Use 10.5's Help on menu items

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One of the areas that received a lot of attention in OS X 10.5 is the Help system. Instead of simply opening a mini-browser for a given program’s help files, clicking Help now displays a drop-down menu with a search box and a list of key help topics. You can jump to a topic by selecting it from the menu, as you would with any other menu item. But the real power of the new Help system is in the search box; enter a search word or words, and help will search the program for information that what you’ve typed. But it doesn’t just search the program’s help files; it also searches the program’s menus.

In Safari, for instance, type hid , and you’ll see the help menu now shows the various Hide options available in Safari’s menus, as well as entries related to hiding from the help file. Now for the nifty bit—you can execute any displayed menu command be clicking it with the mouse.

Alternatively, if you just want some help remembering where that menu command lives, either hover over (but don’t click) it with the mouse, or use the Down Arrow to highlight it. When you do, the Help system will show you the location of that command, along with a can’t-miss-it colorful arrow symbol pointing at that menu item—the arrow even shimmies around a bit to draw your eyes’ attention to the right spot.

You may have known all this about the help system, though, as it’s somewhat obvious the first time you invoke it. What you may not have known is that the new help system can also be activated via the keyboard. This shortcut is listed in the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of the Keyboard & Mouse System Preferences panel, but I know that’s not a spot many people spend a lot of time in. By default, it’s set to Shift-Command-Slash (/), though you can easily change this to anything you like. (Interestingly, this also works in OS X 10.4, though it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere.)

Using these new features together, including the semi-hidden Help activation keyboard shortcut, the Help system can actually help you use your Mac more quickly and efficiently, by making it much easier to find and use menu items.

Say you remember that the program you’re using has a menu command for something, and you vaguely recall what it’s called, but you have no clue where it might be buried in the program’s menus. For the sake of an example, assume that the program in question is iCal, and the command is Show Notifications, in the View menu. This command doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut by default, so to find it in OS X 10.4, you’d click on the File menu, then do the click-scroll-move dance until you found the command in the View menu.

In OS X 10.5, though, try this instead. Press Shift-Command-Slash (/) to activate Help, then type not and you’ll see that Show Notifications is the first (and only) menu item listed. Click it with your mouse, or even easier—as your hands are on the keyboard already—press the Down Arrow to select it, and then press Return to activate it. So instead of wasting time looking through menus, you’ve found just what you wanted by typing a few keys.

Sure, this works great with iCal, you’re thinking, but what about apps that haven’t been updated for Leopard? The good news is that this seems to work in nearly every app, including Photoshop Extended (and other Adobe apps). Best of all, perhaps, it even works in Microsoft Office 2004 programs, which run in Rosetta. So as long as you can remember some portion of one of Word or Excel’s commands, you’ll be able to find it without digging through every menu item in the program.

Even if you know right where a menu command is, you might find that launching it via Help is faster than grabbing the mouse (assuming it doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut). But why not just assign it a keyboard shortcut? If it’s a command you don’t use often, you’re unlikely to remember the shortcut you assign for it—but you’ll probably always remember at least some portion of the command’s name.

I never thought it’d be easier to do something by activating a second menu on purpose, but the new Help menu proves me wrong in many cases—give it a shot; you might like Help’s new role as a menu command launcher.

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