Mac 101: Your input devices

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Beyond modifier keys, the Mac’s keyboard has a few other keys you should be aware of.

Esc: This is the Escape key. In many cases if you see a window that includes a Cancel button, you can simply press Escape to cancel rather than click on the button.

Eject (⏏): If you have a Mac with a media drive (for CDs and DVDs) and you have a disc in the drive, pressing Eject will usually eject the disc. If you have a Mac whose media tray pops out (as you would on a Mac Pro) pressing this key causes exactly this popping. Pressing it again sucks the tray back into the Mac.

Return/Enter: Just like on a typewriter, you can move your cursor a line down by pressing Return. But this key is more often used to acknowledge an OK button in a window. If your Mac asks you if it can do one thing or another, just press Return, which clicks the highlighted button.

Delete: Can’t seem to find a Backspace key on your Mac’s keyboard? This is it. Press it while typing and any character just before the cursor will be deleted. (See Arrow keys below if you want to back up a space without deleting anything.)

Arrow keys: You use the arrow keys to move your cursor around within certain kinds of documents. For example, if you’re typing a text document and want to move your cursor up or down a line or a few characters over, use the appropriate arrow key. You can also use it to navigate around items in a window. So, in a window full of documents in icon view you can move through different documents using the arrow keys. Likewise, you arrow your way through images in an iPhoto album.

Caps lock: If you want to capitalize every letter you type, press this key. Warning: Typing in all capital letters is considered shouting by the digerati. It’s an easy way to get someone’s attention, but it’s considered rude to do so. When communicating, keep your hands off this key. (In a future column I’ll tell you how to disable it completely.)

Mouse in the house

Back in the days when we lived in caves and ate mastodon off-the-hoof, those rare individuals who used computers relied solely on keyboards for entering information into these massive, heat generating machines. Finally, a better way came along—a pointing device called the mouse. If you have a desktop Mac of some variety you have one of these things.

As you’re surely aware, the mouse allows you to move a cursor around your Mac’s screen. With the use of buttons (or in the case of some newer mice, a touch-sensitive surface) you can select items, drag things around, and double-click on objects to manipulate them.

Today’s mouse has at least two buttons—though Apple’s Magic Mouse doesn’t appear to have any. You can click to the left side of the mouse or click to the right side simply by pressing down with your finger. (Most people place their index finger on the left and their middle finger on the right.)

Apple's "touchy" Magic Mouse

A left click is used most often. You left click when you want to select something, click and drag an item, or double-click on a folder to open it. However, the Mac also supports right-clicking, just as does Windows. When you right click (as I mentioned earlier) you usually produce some kind of contextual menu.

The vast majority of today’s mice additionally come with some kind of scrolling mechanism. The idea is that if you want to scroll through a long page or window, rather than dragging scroll bars, you simply place your cursor within the page or window and use the mechanism to scroll up or down. Some mice come with a scroll wheel, others with a scroll ball (which, incidentally, lets you scroll side to side as well), and others have a touch surface that you use by dragging a finger up or down the surface to scroll.

Let me show you my pad

If you have an Apple laptop, you weren’t issued a mouse. And you weren’t because laptops use a different kind of pointing device called a trackpad. Instead of pushing a mouse around to move your cursor, you drag your finger. So if you wanted to make your cursor move in a figure-eight pattern, just make the same pattern with your finger on the trackpad. To “left-click” just press down with one finger. To “right-click,” press down with two fingers. To scroll, slide two fingers up or down the trackpad. (You can also scroll to the side by sliding your two fingers to the left or right.) The trackpad supports many other gestures under Mountain Lion, which we'll get to in another column.

At one time, Apple’s trackpads had a touch surface with a physical button below that surface (meaning closer to you rather than underneath). The natural way to work such a trackpad was to use your index finger for moving the cursor and your thumb for clicking. Today’s trackpads have the button built into the trackpad, yet this index-finger-and-thumb technique is still the most comfortable way to use the trackpad. If you’re currently using your index finger for both pointing and clicking, try the index-and-thumb method. I think you’ll find it more efficient.

Apple's Magic Trackpad

Apple also makes the Magic Trackpad. This is a wireless trackpad that you can use with any Mac. It has a larger surface that the trackpad on an Apple laptop, which allows you to have finer control over your pointing. Some people swear by trackpads as they allow them to take advantage of the many gestures (swipes and other movements) supported by the Mac OS. Others who’ve been using computers for several years prefer a mouse as it gives them more precise control over their cursor movements. As you’re just starting out, I suggest using the pointing device that shipped with your Mac and get comfortable with it. When you’ve mastered it, feel free to branch out.

Each of these input devices can be configured in a variety of ways, but that’s beyond the mission of this particular column. We’ll look at device configuration in the future.

Next week: Diving into menus.

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