My Quest For The Mac’s Keyboard Shortcut Soul

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.


  • On the right click issue, don’t forget that the OS and Mac Apps don’t require it as much as Windows does. The new Macbooks have lots of customisation for their trackpads and you can program an area of it to correspond to “right click” so it’s still a one finger operation.

    I don’t know whether you’re familiar with MacTalk ( The guy who runs that is embarking on a week long no-Apple experiment. How about you try a week long Apple-only experiment. I’m sure Apple would lend you a macbook and an iPhone and help you set yourself up. It would be interesting to read your thoughts after you’ve tried it, rather than speculation before you try.

    • Right-click isn’t necessarily a question of “requiring” — it’s a question of convenience. Pretty much anything you want to do via right-click can be achieved another way (in Windows and I assume on Macs as well), but it can be more convoluted. For instance, it’s easily the best way to copy a URL, something I do a lot.

      Re the customisation: one of the sales guys tried to demo that to me, but you could only set the bottom corners to do right-click, which creates the same problem in terms of moving your hands. And it’s still not an actual key.

      I’ve contemplated the Apple-only experiment and it might happen at some point, but if I did do it I wouldn’t adopt an iPhone simultaneously, since one doesn’t technically require the other, and trying to adopt both at once would make me more likely to get the grumps with everything.

      • Ah, OK – you’re right, it is only one corner. I use the two finger click method. One finger moving around the track pad moves the mouse, one finger tapping clicks, two fingers moving around scrolls up/down/left/right and two fingers tapping is the equivalent of right click. Really easy once you’re used to it.

  • Just switched from a PC to a Mac. KeyCue has proved useful. Holding Cmd brings up a list of keyboard shortcuts and helps me remember old ones and learn new ones. Highly recommended for new-comers like me.

  • Absolutely agree with all of this. Menu access via keyboard is garbage, and I frankly have no idea where people get this idea that OSX is a keyboard-centric operating system.

    Even worse is using a non-native app like OpenOffice (or even NeoOffice) and finding that most dialogues simply can’t be navigated via keyboard. (eg Find and Replace, in Win/Linux I can access every advanced option, and choose an action without going near the mouse. On OSX, nothing.)

    Having said that, the multitouch trackpad is an absolute masterstroke – I find a regular mouse or trackpad almost unusable now. Throw in MultiClutch ( and customise your motions per-app and it’s brilliant. I nav through and open/close tabs, up and down pages, back and forth in firefox without touching the keyboard.

  • I still prefer the Mac’s shortcut keys. Even if a few of the Windows ones are missing it has it’s own that are really useful and are much more consistent across programs than in Windows.

    Hide the dock: Cmd+Option+D
    Get info (equivalent of ‘Properties’): Cmd+i
    Save As: Cmd+Shift+S

    Quick Look (spacebar) in Finder is something I really miss when I use Windows.

    And although it’s not a keyboard shortcut, the search box in the Help menu is so useful for apps like Photoshop where you have no idea where all the sub-menus are kept.

  • I love my Macs but use PCs at work and always have done. A few years ago I made a decision to use the keyboard wherever possible when using my PCs, to cut down on aches from using the mouse.

    I agree that using the Mac through keyboard shortcuts alone is nowhere near as easy as on a PC; that said, I still would never buy a PC for home, for reasons that aren’t important in the context of this comment.

    However, the saving grace for Mac keyboard shortcuts is that you can set up a shortcut in the keyboard preferences pane for just about any menu command, including sub menus and drop down lists.

    Angus, if you ever go Mac you could try this out – it would probably improve your experience considerably once you’ve set up your shortcuts.

    • I too love my mac having been converted with a macbook pro, but I have to agree that OSX is more mouse-centric than I would like, though happy to be proven wrong. By far the most annoying feature is not been able to right click using only the keyboard in Word on a Mac, for example to fix a spelling error. This slows me down significantly when I am correcting documents. Maybe I am a newbie and don’t know how to do this.

  • Multiclutch and the great trackpad are the two things I miss from my MBP.

    The other key that is missing, and drove totally nuts (I’m a journalist), is a proper delete key. Fn-Delete (which is actually a backspace key, anyway), is a complete PITA compared to a proper key. (Agree with everything else, espeially the lack of PgUp/PgDn.)

  • A full size “apple keyboard” will give you the “extra keys” that PC notebooks shrink to teeny-tiny sizes and cram in to the keyboard. Have a go on the Mac Pro next time you’re in store.

    “So much for the “never reboot” camp.” – I reckon they fit in with the rabid mac-fans… rebooting is not a sin.

    To the people who are anti-mouse because of RSI: yes. I was one. Answer: trackpad!

    Angus: ctrl+tap on mouse pad (works with your thumb…) is a right click with out straying too far from the keyboard… both hands in good “asdf jkl;” typing position.

    apple-space to open up spotlight is one of my favourite short cuts.

    This article was much better and less ranty. Well done. Less flame-war… it’s ok and grown up to agree to disagree.

  • angus, i’m interested in your reasons for wanting a window to be maximised? I would agree that i click and drag more on my mac(s) than i do on the windows computers that i use at uni, but i would still argue that i’m more productive on my macs.

    the key difference between windows’ windows and mac os x’s windows is that the menubar sits at the top of a specific window in windows, whereas on the mac, the menubar is always, always at the top of the screen. the primary reason for this is fitt’s law. i’m hoping that you already know about fitt’s law.

    if you don’t, it’s all about how easy something is to click on a screen. essentially: the easiest targets are the 4 corners of the screen, followed by each of the 4 edges, followed by the biggest buttons. to hit a menu in a windows window, you have to line up the cursor on the narrow strip that is the menu in order to click it. it takes far less time to just throw the cursor at the top of the screen, because you can’t overshoot the top of the screen. this is one reason that i know of why a lot of windows users maximise everything; it places the menu at the top of the screen.

    another disadvantage of the windows approach to menus, and another reason that i know of windows users maximising, is that when you have multiple applications running, it can become difficult to tell which window is foremost. in mac os x, the top left hand corner always displays the name of the foremost application. you don’t have to prioritise between the 4 or 5 different sets of menubars on screen, you only have one, and it’s the one for the application that’s at the front.

    personally, having just finished writing an essay, i quite like having windows not maximised. windows doesn’t necessarily (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t) handle dragging items between applications as well as mac os x, at least in my experience. today, i have dragged from one application to another, movie files, images and text clippings. i haven’t needed to save these and import them, i haven’t needed to copy them, switch applications, and paste them, i’ve just dragged them from the source to the point that i wanted to insert them into my essay. i’ve also used dragging to grab links from web pages, attach files in emails, send data to my phone (not an iphone, btw) and probably any number of other things as well. most drag operations work between applications.

    while i’m on about dragging, i have yet to see a solution as elegant as exposé on windows for managing multiple windows.

    also, when reading web pages, the space bar is page down, shift-space bar is page up. to be honest, i actually don’t use this very much, because i find it easier and faster to scroll with two fingers on the trackpad (this works in any scrollable area). this is akin to a mouse wheel – it feels much more precise and natural to me.

    command-up is home, command down is end (these two also apply anywhere you can scroll)
    to right-click, just tap the trackpad with two fingers simultaneously. i use this to copy links all the time.

    this post is already about 3 times longer than i intended it to be.

    i will finish on this, though
    if you are satisfied using windows, be satisfied. if you are happy doing what you are doing, be happy. don’t let anyone force you into anything. if you feel that you want to explore how a mac works for you, cool. if not, cool. don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. personally, i find macs to be much more intuitive and natural. just because that’s my experience, doesn’t make it yours, and it doesn’t mean that what applies for me will for you too. it may, it may not.

    • I like maximised windows so I can concentrate on the task at hand — if I’m writing, I don’t want other stuff in the way. And as I’m a notebook user, multiple monitors aren’t an issue. And since I’m personally all about not using the mouse when possible, whether that make dragging or clicking easier or harder doesn’t really come into it — but the lack of consistent menu bar shortcuts does.

  • I get that you’re probably over your Mac experimentation (and I think it’s really cool that you even did it) but should you wish to have another go, I’d suggest heading off to your local Mac reseller (not Harvey Norman, and small business specialising in Macs). The lovely thing about the Apple shops is that they are forced to toe the company line 100%. A reseller is usually a) staffed with humans and b) able to interact openly about the flaws of the OS.

    Check out for some suggestions of where (not all resellers are built the same).

    Oh, and btw. if the Apple employee couldn’t point you towards “two finger tap” for right-click then he needs some serious retraining; once set up it’s: put index finger on trackpad and navigate as you would normally. When the time to right click comes, put middle finger on mousepad as well. “Tap” or “click”. Right (or “context”) clicking should ensue! Moving on the trackpad with two fingers on it will scroll up/down/left/right/diagonal, as well.

    It might not be set up out of the box, but it’s the first thing I teach customers in my training sessions – if little old ladies can get it, I’m sure you can too!

    And yes, not being able to access the menu’s from the keyboard *still* drives me batty 3.5 years into Mac-using and 2.5 in Mac sales. QuickSilver has *some* ability to replicate it but it’s not perfect. The best bet is just to set up custom shortcuts via System Preferences for your most used things.

    • The sales guys knew about right-click via two-finger tap — what he couldn’t provide was a keyboard equivalent. And since it seems clear there isn’t one, that’s probably fair enough.

  • If you ever decide to get some proper hands on experience, I’m more than happy to give you a MacBook and an iPhone, so you can turf the non-Apple gear for a week and write about it. I’ll even be your on-demand support line for any questions that pop up during the week. 🙂

  • I’ve always worked on PCs and have my k/b shortcuts down pat. I have been a Mac person at home for the last 3yrs.
    For casual browsing i have no issues with macs but when i actually need to do work on it i struggle. Especially with the seemingly simple Home and End keys – lack thereof. I haven’t found a comprable shortcut on the mac for selecting some text and shift-home or shift-end to get the whole line or more.

    i don’t consider pressing 3 keys a short cut…

  • I believe that Keyboard Maestro may solve your issues with the keyboard shortcuts you otherwise can’t achieve –

    It’s a shame that you haven’t had a chance to try out Quicksilver, as I think you may be impressed with what it can do. As a relevant example, you can use it to quickly access ALL application menu items for any open application. Here’s a video demo –

  • I never really understood the “but It cant full screen” crowd!
    Think of it as your desk at work, when you write a letter do you get out a piece of A1 paper to fully cover the desk? No, you get out an A4 notepad and write away while still being able to refer to a reference book next to the note book.

    • Maybe with one book — but if there are 20 things on your desk, then it’s a mess and you get distracted. Some people aren’t bothered by that, other people are. Of course, there are several ways you can deal with that (on a Mac, you could use hide, I imagine), but for writing in particular, I just don’t like other stuff popping up underneath.

  • Hi Angus,

    I’m new to Mac and I totally agree with your mouse-centric impression. I am also a windows-keyboard-focused guy and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the Mac way…

    But after a week I am starting to realize that the two systems are based on different usability guidelines and long-time users of each system will suffer switching from one paradigm to the other. I’ve seem Mac geeks flying through the keyboard shortcuts as they already know all the combinations, and they tend to learn new keys quickly too. Windows is more forgiving, you just need a glance at the menu to remember the shortcut you are looking for, so we (Windows users) are not imprinting all these combinations in our memories as Mac users does.

    A few days ago I was furious about “Mac right-click menu is an alias to commands already available in the menu, so there is no need for a keyboard shortcut”. That felt like a very weak excuse to me but that seems to be true for die-hard Mac users.

    So my conclusion is that switching system is actually a more complex task than one would expect. The two systems are similarly comparable as far as keyboard accessibility is concerned, but Windows-minded users will have a hard time memorizing the combinations instead of reading the mnemonics from the menus.

    In this sense, I should say that ‘as a Windows user, Mac seems more keyboard oriented’. It’s a big semantic difference, but in practical terms I’m suffering a lot 🙂

Log in to comment on this story!