My Quest For The Mac's Keyboard Shortcut Soul

Readers assure Lifehacker’s resident cynic that the Mac is a keyboard shortcut lovers’ dream, but a hands-on test still produced somewhat mixed results for me.

Every professional tech writer knows that there’s a small, noisy group of Apple enthusiasts who will pounce whenever you say anything even mildly critical about Apple products. So when I wrote up an account of why I’d decided a Mac wouldn’t be a suitable machine for the recent Hand Luggage Only project, I wasn’t surprised that it produced so many comments.

A lot of the commentary was along fairly predictable lines: happy Mac users proclaiming the OS X “it just works” mantra, Windows enthusiasts claiming Macs lack apps and hardware options, and total Apple hardliners proclaiming inaccuracy without feeling any need whatsoever to back up their claims.

Many readers begrudgingly admitted that the lack of a sub-13-inch model, the hassles of learning an unfamiliar OS on the road and the lack of Outlook were quite a reasonable basis for crossing Macs off the list in my case. Nonetheless, some seemed to take the view that all of that was just a smokescreen and that anyone who chose to use anything other than a Mac at any time was demonstrably insane and/or a Microsoft shill. There’s not much value in engaging with those kinds of zealots.

What did seem to me worth engaging with was the question of whether or not Macs are a more mouse-centric platform than Windows machines, which was another reason I gave for not being keen on going down the Mac path. I’m a minimalist mouse user, and my passing use of Macs over the years has always left me with the impression that they place more emphasis on a drag-and-drop view of the world. (One simple example: the Windows standard install process doesn’t involve dragging anything; the Mac one often does.)

Rational, non-ranting commenters argued this wasn’t the case: that not only did the Mac have keyboard shortcuts aplenty, but that they were more consistent and could be customised at the OS level to meet whatever requirements I had. I figured this deserved further investigation. (Though in the case of the customisation requirement, I’ll note that while it’s appealing, it’s not as appealing as an option that appears on any similar machine I happen to encounter without requiring me to make lots of changes.)

I should stress one point right away: this was essentially an academic research exercise. There were a host of good reasons why a Mac wouldn’t have suited my computing needs, and the presence of keyboard shortcuts in any volume wasn’t going to alter that decision. As a productivity-minded tech journalist, though, it was the kind of knowledge that would be potentially useful to have.

Since I was in Queensland at the time, I decided to head to the relatively new Apple Store in Robina for some hands on access. That way, I could mess with an actual MacBook for as long as I liked, and ask the ever-grinning staff for hints if I couldn’t get stuff to work.

The Robina experience

On the train to the Gold Coast, I read up on Mac keyboard shortcuts, largely from the official list on Apple’s support site. The subtly different keyboard labels (Command, Option and Control instead of Control and Alt) would doubtless take some getting used to, but that’s not a factor that should be over-estimated. Notebook PCs frequently shift the positioning of those keys anyway, so there’s going to be re-education of muscle memory required no matter what you do.

There certainly seemed to be an equivalent range of shortcuts for most common OS and application features, including the text selection options I use for many hours a day. One that was missing was the ability to maximise anything — usually Alt-Space-X in Windows — since many Mac apps won’t let you go full-screen, but that ground got well-trodden in the predecessor article to this one, so we’ll leave it aside for the moment.

Once I hit the Apple Store (memo to the Gold Coast City Council: you really need to build some footpaths in Robina pronto), I plonked myself in front of a MacBook and spent 45 minutes or so playing around with the different keyboard options. During the process, three separate sales guys asked me if I needed any help. I don’t think any of them were expecting to be asked about keyboard shortcuts or hear me ranting about why I try and avoid the trackpad, but they took it in their stride for the most part.

While there were clearly plenty of good keyboard shortcut options on offer, there were two aspects that continued to bug me. One was the absence of useful keys I can find on pretty much any PC, particularly Page Up and Page Down (I imagine those feature on a full Mac keyboard) and a right-click key. I use the former all the time when reading web pages, and the second for all kinds of options, from copying links to removing unwanted formatting. Combine the keyboard key (or Shift-F10) and the shortcut letters and you can do most things without needing a mouse (or a trackpad) at all.

The Page Up/Down issue can be covered with a two-key shortcut, though that’s not as handy as a single key. But there’s no obvious substitute at all for the two-finger right-click that Macs deploy, and which demands you lift your hand to get the job done. Certainly, none of the store guys or online guides suggested any alternative. Compared to a PC, where I constantly access right-click options without actually taking my hands off the keyboard, this would definitely slow me down. I’m exclusively a notebook user and inveterate traveller, so a two-button mouse or external keyboard wouldn’t really solve that problem.

However, the biggest absence — and the one which I think most underlines the Mac’s mouse-centric view — is the ability to easily get to the menus in any application using the keyboard. In Windows, you can hit the Alt key to highlight the menu bar, or the Alt key in combination with the underlined letter on a menu to open that menu. You can then jump to the relevant menu item by again hitting the underlined menu (something you can also do with right-click options).

That means that in applications which you use occasionally, but not so often that you’ve memorised or set up specific shortcuts, you can still access most features purely from the keyboard. Again, this is something I do constantly. (Even in Microsoft applications using the Ribbon, Alt serves a similar function.)

On a Mac, this simply isn’t so easy. You can highlight the menu bar with a two-key shortcut (Control-F2, which is actually Control-Fn-F2 on a MacBook), but then you have to navigate to the relevant menu using the arrow keys. It’s possible, but it’s definitively fiddlier, and it’s clearly something that most Mac users just don’t do — none of the staff I chatted to had even heard of this particular shortcut. As far as they were concerned, if you wanted a menu, why wouldn’t you just click on it?

I got the same vibe playing around with Entourage, which quite a few readers proposed as an Outlook alternative. Even though this is a Microsoft-deveoped product, it isn’t as keyboard-friendly as its Windows sibling: I couldn’t even do simple navigation through the calendar with the arrow keys in the same way as Outlook.

Some people are never going to be convinced to switch their machine preference. When I told the last sales guy that the size of a MacBook would be an issue for me (as well as the maximise stuff he’d been trying to talk me out of with a demonstration of Spaces and the keyboard stuff he’d admitted defeat on), he asked what machine I used. As it was in my bag, I offered to show it to him. He grudgingly admitted that the R600 was an OK-looking PC, but then decided that it was flimsy and that the lack of a backlit screen meant and overall appearance meant it just wasn’t as “nice”. When I said I was interested in productivity and portability, not nice, he looked at me like I was some kind of freak. To each their own.

Two other side observations. I really, really do hate not being able to maximise everything. If work circumstances ever push me into regular Mac use, I’ll be implementing whatever fiddly hacks are needed to make that happen. Secondly, I was amused to see that not only was the copy of Pages on the store demo machine not up-to-date, but the patch download notes pointed out that a restart would be needed after installation. So much for the “never reboot” camp.

The bottom line? I’m not claiming one stand-up session represents anything like a clinically exhausting test of the Mac’s total capabilities (especially since I was only using a notebook), but I do think it’s enough to get a feel of the overall environment. While there’s clearly a lot going on in the Mac keyboard shortcuts department, I’d still argue my original assertion — that Macs are more mouse-centric than Windows — stands. For the vast majority of users (whether their background is PC or Mac), that’s not going to matter, because most people use mice all the time anyway. But converting a mouse-loathing keyboard shortcut junkie like me on that basis still doesn’t seem likely.

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