Keyboard Basics

computer/handsonkeyboard150.bmp The computer takes a familiar tool like a keyboard and empowers it with useful additions and functions. Although a computer keyboard is based on the old typewriter layout, there are some major differences in the ways that keys are used. Computer keyboards also have additional keys. Learning to use the unique keys and special functions of the computer keyboard can save you time and make you more comfortable with your computer.

Function Keys (Fkeys)

Most computer keyboards have a row of function keys at the top of the keyboard. These keys are marked F1 through F10 or F12. While they were widely used with older DOS programs, they are not as popular today. However many programs, including most of Microsoft's products, support use of the function keys. As a throwback to DOS days, you will find that the F1 key often will bring up a help menu. The function keys are frequently used in combination with other keys such as the CTRL key, the ALT key, and the Shift key. These combinations result in a plethora of possible keyboard shortcuts. Look in the help menu of the program that you are using to find a list of the function keys and their uses.

Return or Enter Key

This key is usually marked Return or Enter, but sometimes is labeled with only a large arrow. This key is used to enter commands or to move the cursor to the beginning of the next line. Also, in every dialog box or alert on both the PC and the Mac, there is a default button or box that is recognizable by its bold or segmented outline. Pressing the Enter key will select that choice. (There is sometimes a second Enter key on the numeric keypad. This functions exactly like the larger Enter key near the alphabet letters.)

Escape Key

The Escape key, which is marked ESC on most keyboards, is basically used to exit or escape from programs and tasks. In many cases, it will have no effect at all. However, it can sometimes get you out of trouble by making the computer go back or escape to a previous screen.

Control Key (CTRL)

The CTRL key is used in conjunction with another key. Holding it down while pressing another key will initiate a certain action. CTRL key combinations are defined by the application being used. Some, however, have become a standard that most programs follow. For instance in most Windows programs, CTRL+S will save the current file or document, and CTRL+P will print the current file or document. Macintosh keyboards have a Control key that is used only sparingly in Mac programs. It is included on the Mac keyboard basically for users who may run Windows and DOS-based programs on their Macs.

Alternate Key (ALT)

Like the Control Key, the ALT key is used in combination with other keys. In most Windows programs, each of the menu choices at the top of the screen has one letter underlined. Holding down the ALT key while pressing the key corresponding to the underlined letter will open the menu just as though you had clicked your mouse on that menu choice. For instance, if the menu shows the choice File, you can open that menu by clicking the mouse on the word File or by pressing the ALT key and the F key simultaneously.

Caps Lock

The Caps Lock key is a toggle key. Pressing it once turns it on. Pressing it again turns it off. Some computer keyboards have a light or indicator that shows when the Caps Lock is on and when it is off. When Caps Lock is on, every letter that is typed will be a capital letter. Unlike a typewriter, the Caps Lock key on a computer keyboard affects only letters. It has no effect on the number or symbol keys.

Num Lock & Numeric Keypad

Many, but not all, computer keyboards have a numeric keypad usually located on the right side of the keyboard. This keypad has a group of number keys with additional markings like arrows, PgDn, End, etc. The numeric pad is controlled by a toggle key marked Num Lock. When the Num Lock key is on, this pad can be used to enter numbers. When the Num Lock key is off, the functions listed below the number will be activated. These functions usually include arrow keys that can be used to move the cursor around the screen. Likewise the keys marked PgUp and Pg Down will move the cursor a page up or down on the screen. The Home and End keys will move the cursor to the beginning or end of a line or document, respectively.

Numeric keypads often include other keys as well. Many include useful symbols such as the period, slash, and plus and minus signs.

Valuable Keyboard Skills

Learning to use the unique keys and mastering the special functions of the computer keyboard can save you a lot of time. Developing keyboard skills is certain to add to your sense of accomplishment when using the computer. Spend some time to make friends with keys such as CTRL, ALT, Caps, ESC, and Return. You'll be glad you did. But we are not finished yet. In next week's column, I will continue to explain the benefits of more of the basic but under-used keys on your keyboard.