Difference Between Apple & PC keyboards

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

This page discusses some difference of keysets and their function in Apple Computer Keyboards Review and IBM PC keyboard.

PC keyboard
A typical PC keyboard's keys.
apple keyboard layout
A typical Apple keyboard's keys.

Ctrl, Alt/Option, Command, Windows keys

pc keyboard3
On the PC keyboard, you have the Ctrl (Control key), ❖ Win (Windows logo key), Alt (alternate key).
Apple keyboard ctrl otp cmd keys
On Apple keyboard, you have Ctrl, ⌥ Opt (alt/option), ⌘ Cmd (command) keys.

Technically, these keys send the same scancode (key signal):

However, their behavior in Mac & Windows are different.

Control Key in Microsoft Windows

The Control Key in Windows is mostly used for keyboard shortcuts. For example, Copy is 【Ctrl+c】, Paste is 【Ctrl+v】. (On the Mac, Command key is used for keyboard shortcuts. Copy is 【⌘ Cmd+c】, Paste is 【⌘ Cmd+v】)

Control Key in Mac OS X

The Control key under Mac is rarely used. When used in applications, it often function as a modifier in combination with other modifier keys. For example, 【Ctrl+⌘ Cmd+z】 in iTunes will iconify the window. Under OS X, the Control is also used for some Emacs's keybinding. For example, 【Ctrl+f】 moves cursor forward. It's also used in unix terminal to send signals. See: Linux: Bash Keys, Terminal Keys, Man Page Keys ⌨

Alt/Option Key used in Microsoft Windows

The Alt key in MS Windows has 3 different uses:

Alt/Option Key used in Mac OS X

The ⌥ Opt key (often labeled option, , alt) is used for:

Microsoft Windows Logo Key = Apple Command Key

Under Microsoft Windows, the key invokes the Start menu under Microsoft Windows. When pressed with letter key, it invokes a command that's meaningful system-wide. For example, 【❖ Win+d】 gets you the desktop. 〔➤see Windows Logo Key Keyboard Shortcuts

Under Mac, the Command key (labeled “⌘” or “cmd”) is used as a modifier key to invoke shortcuts. For example, 【⌘ Cmd+c】 is Copy. It is similar to MS Window's use of the Ctrl key.

Menu Key (Window only)

Microsoft digital media keyboard 3000 enter key
The Menu key on “Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard 3000” amazon 〔➤see Microsoft Keyboards Gallery

The ▤ Menu key, also called Application key, exists on PC keyboard only. Typically only on the right side. It is used for Context Menu. The key's function is for the same purpose as the mouse's right button, or pressing 【⇧ Shift+F10】 in most applications.

Note: press the ▤ Menu key is not equivalent to pressing the right mouse button. For example, in a browser, pressing right mouse button on a link pops up a context menu for that link. But press ▤ Menu doesn't show the same context menu. You need first to put focus on the link, then press ▤ Menu.

Main Return/Enter Key

pc keyboard2
Generic PC keyboard showing the main enter/return key.
Apple iMac Keyboard A1242
Apple keyboard. 1500×680 amazon Note the return/enter key, with dual labels.

On PC keyboard, the main enter key is labeled “Enter ↵”.

On Apple's keyboards, the main enter key is usually labeled “return” or just by a symbol “↩”.

The difference between Apple & PC keyboards here is just key labeling. (they send the same key signal.)

Note: this key is different from the Enter ↵ on numberic keypad. (it sends a different key signal.)

Return/Enter key-action's Convention on Mac

On the Mac, the Return ↩ key and the numeric keypad Enter ↵ key usually serve the same purpose, but sometimes different. For example, in Mathematica since at least version 2 (early 1990s), the Return ↩ key is used to insert a line break, but the numeric keypad Enter is used to execute the code in the current cell (【⇧ Shift+Return ↩】 does the same). On many chat clients such as Adium and Colloquy (IRC client), user can set it up in so that the Return will insert a line break while the Enter key will send out the message.

Backspace Key

Backspace Insert PrtScn keys
PC keyboard's keys. The ⌫ Backspace and ⌦ Delete keys.

On PC keyboards, there is a ⌫ Backspace key on the main section.

On Apple keyboards, this key labeled “delete” or “⟵” (LONG LEFTWARDS ARROW).

Backspace Key Conventions

When in text editing, the ⌫ Backspace is used the same way in both OS X and Windows. It delete texts to the left of the cursor. However, MS Windows also use the key to “go back”, such as going to a previous visited page in a browser. Only in recent years, Mac OS X's browsers also started to do the same.

Delete/Del Key

The ⌦ Delete key is located in the ↖ Home/↘ End key cluster. This key sometimes labeled “Del”.

On Mac, this key is labeled “delete” or .

On Windows, ⌦ Delete is often used to delete things. For example, on desktop, select a file, pressing ⌦ Delete will put the file to the “Recycle Bin”. In a text editor, the key will delete to the right of the cursor.

On the Mac, from early 1990s to 2006, the ⌦ Delete key is almost never used, even in text editors. When there is a function assigned to it, it is used to delete to the right of the cursor.

Insert vs Help

On PC keyboards, there is the Insert key (sometimes labeled Ins). Apple keyboards doesn't have this key. But, in the same location, it has a key labeled Help.

I think the difference is NOT just labeling; they may actually send different key signals, but the OS or keyboard driver software may interpret them so to user it's the same.

PrtScn ScrLk Break vs F13 F14 F15

The PC has these keys: PrtScn/SysRq, ScrLk, Pause/Break.

These keys have old history back to the 1980's (or earlier) and in general are not used since 1990, except on Windows the PrtScn key is for screenshot. These keys are basically never used in Mac (as i know of from 1992 to 2007), except that in recent years with OS X, Apple started to use F14 and F15 to decrease/increase the display's brightness.

Apple's keyboards do not have these keys. On some Apple keyboards, they have F13, F14, F15 instead. “Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad” of 2009, has F16 to F19.

The {PrtScn ScrLk Break} are different keys than {F13 F14 F15}. They do not send the same signals. In any case, when either PC keyboard or Apple keyboard is plugged in on a Mac running Mac OS X 10.4, these keys have the same behavior (could be due to operating system).

Numeric Keypad Keys

pc keyboard
Typical numpad keys on pc keyboard.
Apple iMac Keyboard A1243-numpad
Apple extended keyboard. amazon

On the Numeric keypad. Apple's added a equal = key.

Also, the “Number Lock” key on PC keyboard is “Clear” on Apple keyboard. Apple keyboard does not have Number Lock toggle. Does the “number lock” and “clear” send the same key signal?

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