AMITIAE - Wednesday 21 December 2011

Key Commands on a Mac (1): Outline and Applications

apple and chopsticks



One of the features of the first Macs was the mouse. It was dismissed by some as a device that no one would ever use. Evidence would suggest that this opinion was wrong. Paradoxically, most experienced users of Macs will resort to the keyboard for more efficient working. Key commands are far faster once learned. The 3 parts of this extended item on key commands have been rewritten based on the texts originally used on the AMITIAE site which is now gone.

A Mouse in the House

Most users of computers, with the exception of those who still work at the command line, have access to a pointing device: a mouse, trackpad, pen or (for accuracy in graphics work) a device like the Wacom tablet range. Use of these devices has become second nature for anyone who uses a modern computer.

Some people have been known to take this to extremes. A former teaching colleague told of a lady in Egypt a few years ago who (because typing was a task for a lower level of employee) declined to use a keyboard. Typing was effected with the mouse and the keyboard display (see below). On a Mac this is revealed by the menu item, Show Keyboard Viewer in the keyboards menu. The version displayed in OS X 10.7, Lion, installations has keys which have rounded edges, while earlier versions have keys which are square.

Needless to say, efficiency at that university in Egypt was not at a high level in that office. When used properly, the cursor (the pointer we see on the screen) enables users to access menus and enter commands on a graphic interface with some speed.

However, some of the most experienced users of professional software (and others of us lower down the skills line) tend to use key commands as a method of inputting commands. Despite the identification of the mouse with Macs since the first machines were rolled out, key commands play a vital part in good working methods.

There are two parts to this: the key commands that are included as part of the operation of any software, including the Finder; and the key commands that a user may want to use when starting a computer with OS X installed, which give access to special functions related to the maintenance and use of the computer. The startup key combinations will be covered later.

Getting to Know You

Despite the efficiency of a mouse, the key commands, for those who learn and use them, are a far more efficient way of working. Consider the Save command. This is a feature of almost every application installed on the computer. The Finder and System Preferences are applications that work with the operating system and not directly with files so do not have this command.

In some applications, to save a document, an image, a file, we use the File menu and slide the cursor down to the item, Save. With OS X 10.7, Lion, this has been superseded by the command, "Save a Version." Accessing these is simple enough, but it requires four distinct movements: slide the cursor up to the menu bar; click to reveal the menu; slide the cursor down to the required menu item (in this case, Save); and click again. That can take a couple of seconds. If you are inaccurate with the cursor movement, that can add more time and related movements.

Note that beside the word, Save (or Save a Version) are two symbols: a four-part icon that looks like a clover, and the letter S. The clover icon indicates the Command key (it used to be indicated by a small apple and was called then the Apple key). By using the combination of these two keys, the same function is carried out: Command + S saves the file.


Apple uses a number of symbols to indicate keys which may be used to carry out commands and these indicated in the menus, sometimes in combinations. in some applications with the Save command, there is also Save As which allows a user to save a file and at the same time give it a new name. If required, it may also be saved in a new location in the same action. Save As uses the same combination, Command + S, but adds the Shift key, which is shown by an Arrow icon pointing up.

keyboard viewer Adjacent to the Command key on an Apple keyboard are two other additional keys: the Option (or ALT) key and the Control key (not to be confused with the Control key on a PC). The keys may be seen on the Keyboard Viewer. If more than one keyboard is used (in my case I access US English and Thai and have the Brazilian keyboard active), pressing the flag icon on the menubar can enable this to be shown. The feature can be turned on in the Language & Text section of System Preferences, by checking the box (at the top of the languages list).

When first displayed, the keyboard viewer is fairly small but can be stretched to full screen width if required. As we touch any key (or combination) so these are shown on the keyboard display in grey. With the Control key, certain keys disappear and some of those shown have different functions. With the Option key, the display changes to reveal foreign language characters, some mathematical and currency symbols. By pressing the Option key and the Shift key together, more characters are revealed. Some characters are shown not in grey but (on my Mac) in orange. These have a special use and add accents. For example, the E changes to an acute accent. Typing this accent then the letter E, puts the accent over the E: É or é. Several other useful characters are available.


The Command Key, sometimes called the four leaf clover or Saint John's Arms, has the Unicode number 2318. The Option key is Unicode 2325 and the Control Key (described as an Up arrowhead or circumflex accent) is Unicode 2303. These keys may be found in Miscellaneous Technical Symbols in the Characters section of fonts. This may be accessed by using Command + T in some programs (not Safari) and using the gear wheel icon at bottom left to reveal the Characters section. I would suggest that new users look at this as there are plenty of useful characters in there. Familiarisation is a key to efficient working.

Getting to Know All About You

Many professionals who use Macs and Apple software for example the Coen Brothers use special keyboards. The keys are colour coded and grouped which makes them that little bit easier for those who want to work efficiently and use key commands. As an example, Apple has a PDF file that shows all the keyboard shortcuts for Aperture.

A couple of companies provide these specialist keyboards. Some also provide keys that the user can change or skins that fit over the standard set. The image below is of the LogicKeyboard product for Aperture. WorldTech, another company that made similar keyboards is now part of LogicKeyboard. The company has keyboards that are specific for many examples of software, such as Adobe After Effects, Autodesk Smoke and several other high end applications.

specialist keyboard

While I am working, I use several key commands that are almost universal: Save, Save As, Cut, Copy, Paste are some of the more common ones. Some menu commands do not have an equivalent key combination, for example, in Safari's History menu, "Open all Windows from Last Session". In the Keyboard pane of System Preferences, there is a button for Keyboard Shortcuts. There are 9 sections, and the last, Applications, is almost empty.

We can add or change our own, but this comes with a "health warning": be careful. A little + button at the bottom brings down a panel with the default All Applications shown on a button. Using that, I can select a specific application like Safari. The menu title should be entered using the exact words we find in the application, including Upper case and lower case lettering. Although Shift + Command + H is already being used, Control + Option + H is not and I can enter that in the panel. The menu now shows that command with a key command beside it.

This can be used to fine-tune the operations for a particular user. For years, those who use more than one language keyboard have been able to switch between them (to the last selected) with the Command key plus the spacebar. Spotlight used the same key combination. IN that same Keyboards Shortcuts section we can turn the Spotlight command off by removing the check mark, and make the other active by checking the box beside. In the same way (and this is really dangerous) we can change the commands to work with different keys: not recommended unless there are pressing reasons for doing so. There are warnings (yellow triangles) if a user tries to use conflicting key combinations.

While I am writing, I often want to take screen shots of what I am looking at: to preserve the information if I need to try it again; and to have images for the website. There is an application called Grab that resides in the Utilities Folder and the menus in that application can do this. We can see also in Grab, there are specific key commands, such as Shift + Command + A for a screen selection, and Shift + Command + W for a whole window. A quicker way is built into the Finder: Shift + Command + 3 for a window, and Shift + Command + 4 for a selection. By pressing the space bar with the selection icon showing, a whole panel is captured when the mouse/trackpad button is pressed.

As users (particularly new users) work with OS X and the applications installed, they learn how to use the software, some of which can be rather complex. To help improve working methods, we have to learn the menus and what each function can do, but we can all make better use of the key commands as a way to work more effectively and a fair bit faster.

See also:

  • Key Commands on a Mac (2): Startup keys and Some Suggestions for Their Use;
  • Key Commands on a Mac (3): More Startup keys and Suggestions for Use; and
  • Advanced text handling tips in OS X, by Topher Kessler

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