With LaunchPad on Lion, you’ll have instant access to your apps – iPad style. Your open windows will just fade away, replaced by an elegant, full-screen display of all the apps on your Mac. It’ll take just a swipe to see multiple pages of programs that you can arrange in any way you like, dragging and dropping them into custom groups.

Want all that now? Of course you do. We sought out four application launchers that will do a similar job.

Overflow (www.stuntsoftware.com/overflow)
Price: $14.95 (£9.50)  Min Specs: Mac OS X 10.4

Overflow is an application, folder and document launcher – with  several similarities to LaunchPad. It sits in your existing Dock, ready to go at any time. Click on it and you get a matrix of categorised icons. The first time you start Overflow you will get a blank grid with a category named untitled. You can easily rename this category to anything you like and then add further categories.

For example, you might create a category for games, one for creativity tools and another for current documents. To add items to categories, you simply drag and drop them into the empty slots.

The next time you want to open that document or application you don’t need to go to Finder. Open Overflow instead and click on the appropriate icon. The main window is fully resizable too, so you can fit as many icons as you like into any category. 

DragThing (www.dragthing.com)
$29 (£18.50)  Min Specs: Mac OS X 10.4.11

DragThing enables you to organise applications, folders, files, disks and even servers into categories. You create an empty dock, drag an item into it and the next time you want to launch that application or access that disk, you go to its dock.

Docks can display all your active applications or all of the windows that are open in all of those apps. It couldn’t be more simple.

DragThing also supports drawers. These are docks that hide off-screen.  Click a drawer’s tab and it pops out.

The application’s been going for quite a while – since before Mac OS had its own Dock. And, as time has passed, more and more of DragThing’s features have been incorporated into OS X. Spring-loaded folders, for example. It remains worthwhile as one of few application launchers that’s fully mouse-driven.

Alfred (www.alfredapp.com)
Price: Free  Min Specs: Mac OS X 10.5, Intel only

A new kid on the block with an old-fashioned name, Alfred is a more modern application launcher than some of its rivals. It combines Dock-management tools with web-searching capabilities, all accessible using keyboard shortcuts.

Alfred is different to LanchPad because it relies on text input. Toggle on Alfred and you get a text box. Start typing an application name, OS X feature or search keywords and Alfred will do its best to find them for you.

Integration with Amazon, Wikipedia and Google means that if Alfred can’t find what you’re looking for locally, it’ll find it online. LaunchPad is fully graphical. Alfred is a command line tool.

But in a series of races between the two, we’re betting that Alfred would win more than it loses.

LaunchBar (www.obdev.at/products/launchbar)
Price: €24 (£20)  Min Specs: Mac OS X 10.4

LaunchBar is one of the most feature packed of the launchers here, so much so that we’re tempted to hail it as a Finder replacement, rather than a Dock enhancer. Like Alfred, LaunchBar enables you to find and launch applications by typing their names. It’s fast too, invoked using a keyboard shortcut and smart enough to learn which applications you use the most. Over time, you’ll never have to type the full name of an application again.

You can also use it to navigate to websites, send emails and even do calculations. You can browse iTunes, perform file operations and invoke Quick Look with files that support it. Is LaunchBar a subsititute for LaunchPad? We think they’ll carry on living together side by side. LaunchBar is a power-users tool and LaunchPad an ease-of-use extension.