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Pwn your Tab Key

Volume Number: 23 (2007)
Issue Number: 02
Column Tag: Utilities

Pwn your Tab Key

Mice are for wimps

By Allen Hancock, ACTC

If you don't know me, and as this is my first published article, you probably don't, you may not know that I am a zealot. There are many aspects of the Mac experience I feel strongly about. Of course, only Apple controls the hardware, so I tend to focus on what we can improve on: the software that we can use to make our computing experiences better. This article will discuss software that touches on how we use the hardware, namely the Tab Key.

It all starts with Command Tab. This venerable command is probably in everyone's bag of tricks, but I would be remiss if I didn't start here. In case this is new to you, go ahead and use this keystroke now, but don't release the command key yet. What you see is the Application Switcher with a list of running applications right there at your fingertips. Keep hitting tab to move the highlight over to your desired application, let go of the command key, and you are golden — it comes to the front. Is your application too far to the right side of the list? Using shift-tab will cycle you backwards in the list. I will touch on the shift key again later.

Remember how I said I like to run a few different applications to help me out? QuicKeys, DragThing and QuickSilver are great tools, but rarely needed in the foreground. They need to be running, but I would rather not have to tab past them. Enter LiteSwitch by Proteron. This small app will allow you to resize and/or relocate the Application Switcher bar. What I particularly love about it, is that it can omit given applications from the tab cycle — even if the app in question itself can't hide its icon. No more hiding an app from the dock making it hard to activate, just get it off your application switcher with LiteSwitch. Of course, there is even more to LiteSwitch, so, please take a look for yourself. Download it at (30 day trial, currently $14.95 to purchase).

Figure 1-LiteSwitch and its options

So, now we can switch from our email client to our web-browser with ease, but what if you want to bring up your RSS reader? Enter Quicksilver, freely downloadable from Quicksilver is an application you can configure every which way from Sunday, and many of you have already done so. The basics, though, are useful and easy to pick up. Because Quicksilver is first a launcher application, it seemed natural to me to involve the Tab key. On my system, I can use a fat thumb to hit "Command-Option-Tab" to bring up Quicksilver in all its launching glory. Because I move from computer to computer so often in my work, leaving Spotlight in its default Command-Space helps me as I would just as soon as not have to remember too many non-standard keys.

OK, so Command-Option-Tab opens my desired applications, and Command-Tab toggles me between apps. But what if I want to get to a different window within an application? Being the serial window-opener I am, I might have five or ten browser windows open at any given time, twelve or more emails, etc. Which one do I want at a given moment? Witch can tell me!

Figure 2-Witch in action, showing just my Camino windows.

Let's get comfortable with what we have so far. Everyone hit Command-Option-Tab to trigger Quicksilver, type in "Saf", hit the enter key, and Bam!, we have Safari running. Browse over to (Command L gets you to your location bar... no cheating with your mouse) and look for Witch on the lefthand menu. Once you get this PrefPane installed, let's set it to respond to Option tab. (Which is donationware.)

Figure 3-Witch tab settings.

Now, you will see I have "All applications" set to nothing. When I am looking for something I have open on my computer, chances are I know which application it is, and I feel no need tab past all my browser windows to get to that email I am working on...

Another window switching trick, still closely related to the whole command-tab subject is Command-`. See it? It's right there above the Tab key. If you don't have too many windows open in an application, or if you know just which level the window you want is buried in, Command-` is great for cycling through the non-minimized windows of your current program. That this is built into the system is an extra-added bonus. Thanks Apple!

With all these keys available now, you be able to move from application to application and window to window with the greatest of ease. Giving that mouse, and your precious wrists a rest. But what about within a program?

Here is another favor Apple has done for us, Full Keyboard Access

Figure 4-Look in the Keyboard Shortcuts section of Keyboard & Mouse PreferencePane, or Tiger users, type Control-F7

With this feature enabled, your mouse usage will drop considerably. Smart application developers allow mouse-haters like myself to move through the application with ease. Even complex programs with tons of features, like Mac HelpMate, are easily navigable with just the Tab key and a space-bar. Full Keyboard access makes navigating a matter of tabbing the blue highlight from control to control, then pretend your space-bar is the mouse button, and magic is made!

Figure 5-Note the blue highlight on the pop up menu, no mouse use here!

Yes, that's right. I got into a pop up menu with no mouse. Think of how happy you will be the next time you tab from the City field to State, and can select your state without having to reach for the mouse, click on the menu, and fight the scrolling menu! Next time, tab the blue highlight onto the pop up menu, hit the space-bar to activate it, type your state, then hit return or enter to make your choice. (NB That is in Safari, other browsers will treat the menus differently, but in any case, you can leave your mouse alone.)

So, developers, please, take this into consideration as you build your apps. For example, Splash ID is OK, but wow, how much more useful would it be if I could make it through the app without having to grab my mouse and click time after time to make a new entry...

Remember how I said the shift-tab keystroke was important? Here is why: Apple has made it a pattern to put the control you are most likely to need at the end of the line of items to tab to. A bit odd at first, but once you realize this, holding down the shift key and hitting tab is as natural as can be. Next time you are installing a .pkg file, give this a shot. You will find that in every case, Shift-Tab brings the blue highlight to the button for continuing with the installation. As an extra-added-bonus, shift-space activates the control just the same as the space-bar alone, so just keep that shift key down, and you will be through those installer screens lickety-split.

Let's recap a little bit. If you've installed the behavior-enhancing apps mentioned in this article:

To start with, the Tab key can bring you from control to control in your web-browser, and most applications.

Command Tab will bring you to the application you want.

Comand-Option-Tab for Quicksilver, in case the app you

want isn't open.

Command-` to move to the window you are looking for.

Option-Tab to bring up that list of windows in your current


Space-Bar — use it instead of a click when in using a Full

Keyboard Access control

Also built into the system are ways to activate the dock and menu. While the default controls are a bit hard to get used to: Control-F2 for the menu, and Control-F3 for the dock. Once you have activated the dock or menu bar, your arrow keys will move you, and the Return or Enter key will activate your selection. These controls are admittedly are a bit convoluted, but since they are built into the system, knowing these controls has come in handy in situations where the mouse isn't working. Of course, this and so many controls are editable in the Keyboard Shortcuts area of the Keyboard & Mouse Preferencepane.

Before we end, here is a bonus tip. As you get more and more used to tabbing through your controls, you will find that every once in a while you will get the little blue box stuck. I was setting up a signature in, and sure enough I could tab into the signature block, but once inside, the tab key was just another keystroke. Control-Tab to the rescue! Yep, use the Control-Tab key to free your little blue box and move on to bigger and better tasks.

Add this all up, and your mouse may even start to gather dust, and your carpal tunnels may just thank you in the end. Happy keyboarding everyone!

Allen Hancock has been providing on-site and remote based support based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana since 1997. He is a member of the Apple Consultants Network, and an Apple Certified Technical Coordinator. When not working, he spends time with his wife and son. Of course, they might want to know just when that is ;-) He can be reached through his website:


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