Keyboard Basics

The keyboard is the primary text input device of your computer. Learning to master its use should be one of your first priorities. There seems to be a lot to learn about the computer's keyboard, even if you were proficient on the earlier manual or electronic typewriter keyboards. The time (and practice) that you invest in mastering computer keyboard skills will be well worth your effort. Learning to use the unique keys and mastering the special functions of the computer keyboard can save you a lot of time. Make close friends with keys such as CTRL, ALT, Windows, TAB, and Shift. You'll be glad you did.

Although a computer keyboard is based on the old typewriter layout, there are some major differences in the ways that keys are used. Computer keyboards also have additional keys. Learning to use the unique keys and special functions of the computer keyboard can save you time and make you more comfortable with your computer.

  • Most computer keyboards have a row of Function keys at the top of the keyboard. These keys are marked F1 through F10 or F12. While they were widely used with older DOS programs, they are not as popular today. However many programs, including most of Microsoft's products, support use of the function keys. As a throwback to DOS days, you will find that the F1 key will often bring up a help menu. The function keys are frequently used in combination with other keys such as the CTRL key, the ALT key, and the Shift key. This results in a plethora of possible keyboard shortcuts. Look in the help menu of the program that you are using to find a list of the function keys and their uses.

  • Return or Enter Key, sometimes labeled with a large arrow, is used to enter commands or to move the cursor to the beginning of the next line. Also, in every dialog box or alert on both the PC and the Mac, there is a default button or box, which is recognizable by its bold or segmented outline. Pressing the Enter key will select that choice. (There is sometimes a second Enter key on the numeric keypad. This functions exactly like the larger Enter key near the alphabet keys.)

  • The Escape key, which is marked ESC on most keyboards, is basically used to exit or escape from programs and tasks. In many cases, it will have no effect at all. However, it can sometimes get you out of trouble by making the computer go back or escape to a previous screen.

  • The Ctrl key is used in conjunction with another key. Holding it down while pressing another key will initiate a certain action. Ctrl key combinations are defined by the application that is being used. Some, however, have become a standard that most programs follow. For instance in most Windows programs, Ctrl+S will save the current file or document, and Ctrl+P will print the current file or document. Macintosh keyboards have a Control key that is used only sparingly in Mac programs. It is included on the Mac keyboard basically for users who may run Windows and DOS-based programs on their Macs.

  • Like the Control Key, the Alt key is used in combination with other keys. In most Windows programs, each of the menu choices at the top of the screen has one letter underlined. Holding down the Alt key while pressing the key corresponding to the underlined letter will open the menu just as though you had clicked your mouse on that menu choice. For instance, if the menu shows the choice File, you can open that menu by clicking the mouse on the word File or by pressing the Alt key and the F key simultaneously.

  • On a Mac, the Command Key or Apple key, labeled with either the cloverleaf symbol, the Apple symbol, or both, is the equivalent of the PC user's Control Key. Again, certain key combinations are fairly universally accepted. For instance, Command-Q will quit a program, Command-W will close the current window, and Command-S will save the current file or document.

  • The Option Key (Mac only) is the Mac equivalent to the PC Alternate (Alt) key.

  • The Caps Lock key is a toggle key. Pressing it once turns it on. Pressing it again turns it off. Some computer keyboards have a light or indicator that shows when the Caps Lock is on and when it is off. When Caps Lock is on, every letter that is typed will be a capital letter. Unlike a typewriter, the Caps Lock key on a computer keyboard affects only letters. It has no effect on the number or symbol keys.

  • Many, but not all, computer keyboards have a numeric keypad usually located on the right side of the keyboard. This keypad has a group of number keys with additional markings like arrows, PgDn, End, etc. The numeric pad is controlled by a toggle key marked Num Lock. When the Num Lock key is on, this pad can be used to enter numbers. When the Num Lock key is off, the functions listed below the number will be activated. These functions usually include arrow keys that can be used to move the cursor around the screen. Likewise the keys marked PgUp and Pg Down will move the cursor a page up or down on the screen. The Home and End keys will move the cursor to the beginning or end of a line or document, respectively.

    Numeric keypads often include other keys as well. Many include useful symbols such as the period, slash, and plus and minus signs. The Macintosh keyboard includes a Clear key that can be used in many programs to clear or undo the last number that you typed. You may also find a helpful Help key on a Macintosh numeric keypad.

  • The Windows key can be found on some, but not all, keyboards that are used with Windows computers. The Windows key is marked with a small Microsoft Windows symbol and is usually found on the bottom row of the keyboard. There may be two Windows keys, one on each side of the space bar. Pressing the Windows key will bring up the Start menu. The Window key can also be used in combination with other keys for some very useful shortcuts. One of my favorites is to use the Windows key +D to minimize all the open windows and quickly return to the Windows desktop. Pressing Windows +D again will restore all windows to their previous location.

  • If you have a Windows key on your keyboard, you will also see a key with a design that looks like a list of words on a piece of paper, usually to the right of the space bar. This is called the application key. It is a shortcut for right clicking. It will display an item's shortcut menu.

  • The Backspace key will remove the character to the left of the cursor. The key is sometimes labeled with only a left-pointing arrow.

  • The Shift key in combination with an alphabetical key will type an upper case letter. The Shift key in combination with one of the number keys on the row above the letter keys or one of the symbol keys will type the symbol that is pictured on the upper part of the key. The Shift key can also be used in conjunction with other keys as a shortcut to a task or can be pressed at a certain time to perform a task. For instance, holding down the Shift key while inserting a CD-ROM will skip the auto-run process, allowing you to insert the CD without having it play automatically.

  • The Insert key is found only on PC keyboards. It is a toggle key that determines what happens when you type new characters within an existing line of text or numbers. When the Insert key is on, the new text that you type is inserted at the cursor location and the text already in place is moved to the right. When the Insert key is off, new text overwrites the text that is on the screen to the right of the cursor. There is usually no visual indication of whether the Insert key is on or off. People who use screen readers also use the Insert key in combination with other keys to perform screen reader specific functions.

  • The Tab key is used to move from field to field and is very useful when filling out forms. Pressing the Shift key and the Tab key simultaneously will usually tab you back to the previous field.

  • Whereas the Backspace key will remove the character to the left of the cursor, the Delete key will remove the key to the right of the cursor. The Delete key can also be used in Windows to remove a highlighted or chosen file or shortcut.

  • In the old DOS days, the Print Screen key on a PC keyboard performed just as you would expect. When the Print Screen key was pressed, a paper copy of whatever was on the screen was printed. Unfortunately in Windows the Print Screen key sends an image of the screen to the Windows Clipboard instead of the printer. In order to actually print the screen image, you must then paste that image in the Clipboard into a program, like a paint program, and print the screen from that program. (On some keyboards you have to hold down the Shift key while pressing the Print Screen key.)

  • The Pause/Break key was previously used in programming and debugging applications. In most current programs, it has no function.

  • Scroll Lock is a toggle key that changes the effect of the cursor movement keys. In most current programs the Scroll Lock key is disabled and pressing it has no effect. In programs that support this key, when the Scroll Lock key is on, pressing the arrow keys makes the display appear to scroll while the cursor stays in its original position. When the Scroll Lock key is off, the cursor moves as far as it can before the display starts scrolling.


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