Computer Keyboard: Increase Productivity Using Function Keys

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Computer Keyboard: Increase Productivity Using Function Keys

Xah Lee, 2011-06-11

You have those F1 F2F12 keys on your keyboard right? For most people, those keys are like a waste of space, never used. Even most “hackers” don't know how to use these keys efficiently. These keys are the most useful productivity enhancement keys. This page tells you what you can do with these keys, why they are efficient, and how to set them.

Uses of Function Keys

Switching Apps

One of the best use for function keys is switching apps. I've been using this since 1992, across Mac and Windows.

Normally, to switch app you have to do 【Alt+Tab】 or 【⌘ Cmd+Tab】, or even using Windows Flip3D or Instant Viewer or Mac's Exposé. They involve multiple keys or followed by mouse click. The Tab is pressed by pinky — the weakest finger. But worst is that you have to take a second to eye-ball among 10 windows to look for the one you want.

For most of us, there are a few apps we use everyday, and have to constantly switch to it many times every hour. Examples: web browser, music player, email app, word processor or text editor, file manager (desktop), instant messanger. For others, it may be some image editor, video editor, command terminal, spreadsheet, etc.

It is extremely convenient to have a single key to switch to a specific app you use often. For example, let's say your web browser is Firefox. You can set F8 to switch/launch it. Doesn't matter which app you are in, just one key, and you are back to Firefox instaneously. No need to hold Ctrl then press Tab then eye-ball with more Tab.

It's good to have F5 F6 F7 F8 for switching to the apps you use the most often.

On Windows, if you have Quick Launch bar setup, the key is 【Win+1】 【Win+2】 etc. Still, 2 keys too many. Another major problem is that, for many apps such as browser, it'll just launch a new instance, not switching to a existing window. On many keyboards, they also have special buttons to launch apps. But these buttons have several problems. ① They are hard to press, lacking tactile feedback. ② They are in hard-to-reach places. ③ They require looking. Cannot be pressed without looking, while F keys can.

Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste

The traditional keys for {Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste} are Z X C V, while holding Ctrl or Cmd. That's 2 key presses. You can set F1 F2 F3 F4 to them.

Copy and Paste is by far the most used shortcut. Setting them to single key saves you a lot time and hand stress.

Switching Screens in Virtual Desktop

On Mac and Linux, you have workspace, a virtual screen. Typically, the OS provide you with keys such as 【Ctrl+Alt+】 to switch. That's 3 combo-keys with both hands.

If you use workspace heavily, then F9 F10 F11 F12 are perfect keys for it.

Switching Browser Tabs, Close Window

Today, web browsers support tabbed window. Often, you have 5 or 10 tabs in a browser. (for me, i do a lot research. Typically, i have 3 browsers open, each having more than 10 tabs) The hotkey to switch to previous/next tab varies depending on browser. For example, for Next Tab, there's:

  • Ctrl+Tab】 (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari)
  • Ctrl+PageDown】 (Firefox)
  • ⌘ Cmd+Shift+】 (Safari)
  • ⌘ Cmd+⌥ Opt+】 (Camino)
  • 1 and 2 on number keypad. (Opera)

They all require multiple keys. (except Opera) Using a mouse is more cumbersome, because you have to take a second to aim at the right tab.

It would be very convenient to set F11 F12 for prev/next tab. Pressing one of these key can quickly fly you thru all your tabs.

Also, you might set a key to close the current tab. By default, the key is 【Ctrl+w】. For me, the key i choose is Pause, because that key is never used. Its nice to set a key close to but away from F keys. That way, you won't accidentally close a tab. (usually, in most browsers, you can press 【Ctrl+Shift+t】 to reopen.)

Windows and Mac Tools for Keyboard Shortcuts and App Launchers

There are several quality launcher apps for Mac OS X. App Launcher lets you set a key to launch/switch to the app. I recommend Quicksilver. It's free. For many other, see: Mac OS X Keyboard Layout, Keymapping, Keybinding, Tools.

For Windows, the best easy choice is to buy a Microsoft keyboard then use the bundled IntelliType software. It's a GUI app, easy to use. Highly recommended. If you are not sure, see: What Microsoft IntelliType Can Do and Cannot Do.

On Windows, you can use AutoHotkey. It's also free. AutoHotkey is the most powerful, but is for programer only because you have to spend sometime to learn the language. Here's a quick tutorial: Windows Programing: AutoHotkey Tutorial. For other options, see: Keyboard Layout & Key Macro tools for Windows.

Choosing a Keyboard with Good Function Keys

Avoid Continuous-Row Function Keys

You should choose a keyboard that has the function keys arranged in 3 blocks, 4 keys each. Avoid keyboards that have them as one continuous row. Because, those arranged in blocks lets you easily press the correct key without needing to look at the keyboard.

Avoid Function Keys as Special Buttons

Also, you should avoid keyboard that has button-styled function keys. The buttons are hard to press. Hard to know if you pressed them correctly.

Quick Keyboard Recommendation

Here's a quick recommendation. If you must have ergonomic keyboard (split-keyboard) like me, then i recommend: Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 or see Ergonomic Keyboards Gallery. (Unfortunately, most ergonomic keyboard has function keys in one continuous row.)

If straight keyboard is fine, then i recommend the cheapest PC keyboard (usually under $15). (See: PC Keyboard gallery.)

If you want fancier straight keyboard, actually i recommend gaming keyboards. Gaming keyboard provides the most key macro functionalities by default. If you play games a lot, great, but if you don't play games, the key macros feature would be fantastic, specially for programers. e.g. “Logitech Gaming Keyboard G110” amazon. (Microsoft's SideWinder X4 and X6's right side Alt key is far too the right, cannot be pressed with thumb while remaining on home row, so i don't recommend it.)