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Little-known keyboard shortcuts in Windows
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Little-known keyboard shortcuts in Windows 

Technofile for Sept. 14, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

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.

Of course, a few of the keyboard shortcuts are fairly well known. F1 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.

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.)

Ctrl-Esc now opens the Start Menu instead. It 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.

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.)

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.

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 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 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.

A longer version of this article is available.

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