All you need to know about the Mac keyboard

By uliwitness

There are still many rumors and myths about the Macintosh, and particularly about the abilities of its keyboard. Since many of them come from outdated information from the 1990s, I thought I’d correct some of them and compile a comprehensive page of keyboard facts as they pertain to the Mac.

[Arrow keys on a Mac keyboard]

False Rumor 1: You can’t forward-delete on a Mac

Untrue. For the last 12 years, most Macs shipped with a forward delete key right in the same spot where PC keyboards have them. If you happen to have a small keyboard, like the new wireless keyboards, the compact wired keyboard or on a MacBook, that do not have that key, you can use the regular delete key (which deletes the key to the left of the cursor), and hold down the key labeled “fn” in the lower left to change it to delete the key to the right.

False Rumor 2: The Mac has no Home/End keys or Page Up/Page Down keys

Again, this is wrong. Most Mac keyboards have these keys where you’d expect them, the smaller keyboards have shortcuts to do the same thing. fn + Left arrow key is “Home”, fn + Right arrow key is “End”, fn + Up Arrow key is “Page Up”, fn + Down arrow key is “Page Down”.

However, note that the Home and End keys move the blinking text insertion mark on Windows, whereas on the Mac they only scroll what you see. The reason for this is that the Mac had shortcuts for doing this even before it had these keys: Press Command + Up arrow to move the insertion mark “Home” (i.e. to the start of the document), Command + Down arrow to move it to the end. This is quite convenient, because you can quickly check the start of your text, then continue typing and you’ll end up right where you were before.

An alternative for the Mac’s Page Up/Page Down keys is also Ctrl + Up arrow resp. Ctrl + Down arrow.

False Rumor 3: The Mac has no equivalent to Ctrl + Arrow key combinations

Wrong again. Alt + left arrow and Alt + right arrow go one word left/right. To go to the start/end of a line, which is Ctrl + Up arrow resp. Ctrl + Down arrow on Windows, you use Command + Left arrow and Command + Right arrow instead.

False Rumor 4: The Mac has no Function Keys

Most newer keyboards have these keys, however, they are on the same physical keys as the “media keys” like “Play”, “Pause”, “Volume up”, “Exposé” etc. To use them as function keys F1 through F19 (or F1 through F12 depending on what keyboard you have), you have to hold down the “fn” key while you press them.

Function keys are not very commonly used on the Mac, but if you find yourself using a program that uses them a lot and you don’t want to always hold down “fn”, there is a setting in the “Keyboard” pane of “System Preferences” where you can tell it to “Use all F1, F2 etc. keys as standard function keys” to change the behaviour. To change system sound volume, you then hold down the “Fn” key.

False Rumor 5: The Mac can’t be controlled with only a keyboard

It can. First, there are standard keyboard shortcuts displayed to the right of each menu item. They generally use the Command key instead of the Ctrl key that is common on Windows. Not all menu items have such shortcuts, so if you want to trigger another, you can type Ctrl + F2 to select the menu bar, and then use the arrow keys to navigate through the menu bar. To stop navigating the menu bar without selecting a menu item, press the “Esc” key. You can also type the beginning of a menu’s or menu item’s name to select it.

Similarly, you can use Ctrl + F3 to select the dock and navigate it using the arrow keys, Ctrl + F4 to rotate through all the windows on screen (Or Cmd + ~ to rotate through the windows of only the current application), Ctrl + F5 to show and select the toolbar of a window (the area right below the window title that contains a bunch of icons and buttons, or in Safari the text field for the address) and navigate it using the tab key, Ctrl + F8 to select the system-wide menus at the right end of the menu bar (Bluetooth, AirPort, Time Machine, Battery, Fast User Switching).

To switch between applications, use Command + Tab, which works pretty much like Windows’s Alt + Tab shortcut.

False Rumor 6: You can’t type special characters like © on the Mac

Wrong. It’s easier than on Windows, even. Where on Windows you have to type Alt Gr. + a 4-digit number, on the Mac you use either Alt key and just type any character. Type Alt-G to get the © character, for instance. Note that you can get more characters by holding down the shift key in addition to Alt. For example, you can get the Spanish Opening question mark character by typing Alt + Shift + ?. Most common international characters can be typed that way.

Just note that, depending on what language your keyboard is in, these shortcuts may be slightly different.

False Rumor 7: You can’t use a PC keyboard on a Mac

Of course you can. Any standard USB keyboard for Windows or Linux will work on a Mac. There are just a few tiny differences to watch out for:

  • The “Windows” or “Penguin” keys are mapped to the Mac’s Command key (“Apple key”)
  • The Alt and Alt Gr. keys are both mapped to the Mac’s Alt key (“Option key”).
  • The Physical location of the Windows and Alt keys on a PC keyboard are reversed from that of the Command and Alt key on a Mac keyboard. So if you switch between Macs with Mac keyboards and Macs with PC keyboards a lot, you’re in for a bit of pain, unless you go into the “Keyboard” pane of “System Preferences” and click the “Modifier Keys” option, where you can tell it to pretend Alt was Command and Command was Alt. But then the labels on the keys will be wrong, of course.
  • The other keys will behave like those on a Mac keyboard. So if you have e.g. a German PC keyboard, where the @-sign is printed on the “Q” key, because it’s produced by pressing Alt Gr. + Q on a PC, that’s wrong, because on German Mac keyboards you type Alt + L to get the @-sign.

False Rumor 8: The Mac doesn’t have Num Lock/Insert mode

This rumor has it backwards. The Mac is always in Num Lock mode, there are no arrow keys on the numeric keypad of keyboards that have a numeric keypad (although a few old Mac laptops had a Num Lock feature that let you use some of the regular keys to simulate a numeric keypad).

Similarly, the Mac is always in insert mode, and most applications do not have the “overwrite” mode. But then again, you can just select a word and start typing to overwrite it, so it’s not as if overwrite mode was still necessary these days.

False Rumor 9: You always have to use the mouse to select text

Just like the PC, you can hold down the Shift key while using the arrow keys to select text. You can even combine the arrow key shortcuts mentioned above with the shift key: Shift + Alt + Left arrow will select the word to the left of the text insertion mark.

False Rumor 10: MacOS doesn’t support standard Unix text editing shortcuts

Actually, most Emacs keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl + K, Ctrl + A or Ctrl + E work just fine in standard Mac text editing fields.

False Rumor 11: The keys on a Mac keyboard are completely wrong compared to a PC keyboard. Y and Z are swapped etc…

Most keyboards (whether Mac or PC) are essentially just a bunch of buttons nailed to a piece of wood. They’re nearly the same all over the world. The only difference between the English keyboard sold in the UK and the German keyboard sold in Germany is the printing on the key caps. Hence, your computer has no way to distinguish those two keyboards. When you first start up your new computer, it asks you what language you would like, and then it assumes that’s what your keyboard is.

So, if you plug in a new keyboard and it has keys with different printing on them, the computer doesn’t know. Keyboards differ significantly between languages: On a US keyboard, to get the German “Ü” character, you have to type Alt + U to get the two little dots, and then type a U to get the combined character. On a German keyboard, there is one key that gives you an “Ü”. And Czech and French keyboards have so many special characters on them, that even the number keys have been moved. To get a number, you have to hold down the shift key.

Now, if you attach a US keyboard to a Mac that has been set up in French and you type the key labeled “1”, you’ll get some weird accented character, because the computer thinks the printing on the keyboard also reflects French convention. To fix this, Go to the “Language & Text” pane of “System Preferences” and there choose the “Input Source” tab. Select the language of your keyboard in the list, and deselect any other languages.

Have any other keyboard myths to share? Are you a Windows switcher who has found (or is looking for) a Mac equivalent to a common Windows shortcut?

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Nothin you describe in #5 works on my 10.6.5 MacMini with the full size Apple wired keyboard, and I’ve never heard of any of those before.

    For example, Ctrl-F3 (and the F3 variants) make Expose active.

    Are you sure you aren’t running something like QuickKeys or one of those keyboard extenders?

  2. Hmm, why am I responding to an August post? It just showed up in Google Reader this morning – perhaps because of a blog switchover?

  3. It does work. You are probably running afoul of #4, and that’s why #5 doesn’t work. The default setting is that you have to hold down fn to turn the top row keys into FKeys.

  4. Yes Jeff, the blog has been moved.

  5. How can you bring up a window from the dock with cmd + tab if its minimised? If you minimise a window and hit cmd + tab you can select the window or program but it still stays minimised I want to bring it up so I can work with it.

  6. ad False Rumor #5: ⌃F1 toggles this functionality of ⌃F2 through ⌃F5. Therefore, if these shortcuts don’t work, ⌃F1 should be tried first.

  7. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this great post !!!!

    Especially about False rumour #5… I was forced to switch from PC to mac at work and have been fighting for a year to learn to navigate through and change old habits!!!

    Recovering the ability to navigate from the keyboard is like recovering freedom !!! Yay!!!

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