Secrets of the Mac keyboard

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Five unexpected uses for the Tab key

Pity the unassuming workhorse of the keyboard: the Tab key. Even the Shift key gets more respect. But just because it’s unpretentious, you shouldn’t assume it does nothing more than adjust indents in a word processor: the Tab key has a few tricks up its metaphorical sleeve.

1. Select items alphabetically in Finder windows

In Finder windows, in all but Column view, pressing the Tab key selects the next file alphabetically. You may not have noticed this because so many windows are already sorted alphabetically, so it seems that Tab merely selects the “next” file. But if a window is sorted by something other than name—Size or Kind, for instance—you can always access the next alphabetic item by pressing Tab, with Shift-Tab selecting the previous alphabetic file. This works even when items are grouped into categories with the View -> Arrange By submenu: the Tab key jumps around to different groups as necessary to select the next alphabetic file in the window. (To sort items, hold down the Option key to change the View -> Arrange By command to Sort By. Similarly, pressing Option while clicking the Arrange button in the window’s toolbar changes its contents to a Sort menu.)

2. Navigate with your keyboard

If you like to keep your hands on the keyboard, you can use the Tab key to move from one window element (buttons, pop-up menus, text fields and so on) to another. Turn on this feature in System Preferences: go to the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of Keyboard preferences and activate the All Controls button under the Full Keyboard Access heading. However, when this setting is on, you may find yourself tabbing through every control in every window, often wasting more time than you save: Tabbing to every element in a dialog box can be handy, but on a webpage it could drive you crazy.

So, turn this feature on and off as needed without repeated trips to the preference pane by enabling the Change The Way Tab Moves Focus shortcut. In the Keyboard Shortcuts tab, select Keyboard & Text Input in the list on the left; on the right, check the box in front of Change The Way Tab Moves Focus.

To change the default shortcut that triggers the change, double-click on the existing one and press the new key combo. (A single click works if the shortcut is already selected.) I use Control-Shift-Tab—it’s easy to remember because it controls the way you change, or shift, the Tab key function.

Tab key preferences
Use a keyboard shortcut to change the way the Tab key helps you navigate. Double-click the current shortcut in the Preferences pane to activate the field and then press the keyboard shortcut you want.

3. Hop around all parts of a Safari window

It’s easy to navigate solely by keyboard in Safari. When you have Keyboard Shortcuts preferences set to the default Text Boxes And Lists Only, pressing Tab cycles you from Safari’s address field to the search field, and through any fill-in fields on the web page. But Safari also has its own setting for tabbing to elements other than fields. Go to Safari -> Preferences, click the Advanced tab and select the Press Tab To Highlight Each Item On A Webpage option. Or, leave the option off and simply use the Option key when you press Tab to temporarily access this capability. While it’s handy to select clickable items such as buttons that you can then trigger by pressing Return, this doesn’t let you get at Safari-window elements: toolbar buttons, the Bookmarks bar, or your tabs.

So, forget Safari preferences and head back to the Mac’s Keyboard Preferences. There, turn on the All Controls option under the Full Keyboard Access heading. With All Controls on, first activate either Safari’s address field (Command-L) or search field (Command-Option-F) to focus its attention on the title bar. Then press Tab or Shift-Tab to move through items in the Toolbar, Bookmarks bar, and Tab bar. When an item is selected, press the spacebar to activate it. When a menu is activated (such as one for a bookmark folder, or the More symbol (») for extra bookmarks or tabs), press the spacebar to open it, use arrow keys to highlight an item, and press Return to choose the item. Pressing the spacebar closes a menu without selecting anything.

4. Change a heading level in outline mode

Both Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages ’09 provide an Outline view that lets you collapse your long document into easy-to-review headings of various levels. You don’t have to apply a heading paragraph style, however, to change the level of a heading: when you’re in Outline view, click the text cursor anywhere in a heading and press Tab to demote it to a lower-level head—Heading 1 to Heading 2, for instance. Shift-Tab promotes the heading up a level.

5. Hide tool palettes in Adobe programs

The plethora of palettes in Adobe’s Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator are a wonder on a big monitor, but a necessary nuisance on a laptop’s limited screen real estate, where they tend to block parts of the document window no matter how you try to dock them. For an unobstructed view of your work, banish all the palettes instantly with a press of Tab; another press brings them back. (If you’re working in a text box, first press Esc to deselect it so that the Tab isn’t typed into your text.)

Sharon Zardetto has been writing Mac books and articles since the twentieth century.

[Editor’s note: This story was updated in 11/2011 for Lion compatibility.]

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