How to find and use special keys on an Apple notebook

By: agreimann
January 31, 2011


Coming from a Windows and/or Linux world, many programmers, users, and others are often frustrated by the keyboard settings that are set by default on their Apple notebooks. Most of this is because the keys are labeled differently. A case in point is that "enter" is "return" and "backspace" is delete. Granted, these simple keys are in the same locations, but they work differently. Let's start by looking at modifier keys.

Modifier Keys

The Command Key

The first key we will cover is the super or "Command" key. In the old days, the mobile Apple keyboard had a hollow Apple logo and the command loop. Today, most keyboards have changed to "command" and the loop stamped on them instead. New Mac or PC users looking for the Windows logo key equivalent or the key itself will not find it on an Apple notebook's keyboard (or even a desktop one for that matter), as the Command key really serves the same purpose as the control key on a PC. For instance, to copy an item, you would press Cmd+C, not Ctrl+C.

However, for those who do not want to learn a whole new key (command instead of control) for most actions, while it is not recommended because it *can* mess a few things up, you can remap your Control key to behave like it would on a PC. Locate the menubar running across the top of the screen, and open the Apple menu. Click System Preferences... and under Hardware, click Keyboard & Mouse. Make sure the Keyboard pane is active, and click the Modifier Keys... button. Remap your keys as you wish, and close the sheet by clicking OK. Quit System Preferences.

The Control Key

The control key on an Apple is a modifier, used to *extend* commands, as Shift or Option would. It is usually denoted as a caret ^ in system menus, and is still used in X11 and the Terminal for Unix actions, such as Ctrl-C to break or Ctrl-Z to halt.

The Option Key

The meta or Alt key has been dubbed the Option key, and is denoted with a special symbol which appears like a stretched out z with a line over the end part. It is also used to extend actions. For instance, Cmd+W closes one window, whereas Cmd+Opt+W closes all windows.

Hidden Keys

Other than the common, modifier keys that were just covered, there are what I'd like to dub "hidden" keys--special keys on an Apple notebook that are harder to find.

For the Unix guy working at the terminal, the classic "Del" or real delete key is handy. To get your "Del" key back on a Apple notebook keyboard, hold down fn (the function key) while you press the delete key.

For the actual enter key, if not included in your keyboard layout, press fn+return the same way you would fn+delete.

On less recent mobile Apples (such as the iBook series of notebooks) the arrow keys showed their functions in either graphite or simply smaller letters. On newer notebooks, however, these functions can be hidden. When fn is held down with the same fashion to get Del or Enter, the keys map to the following:

- The up arrow is the page up key
- The down arrow is the page down key, respectively.
- The left arrow is the Home key.
- The right arrow is the End key.

Changing Key Settings

Now that we have covered the keys that PC users and programmers are craving on a mobile Apple, let's also look at a few more caveats that can actually be changed upon preference. (If you're looking to remap Command to Control, see the Command key section under "Modifier Keys".)

- When the volume is changed, the computer gives an annoying popping sound. (OS X 10.2 and earlier actually played the alert sound.) To fix this, go to the Apple menu in the menubar on the top of the screen. Click System Preferences... and go to Sound under the Hardware category. If the Sound Effects pane is not already open, switch to it. Uncheck "Play feedback when volume is changed" and change the volume in the same silence PCs do. :)

- Secondly, most PC programmers (I would imagine more than users) miss the function keys. They *are* there on a notebook, but unlike the laptop PC, the Apple notebook defaults (under OS X) to mapping the keys to hardware functions, like changing the volume and the brightness. To access these keys, the fn key has to be held down!

But what happens in an emulation environment or the Terminal where these keys are needed? And, why hold down the fn key? This is not how a PC works, obviously, but this can be changed. Find the menubar at the top of the screen and open the Apple menu. Click System Preferences... and under the Hardware category, click Keyboard & Mouse. If the Keyboard pane is not already active, switch to it. Check "Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys" and enjoy the function keys the way they're supposed to be used. Now, you can turn up the volume or do hardware functions the right way--hold down fn to do it.


Hopefully, this guide will help you with your new Apple notebook, and adapting to the keyboard layout that not everyone is used to, but using an Apple can be a reliable and cool experience.

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