The Option key is the unsung hero of the keyboard. Since the earliest days of the Mac, it has provided access to special font characters; revealed alternative commands in menus; and let you Option-drag to create a copy of something, such as a Finder icon or a graphic selection (from MacPaint to Photoshop CS5!). Its capabilities have only increased with time, so it’s always worth pressing Option to modify a click or drag, just to see what might happen. Here are five of my favorite Option-key tricks.
1. Reverse your scrollbar preference
Most of the time, I click in a scrollbar—for example, in Apple’s Safari or Microsoft Word—to move my view a full page or screen at time. (By default, when you click in a scrollbar, that’s what happens.) But sometimes—in a long document, for instance—I know that I want to go to a point about three-quarters of the way through the document. It’s easier to click where I want to go—three-quarters of the way down on the scrollbar—than to drag the scroller to get there.
You can choose between these actions—Jump To The Next Page or Jump To The Spot That’s Clicked—by setting the Click In The Scroll Bar To option in the General preference pane. Or, have it both ways: Option-click in the scrollbar to temporarily reverse the setting you’ve made in Preferences. So, if your setting is Jump To The Next Page, an Option-click in the scrollbar will instead jump you to a particular spot.
Note that unless you keep Lion’s Show Scroll Bars setting to Always, you won’t see the scrollbar until your pointer is at the edge of the window.
2. Open preference panes using function keys
You love the convenience of dimming or brightening your screen with a quick press of F1 or F2, but sometimes you need to adjust other aspects of your display. For instance, you might want to temporarily change the screen resolution to test something. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get to the Displays preference pane as quickly as you can change the screen’s brightness?
Wish granted! Hold Option while pressing either of the function keys that controls brightness, and the Displays preference pane opens. This works with other function keys, too: hold Option while you press any of the volume function keys (F3-F5 or F10-F12, depending on your keyboard), and the Sound preference pane opens. If you have your system set up so that you need to press the Fn key to trigger the special features on the function keys (the ones represented by icons), then just add the Option key to the mix: Fn-Option-F1, for instance.
3. Switch speakers from the menu bar
You need to switch from the internal speakers to your headphones for a Skype call, or you’re the last one in the office so you want to blast your iTunes playlist through your external speakers. If your Volume menu is in the menu bar, you don’t have to open the Sound preference pane to switch output devices: press Option before you open the menu, and instead of getting the volume slider, you’ll see a list of available input and output devices. (To make the Volume menu appear in the first place, go to the Sound preference pane and select the Show Volume In Menu Bar option.)
4. Option-click to open multiple Inspector palettes
You probably know that you can open multiple Inspector windows in programs such as Apple’s Keynote and Pages by using the View -> New Inspector command. But the new window is unlikely to open to the specific Inspector you need, so you must then click on the icon for the right one. Instead of using the menu command, Option-click directly on an icon in an existing Inspector palette to open a new Inspector for that category.
5. Choose a startup disk when booting
You’re staring at your blank Mac screen; you have two (or more) startup drives for your Mac, but you forgot to specify the one you want to use in the Startup Disk preference pane. You don’t have to start up, change the setting, and restart: just hold down Option when you turn on the Mac and you’ll see available startup drives displayed on the screen. Choose the one you want and you’re good to go.
Check out Mac author Sharon Zardetto’s current ebook, Take Control of Spotlight for Finding Anything in Lion.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated in 11/2011 for Lion compatibility.]