The Technofile Web site has moved.

Technofile is now located at
Please update your links, bookmarks and Favorites.  

Yes, Windows is Dumb: Shortcuts

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


Keyboard shortcuts nobody ever told you about 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

I drive my wife crazy. "Open the Start Menu," I say when she asks me where I hid one of her new programs each time I clean up her shortcuts. She moves her mouse over to click on the Start button. "No, just press Ctrl-Esc," I tell her.

Ctrl-Esc? It's not a key combination you hear on the evening news, and she's a mouse-click kind of person anyway. Ctrl-Esc is one of those almost-secret key combinations in Windows. Alt-F4 seems to be another one. Alt-S is surely a candidate for the key combination nobody except a few geeks knows about. And a bare F4 keypress? It might as well be a ham sandwich.

These keys and dozens of others are built into Windows as ways to do things on the keyboard you'd normally do with the mouse. Ctrl-Esc does the same thing as clicking on the Start button, for example. Alt-F4 closes a program, the same as clicking on the X in the upper right corner of the window. F4 and Alt-S? We'll get to those in a moment. I want to talk about the general idea of keyboard shortcuts first.

Windows has always had keyboard substitutes for mouse-click operations. This was done at first out of necessity—because many of the first users didn't have a mouse in the early years of Windows—but the untold story is more interesting. Some of the lesser-known features of Windows, such as the built-in system-file editor and, yes, many of the keyboard equivalents, were coded into the way Windows works because Microsoft's own programmers wanted them for their own use. Some of these features aren't even documented—a subject that deserves its own treatment, if anything ever did—and others are just there, not mentioned in the main help files but listed in obscure references at Microsoft's headquarters for anyone who looks hard enough.

Of course, a few of the keyboard shortcuts are fairly well known. F1 may be at the top of a short list of commonly used shortcuts—it opens a help screen or a smaller help dialog in just about every program that runs under Windows, as well as within Windows itself. Ctrl-S, which saves the current file, may have penetrated past the layer of power users to reach a few general users. But most keyboard shortcuts are surely foreign to typical Windows users. I suppose this could be considered a national disgrace, because if we could gain a penny for every minute each user saved in unnecessary mouse movements in a single year we probably would be able to pay off the national debt or at least Bill Clinton's legal expenses. But I'm a realist, and so I can only hope that some of you can make your use of Windows easier and more productive in some small way by taking advantage of these shortcuts.

Ctrl-Esc has an odd history. Until Windows 95 was introduced, Ctrl-Esc was the key combination that launched the Windows Task Manager. (Task Manager is a small program that lists the programs currently running so the user can bring one of them to the foreground or kill off a running program, among other functions.) Task Manager would also run if you double-clicked on the background area of the screen (the "desktop"—although it was not a real desktop the way the current version of Windows treats it), and the choice of keyboard or mouse to invoke Task Manager was exceptionally handy. For reasons I don't understand, Microsoft changed the current version of Windows so that double-clicking on the desktop has no effect in most circumstances, and Ctrl-Esc opens the Start Menu. (The old mouse double click that launched Task Manager is still in the newest Windows, but only when the operating system has crashed so badly that Explorer, the supervisory "shell" program, has failed to restart itself. In such a confused state, Windows brings up Task Manager when you double-click on the desktop.)

Ctrl-Esc works on all modern keyboards, but the two-key combination isn't needed if you have a so-called Windows keyboard. These have extra keys. The one at the lower left, which has a Windows logo, opens the Start Menu with a single press. Use it instead of Ctrl-Esc if you will never have to use a non-Windows keyboard. (If you have a non-Windows keyboard at the office and a Windows keyboard at home, you'll probably want to skip the special keys.)

Alt-S seems to be totally wacko until you realize how most Windows keyboard shortcuts work. Alt-S also opens the Start Menu—something practically no one realizes, I'm sure—but only if the so-called focus of Windows is the desktop. (In other words, Alt-S only works if no windows or dialogs are in the foreground. To make sure you can get Alt-S to work, click once on the desktop, then press Alt-S.) The combination of Alt-S wasn't chosen, if that's the right word, by anyone; it simply reflects the role of the Alt key in turning on all the menu-mapped hotkeys that are available in Windows. These are the underlined keys you see in most menus, such as File and Edit. Pressing Alt-F opens the File menu, for example. (When the menu opens, you can press other underlined keys as hotkeys, but you must not press the Alt companion key.)

So Alt-S is nothing more than Alt plus the invisibly underlined menu item on the Taskbar called Start. The Taskbar is thereby identified as the program that controls the desktop and is in the foreground when the desktop has the focus. (This is an oversimplification, but it supplies useful understanding of the relationship between the Taskbar and the Desktop—which I'm capitalizing to point out its properties as the desktop for Windows operations.)

F4 is quite helpful, and it, too, is almost unknown. It opens the drop-down drive and folder navigation list in Explorer and in other programs. It's the list that starts just below the word File in Explorer. If you use F4 to drop that list open, you can use your up- and down-arrow keys to navigate to the drive and folder you want to access instead of using your mouse.

There are many other keys, of course. I have a full list for those of you who want to see every possible key combination. If you'd rather keep mousing around, you're in a comfortable majority: Few of the users who've learned Windows in my classes and in personal sessions stick with more than two or three keyboard substitutes for mouse operations, and I'll even admit that I succumb much of the time, too. The mouse is seductive.

Even the Start Menu shortcut of Ctrl-Esc, an undeniably helpful way of getting at the main menu, sometimes lacks the charm I demand of an operating system. I sometimes find myself sliding the mouse pointer over to the Start button just for the tactile experience, as limited as it is, of touching (or perhaps caressing) an object to get it to respond.

At least I know I always have a choice. If you want to get things done as quickly as possible, keep those keyboard shortcuts in mind. My wife's even started to use them, but only when she thinks I'm not looking.

 Image courtesy of Adobe Systems Inc.technofile: [Articles] [Home page] [Comments:]