A new app available in the iOS App Store today will let you configure your iPhone or iPad as a kind of supercharged remote control for your Mac. Called Alfred Remote, it essentially offers you multiple panels of buttons to do things like launch apps, control iTunes, turn on your screen saver, perform custom searches, paste text snippets, and do much nerdier things if you put your mind to it. It's $4.99, and it's designed to be paired with Alfred for the Mac, a free app with an in-app upgrade of £17 (around $25 US).
Powerful, but only if you configure it
I've long been an apologist for Alfred, a Mac utility that lets you supercharge a text box into something that can control your entire computer and connect it to the web in surprising and interesting ways. It's a tool that initially looks like a nerdy version of Yosemite's Spotlight search feature until you start digging in, where you'll find customizable clipboards and workflows that let you do insane, powerful things. It's not the easiest thing to configure, but if you take some time with it, it's great.
I've been using Alfred Remote for a few days now, and while I'm impressed by its stability and functionality, I'm not sure that it will become as essential to my workflow as the main Mac app. With Alfred Remote, you get a pre-configured set of shortcuts and system commands that seem to work as if by magic, immediately and instantly causing your Mac to do things.
But whether Alfred Remote succeeds or fails for you depends entirely on whether you take the time to configure more "things" for your Mac to do. The basics of launching apps and even pasting pre-configured text snippets by tapping a button on your iPad seem whiz-bang the first time, but then only marginally better than using the keyboard commands that are already literally at your fingertips when you're using a Mac. Given that you need to have your iPad or iPhone on, unlocked, and in the app, it can seem a little silly. And unless you're already an Alfred power user on the Mac, you probably won't find much utility in it.
But then I started thinking of things that are a pain to do on my Mac, and Alfred Remote started to make more sense. I have a couple dozen text snippets I use constantly but can never remember the short cuts for them. I have a dozen more complicated "Workflows" that perform complex searches and actions in very specific apps. I have a bunch of Applescripts that I can never seem to find quickly enough. I never remember to lock my stupid computer when I walk away from it. I definitely lost hours of my Sunday playing around with ideas for buttons that could do magic things on my Mac.
With varying levels of difficulty, Alfred Remote can be set up for all of that. Unfortunately, at the nerdier end of the spectrum you will need to figure out a fairly complex interface to get it done. Alfred's most powerful features are called "Workflows," which let you string together different commands by drawing lines and adding scripts. They're cool, but they require a power user mindset that isn't quite in keeping with the simplicity of the iOS App Store. You can create your own workflows or dive into Alfred's forums (or a new repository for them called Packal). Alfred suggested a couple — for controlling Spotify or Powerpoint — but eventually I just decided to start making my own. You can't enter text into Alfred Remote; you can only set up buttons that do specific tasks. That can make for a steep learning curve to climb, and the benefits of doing so are either immediately obvious or shrug-inducing, without much between those two extremes.
I love Alfred on the Mac so much that I've reconfigured my Caps Lock key to launch it instead of making uppercase letters. I haven't yet decided if I love Alfred Remote enough to put it on my iPad's home screen. Maybe if I spend more time configuring it, I'll know. If there's anything Alfred knows, it's that power users spend as much time obsessing about their tools as they do actually using them.