead to pretty good-looking results), but their opening animation is the opposite of standard iOS folders. Instead of expanding within the Home screen, a group’s content can be revealed with tap & hold; once in a group, you can then slide your finger onto an icon to launch its action. At first I found this behavior to be slightly counterintuitive (I was trying to simply tap on a group), now I’m used to it. I keep three groups in my Launch Center: “Bookmarks” for frequently accessed websites; “Apps” for third-party apps that I launch often, but not as much as OmniFocus or Messages; and last, “Contacts”, which groups shortcuts for my friends and the Contact Dialer – a new feature to search for an Address Book entry inside the app (it also supports multiple phone numbers). Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out a way to launch group conversations saved in iMessage from Launch Center (my guess is there are some limitations with parsing multiple email addresses from Contacts at once).

Launch Center Pro is what you make of it, and as such reviewing the app becomes a matter of personal usage and preference of some settings over other options provided by the developers. In my weeks of testing, Launch Center Pro has become a replacement for the Phone app, a better way to launch favorite sites through Safari, a Flashlight (I love the new UI), and a launchpad for actions that would otherwise require taps and waiting times inside third-party apps.

Because of its nature of open toolbox that works with other apps, there’s always the feeling that, someday, Launch Center may break and stop working. The fear is justified: after all, iOS 5.1 removed support for Settings shortcuts, and while there is no indication that other system shortcuts are being removed from iOS 6, things could always change on Apple’s side. So far, App Cubby has been very responsive in addressing changes from Apple, and they have worked with third-party developers to add more URLs to apps.

For Launch Center Pro to “go mainstream”, adoption among third-party developers needs to grow, with more actions for app-specific shortcuts and better support for Launch Center’s new input prompt. Right now, the selection of apps inside Launch Center Pro is good, but also clearly oriented at the above-average iOS user who uses OmniFocus and Writing Kit and doesn’t mind setting up actions for iSSH. Maybe this is the point, though – that Launch Center doesn’t need to hit mainstream, just like Alfred and LaunchBar are perfectly fine in their geek niche on OS X. Still, I would love to see more apps supported in Launch Center Pro, possibly through server-side updates that wouldn’t require pushing new versions to the App Store.

I love Launch Center Pro, and it has become a part of my daily workflow, but I can see an issue with trying to use it alongside other iOS apps: you need to remember to use Launch Center Pro. With so many apps coming to our devices every day and all the possible combinations of Launch Center, it’s easy to forget you set up an action for Day One, or that you once crafted the perfect custom URL to automatically begin new VNC sessions. Initially, I had this problem myself – I kept creating new actions but I wasn’t using any to improve my app-launching workflow. I fixed this by “going simple”, and understanding that I shouldn’t be subject to the app’s powerful feature set – those features should work for me. I only set up actions I know I will use, and even if they’re not the most complex ones, the reward is in the daily improvement of my habits, rather than the pretty custom code.

Launch Center Pro works for me. I always had big expectations for inter-app communication on iOS (unfortunately, a Siri API wasn’t unveiled at WWDC), and App Cubby is taking the proverbial “baby steps” to deliver a powerful software that can let you launch apps and actions with a focus on speed and faster text input. Call it “SpringBoard for apps” or “app bookmarks”, Launch Center Pro is by far the best app launcher available on iOS, and its support for smarter actions through pre-composed templates and dynamic input is promising.

Launch Center Pro is available today on the App Store at $2.99 (40% off for a limited time).

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