Keyboard Differences

Mac and PC keyboards are subtly different. Making the switch involves two big adjustments: figuring out where the special Windows keys went (like Alt and Ctrl)—and figuring out what to do with the special Macintosh keys (like ⌘ and Option).

Where the Windows Keys Went

Here’s how to find the Macintosh equivalents of familiar PC keyboard keys:

  • Ctrl key. The Macintosh offers a key labeled Control (or, on laptops, “ctrl”), but it isn’t the equivalent of the PC’s Ctrl key. The Mac’s Control key is primarily for helping you “right-click” things, as described earlier.

    Instead, the Macintosh equivalent of the Windows Ctrl key is the ⌘ key. It’s right next to the space bar. It’s pronounced “command,” although novices can often be heard calling it the “pretzel key,” “Apple key,” or “clover key.”

    Most Windows Ctrl-key combos correspond perfectly to ⌘-key sequences on the Mac. The Save command is now ⌘-S instead of Ctrl+S, Open is ⌘-O instead of Ctrl+O, and so on.


    Mac keyboard shortcuts are listed at the right side of each open menu, just as in Windows. Unfortunately, they’re represented in the menu with goofy symbols instead of their true key names. Here’s your cheat sheet to the menu keyboard symbols: represents the Shift key, means the Option key, and refers to the Control key.

  • Alt key. On North American Mac keyboards, a key on the bottom row is labeled both Alt and Option. This is the closest thing the Mac offers to the Windows Alt key.

    In many situations, keyboard shortcuts that involve the Alt key in Windows use the Option key on the Mac. For example, in Microsoft Word, the keyboard shortcut for the Split Document Window command is Alt+Ctrl+S in Windows, but Option-⌘-T on the Macintosh.

    Still, these two keys aren’t exactly the same. Whereas the Alt key’s most popular function is to control the menus in Windows programs, the Option key on the Mac is a “miscellaneous” key that triggers secret functions and special characters.

    For example, when you hold down the Option key as you click the Close or Minimize button on a Macintosh window, you close or minimize all open desktop windows. And if you press the Option key while you type R, G, or 2, you get the ®, ©, and ™ symbols in your document, respectively. (See Input Sources to find out how you can see which letters turn into which symbols when pressed with Option.)

  • key. As you probably could have guessed, there is no Windows-logo key on the Macintosh. Then again, there’s no Start menu to open by pressing it, either.


    Just about any USB keyboard works on the Mac, even if the keyboard was originally designed to work with a PC. Depending on the manufacturer of the keyboard, the Windows-logo key may work just like the Mac’s ⌘ key.

  • Backspace and Delete. On the Mac, the backspace key is labeled Delete, although it’s in exactly the same place as the Windows Backspace key.

    The Delete key in Windows (technically, the forward delete key, because it deletes the character to the right of the insertion point) is a different story. On a desktop Macintosh with a full-size keyboard, it’s labeled with Del and the symbol.

    On small Mac keyboards (like laptop and wireless keyboards), this key is missing. You can still perform a forward delete, however, by pressing the regular Delete key while pressing the Fn key in the corner of the keyboard.

  • Enter. Most full-size Windows keyboards have two Enter keys: one at the right side of the alphabet keyboard and one in the lower-right corner of the number pad. They’re identical in function; pressing either one serves to “click” the OK button in a dialog box, for example.

    On the Mac, the big key on the number pad still says Enter, but the key on the alphabet keyboard is labeled Return. Most of the time, their function is identical—either can “click” the OK button of a dialog box. Every now and then, though, you’ll run across a Mac program where Return and Enter do different things. In Microsoft Word for OS X, for example, Shift-Return inserts a line break, but Shift-Enter creates a page break.

What the Special Mac Keys Do

So much for finding the Windows keys you’re used to. There’s another category of keys worth discussing: those on the Mac keyboard you’ve never seen before.

To make any attempt at an explanation even more complicated, Apple’s keyboards keep changing. The one you’re using right now is probably one of these models:

  • The current keyboards, where the keys are flat little jobbers that poke up through square holes in the aluminum (Figure 1-6). That’s what you get on current laptops, wired keyboards, and Bluetooth wireless keyboards.

  • The older, plastic desktop keyboards, or the white or black plastic laptop ones.

Here, then, is a guided tour of the non-typewriter keys on the modern Mac keyboard:

  • Fn. How are you supposed to pronounce “Fn”? Not “function,” certainly; after all, the F-keys on the top row are already known as function keys. And not “fun”; goodness knows, the Fn key isn’t particularly hilarious to press.

    What it does, though, is quite clear: It changes the purpose of certain keys. That’s a big deal on laptops, which don’t have nearly as many keys as desktop keyboards. So for some of the less commonly used functions, you’re supposed to press Fn and a regular key. (For example, Fn turns the key into a Page Up key, which scrolls upward by one screenful.)


    On most Mac keyboards, the Fn key is in the lower-left corner. The exception is the full-size Apple desktop keyboard (the one with a numeric keypad); there, the Fn key is in the little block of keys between the letter keys and the number pad.

    You’ll find many more Fn examples in the following paragraphs.

    On the top row of aluminum Mac keyboards, the F-keys have dual functions. Ordinarily, the F1 through F4 keys correspond to Screen Dimmer, Screen Brighter, Exposé, and Dashboard. Pressing the Fn key in the corner changes their personalities, though.

    Figure 1-6. On the top row of aluminum Mac keyboards, the F-keys have dual functions. Ordinarily, the F1 through F4 keys correspond to Screen Dimmer, Screen Brighter, Exposé, and Dashboard. Pressing the Fn key in the corner changes their personalities, though.

  • Numeric keypad. The number-pad keys do exactly the same thing as the numbers at the top of the keyboard. But with practice, typing things like phone numbers and prices is much faster with the number pad, since you don’t have to look down at what you’re doing.

    Apple has been quietly eliminating the numeric keypad from most of its keyboards, but you can still find it on some models.

  • , (F1, F2). These keys control the brightness of your screen. Usually, you can tone it down a bit when you’re in a dark room or when you want to save laptop battery power; you’ll want to crank it up in the sun.

  • (F3). This one fires up Mission Control, the handy window-management feature described in Chapter 4.

  • or (F4). Tap the key to open Dashboard, the archipelago of tiny, single-purpose widgets like Weather, Stocks, and Movies. Chapter 4 describes Dashboard in detail.

    On recent Macs, the F4 key bears a logo instead. Tapping it opens Launchpad, which is described on Launchpad.

  • , (F5, F6). Most recent Mac laptops have light-up keys, which is very handy indeed when you’re typing in the dark. The key lights are supposed to come on automatically when it’s dark, but you can also control the illumination yourself by tapping these keys. (On most other Macs, the F5 and F6 keys aren’t assigned to anything. They’re free for you to use as you see fit.)

  • , , and (F7, F8, F9). These keys work in the programs you’d expect: iTunes, QuickTime Player, DVD Player, and other programs where it’s handy to have Rewind, Play/Pause, and Fast Forward buttons.


    Tap either or to skip to the previous or next track or chapter. Hold one down to rewind or fast-forward.

  • , , (F10, F11, F12). These three keys control your speaker volume. The key means Mute; tap it once to cut off the sound completely and again to restore its previous level. Tap the repeatedly to make the sound level lower, the key to make it louder.

    With each tap, you see a big white version of each key’s symbol on your screen, your Mac’s little nod to let you know it understands your efforts.


    If you hold down the Shift and Option keys, then tapping the volume keys adjusts the volume by smaller increments, just as with the brightness keys.

  • . This is the Eject key. When there’s a CD or DVD in your Mac, tap this key to make the computer spit it out.

    If your Mac doesn’t have a DVD drive (modern ones don’t), it doesn’t have this key, either.

  • Home, End. The Home key jumps to the top of a window, the End key to the bottom. If you’re looking at a list of files, then the Home and End keys jump to the top or bottom of the list. In iPhoto, they jump to the first or last photo in your collection. In iMovie, the Home key rewinds your movie to the very beginning. In Safari, they send you to the top or bottom of the Web page.

    (In Word, they jump to the beginning or end of the line. But then again, Microsoft has always had its own ways of doing things.)

    On keyboards without a dedicated block of number keys, you get these functions by holding down Fn as you tap the and keys.

  • Pg Up, Pg Down. These keys scroll up or down by one screenful. The idea is to let you scroll through word-processing documents, Web pages, and lists without having to use the mouse.

    On keyboards without a numeric keypad, you get these functions by pressing Fn plus the and keys.

  • Esc. Esc stands for Escape, and it means “cancel.” It’s fantastically useful. It closes dialog boxes, closes menus, and exits special modes like Quick Look, slideshows, screen savers, and so on. Get to know it.

  • Delete. The Backspace key.

  • ⌘. This key triggers keyboard shortcuts for menu items.

  • Control. The Control key triggers shortcut menus.

  • Option. The Option key (labeled Alt on keyboards in some countries) is sort of a “miscellaneous” key. It’s the equivalent of the Alt key in Windows.

    It lets you access secret features—you’ll find them described all through this book—and type special symbols. For example, you press Option-4 to get the ¢ symbol, and Option-Y to get the ¥ (yen) symbol.

  • Help. In the Finder, Microsoft programs, and a few other places, this key opens up the electronic help screens. But you guessed that.

The Complicated Story of the Function Keys

As the previous section makes clear, the F-keys at the top of modern Mac keyboards come with predefined functions. They control screen brightness, keyboard brightness, speaker volume, music playback, and so on.

But they didn’t always. Before Apple gave F9, F10, and F11 to the fast-forward and speaker-volume functions, those keys controlled the Exposé window-management function described in Chapter 4.

So the question is: What if you don’t want to trigger the hardware features of these keys? What if you want pressing F1 to mean “F1” (which opens the Help window in some programs)? What if you want F9, F10, and F11 to control Exposé’s three modes?

For that purpose, you’re supposed to press the Fn key. The Fn key (lower left on small keyboards, center block of keys on the big ones) switches the function of the function keys. In other words, pressing Fn-F10 triggers an Exposé feature, even though the key has a Mute symbol () painted on it.

But here’s the thing: What if you use those F-keys for software features (like Cut, Copy, Paste, and Exposé) more often than the hardware features (like brightness and volume)?

In that case, you can reverse the logic, so that pressing the F-keys alone triggers software functions, and they govern brightness and audio only when you’re pressing Fn. To do that, choose →System Preferences→Keyboard. Turn on the cryptically worded checkbox “Use F1, F2, etc. as standard function keys.”

And that’s it. From now on, you press the Fn key to get the functions painted on the keys (, , , , , , , , and so on).

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