Computer Keyboard: Increase Productivity Using Function Keys

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You have those {F1 F2F12} keys on your keyboard right? For most people, those keys are like a waste of space, never used. These keys are the most useful productivity enhancement keys. This page tells you what you can do with these keys, why they are efficient, and how to set them.

I assume you are using a full-sized keyboard, not laptop keyboard. If you are using laptop keyboard, the following advices may not apply. (because function keys on laptop are hard to press, and usually needs to be pressed with a Fn key.)

keyboard function keys
Function Keys, your best friend.

Uses of Function Keys

Switching Apps

One of the best use for function keys is switching apps. I've been using this since 1992, across {Mac, Windows, Linux}.

Normally, to switch app you have to do 【Alt+Tab ↹】 or 【⌘ Cmd+Tab ↹】, or even using Windows Flip3D or Instant Viewer or Mac's Exposé. They involve multiple keys or mouse aim. The Tab ↹ is pressed by pinky — the weakest finger. But worst is that you have to take a second to eyeball among 10 windows to look for the one you want.

For most of us, there are 3 or 4 specific apps we use everyday, and have to constantly switch to it many times every hour. Examples: web browser, music player, email app, instant messenger. Or, for programers: {browser, terminal, emacs}.

It is extremely convenient to have a single key to switch to a specific app you use often. For example, let's say your web browser is Firefox. You can set F8 to switch to it. Doesn't matter which app you are in, just one key, and you are back to Firefox instantly.

It's good to have F5 F6 F7 F8 for switching to the apps you use the most often.

app keys
Special App Launching buttons. These non-standard buttons are not as easy to press as F keys.

For how to set a key to switch app, see: Keyboard Tip: One Key to Switch to {Firefox, Emacs, Terminal}.

What About QucikLaunch or App Launch Keys?

On Windows, if you have pinned apps in Taskbar of Windows 7 (or Quick Launch bar in Windows Vista), the keys are 【❖ Win+1】 【❖ Win+2】 etc. 〔☛ Windows Logo Key Keyboard Shortcuts〕 Still, those are 2 key combos, not as convenient as single key.

On many keyboards, they have special buttons to launch apps. But these buttons have several problems. ① They are harder to press than Function keys. ② They are in hard-to-reach places. ③ Their positions and size are not standardized. It requires looking to press the button.

Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste

The traditional keys for {Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste} are Z X C V, while holding Ctrl or ⌘ Cmd. That's 2 key presses. You can set F1 F2 F3 F4 to them.

Copy & Paste is by far the most used keys. Setting them to single key saves you a lot hand stress.

If you are short of F keys, you can just set F1 F2 to Copy Paste. This saves you 2 F keys for other needs that you use more frequently than Undo and Cut.

Switching Windows or Workspace

On Mac and Linux, you have virtual screen called “workspace”. Typically, Linuxes lets you switch by 【Ctrl+Alt+】 , or 【Ctrl+1】, 【Ctrl+2】. That's 2 or 3 combo-keys requiring both hands.

If you use workspace heavily, then F9 F10 are perfect keys for it.

To set this in Linux, just go to your Control Panel, Window Manager. (exact detail differs among linuxes.)

Switching Browser Tabs, Close Window

Today, web browsers support tabbed window. Often, you have 10 tabs open in a browser. The hotkey to switch to previous/next tab varies depending on browser. For example, for Next Tab, there's:

They all require multiple keys. Using a mouse is more cumbersome, because you have to take a second to aim at the right tab.

It would be very convenient to set F11 F12 for prev/next tab. Pressing one of these key can quickly fly you thru all your tabs.

Also, you might set a key for closing the current tab. By default, the key is 【Ctrl+w】. For me, the key i choose is Pause, because that key is never used. Its nice to set a key close to but away from F keys. That way, you won't accidentally close a tab. (usually, in most browsers, you can press 【Ctrl+⇧ Shift+t】 to reopen. In Safari, it's undo 【Ctrl+z】)

Tools for Keyboard Shortcuts and App Launchers

Microsoft Windows

For Microsoft Windows, the best easy choice is to buy a Microsoft keyboard then use the bundled IntelliType software. My guess is that keyboards by Logitech also have good key macro software bundled free (according to Amazon reviews), but i've not had it.

Alternatively, use AutoHotkey, but need some programing experience. Here's a quick tutorial: AutoHotkey Tutorial.

For other options, see: Keyboard Layout & Key Macro tools for Windows.

Mac OS X

For Mac OS X, as of , i recommend QuickSilver first. For more needs, see: Mac OS X Keyboard Layout, Keymapping, Keybinding, Tools.

Linux

For Linux, see Linux Keyboard Layout, Keymapping, Keybinding, Tools.

Keyboard with Bad Function Keys

Avoid Continuous-Row Function Keys

You should choose a keyboard that has the function keys arranged in 3 blocks, 4 keys each. Avoid keyboards that have them as continuous row. Because, those arranged in blocks lets you easily press the correct key without needing to look at the keyboard.

bad function keys-2
Worst example of function keys. ① Continuous row, no group-gap. ② hard-to-press cheap buttons.

Avoid Function Keys as Special Buttons

Also, you should avoid keyboard that has button-styled function keys. The buttons are hard to press. Hard to know if you pressed them correctly.

Kinesis keyboard function keys
the function keys on Kinesis Contoured Keyboard are rubber buttons. BIG blunder. img src
keyboard with button keys
Imagine typing on this keyboard. That's what button-style function keys do to you.

Using Numeric Keypad as Function Keys

There are often not enough function keys. But, you can use the numeric keypad as function keys. See: Computer Keyboard: Using Numeric Keypad as Function Keys.

Alternatively, buy a dedicated function keypad. I recommend Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard Review.

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