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Yes, Windows is Dumb: Avoiding the mouse

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Excerpted from
Yes, Windows Is Dumb
Easy Ways to Master Your PC
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt


How to get things done without using a mouse

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

You don't need a mouse to work with Windows. Some operations are harder without a mouse or any other pointing device, but many are actually simpler.

In fact, many of the things you do with a mouse can be done from the keyboard a lot more quickly. I think you'll agree once you've tried some of the tips I'm sharing with you. My advice is aimed at users of the latest versions of Windows, but most of the tips also apply to Windows 3.1 and 3.11.

First, you may already know that Windows has keyboard equivalents for nearly every mouse-based operation. Some of them are a pain in the butt and others are just awkward. I'm ignoring them, and you probably should, too. I'm going to concentrate on the common keyboard shortcuts instead.

The ones that are easiest to master are, surprisingly, the ones many users never discover. Perhaps Microsoft figured these shortcuts are so obvious that no one needs to be reminded of them. I disagree. I've found that most Windows users never know they are there.

I'm referring to the underlined letters you see in nearly every Windows menu. (They're in the menus of Windows itself and just about every program that you run.) They tell you which keys to use when you want to skip the mouse. These underlined characters turn into keyboard shortcuts when you hold down the Alt key and press the underlined character. As I write this, I see the File menu in my word processor. In the word File, the "F" is underlined. That means pressing Alt-F drops down the File menu, just as if I had clicked the left mouse button on that menu item. Things get a little tricky at this point, so read the next paragraph carefully.

Once you open a menu, do not press Alt to activate a menu item that is underlined. Just press the underlined key. Microsoft made Windows work this way to make keyboard equivalents more consistent. Even when the File menu is open, the Alt-key combinations for all the other main menus in my word processor are still available. (Pressing Alt-E when the File menu is open closes that menu and opens the Edit menu, for example.) Microsoft's design also makes multi-step menu operations easier to do from the keyboard because you need to press the Alt key only once. One more example from my word processor: To close the file that's currently open, I simply press Alt-F (to open the File menu) and then C (for Close). (Microsoft nitpickers sometimes point that you can continue to hold down the Alt key and get the same effect—by starting out with the Alt key held down and holding it throughout any multiple-key shortcut sequence—but that simply confuses the issue. The main point is that you should press the Alt key only once, to get a menu to drop down. Once the menu is open, press any underlined key without pressing Alt to get that menu option.)

You can also begin a keyboard shortcut by using the Alt-key method and then switch to the arrow keys. Alt-F opens the File menu, and successive presses on the right-arrow key open the companion menus in the main menu bar, once again using my word processor as the example. Or, once the File menu is open, pressing the down-arrow key navigates the File menu's choices, and, of course, pressing the up-arrow key moves the selection back toward the top. The arrow-key method is a good way to browse menus (to look through them when you are not sure which to use) whenever you'd rather not bother with the mouse.

You can start a menu operation with the mouse and continue it with the arrow keys or with keyboard shortcuts, or you can do the opposite. You can always mix-‘n'-match mouse operations with keyboard equivalents.

The other shortcuts I'm describing here (with one exception) don't use Alt-key combinations. The exception is Alt-F4. (F4 means Function Key 4, labeled "F4" in the row of function keys. That row is usually along the top of the keyboard. It's sometimes at the left, and some keyboards have duplicate function keys in both locations.) Alt-F closes the program in the foreground. Alt-F4 also closes individual file-and-folder windows opened by Windows itself.

Alt-F4 is one of the handiest keyboard shortcuts in all of Windows. It's a fail-safe combination. It signals the program to close itself properly, which means you'll get a choice of whether to save any open files that have changed before the program shuts down.

Three keyboard shortcuts you should learn to use all the time, whether or not you prefer working with a mouse, are F1, Enter and Esc.

F1 calls up the appropriate Help window for the program you are working with. More specifically, F1 brings up Help for any function you're performing within a program, as long as the program itself supports context-sensitive help. (Most programs do.) In other words, pressing F1 when the Desktop is the foreground "program" (when nothing that is running has what Microsoft calls the "focus") will open the main Windows Help window; pressing F1 when you have a file-save dialog window open shows you specific help for saving files, and pressing F1 twice will usually show you how to use the particular Help menu that opened after you pressed F1 the first time.

Enter is always the shortcut key for all default buttons within windows. Default buttons are outlined with thick borders. They may contain the words OK or Yes or another word that represents the typical choice for a default function. Pressing Enter is a lot faster than reaching for the mouse and clicking the OK button. (Among other things I do, I teach people how to use Windows. Even after I've shown them how to bypass the mouse by pressing Enter, many users—perhaps most—continue to grope for the mouse to click the default button. My teaching method isn't at fault; I've tried spending the first few hours of Windows training doing mouseless operations, as if the mouse didn't exist. But I've always found that as soon as most Windows users start clicking with a mouse, they use it almost exclusively, no matter how they learned Windows. I'm sure the culprit is the mouse itself, which is seductive in the way it combines tactile senses with instinctive hand movements.)

Esc is always the keyboard equivalent for the Cancel button in main windows and dialogs. (Dialogs are small windows that contain buttons and other objects. They're called dialogs or dialog boxes because they give you a way to have a dialog with the computer.) Esc is such a universal keyboard shortcut for Cancel that it usually works even when there is no Cancel button on your screen. In other words, Esc usually will cancel and close a dialog window that has only Yes and No buttons, and it also works nearly all the time to close warning messages that pop up in small windows. (Many of these warning messages have only one button, OK, but respond to the Esc key as if you had clicked OK or pressed the Enter key.)

Two more important shortcut keys are Tab and Spacebar.

Tab is actually multiple keys when you count the variations that use the Shift, Alt and Ctrl keys. Tab by itself moves forward from one field to another in a dialog box. With the Shift key held down, it moves backwards through the fields. Ctrl-Tab moves forward from one tabbed menu to another in a multi-tab dialog, and Shift-Ctrl-Tab does the same in the opposite direction.

Alt-Tab and Shift-Alt-Tab are special cases. They don't work within programs. (They can work within programs if you've done some tricks to allow a program to "steal" those keys from Windows. We'll look at that technique another time.) Alt-Tab is the Windows task-switcher, bringing successive running programs to the foreground, and Shift-Alt-Tab, as you've certainly guessed by now, does the same thing in a reverse direction.

Alt-Tab is an favorite for many users with small screens because it lets them run every program maximized (taking up all the screen except for the Taskbar) without the penalty of minimizing one program to get at another one. Using Alt-Tab, you can switch instantly to another running program. When you do so, the previous program drops to the background and stays out of the way. (It continues to run unless it's designed to stop running when it's in a background window. Most normal Windows programs are written to continue running in the background, but DOS programs can easily be set up to halt when they're not in the foreground.)

Alt-Tab works two different ways. If you hold down the Alt key and press the Tab key and then let go of each one, Alt-Tab switches among running programs the way I've described. If, however, you continue to hold down the Alt key, each press of the Tab key opens a message box that lists the name of the program that will come to the foreground if you let go of the Tab key. Press Tab again to see the name of the next program in the series, or let both keys go to switch to the one that's listed. This operation is described as Alt-Tab-Tab to distinguish it from Alt-Tab.

Alt-Tab and Alt-Tab-Tab (and, yes, Shift-Alt-Tab and its cousin, Shift-Alt-Tab-Tab) take more time to describe than they do to use. They're naturals for anyone who uses a portable computer because they bypass the need to touch the trackpad or mouse-stick or whatever else comes with notebook computers as a sorry substitute for a mouse, and they're just as handy on desktop PCs, too.

A shortcut notebook users also need to memorize is Ctrl-Esc, which opens the Start Menu. (The Windows key on so-called Windows keyboards does the same thing, but you're better off using Ctrl-Esc even on a Windows keyboard unless you'll never use a normal keyboard again.) When the Start Menu pops up, a hidden feature of the Start Menu lets you choose any item by pressing the key representing the first letter of the menu item. In other words, on a pristine Windows PC you'll open the Programs menu by pressing Ctrl-Esc and then pressing P.

I mentioned "pristine" to point out that adding your own items to the Start Menu can wreck Microsoft's clever attempt to make every item on the Start Menu immediately accessible by a single keystroke. If you have added, say, ProComm Plus to your Start Menu, the ProComm Plus entry will show up before Programs, and this prevents Windows from auto-activating anything that starts with P.

I'll explain the technical reason for this. (You can skip the next few paragraphs if you don't want to get into the deep stuff.)

Technically, the problem is more complicated. Bare listings in the Start Menu have keyboard equivalents automatically assigned to their initial letters—the first letter of the menu item. Listings in the Start Menu that have underlined keyboard equivalents are activated by those assigned characters, whatever they are. Listings that do not have underlined keyboard equivalents pick up equivalents anyway, and these equivalents are always the first character of the menu item. Windows always treats the keyboard equivalent the same as a mouse click in the Start Menu if there are no competing keyboard equivalents. In the ProComm Plus example, both ProComm Plus and Programs have the same keyboard equivalent—one because it picks up P by default and the other because P was assigned by an underline. So, because Windows can't guess which one you meant to open, neither one is activated. Instead, Windows highlights the first item it comes to when it looks for a matching P and stops there.

(See my article about organizing your Start Menu for tips on getting around this problem.)

Back to the non-techie stuff. Opening the Start Menu with Ctrl-Esc gives you another keyboard shortcut for shutting down Windows—as long as nothing else in the top layer of the Start Menu starts with the letter U. That letter is automatically assigned to the Shut Down option and is activated by Ctrl-Esc, U.

Anther category of keyboard equivalents lets you skip all mouse operations when you want to select anything in your word processor or in any other program that allows text to be selected. (Web browsers usually fit this category.) Holding down the Shift key while pressing any of the arrow keys selects parts of the text. Shift-Right-Arrow selects the character to the right of the cursor; Shift-Left-Arrow selects the character to the left of the cursor; Shift-Up-Arrow selects all the text from the cursor position on the current line to the same position on the next higher line, and Shift-Down-Arrow does the same in the other direction. Likewise, Ctrl-Shift-Home selects all the text from the cursor position to the beginning, and Ctrl-Shift-End selects all the text from the cursor position to the end. This last key combination is a fast way of deleting everything from the current word to the end of a document—a shortcut I use dozens of times a day to get rid of unwanted quoted text in my e-mail program when I am forwarding letters.

The final category worth learning is the Windows Explorer function-key set. These are keys that work in the Windows file-and-folder windows and in many programs that emulate the way Explorer works. I've already listed F1, the Help key. Select a file or folder and press F2 to rename it. Press F3 to open the Windows Find program. Press F4 to open a scroll-down menu in an Explorer window. (F4 does the same thing in all Windows programs that have scroll-down menus. An example of a scroll-down menu is the font list that you'll find in any serious Windows word processor.) F5 tells Windows to check the file-and-folder list to see if any items need updating. F6 switches from one side of a two-pane Explorer window to the other. (The arrow keys also work as keyboard shortcuts in Explorer windows. Try all four arrow keys and you'll see what they do.)

Finally, a shortcut combination that does not have a direct mouse equivalent is Ctrl-Alt-Del, which tells Windows you want to reboot the computer. Pressing that combination once usually opens the shutdown dialog; pressing it a second time when that dialog is displayed usually reboots the computer. (Under some circumstances, Windows won't let Ctrl-Alt-Del function this way. We'll cover the technicalities another time.)

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