Do you use Gmail in your browser?

Gmail LogoI’ve said previously that I don’t think it’s worth learning loads of shortcut keys. This is for two reasons:

  • Unless you use them all the time it’s very easy to forget them
  • Different shortcut key combinations do different things in different programs, so it’s very easy to get confused

However, if you only use a few different programs (eg a web browser, an email program, a picture viewer, and a word processing program) then it may be worth latching on to a few important shortcuts that might become second nature if you use them often enough. If you become familiar with important keyboard shortcuts, then your typing will become more efficient as it is quicker to type a shortcut than it is to grab the mouse and click on a command that might be available on-screen. With that in mind, I’ve been looking at the shortcuts that are available in Gmail’s webmail program.

Some of these are always available and are the same as in Microsoft Word and other programs. These include:

Ctrl + b to turn on bold type.
Ctrl + i to turn on italicised type.
Ctrl + u to underline text
Ctrl + shift + 7 to create a numbered list
Ctrl + shift + 8 to create a list of bullet points

Mac Funny Symbol

On a Mac, look for this button instead of Ctrl

In all the above, type the command to turn the feature on, type the content that will be formatted, and type the command again to turn the format feature off. This is what you do if you wish to turn the feature on and off again as you are typing. An alternative to this is to write the text first, so that you’ve got all the wording down (“on paper”, as it were) and then go back over the text, formatting where necessary. In this case, highlight the piece of text that you wish to format (by depressing the left-click button on the mouse or trackpad and then dragging the mouse over the text to be formatted) and then execute the command (eg Ctrl + b). The command will then be applied to the highlighted text.

Note that if you ever see a shortcut written as (for example) Ctrl + u, this means depress the Ctrl key and keep it depressed while you tap the other key. Note also that if you are using a Mac then it is not the Ctrl key that you use, but the key marked with the funny icon on it (see illustration).

There are other shortcut keys in Gmail’s web interface that are only available if you turn them on. These include:

c = compose a new message
/ = place the cursor in the search box ready to type in a search term
u = close the message and go back to the message list
r = reply to the message
a = reply to all the message recipients
f = forward the message to someone else
# = delete the message
v = move the message to a different label (or “folder”, if that description makes more sense to you)
shift + i = mark the selected message(s) as read
shift + u = mark the selected message(s) as unread

Obviously, the above commands don’t work if you are currently creating a message, as a letter “c” or a “/” or a “u”, etcetera, would just be added to the message you are creating.

You don’t have to turn these shortcuts on individually. To turn them all on:

Gmail Shortcuts Settings

Turn keyboard shortcuts on

  • Click on the “settings” cogwheel near the top right of the Gmail window
  • Click on the “settings” command in the menu that pops up
  • Make sure you are on the “General” tab
  • Go down to the “keyboard shortcuts” option and click the button next to “keyboard shortcuts on”
  • Scroll down the page until you see the “save changes” button and click it.

Click on this link for a more comprehensive list of Gmail shortcuts

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the iPhone keyboard

…and I know from discussing this with friends and computer clients that there are plenty of other people who share this slight frustration. If it’s only a case of prodding a few characters then that’s OK. Just take it slowly and pay attention. Better still, use a stylus.

If it’s a long and complicated email that needs to be sent from the iPhone then I’ve concluded that the best way to do this is – don’t. If I haven’t got access to a keyboard better than the iPhone’s then the email can just wait. If it’s that urgent then a phone call is probably the best option.

Steve Jobs with iPhone

I wonder how Steve Jobs got on with typing on the iPhone

But what if it’s a text message that is needed? An iPad’s no obvious benefit as there’s no texting available and neither, in the ordinary course of things, is a proper computer any use, either. I have several times investigated the possibility of texting from a proper computer but have never found a straightforward solution that is worth the effort (or the cost). A while ago I blogged about a piece of software for preparing a text message on a computer and then sending it to an iPhone for onward transmission as a text message. I did use this for a while, but it proved flakey and I gave it up.

That was when I decided it was time to get to grips with an aspect of the iPhone that I had always found too tricky and tedious to bother mastering – “copy and paste”. After a bit of practice, I now routinely use this method to send long text messages. It involves sending an email first from something with a better keyboard than the iPhone (ie a computer or a tablet).

So, here are step by step instructions. You may find, like me, that this makes sending long text messages quicker and more accurate than using your iPhone’s keyboard.

  1. Prepare the message as an email and send it to yourself. I include in the body of the email exactly what is going into the text message. No more and no less. It doesn’t really matter if the email program is set up to add a signature to each message as it’s easy enough to delete this from the final text message just before sending it. The only important – if blindingly obvious – point is that the iPhone must be set up to receive the email that you are going to send to yourself.
  2. Open the email message on your iPhone.
  3. Do a “long press” anywhere in the body of the email message. When the magnifying glass pops up then let go of the long press.
  4. It doesn’t matter what part of the message has been initially “selected” by the long press as a short menu now pops up that includes the option to “select all”. Tap on this option.
  5. All of the text will now be selected and a menu pops up with the single option to “Copy”. Tap on this option.
  6. Press the Home button and open your text messaging program. If the text message that you have just prepared is a reply to an incoming message then open that message. Otherwise, press the option to start a new message and fill in the recipient’s name or mobile number in the usual way.
  7. Tap on the message area.
  8. Do a “long press” on the message area until a menu pops up with the single option to “Paste”.
  9. Tap on the “Paste” option.
  10. Tap “Send” in the usual way.

iPhone in landscape mode

Of course, it’s always easier typing on a smartphone with it held in landscape mode

Et voila… your long, complicated, and accurate text message is on its way without any typing tantrums (or is it just me that has those?).

This method is much, much easier to carry out than it is to explain – especially after a bit of practice. It also means I can go back to being as pedantic as I like in my use of English and my refusal to succumb to using “textspeak” just because it’s easier to type.

Keyboards aren’t necessarily the best way to talk to computers

City of London Dragon

What’s a City of London dragon got to do with it? Read on…

.. and that is why the mouse was developed. The invention of the mouse actually took place in the 1960’s (see this link, for instance, on the invention of the computer mouse), but it became widespread with the introduction into personal computing of the “Graphical user interface (GUI)” in Macs and then Windows in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Prior to then, communication into the computer was generally by keyboard. Even earlier, and stretching back into the mists of my own student days, data input was achieved by feeding punched cards into the computer. The position of the holes in the cards represented the data contained on the card. For the average, modern user, though, we had the keyboard and then we had the mouse. And now, particularly with the advent of tablets and smartphones, we also have touch-screens with their flourishes of touching and swiping and tapping.

However, none of the developments since the keyboard has helped us much when it comes to inputting a large amount of text (apart from OCR – the business of capturing an image of text using a scanner, and then attempting to turn that input into editable text).

Suppose you are writing a book or a thesis
. The normal thing to do would be to type it in using a standard word processing program. This is ok if your typing skills are at least good enough that the process of typing does not interfere with any creative process that needs to take place at the same time. Obviously, you could use a different method, such as getting the creative stuff down longhand and then transcribing it to computer later, but that may double the effort of recording. Similarly, you could talk into a voice recorder for later transcription by yourself or an amanuensis. But maybe you can’t afford one.

Dragon on Holborn Viaduct

This one’s on Holborn Viaduct

So, it’s long been thought that it would be a really good idea if we could just talk directly to the computer and it could, in effect, do the typing for us. For that matter, why couldn’t it take orders in the same way? Instead of clicking on an option or typing a shortcut, why not just say “print the current page”?

Well, we can
. The software has been around for years. I know: I’ve bought at least two versions over the years – and yet I don’t use it.

Why not?
Doesn’t it work? Well, yes, it does work up to a point, but the main problem is that it takes quite an investment of time before it starts paying off. Like many people, I just haven’t had the patience.

You have to start by training your “speech recognition” software to understand what you are saying and what you really want it to do. It seems to me that the difficulties are twofold:

  • The time you need to spend formerly “training” the software.
  • The time you need to spend training it “on the job”. This is when it’s very easy to say “blow this for a game of soldiers, it’s quicker to do it the old way.”

So why would you bother attempting it? There are several reasons why it might be worth persevering:

  • You do a lot of typing, so it would be worth the effort of learning a method that is better in the long run.
  • You think your “creative process” might be helped by removing the obstacle of picking your way around a keyboard letter by letter.
  • You have a physical problem, such as arthritis, that makes it difficult to use a mouse and/or a keyboard.
  • You need to keep up with your clients (that’s me!)

As time goes by, the software gets better so the “cost” in terms of the effort to train it is reduced. Also, as hardware gets faster and more powerful, it can better handle the demands of speech recognition software. So, having written this blog post, I’ve now convinced myself that it’s time I had another go. I’m very hopeful that the last software I bought (two or three years ago) will work on my Windows 8 machine.

Dragon Naturally Speaking Pack ShotIf you, too, are thinking of having a go, then have a look at Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 from Nuance. I think it’s the de facto standard now. Your computer does need to have a microphone and speakers. Almost all modern computers of all types have speakers, but if you’ve got a desktop computer then you may need to buy a microphone. Microphones are almost always built into laptops of all types and sizes.

Windows Options – Dragon Home (£79.99) or Dragon Premium (£149.99)
Mac – Dragon Dictate 3 (£129.99)

These prices include VAT but do not include a shipping cost of about £6 if buying from the Nuance website.

I have more than one client (well, two actually) who have mastered Dragon (neither of whom are called George) and have incorporated it into their working routine, and another one who’s gearing up to start soon. If you are thinking of doing likewise then I would say that I think the technology is up to it now, but you must still expect a bit of a learning curve.

Now, where is my master disc and will it run on Windows 8?

I’m not a great believer in trying to remember a lot of “quick key” keyboard shortcuts

There are several reasons for this:

  • A certain amount of effort has to be put into learning a shortcut and this effort will quite probably interrupt the flow of whatever it is that you were doing.
  • A shortcut key combination may do one thing in one program and a different thing in a different program.
  • We are moving more and more into computing that works by screen touches, swipe gestures, mouse clicks, and so on.
  • If you don’t use a particular shortcut on a regular basis then you won’t remember it when you need it and, quite probably, you will not even remember that you ever learned it in the first place.

Keyboard ShortcutSo, is it worth the effort? My advice is “yes”, it is worth it for anyone who is interested in investing a little time and effort in becoming a more efficient computer user. Despite the move to touching screens, swiping, and so on, most people still do a fair amount of typing on a keyboard, even if it’s just for emails. When doing some concentrated typing it is often easier to keep your hands on the keyboard when issuing a command than it is to grab the mouse or even move around a touchscreen.

When I’m training my computer clients I approach the subject of keyboard shortcuts as follows:-

  • “Cut, copy, and paste” shortcuts are the essential ones. They apply to many programs and situations in both Windows and Mac computing.
  • Menus often include the shortcut keys that can be used instead of the menu. You can choose for yourself which of these shortcuts are worth learning.
  • Shortcut keys can be useful for things that you do often and/or things that are very awkward to do by other means (such as digging down three levels of menu). It’s usually very easy to find a list of shortcuts for any popular program. Just google “xyz shortcut keys” where “xyz” is the name of the program.

Yul Brynner

The original short cut?

Having found a list of available shortcuts, do not lose the will to live. Instead, just scan the list and pick out one or two that you think you would use. WRITE THEM DOWN. Write them down somewhere that you know you can find within seconds. A post-it note is fine as long as you can see it amongst the other 600 post-it notes that have taken over your workspace. Then, when you are using the program next, just try to remember that you’ve written a couple of shortcut keys down so that when habit leads you to do things in the old way you will say to yourself “aha, I’ve got a shortcut key for this” and you will be able to find the post-it note within seconds. Then use your new shortcut. This is a learning process. You must expect to spend a bit more time using the so-called shortcut than doing things the old way. If you use the shortcut often enough then you will eventually remember it and it will save you time. If you don’t use it often enough you will forget it and the post-it note will sink down the strata of other unregarded paper in your workspace.

I know that the above sounds facile, but the point of it is that you will only bother to learn a shortcut if you can remind yourself of it within seconds and if you then practise using it. If it takes too long to remember what the shortcut key is then you will say to yourself “blow this for a game of soldiers” and go back to your old way of doing things. On the other hand, if you force yourself to invest 5 seconds in looking for the right post-it note and then executing the shortcut then there’s a chance that you will do this often enough that it will stick in your mind and become a true improvement to your keyboard skills.

But a word of caution: don’t try to learn too many at once. That way lies disaster as the whole shortcut business will get in the way of what you were trying to achieve and you will, once again, say “blow this for a game of soldiers……”.

A few bits and pieces this week..

Tab key Tip

Tab KeyWhen filling in forms online, or even just entering a username and password, it’s much quicker to use the tab and “shift tab” keys to move to the next and previous fields respectively than it is to fumble around with the mouse.

If you are not familiar with the “tab” key, it is always at the lefthand side of the keyboard. I think it’s always to the left of the letter “q”.

“shift tab” is executed by depressing the “shift” key and, while the shift key is still down, tapping the “tab” key. Getting used to using the tab key in this context is much quicker than typing one piece of information, fumbling for the mouse, clicking on the next “field”, and typing the next piece of information.

By the way, a “field” in computer terms is a specific piece of information on a form or otherwise entered into or held by the computer – eg “mobile phone number” can be a field and “surname” can be another.

Still on the subject of typing and keyboards:

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for the iPad Mini

iPad Mini Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard CoverI’ve been finding the “virtual keyboard” on the iPad Mini more and more usable for “extended typing sessions” as I practise with it more and more. Nevertheless, I would prefer to have a “proper” keyboard that’s good enough that I forget about it for the duration of writing, say, 1000 words.

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for the iPad has a reputation for doing a good job for the iPad, and now the iPad Mini version has just been released. Naturally, though, the challenge for the manufacturer is even greater here, as there’s even less space to work with to create a comfortable, usable, keyboard on an iPad Mini than on an iPad. I’ve read a few reviews that vary in their assessment of how well Logitech have pulled this off. Here’s an example from Macworld. If there is a consensus at all, it is that the main keys are fine but some of the less important ones are too small to use without a conscious effort. At the time of writing, the only supplier I can find that has them in stock is Amazon. This is one occasion where I’d really like to get my hands on a product (literally) before buying it, so I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival on the High Street. My guess is that either John Lewis or PC World will get it first. Yes, I know that I’m somewhat less than enthusiastic about PC World, but I’m not relying on their technical expertise, and I think it unlikely that I would want to return it. Those are my two criteria for buying from PC World and they pass the test in this case.

Moving smoothly on to another High Street purchase..

Maplin Remote Switchif you find you need to reboot your router regularly and the router is not near your computer, you could buy a remote control switch (eg from Maplins) and keep the switch near your computer so that you can re-boot the router without leaving your chair!

These remote control switches are also very handy for other computer devices whose power switches are not easy to get to.

And, finally, AVG Antivirus (not for the first time)
 
I stopped recommending AVG Free as the best free antivirus program because their marketing tactics seemed to be getting more and more aggressive. They seemed to do everything possible to steer their users into installing (or upgrading to) paid-for versions rather than the free version. I often find it hard to find the free version on their website, so here is a current link to AVG Free.

Be careful, though, as they still try and get you to click on the paid version. They’re still showing orange buttons for links to the free version and green links to the paid version. No doubt they think we’ll be more likely to click on the green one as we’ll think it’s safe.

iPhone 3GS

Is there a self-help group for people who fear becoming “Apple Fanboys”?

I bought my iPhone 3GS secondhand almost a year ago. According to Wikipedia, the 16gb version was discontinued in mid 2010, so that makes it 3-4 years old now – maybe time for a replacement. I didn’t buy it with the intention of using it as my own smartphone: just for learning how to use it so that I could help my computer clients with their own iPhones. However, it took less than a weekend for me to be completely convinced that the iPhone was the phone for me. It’s been faultless for a year and can still support the latest operating system (updated to version 6.1.2 just this morning). I’d like to convince myself that it’s worth spending up to £699 to buy an iPhone 5, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason at all to do that. OK, I don’t have Siri, but I wouldn’t use that anyway and I’ve only seen one of my computer clients use it. The iPhone just works so well and so intuitively for so many different apps that I am content to accept its shortcomings. I don’t actually mind that there are very few configurable options. I’ve seen what a “configurable environment” in phoneland looks like by having an Android tablet and it is, in a word, messy. I do realise that the last few sentences encapsulate the difference between the Apple view of the world and the worldview shared by Microsoft and the Android systems – and that it seems as if I’m slipping over to the dark side. Oh dear.

iPhone - selecting text

A long press brings up the handles and the commands. Drag the handles and then issue the command

One thing I’ve been having a lot of difficulty with, as a “PC man”, is getting to grips with the cut/copy/paste function on the iPad and iPhone. It has recently dawned on me what the problem has been. On a PC, you first select the piece that you want to work with (by dragging the mouse over it), and then you tell the system what you want to do with it (eg cut or copy) . It works the other way on an iPhone or iPad. There, you start by issuing the command with a long press (to bring the select/select all option up) and THEN you select the content by dragging the handles to the start and endpoints, and THEN you issue the command.

I’ve found the copy/paste on the iPhone and iPad so much easier since that small fact sank in, that I’ve now found it’s worth using it to help in another situation – typing long text messages in that awful cramped space with that awful iPhone keyboard. What I do now is create the text message on my ipad or on a PC and send it to myself as an email. I open that email on the iPhone, select and copy the text, and then paste it into the tiny little text box in the text app. I no longer have to try and do very much on the little iPhone keyboard. This is much quicker and easier to do than to read about, but it’s only worth the effort for text messages longer than a sentence or so.

Also on the subject of the iphone keyboard (and, probably, other smartphone keyboards as well), I wonder if it took you as long as it took me to realise that typing is much easier if you tip the phone over into landscape mode. Duuh! My excuse for taking so long to realise this is that my previous three smartphones had been HTCs with “proper” inbuilt keyboards so I never gave the orientation a second thought. I miss having a proper keyboard on the iPhone, but I’m prepared to pay that price.

Woman touching iPhone to noseOne cold morning earlier this week I was on a number 35 bus heading for Clapham Junction. There was a rather elegantly-dressed young lady sitting close by with an iphone in her hand. She was wearing black leather gloves. Now, as we all know, the iPhone has a “capacitive screen” (see this earlier blog on capacitive screens). You can’t get the iPhone to recognise the touch of a gloved finger. Instead of taking her glove off, this young lady was operating her iPhone by tapping it with her nose! She looked quite good at it (if somewhat silly). If being skilled with one’s fingers makes one dexterous, does this make her “nastrous”?

The iPhone “virtual” keyboard is still driving me bonkers, but I think I may be winning.

One of the many, many things in modern life that puzzles me is “how have iPhones and Blackberries become so popular when their keyboards are so utterly dreadful and difficult to use?” I am neither ham-fisted nor sausage-fingered, but accurately typing on these devices almost defeats me (see last week’s blog). I’m not concerned with Blackberries here, but, since I’m coming round to liking the iPhone in most other respects (leaving aside privacy issues, of course), I decided I had to find a better way.

My main problem is writing text messages.The keyboard is so small, and the precision of the touch so bad, that there seems to be about a 1 in 4 chance that I’m going to get the character next to the one I actually want. I’ve turned off the auto-correct because that just makes the situation ten times worse. With auto-correct turned on, my text messages look as if they were written by Stanley Unwin (if you don’t remember Stanley Unwin, try this clip as an introduction). Using a capacitive stylus helps, but it’s like using a barge pole compared with the precision of a resistive stylus on a decent phone. Also, the stylus goes walkabout because you can’t push it back into the iphone like you can with a decent phone.

So, I decided to attack the problem from a different angle and did some googling. I found that there are telecoms services that allow you to send text messages from your computer instead of using your mobile phone. After investigating two or three of these, I found four major flaws to this approach:

  • You have to pay the telecoms service to send text message that may have been free if sent directly from a mobile phone.
  • The phone doesn’t have a history of the messages sent.
  • The message arrives at the recipient bearing a sender’s phone number other than your own mobile number. There may or may not be ways around this, but they all seemed too clunkey to bother with.
  • The messages may not get delivered! One telecoms provider I spoke to confirmed that some networks won’t deliver their messages. Hmm.

So, back to googling and I found a program called myPhoneDesktop. It consists of free software installed on the PC (or Mac or Linux computer) and an iPhone app that costs £2.99.

You prepare the text on the PC or Mac using the installed program (or by doing it from the company’s website), tell it what phone number will finally receive the message (not your own!), and click on a button. This sends the message to the app on the iPhone. All you need to do then is click “send” on the iphone and the message is whisked away into cyberspace exactly as if it had been prepared on the iphone. It’s easier to do it than describe it. After sending three or four messages, it becomes second nature. Here are some screenshots of the preparation process on the PC (or Mac) and what the message looks like when received on the iPhone:

Steps in preparing a message in myPhoneDesktop

This is the preparation of the message, as carried out on the PC or Mac.


Screenshot of the myPhoneDesktop app.

This is the app on the iPhone that has received the message. Just press “send” to send the message as if it had been created on the iphone. It will then appear in the normal messages app.

Until today, I’d only used it “for real” for sending text messages, but I’ve just tried it for sending long and complicated URLs (ie website addresses) from my PC to the phone. That works as easily as sending text messages. It can also be used for sending large chunks of text, pictures, and so on.

You may have spotted the one big problem with all of this – you have to have a “proper” computer available. True. Urgent text messages may still need to be sent “on the hoof” using the iphone, but if, like me, you have correspondents who prefer texting to emailing and who can wait until you are in front of a proper computer, then it seems to me that myPhoneDesktop makes life a lot easier.

Oh yes, there’s another limitation – as far as I can tell this software only works with the Apple iPhone app. There’s no equivalent myPhoneDesktop app for Android, Windows Mobile or Windows 8 Phone. I dare say, though, that there are equivalent solutions for these mobile systems made by other developers.

Do you have to hunt down your programs before you can open them? Maybe you scour the “all programs” option of the Start Menu. Maybe you minimise the window that you are working on and then work through the confusion of shortcuts on your desktop. You might even hunt through the hard drive using Windows Explorer.

Key with wingsWell, for programs that you use often, it’s worth knowing that there is is a quicker way of launching programs than any of these. You can assign a key combination that will immediately launch your program. Whatever you happen to be doing, the program assigned to your special key combination will immediately open if it wasn’t already open, or come to the fore if it was already lurking around somewhere.

Creating the keyboard shortcut for this is a two-stage process. First of all we need a desktop shortcut (if one doesn’t exist already), and then we need to change a “property” of that shortcut so that typing the assigned key combination will launch the program (or bring it to the fore if it is already open).

Stage 1 – create a shortcut (if one does not already exist)

Find your program in the usual way, but don’t launch it:

  • If your program is “pinned” to the Start Menu (ie it appears in the list of available programs as soon as you click on the Start button) then left-click on the program name and drag it to the desktop. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the Start menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by opening the Start Menu and then clicking on “all programs”, then find your program in the usual way but instead of left-clicking on it (which would open the program) right-click on it instead. Then left-click on the option that says “send to” and left-click on the option that says “Desktop (create shortcut)”. This will create a shortcut on the desktop, but will leave the original entry in the “all programs” menu. Go to Stage 2.
  • If you normally launch your program by using Windows Explorer, then locate it in the usual way but right-click on it rather then double-clicking on it. Then left-click on the option that says “create shortcut”. If it tells you the shortcut will appear on the desktop then that’s fine but it may create the shortcut in the same folder as the program. If it does that, you can then either drag it to the desktop or “cut” it (using Ctrl x) and “paste” it (using Ctrl v) onto the desktop. Alternatively, you can leave it where it is and add the keyboard shortcut from there (see below).

Stage 2 – create the shortcut key combination

  • Right-click on the shortcut.
  • Left-click on the option at the bottom of the list called “Properties”.
  • Left-click on the tab across the top that says “Shortcut”.

About halfway down the list of options you’ll see something that looks like this:

Assigning a shortcut key

If you click on the area next to “shortcut key” (that currently says “None”) and then type any printable character (it doesn’t have to be a letter or a number), you will see that the area is then filled with “Ctrl + Alt + ” and the character you typed. Click on “OK” and that’s it. Wherever you are, typing the key combination of the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the character you added will immediately launch your program. It’s best to depress the Ctrl and Alt keys first and then tap on the third key.

Note that when you were assigning the shortcut key there was an option below that said “Run: Normal window”. If you click on the triangle at the right of this, you can choose to ensure that your program always starts in a normal window, or maximised, or minimised.

Windows 7 Start button and search box

Windows 7 Start button and search box

If you have Windows 7 there’s another method of launching any program more quickly than hunting for it – and you don’t have to assign a key to a shortcut. Instead, just click on the start button and then type the first few characters of the program name into the search box (see fig 2).

Windows will show you a list of files that are relevant. After entering just a few characters you will see the program you want listed in the start box, so just left-click on the program. It took me a long time using Windows 7 to start to appreciate how good this search box now is. Suppose, for instance, you want to change how your mouse is working. Just start typing “mouse” (without the quotes) into the search box and up comes the program to change how the mouse works. Want to change the date in your computer? Just type “date” in the search box and then click on the “Date and Time” option that is offered. There’s no need to train clients any more in how to find “administrative tools” in the Control Panel in order to find the defragmenting option – just start typing “defrag” in the search box. When I’m delivering computer training to clients who are either new to computers or just new to Windows 7 I try to remember to emphasise how good this search box is. It repays the effort of remembering to use it until it becomes second nature.

How do you move the focus between open windows? There are several ways to do this, but I’ve noticed during one-to-one computer training sessions that most people are only aware of the method they already use. It could be, of course, that you are already using the method that suits you best, but let’s look at the options.

The Slowest Way

The very slowest way to move between open windows is to minimise one window and then restore the one you want next. “Minimising” is achieved by clicking on the “dash” icon in the top righthand corner of the window. This shrinks the window to just a name and/or icon and places it on the bottom row of the screen (known as the “Taskbar”). Clicking on a different icon on the taskbar will “restore” that window and make it the current one (ie the one in which the action will take place if you click the mouse or hit a key). A bit of computer advice: if this is how you are moving between windows then it will almost certainly pay you to learn a different method. Read on…

Better Than The Slowest Way

Just omit the “minimise” action in the method above. As soon as you click on an item in the Tasbar it will pop up and become the current window. The previously current window will then “move backwards” – probably out of sight. It can be recalled to the front just by clicking on its icon/thumbnail in the taskbar.

Escape Key (esc)The taskbar, by the way, is the row of easily-accessible icons presented at the edge of the screen. It is usually shown at the bottom of the screen but if you’re bored and looking for something to do you can click on a vacant part of it (ie a part where there are no icons) and drag it to a different edge of your screen. Something that’s marginally more useful to know about the taskbar is that you can make it bigger so as to accommodate more items. Very slowly move your mouse pointer over the inside edge of the taskbar (ie at the margin between the taskbar and the rest of the screen) and you will see the mouse pointer change to a double-headed arrow. When this happens you can then drag the edge of the taskbar inwards to give room for a second – or even third – row of icons. “Dragging”, by the way, means depressing the left mouse button and then moving the mouse (while the left button is still down).

A Very Popular Way – Alt Tab

Tab KeyDepress the key marked “Alt” (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard) and, while it is pressed, hit the “tab” key. The tab key is usually to the left of the “Q” key.

A display will pop up of all the open windows. In Windows XP and Vista the display will be of icons representing the open windows. In Windows 7 there are thumbnail views of the windows themselves and the “backdrop” of the screen you are looking at displays the currently selected window. Whichever operating system you are using, keep the Alt key down and press the Tab key several times. You will see a frame moving between the icons/thumbnails. As soon as you let go of the “Alt” key the currently selected (“framed”) program will come to the fore.

A Rather Silly Way – Windows Flip

Windows KeyIn Windows Vista and Windows 7, pressing the Windows key (usually on the bottom row of the keyboard and marked by some kind of representation of the Windows logo) and then the Tab key will pop up an angled view of the open Windows, stacked one in front of another. Repeated pressing of the Tab key moves different windows to the top of the stack. Letting go of the Windows button will then focus on whichever window is at the top of the pile.

Control Key (ctrl)If you want to get even sillier, hitting the Control key (usually marked “Ctrl”) at the same time as the Windows key, and then hitting the Tab key, will bring up the same 3-D view but it stays put if you let go of all the keys. You can then point the mouse and click on whichever Window you want. Apart from the fact that you have to hit 3 different keys at the same time, you also have to grab the mouse, work out which window you want, and then click on it. Thank you, Microsoft.

Often The Quickest Way – Alt Esc

Alt KeyIf you depress the “Alt” key, and keep it down, then repeated presses of the “Esc” key (usually in the top lefthand corner of the keyboard) will take you from one open window to the next. As soon as you see the window you want just let go of the Alt key.

When I am providing computer support and training I try to avoid jargon that doesn’t mean anything to normal people. Nevertheless, we can’t avoid new concepts when learning about computers and some of these entail words with specific meanings. It really is worth getting to grips with concepts and words such as taskbar, minimising, maximising, open windows.

Although this blog is about moving efficiently between open windows, it describes uses of several different keys that aren’t the standard letters and numbers. If you’d like to know more about the different parts of the keyboard you might like to look at these previous blogs:

Of Toggles And Missing Favorites 
Basic Keyboard Shortcuts 
What Are The Function Keys For? 
More Key Explanations 

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Figure 1

Figure 1

The numlock key (meaning “number lock”) is used for switching the function of keys that can be either numbers or something else. When the keys are acting as number keys the result is the same as pressing the number keys at the top of the keyboard. So why have both? Well, the second set of numbers is grouped so as to be more convenient for people entering loads of numbers (as opposed to text – see figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

. For example, on the keyboard in figure 2, when the numlock key is selected for numbers then hitting the letter “u” will produce a figure 4.

The numlock key is an example of a “toggle switch”. Whatever the current function, pressing a toggle switch will change to the opposite function (or cycle through the different functions if there are more than two). So, if you want to change back from number keys to ordinary letter keys you just press the numlock key again.

You can usually find a little LED light somewhere that goes on and off depending on the state of the numlock switch. It will usually be labelled “num” or “numlock” or have a figure 1 inside a padlock (see figure 1).

So, for the average user, the numlock key is quite possibly never used (except when it’s hit by accident).

The caps lock key is another toggle switch. When it is activated all of the characters A-Z are typed as capital letters.

Caps lock and shift keys

Figure 3

This is fine if you want to type many consecutive characters as capitals, but if you just want to capitalise the first letter of a word then it is quicker to depress either of the two “shift” keys and then type the letter to be capitalised while the shift key is down. On most keyboards there is a shift key at both the lefthand and righthand edges of the keyboard. They are functionally the same as each other. They are usually indicated by a label of an upward pointing arrow (see figure 3). There is usually a labelled LED light to indicate the state of the caps lock key, typically labelled with a letter A inside a padlock.

Scroll (or Scroll Lock), Sys Rq, and Pause/Break Keys

Although all these keys used to have specific purposes, these days they are little used. Some programs do use them in very specific ways but you might need to consult the program manual to find out about it. I don’t think I ever use any of these keys.

Delete Key vs Backspace

The backspace key (near the top righthandside of the keyboard, with a left-pointing arrow – see figure 1) deletes the character to the left of the cursor and moves the cursor left by one character. Therefore, if you hit the backspace key repeatedly (or just keep pressing it) it keeps deleting the text to the left of your current cursor position – ie it deletes what you have just typed if your cursor is at the end of the typing (the cursor is the flashing icon that tells you where on the screen your typing or editing is currently happening).

The delete key works in the opposite direction in that it deletes the character to the right of the cursor and moves the text beyond that left by one character to fill the gap. If you are at the end of the field or document then the delete key won’t do anything.

It is perfectly legitimate to remove text by either method, depending on where your cursor is and what you are trying to do. You can not, for instance, delete text from a form field with the backspace key if your cursor is at the beginning of the field (because the cursor can’t move further left than the beginning of the field).

Insert and Delete

It is very common to assume that the insert and delete keys are, in some way, opposites of one another. You may think, for instance, that since the delete key deletes text then the insert key may put it back for you. No. There may be an “undo” option available, depending on the program you are using, but that’s another matter. The insert key is another toggle switch. It doesn’t change what you are typing but it changes the way things happen. The two states of the insert switch are:

insert – anything you type will be inserted (added) to what is already there at the current cursor position. If there is already text to the right of the cursor then that text will move rightwards to accommodate the new text as you type it.

overwrite (also known as overtype) – anything you type will overwrite (replace) what is already there at the current cursor position.

If you are typing new content into a form field or a document (say) then it doesn’t matter whether insert is set to insert or overwrite. It does makes a difference if you need to go back and change what’s already there. You can immediately change the state of insert/overwrite by pressing the insert key.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an LED light to indicate the state of the insert switch. A lot of programs, though, will tell you at the bottom of the program window. It will usually be just a single word saying “insert” or “overwrite”. If you can’t find it, look near the bottom of the window and press the insert key a few times and see if anything on the bottom line of the window changes.

Shared Keys

Depending on your keyboard layout, some or all of these keys may share their function with other keys. The key (ha-ha) to getting the function you want is to see if your “function” key (bottom left hand corner of the keyboard) is labelled in a different colour than the normal keys. If it is, then the functions on other keys that match this colour are activated when you hit the key while the function key is depressed. All of this is a lot easier done than said!

For example, on the keyboard displayed here, pressing the numlock key on its own will toggle the state of the numlock switch. If the function key is down when the numlock key is pressed then the result will be the scroll lock function.

See also the blogs on keyboard shortcuts and function keys.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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