A Primer on Function Keys

Q: What do all of those "F" buttons at the top of my keyboard do? Will learning their function make using my computer easier?

A: Not all keyboards are created equally, nor do they work the same with all operating systems. But, regardless of whether you're a Mac or a PC user, certain "F" buttons -- otherwise known as function keys --  can provide a few useful keyboarding shortcuts.

On both Macs and PCs, the function keys have different uses in different programs. However, some basic functions are standardized. Here's a cheat sheet of some useful ones that we've compiled for you.

Windows:

  • F1: For almost all applications this function opens a help screen. If no application is open, it will direct you to Windows Help.
  • F2: This key will rename a selected item.
  • F3: Pressing this key opens the search option.
  • F4: Holding down Alt+F4 closes the current active window. If there is no active window it opens the Shut Down box.
  • F5: If you're using most Internet browsers, F5 refreshes the page.
  • F6: This key is useful when using Word. Holding Ctrl+Shift+F6 opens a new document and Ctrl+F6 brings a different document forward, if you're working with multiple documents.
  • F7: Also handy in Word, this key runs spellcheck.
  • F8: Using this function triggers "Safe Mode."
  • F10: This activates Menu Bar options such as "File," Edit," etc.
  • F11: When using an Internet browser, this shifts to full-screen mode.
  • F12: In Word, this opens a new document.

Mac Operating Systems:

Depending on the computer you're using, Apple has assigned and labeled certain functions. On most Mac laptops F1 and F2 increase and decrease screen brightness. A set of function keys will also be reserved for volume adjustment, as indicated by the speaker symbol.

Apple has also provided the following functions, which can be found somewhere on that top row of keys, depending on which computer you use: A function displaying thumbnail images of all open windows; one that shows thumbnail images of all windows within a single workspace; a key which clears the windows, revealing the Desktop; and a function that opens the dashboard, displaying the widgets.

Since each computer, operating system and program utilizes function keys differently experimenting with them in programs you often use might reveal some useful shortcuts.

More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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