Do you find it frustrating that browser layouts keep changing? Do you struggle to find your favorites, for instance?

Over the last year or two there has been a tendency for browsers to become less “cluttered”. The designers have deliberately removed a lot of the buttons and options from the screen. This is meant to make the browsers easier to use. There’s no doubt that this leaves more room for the actual web page that you are looking at. On the downside, though, is that it is sometimes annoyingly difficult to do things that should be easy – finding your favorites/bookmarks, browsing history, and so on.

Not only is this problem made worse by regular updates to the browser, but if you use more than one browser life gets even more complicated.

Hands on piano keyboard

Some keyboard shortcuts need the skill of a concert pianist

So, I thought I’d have a look at the keyboard shortcuts that are built into the browsers and see if it might be easier in the long run to learn a few of them. My general advice with keyboard shortcuts is to learn some of the most common (that can be applied to lots of situations), such as Ctrl c, Ctrl v, Ctrl x, etc, but not to bother with the more arcane ones unless you really are likely to get into the habit of using them regularly. For some of them, you don’t just need the memory of an elephant, but also the dexterity of a concert pianist. I can’t imagine ever wanting to memorise that “Ctrl Alt Shift 4″, for instance, could perform any useful function.

Having looked at all the popular browsers (except Safari), I was pleased to find that a lot of shortcuts are common right across the board. Working on the theory that the more of these I present the less notice you will take of them, here is a short(ish) list of the most useful keyboard shortcuts that are common across all the major browsers – Internet Explorer 8 and 9, Firefox, Opera, and Chrome:-

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There are some important functions that don’t have common shortcuts. I’ve just looked into those that I find the most useful:-

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a) I couldn’t find a shortcut key. Click on the spanner at the top righthand corner.
b) I couldn’t find a shortcut key. Click on the “Opera” logo at the top lefthand corner.
c) To use the shortcuts that include one or more “modifiers” (the Ctrl, Alt and Shift keys, for instance), first depress the modifier(s) and then, while that is still pressed, click on the other key. Then let go of them all.

As I’ve said, these are just a few of the most common functions. If you’re even sadder than I am, and want to spend a weekend studying browser keyboard shortcuts, then links to more comprehensive lists for the browsers are as follows:

Internet Explorer 8 shortcut keys
Internet Explorer 9 shortcut keys
Firefox shortcut keys
Chrome shortcut keys
Opera shortcut keys
Safari shortcut keys (for Mac users)

Do you have to hunt down your programs before you can open them? Maybe you scour the “all programs” option of the Start Menu. Maybe you minimise the window that you are working on and then work through the confusion of shortcuts on your desktop. You might even hunt through the hard drive using Windows Explorer.

Key with wingsWell, for programs that you use often, it’s worth knowing that there is is a quicker way of launching programs than any of these. You can assign a key combination that will immediately launch your program. Whatever you happen to be doing, the program assigned to your special key combination will immediately open if it wasn’t already open, or come to the fore if it was already lurking around somewhere.

Creating the keyboard shortcut for this is a two-stage process. First of all we need a desktop shortcut (if one doesn’t exist already), and then we need to change a “property” of that shortcut so that typing the assigned key combination will launch the program (or bring it to the fore if it is already open).

Stage 1 – create a shortcut (if one does not already exist)

Find your program in the usual way, but don’t launch it:

  • If your program is “pinned” to the Start Menu (ie it appears in the list of available programs as soon as you click on the Start button) then left-click on the program name and drag it to the desktop. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the Start menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by opening the Start Menu and then clicking on “all programs”, then find your program in the usual way but instead of left-clicking on it (which would open the program) right-click on it instead. Then left-click on the option that says “send to” and left-click on the option that says “Desktop (create shortcut)”. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the “all programs” menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by using Windows Explorer, then locate it in the usual way but right-click on it rather then double-clicking on it. Then left-click on the option that says “create shortcut”. If it tells you the shortcut will appear on the desktop then that’s fine but it may create the shortcut in the same folder as the program. If it does that, you can then either drag it to the desktop or “cut” it (using Ctrl x) and “paste” it (using Ctrl v) onto the desktop. Alternatively, you can leave it where it is and add the keyboard shortcut from there (see below).

Stage 2 – create the shortcut key combination

  • Right-click on the shortcut.
  • Left-click on the option at the bottom of the list called “Properties”.
  • Left-click on the tab across the top that says “Shortcut”.

About halfway down the list of options you’ll see something that looks like this:

Assigning a shortcut key

If you click on the area next to “shortcut key” (that currently says “None”) and then type any printable character (it doesn’t have to be a letter or a number), you will see that the area is then filled with “Ctrl + Alt + ” and the character you typed. Click on “OK” and that’s it. Wherever you are, typing the key combination of the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the character you added will immediately launch your program. It’s best to depress the Ctrl and Alt keys first and then tap on the third key.

Note that when you were assigning the shortcut key there was an option below that said “Run: Normal window”. If you click on the triangle at the right of this, you can choose to ensure that your program always starts in a normal window, or maximised, or minimised.

Windows 7 Start button and search box

Windows 7 Start button and search box

If you have Windows 7 there’s another method of launching any program more quickly than hunting for it – and you don’t have to assign a key to a shortcut. Instead, just click on the start button and then type the first few characters of the program name into the search box (see fig 2).

Windows will show you a list of files that are relevant. After entering just a few characters you will see the program you want listed in the start box, so just left-click on the program. It took me a long time using Windows 7 to start to appreciate how good this search box now is. Suppose, for instance, you want to change how your mouse is working. Just start typing “mouse” (without the quotes) into the search box and up comes the program to change how the mouse works. Want to change the date in your computer? Just type “date” in the search box and then click on the “Date and Time” option that is offered. There’s no need to train clients any more in how to find “administrative tools” in the Control Panel in order to find the defragmenting option – just start typing “defrag” in the search box. When I’m delivering computer training to clients who are either new to computers or just new to Windows 7 I try to remember to emphasise how good this search box is. It repays the effort of remembering to use it until it becomes second nature.

How do you move the focus between open windows? There are several ways to do this, but I’ve noticed during one-to-one computer training sessions that most people are only aware of the method they already use. It could be, of course, that you are already using the method that suits you best, but let’s look at the options.

The Slowest Way

The very slowest way to move between open windows is to minimise one window and then restore the one you want next. “Minimising” is achieved by clicking on the “dash” icon in the top righthand corner of the window. This shrinks the window to just a name and/or icon and places it on the bottom row of the screen (known as the “Taskbar”). Clicking on a different icon on the taskbar will “restore” that window and make it the current one (ie the one in which the action will take place if you click the mouse or hit a key). A bit of computer advice: if this is how you are moving between windows then it will almost certainly pay you to learn a different method. Read on…

Better Than The Slowest Way

Just omit the “minimise” action in the method above. As soon as you click on an item in the Tasbar it will pop up and become the current window. The previously current window will then “move backwards” – probably out of sight. It can be recalled to the front just by clicking on its icon/thumbnail in the taskbar.

Escape Key (esc)The taskbar, by the way, is the row of easily-accessible icons presented at the edge of the screen. It is usually shown at the bottom of the screen but if you’re bored and looking for something to do you can click on a vacant part of it (ie a part where there are no icons) and drag it to a different edge of your screen. Something that’s marginally more useful to know about the taskbar is that you can make it bigger so as to accommodate more items. Very slowly move your mouse pointer over the inside edge of the taskbar (ie at the margin between the taskbar and the rest of the screen) and you will see the mouse pointer change to a double-headed arrow. When this happens you can then drag the edge of the taskbar inwards to give room for a second – or even third – row of icons. “Dragging”, by the way, means depressing the left mouse button and then moving the mouse (while the left button is still down).

A Very Popular Way – Alt Tab

Tab KeyDepress the key marked “Alt” (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard) and, while it is pressed, hit the “tab” key. The tab key is usually to the left of the “Q” key.

A display will pop up of all the open windows. In Windows XP and Vista the display will be of icons representing the open windows. In Windows 7 there are thumbnail views of the windows themselves and the “backdrop” of the screen you are looking at displays the currently selected window. Whichever operating system you are using, keep the Alt key down and press the Tab key several times. You will see a frame moving between the icons/thumbnails. As soon as you let go of the “Alt” key the currently selected (“framed”) program will come to the fore.

A Rather Silly Way – Windows Flip

Windows KeyIn Windows Vista and Windows 7, pressing the Windows key (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard and marked by some kind of representation of the Windows logo) and then the Tab key will pop up an angled view of the open Windows, stacked one in front of another. Repeated pressing of the Tab key moves different windows to the top of the stack. Letting go of the Windows button will then focus on whichever window is at the top of the pile.

Control Key (ctrl)If you want to get even sillier, hitting the Control key (usually marked “Ctrl”) at the same time as the Windows key, and then hitting the Tab key, will bring up the same 3-D view but it stays put if you let go of all the keys. You can then point the mouse and click on whichever Window you want. Apart from the fact that you have to hit 3 different keys at the same time, you also have to grab the mouse, work out which window you want, and then click on it. Thank you, Microsoft.

Often The Quickest Way – Alt Esc

Alt KeyIf you depress the “Alt” key, and keep it down, then repeated presses of the “Esc” key (usually in the top lefthand corner of the keyboard) will take you from one open window to the next. As soon as you see the window you want just let go of the Alt key.

When I am providing computer support and training I try to avoid jargon that doesn’t mean anything to normal people. Nevertheless, we can’t avoid new concepts when learning about computers and some of these entail words with specific meanings. It really is worth getting to grips with concepts and words such as taskbar, minimising, maximising, open windows.

Although this blog is about moving efficiently between open windows, it describes uses of several different keys that aren’t the standard letters and numbers. If you’d like to know more about the different parts of the keyboard you might like to look at these previous blogs:

Of Toggles And Missing Favorites 
Basic Keyboard Shortcuts 
What Are The Function Keys For? 
More Key Explanations 

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Figure 1

Figure 1

The numlock key (meaning “number lock”) is used for switching the function of keys that can be either numbers or something else. When the keys are acting as number keys the result is the same as pressing the number keys at the top of the keyboard. So why have both? Well, the second set of numbers is grouped so as to be more convenient for people entering loads of numbers (as opposed to text – see figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

. For example, on the keyboard in figure 2, when the numlock key is selected for numbers then hitting the letter “u” will produce a figure 4.

The numlock key is an example of a “toggle switch”. Whatever the current function, pressing a toggle switch will change to the opposite function (or cycle through the different functions if there are more than two). So, if you want to change back from number keys to ordinary letter keys you just press the numlock key again.

You can usually find a little LED light somewhere that goes on and off depending on the state of the numlock switch. It will usually be labelled “num” or “numlock” or have a figure 1 inside a padlock (see figure 1).

So, for the average user, the numlock key is quite possibly never used (except when it’s hit by accident).

The caps lock key is another toggle switch. When it is activated all of the characters A-Z are typed as capital letters.

Caps lock and shift keys

Figure 3

This is fine if you want to type many consecutive characters as capitals, but if you just want to capitalise the first letter of a word then it is quicker to depress either of the two “shift” keys and then type the letter to be capitalised while the shift key is down. On most keyboards there is a shift key at both the lefthand and righthand edges of the keyboard. They are functionally the same as each other. They are usually indicated by a label of an upward pointing arrow (see figure 3). There is usually a labelled LED light to indicate the state of the caps lock key, typically labelled with a letter A inside a padlock.

Scroll (or Scroll Lock), Sys Rq, and Pause/Break Keys

Although all these keys used to have specific purposes, these days they are little used. Some programs do use them in very specific ways but you might need to consult the program manual to find out about it. I don’t think I ever use any of these keys.

Delete Key vs Backspace

The backspace key (near the top righthandside of the keyboard, with a left-pointing arrow – see figure 1) deletes the character to the left of the cursor and moves the cursor left by one character. Therefore, if you hit the backspace key repeatedly (or just keep pressing it) it keeps deleting the text to the left of your current cursor position – ie it deletes what you have just typed if your cursor is at the end of the typing (the cursor is the flashing icon that tells you where on the screen your typing or editing is currently happening).

The delete key works in the opposite direction in that it deletes the character to the right of the cursor and moves the text beyond that left by one character to fill the gap. If you are at the end of the field or document then the delete key won’t do anything.

It is perfectly legitimate to remove text by either method, depending on where your cursor is and what you are trying to do. You can not, for instance, delete text from a form field with the backspace key if your cursor is at the beginning of the field (because the cursor can’t move further left than the beginning of the field).

Insert and Delete

It is very common to assume that the insert and delete keys are, in some way, opposites of one another. You may think, for instance, that since the delete key deletes text then the insert key may put it back for you. No. There may be an “undo” option available, depending on the program you are using, but that’s another matter. The insert key is another toggle switch. It doesn’t change what you are typing but it changes the way things happen. The two states of the insert switch are:

insert – anything you type will be inserted (added) to what is already there at the current cursor position. If there is already text to the right of the cursor then that text will move rightwards to accommodate the new text as you type it.

overwrite (also known as overtype) – anything you type will overwrite (replace) what is already there at the current cursor position.

If you are typing new content into a form field or a document (say) then it doesn’t matter whether insert is set to insert or overwrite. It does makes a difference if you need to go back and change what’s already there. You can immediately change the state of insert/overwrite by pressing the insert key.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an LED light to indicate the state of the insert switch. A lot of programs, though, will tell you at the bottom of the program window. It will usually be just a single word saying “insert” or “overwrite”. If you can’t find it, look near the bottom of the window and press the insert key a few times and see if anything on the bottom line of the window changes.

Shared Keys

Depending on your keyboard layout, some or all of these keys may share their function with other keys. The key (ha-ha) to getting the function you want is to see if your “function” key (bottom left hand corner of the keyboard) is labelled in a different colour than the normal keys. If it is, then the functions on other keys that match this colour are activated when you hit the key while the function key is depressed. All of this is a lot easier done than said!

For example, on the keyboard displayed here, pressing the numlock key on its own will toggle the state of the numlock switch. If the function key is down when the numlock key is pressed then the result will be the scroll lock function.

See also the blogs on keyboard shortcuts and function keys.

Which keys are the function keys?
Function keys
The function keys are the keys marked F1 to F10 (or F1 to F12, depending on the keyboard) on the top row of the keyboard. Typically, each of these keys will perform two different functions:

  • they will perform the task assigned to the number of the key (eg F2 may be assigned the “find” command)
  • they will perform the task indicated by an icon on the key itself (often in a different colour from the rest of the keys). On the keyboard illustrated here, the F2 key will indicate the charge level of the battery.

How does the key know which of these two functions to perform?

  • if the key is pressed on its own then the specific function key will be actioned (eg F2 = find)
  • if the key marked Fn is depressed and then (with the Fn key still depressed) the function key is pressed, then the alternative use of that key is actioned (eg display battery state)

So, what are the “functions” that are carried out when a specific function key is pressed on its own?

It depends on the context. More specifically, it depends upon how the current program has been set up to use the function keys. The current program is the one that “has the focus” – ie the one that is currently reacting to your key presses and your mouse movements and clicks.

So, if the current program has been set up to use the F5 key as a “find” instruction, then pressing F5 will execute a “find” command. In Word 2007, for instance, pressing the F5 key executes a “find” command in exactly the same way as pressing the key combination of Ctrl F (pressing the “f” key while the Ctrl key is depressed) or finding and clicking the “find” instruction on the “ribbon” of commands at the top of the screen.

The whole point of the function keys is that they can perform different functions depending upon the program that is using them. Over time, some uses of the function keys have become more-or-less standardised. For instance, the F1 key almost always invokes the “Help” system for the current program. However, a bit of experimentation is needed to find out how a particular program has been set up to use the function keys (or consult the help system for the specific program by pressing F1).

If this is a bit confusing then there is no need to worry about function keys at all. I think it’s safe to say that there is always an alternative way of carrying out whatever the function keys do.

What do the symbols on the function keys mean that denote the alternative use of the function keys?

Sorry about this, but, once again, it depends. This time it depends on the particular keyboard. The best way to find out is probably to experiment, but it is strongly advised that you do not have any programs loaded when you do this as you may get unexpected results and you wouldn’t want to harm a document.

Some of the common icons and their uses are:

  • a moon – puts the machine into sleep mode (standby)
  • two different versions of suns – increase and decrease the screen brightness
  • loudspeaker – turn the sound on
  • loudspeaker crossed out – turn the sound off
  • various icons that denote increasing and decreasing the volume
  • computer monitor – switch the output to/from an external monitor

Will I break anything if I play with these keys?

It isn’t always completely clear what a function key does but if you are not sure if your experimenting has changed something then you can always re-boot the machine. This will return all the keys to the state they had previously been in.

One particular hint that is appropriate here is that laptops often have a key combination (usually the Fn key plus a function key) that turns the WiFi connection on and off. There doesn’t seem to be a universally agreed symbol (icon) for this but if your WiFi stops working after playing with these keys then this is worth investigating. The same key combination that turned the WiFi off will turn it back on again. There may or may not be an LED light somewhere on your laptop indicating that the WiFi is on or off. Similarly, some laptops have a slider switch for turning the WiFi on and off, so it’s worth checking this out as well if your WiFi suddenly disappears. If in doubt, re-boot and everything should go back to how it was before you starting investigating.

In a future blog I will do a roundup of the other keys that are not immediately obvious in their function and use.

When I train clients who are new to computers, I like to mention keyboard shortcuts. The basic facts I like to get across at this stage are:

  • keyboard shortcuts are a matter of choice – they are an alternative way of achieving something that can be done with the mouse
  • there are far too many of them to learn all at once, so don’t even try
  • a few shortcuts are very useful as they work in the same way in most programs and are often used

The common ones I mention first are:
Ctrl a = Select all (eg all the text of a document or every file in a listing)
Ctrl c = copy (put a copy of whatever is currently selected into a memory area called the “clipboard”)
Ctl v = paste (put a copy of whatever is in the clipboard into the current cursor location)
Ctrl x = delete (delete whatever is currently selected from the current location but put it in the clipboard)

Note that these shortcuts are executed by depressing the key marked “Ctrl” (the “Control” key) and then, while the Control key is down, touching the letter that goes with it (eg a,c,v,x). These commands can also usually be carried out by right-clicking on the mouse and then selecting the relevant command that appears on the “context menu” that pops up.

I usually advise my trainees not to worry too much about shortcuts to begin with as there are probably more urgent things to learn, but that if they find themselves repeating what seems to be an awkward task there may be a shortcut for it, so it’s worth looking.

The moral here, though, is that I should practise what I preach. A few days ago I was having a phone conversation with a fairly novice trainee and it was important that she could navigate back to her desktop so that we could then start a remote control session. No way could she get to the desktop. It started to get quite frustrating. If only I’d remembered that there’s a shortcut for getting back to the desktop wherever you are. Simply depress the windows key (the one with the Windows logo on – see image) and then press d. Easy. Repeating the command takes you back where you were before.Winkey

So, I think I’ll run an occasional item on this blog of a few useful shortcuts at a time that it may be worth committing to memory (assuming your memory is better than mine).

In the meantime, you can find a full list of shortcut keys that use the Windows key at

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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