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Navigating menus without using the mouse
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule


Navigating menus without using the mouse


Technofile for Oct. 18, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

My computer has a mouse with two buttons and a wheel. It's a fine mouse. But I try not to use it unless I have to.

When I need to save an article I'm writing in my word processor, I press the Alt key and type "F." Then I press the "S" key. When I want to look through the menus in my Web-search program, I hit the Alt key and press the "Down-Arrow key. Pressing the Left or Right Arrow keys moves me through the menus.

Am I weird? Most Windows users never use keys when they could use the mouse. Why can't I do the same?

When I have to use a mouse, I do. I find myself "thinking" with my hands sometimes, clicking here and there as I try to decide what I should do next. There's a lot to be said for this kind of right-and-left-brain activity.

But nobody can argue with carpal-tunnel syndrome. I've suffered from it for decades. The more I use my mouse, the more my wrist aches. It stiffens up for hours. The pain keeps me awake at night. I'd be crazy not to find ways to avoid all that wrist motion.

As much as we all despise some of the dumbest aspects of Windows, we have to credit Microsoft with empathy for those of us who live with discomfort and pain. To me and, I hope, to some others, one of the redeeming qualities of Windows is its clever menu system, which can be navigated easily without a mouse.

I'm not trying to convert you from your mouse religion to my keyboard one. But I think knowing a little about this simple technique might help, especially when all you're doing with the mouse is clicking on "Save" or "Open" in a menu.

The Windows shortcut system works in all versions of Windows, from the earliest still in use (Windows 3.0) to Windows 98 and its big brother, Windows NT. Here's how it works:

Pressing the Alt key (either one—your keyboard has two) activates the menu bar at the top of any window. To show this, Windows highlights the first menu item, which usually is called File. Try it and you'll see what I mean. Press Alt and watch what happens to the first menu item.

Here's where Windows shows its smarts. When you activate the menu bar with the Alt key, you can open any menu by pressing the letter that's underlined in the name of the menu. You don't need to hold the Alt key down when you do that; you just press the key by itself. Word processors always have an Edit menu, and the "E" is always underlined, so all you do to open the Edit menu is press "E."

With me so far? (Try it yourself and you'll see how easy this is.) When the menu drops down, you'll see more choices, and all of them will have underlines. To choose one of the options, just press the underlined key. (Here, too, you don't need to press the Alt key. Just press the key by itself.)

As I mentioned earlier, you can move through all the menus by activating the menu bar with the Alt key and then using the Arrow keys. You can navigate with the Arrow keys and use yet another keyboard shortcut method by pressing the Enter key when any item is highlighted.

There's much more. Next week I'll tell you how Windows lets you skip the mouse entirely when you have to deal with those little windows that pop up asking you to make a choice. And I'll reveal one of the secrets that most users don't know about—a key that gets you out of trouble.


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