Above, Below, and Beyond Tech Talk

by Rahel Lüthy

November 3, 2010

Mac Tips & Tricks #2: Keyboard Navigation

Even though I like my slick & shiny magic mouse, I’m a keyboard person when it comes to daily computer life. As expected, a few things are different on the Mac compared to my previously used platforms (Linux & Windows) – here’s my selection of the most important settings, tweaks & workarounds:

Full Keyboard Access

Let’s assume that a program prompts you with a standard OK/Cancel dialog. On most platforms, such dialogs are navigable by keyboard: The Tab key switches focus between the controls and Enter triggers the selected button. Not on the Mac. For starters, full keyboard access is off by default – turn it on via System Preferences » Keyboard » Keyboard Shortcuts » Full Keyboard Access (All Controls) . In addition, the behavior is slightly different: While the Tab key works like expected, Enter fires the default button (blue) while you need to press Space to invoke the selected button (blue outline).

Terminal Alt Key

While I will probably write a separate post on Terminal issues, the most important tweak for me was the reassignment of the Meta key (Alt key on Windows). In bash, the Meta key is quite crucial: Meta-. (insert last argument) IMHO is the most useful shortcut ever. Unfortunately, Meta is emulated with the Esc key on the Mac, which is really not very ergonomic. You can however reassign it in the Terminal Settings, on the Keyboard tab (“Use option as meta key”).

fn Key

The function keys (F1 to F12) are another newbie pitfall. These keys are overloaded on the Mac, F8 e.g. plays your music library in iTunes. If you intend to use them as “raw” function keys (and e.g. use F8 to drive the debugger in Eclipse), you need to hold the special fn key.


One of my favorite Mac applications so far is Quicksilver, which is best described by its mantra – Act without doing. In essence, it is a smart version of Spotlight. A fully configurable application launcher/controller which is navigable by keyboard. Describing it further wouldn’t do justice, so I’m just going to list my 3 favorite use cases and you can read the rest in one of the various online tutorials:

  1. Launching applications via keyboard. Over the last +7 years, I always launched a Terminal via Ctrl-Esc. Quicksilver does the trick on the Mac.
  2. Browsing directories. Quicksilver is also a smarter version of the Finder.
  3. Clipboard history: Maintains a (configurable) number of last clipboard entries, ready to be pasted anywhere.

I overloaded the Spotlight keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Space to trigger Quicksilver (and don’t forget to say goodbye to the Dock, Finder & Spotlight before you install it, you will most likely never use them again ;-)).