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A no-mouse, no-effort way of working with dialog boxes
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

A no-mouse, no-effort way of working with dialog boxes

Technofile for Oct. 25, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Last week I explained how all versions of Windows lets you activate the menus in programs without using the mouse. By pressing the Alt key, you turn on the menu bar at the top of any standard window. You can then go through the menus with the keys that have underlines or with the arrow keys.

But this technique does not work within a dialog box—a window that has no menu bar. Dialog boxes are common in all versions of Windows, and are used when Windows or a program it's running needs to have a "dialog" with you.

I realize this sounds like a ‘60s California Touchy-Feely term, but Windows does, indeed, need to have dialogs with the user. When you are about to do something dangerous, such as deleting a file, Windows has a dialog with you. It opens a dialog box that asks if you really want to do such a thing, and you can answer "Yes" or "No."

Dialog boxes can be a lot fancier than a simple "Yes, No or Cancel" message window. Sometimes entire programs are even shown in dialog boxes. A simple example is the Windows character map. (You have this program even if you don't realize it. It's called "charmap" and will open if you type that name in the Run line and press Enter.)

Windows provides three ways to avoid the mouse when you're dealing with dialog boxes:

  • Pressing the Enter key chooses the highlighted dialog-box button. I'll explain this shortly.
  • Pressing the Tab key repeatedly selects different buttons and options. When the one you want is selected, press Enter.
  • Pressing Alt and any underlined letter chooses that option.

Usually, dialog boxes show one button that's set off from the others with dark border and a 3D effect. This is the default button. Pressing the Enter key is the same as clicking your mouse on this default button. This is probably common knowledge among many Windows users.

But what most Windows users surely don't know is that they can change the default button just by pressing the Tab key. Each time you press Tab the highlighting switches to another button—or to another choice such as a drop-down list, too. The Tab key is wide and easy to hit, and the Enter key is even bigger, so this technique of pressing Tab a few times and then hitting Enter is a simple way of avoiding the mouse.

The third method takes advantage of the underlined letters in the names of buttons and other items. Even if a button or other dialog-box item is not highlighted, you can choose it by holding down the Alt key and pressing the highlighted character.

For some users, pressing two keys at the same time is difficult. For others, it's a bother. To Microsoft's credit, Windows includes an all-but-undocumented feature that lets you skip the Alt key when you press the underlined letter. Pay attention to how this little feature works, because it can save you a lot of typing over the next few years.

If the dialog box has any kind of fields in it where you can type something, you have to hold down the Alt key when you press the underlined key. (Otherwise, Windows interprets your keystrokes as text for the entry fields.) But if the dialog box has only buttons—such as "Yes" and "No"— you don't have to use the Alt key at all. You just press the underlined key.

Finally, last week I promised to tell you about the single key that does it all. It's the lowly Esc key, the key you can use to "escape" from nearly every dialog box. Just press Esc and the dialog box will close. Programs that run in dialog boxes instead of windows—the excellent image viewer called ACDSee is an example—work the same way. Because the ACDSee viewing window is actually a dialog box, you simply hit Esc to close it.

The next time you need to close a dialog box or a window that works like a dialog box, try whacking the Esc key. It should save you a lot of mouse clicking over the months and years.

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