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The secret life of the 'Print Screen' key in Windows
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule


The secret life of the 'Print Screen' key in Windows


Technofile for Sept. 12, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

What's that "Print Screen" key on my PC do? It doesn't print the screen. Why is it on the keyboard if it doesn't have any function?

I get a question like this every few months. The answer has two parts. I'll keep both of them simple.

Print Screen's first function:

The Print Screen key (labeled "PrtScn" or something equally cryptic on some keyboards) does print the screen. Maybe. If a printer is hooked up to your computer and it's working properly in MS-DOS, the Print Screen key tells the printer to print out whatever is on the screen.

This first function works only in DOS. If you never use DOS -- most PC users these days don't - you can skip right to the second function, explained below. If you do use DOS, pay attention to the next paragraph. It can save you a lot of frustration.

Most PCs in use these days are Windows PCs. Windows is able to run DOS itself or DOS programs in a window on the screen. Listen up: This is NOT what I mean by using the Print Screen key in DOS. What I mean is shutting down Windows and booting up with nothing but a black screen that has a so-called command prompt at the bottom. That's a DOS bootup. That's when your Print Screen key will work to send the contents of the screen to the printer.

Maybe. DOS has to know the printer is there. It has to know how to deal with the printer. If you have an old-fashioned printer, DOS probably can deal with it this way. Otherwise, you'll get nothing at all when you boot up into DOS and hit the Print Screen key.

Suppose you actually have DOS running in a window. What happens when you press the Print Screen key then?

Usually, you get the second function. (See below.) But you can try to get the first function to work by changing the properties of the DOS window. Click the Properties toolbar button in the DOS window (third from the right), click Misc and uncheck PrtSc. That tells Windows to let the Print Screen keypress come through to the DOS window, so that DOS can do what it wants with it. (Usually, it won't do anything, because it won't know how to deal with the printer, but you can go into the printer setup, through the Control Panel, and tell Windows that you print from DOS. That might make it work, but don't count on it.)

Print Screen's second function:

This is much better than the first part. And it always works. When Windows is running, pressing Print Screen creates an image of the entire screen and puts it into the clipboard. (The Windows clipboard is a hidden area where something you have just copied is stored.) This image can be pasted into all kinds of documents into a WordPad document, for example. Or into Paint or Word 97 or any graphics program. (Press Ctrl-V to paste, if you're not sure how.)

Try it using WordPad. (WordPad is under Accessories in the Start menu if you're looking for it.) The image pasted into WordPad is an exact replica of your screen. You can save it or print it or select it (click on it) and copy it to use somewhere else. (Ctrl-C to copy it once it's selected.)

And it gets better. Open up something interesting a good Web page in your browser, maybe and click inside that window. Hold the Alt key down and press Print Screen. Then do the paste the way you did it before. This time you get just the top window. The image that's captured shows only the foreground window.

One thing to remember: The clipboard can hold only one thing at a time. You have to paste whatever you stored before you use the Print Screen key again. If this is a problem, look around for a clipboard utility program there are some good free ones or resign yourself to struggling with the one that Microsoft created many years ago called Clipbook. It's on the Windows CD-ROM.


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