Mac 101: Your input devices

Christopher Breen
4 November, 2012
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For the last few weeks I’ve casually thrown around phrases like “hover your cursor over,” “press the Command key,” and “swipe to the side on your trackpad.” And while I’m fairly confident that such suggestions are well within your powers to understand, it’s possible (likely, even) that you, your keyboard, mouse, and trackpad are not on entirely intimate terms. Let’s do something about that now.

Very broadly, we term any device you manipulate that causes letters to be typed, the cursor to move, external sounds recorded, or lines drawn an input device. The most common are the Mac’s keyboard, mouse, and trackpad. But a digital drawing tablet with stylus, trackball, or even a microphone could be considered input devices. We’ll concentrate on the most common devices, starting with the keyboard.

Key notes

A Mac keyboard—whether it’s built into a laptop or ships with a desktop Mac such as an iMac—uses the traditional QWERTY typewriter layout in Australia. Above the letters are the numbers 1 to 0. Above that row are Function keys or F keys. These are keys that, when pressed, cause the Mac to perform one trick or another—make your Mac’s screen brighter or increase the Mac’s sound volume, for example.

At the bottom of the keyboard you’ll find not only the space bar but a few keys to either side. All of these except the Arrow keys (the ones with the triangle symbols) are termed Modifier keys. They’re called that because, when pressed, they modify the behaviour of other keys you press at the same time. When you press keys to make the Mac do something other than type a letter, number, or hunk of punctuation, you’re said to be invoking a keyboard shortcut or keyboard command. You can use one modifier key with a “regular” key to invoke one of these shortcuts or commands or use multiple modifier keys along with another key.





A typical Mac keyboard layout





Let’s run through those keys now.

fn (Function): It’s possible that the first key you see on that bottom row isn’t marked fn. It is on today’s Apple laptops and wireless keyboards, but some older keyboards still in use (and many third-party keyboards) don’t have a Function key—at least not in this position.

I just mentioned that the very top row of function keys perform certain operations by default. If you press the fn key and then press one of those keys, the Mac reacts differently. For example, if you press the F12 key all by itself, then the Mac’s audio volume increases. Press fn along with F12 on a Mac running Mountain Lion and your Mac’s display shifts to something called the Dashboard environment (something we’ll look at in a future column).

Control (⌃): The Control key is most often used to invoke contextual menus. If you’re a Windows user you know these as the menus that appear when you right-click something. If you’re just starting out on any computer, these are commands that apply to the context of your current activity.

Try this: Click the Mac’s desktop. Nothing happens, right? Hold down the Control key and do the same thing. Now you get a menu that includes New Folder, Get Info, Change Desktop Background, Clean Up, Clean Up By, Sort By, and Show View Options commands. So, you see commands that best apply to doing things with the Finder’s desktop. To dismiss this menu, just click anywhere outside of it without hold down the Control key.

Option (⌥): To the right of the Control key is the Option key. Current Mac keyboards also print alt on this key. This is largely for the benefit of Windows users who are accustomed to finding such a key on their PC’s keyboards. As its name implies, pressing the Option key can cause optional or alternative actions to take place.

Try this: Move to the Finder, click the File menuand press the Option key. You’ll see that some of the commands change when you do. These are the less-used, “optional” commands, thus triggered by this aptly named key.

Command (⌘): The Command key, which appears both to the right and left of the space bar, is the Big Kahuna of modifier keys. Known by many names—pretzel, four-leaf clover, propeller, Apple key, puppy-foot—the Command key is the modifier key you’ll most often invoke. For example, when saving a document you needn’t traipse all the way to the File menu to choose Save. Instead, just press Command-S. Or if you want to quit an application, press Command-Q. This table provides a list of the most commonly used command keys.

Common Keyboard Shortcuts

Command Keys
Copy Command-C
Cut Command-X
Paste Command-V
Undo Command-Z
Quit Command-Q
Duplicate Command-D
Print Command-P
Find Command-F
New Command-N
Close Command-W
Save Command-S
Select All Command-A
Bold Command-B
Italic Command-I

Shift (⇧): Although the Shift key is most often used to capitalise letters or choose the punctuation characters above the number keys and other punctuation keys, it can also be used in combination with another modifier key. For example, Command-Shift-S invokes the Save As command in some applications.

One great thing about the Mac OS is that these common key commands are used by nearly every application you’ll work with. So, regardless of which application you’re using, Command-S will always save the document you’re working in just as Command-Q will quit the application. But some applications use far more keyboard commands. And for this reason you’ll want to become familiar with each command’s symbol so that you can recognise it in your applications’ menus.

And don’t be surprised if you see combinations of modifier keys in these menus. There are only so many keys you can combine with Command. If you’re using an application with a metric ton of commands, you’re likely to see all kinds of key combinations when you visit these applications’ menus.

Beyond modifier keys, the Mac’s keyboard has a few other keys you should be aware of.

Esc: This is the Escape key. In many cases if you see a window that includes a Cancel button, you can simply press Escape to cancel rather than click on the button.

Eject (⏏): If you have a Mac with a media drive (for CDs and DVDs) and you have a disc in the drive, pressing Eject will usually eject the disc. If you have a Mac whose media tray pops out (as you would on a Mac Pro) pressing this key causes exactly this popping. Pressing it again sucks the tray back into the Mac.

Return/Enter: Just like on a typewriter, you can move your cursor a line down by pressing Return. But this key is more often used to acknowledge an OK button in a window. If your Mac asks you if it can do one thing or another, just press Return, which clicks the highlighted button.

Delete: Can’t seem to find a Backspace key on your Mac’s keyboard? This is it. Press it while typing and any character just before the cursor will be deleted. (See Arrow keys below if you want to back up a space without deleting anything.)

Arrow keys: You use the arrow keys to move your cursor around within certain kinds of documents. For example, if you’re typing a text document and want to move your cursor up or down a line or a few characters over, use the appropriate arrow key. You can also use it to navigate around items in a window. So, in a window full of documents in icon view you can move through different documents using the arrow keys. Likewise, you arrow your way through images in an iPhoto album.

Caps lock: If you want to capitalise every letter you type, press this key. Warning: Typing in all capital letters is considered shouting by the digerati. It’s an easy way to get someone’s attention, but it’s considered rude to do so. When communicating, keep your hands off this key. (In a future column I’ll tell you how to disable it completely.)

Mouse in the house

Back in the days when we lived in caves and ate mastodon off-the-hoof, those rare individuals who used computers relied solely on keyboards for entering information into these massive, heat generating machines. Finally, a better way came along—a pointing device called the mouse. If you have a desktop Mac of some variety you have one of these things.

As you’re surely aware, the mouse allows you to move a cursor around your Mac’s screen. With the use of buttons (or in the case of some newer mice, a touch-sensitive surface) you can select items, drag things around, and double-click on objects to manipulate them.

Today’s mouse has at least two buttons—though Apple’s Magic Mouse doesn’t appear to have any. You can click to the left side of the mouse or click to the right side simply by pressing down with your finger. (Most people place their index finger on the left and their middle finger on the right.)





Apple’s “touchy” Magic Mouse





left click is used most often. You left click when you want to select something, click and drag an item, or double-click on a folder to open it. However, the Mac also supports right-clicking, just as does Windows. When you right click (as I mentioned earlier) you usually produce some kind of contextual menu.

The vast majority of today’s mice additionally come with some kind of scrolling mechanism. The idea is that if you want to scroll through a long page or window, rather than dragging scroll bars, you simply place your cursor within the page or window and use the mechanism to scroll up or down. Some mice come with a scroll wheel, others with a scroll ball (which, incidentally, lets you scroll side to side as well), and others have a touch surface that you use by dragging a finger up or down the surface to scroll.

Let me show you my pad

If you have an Apple laptop, you weren’t issued a mouse. And you weren’t because laptops use a different kind of pointing device called a trackpad. Instead of pushing a mouse around to move your cursor, you drag your finger. So if you wanted to make your cursor move in a figure-eight pattern, just make the same pattern with your finger on the trackpad. To “left-click” just press down with one finger. To “right-click,” press down with two fingers. To scroll, slide two fingers up or down the trackpad. (You can also scroll to the side by sliding your two fingers to the left or right.) The trackpad supports many other gestures under Mountain Lion, which we’ll get to in another column.

At one time, Apple’s trackpads had a touch surface with a physical button below that surface (meaning closer to you rather than underneath). The natural way to work such a trackpad was to use your index finger for moving the cursor and your thumb for clicking. Today’s trackpads have the button built into the trackpad, yet this index-finger-and-thumb technique is still the most comfortable way to use the trackpad. If you’re currently using your index finger for both pointing and clicking, try the index-and-thumb method. I think you’ll find it more efficient.





Apple’s Magic Trackpad





Apple also makes the Magic Trackpad. This is a wireless trackpad that you can use with any Mac. It has a larger surface that the trackpad on an Apple laptop, which allows you to have finer control over your pointing. Some people swear by trackpads as they allow them to take advantage of the many gestures (swipes and other movements) supported by the Mac OS. Others who’ve been using computers for several years prefer a mouse as it gives them more precise control over their cursor movements. As you’re just starting out, I suggest using the pointing device that shipped with your Mac and get comfortable with it. When you’ve mastered it, feel free to branch out.

Each of these input devices can be configured in a variety of ways, but that’s beyond the mission of this particular column. We’ll look at device configuration in the future.

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