Discover how keyboard shortcuts could speed things up – and print out our free guide to help you master some of the most common PC keyboard shortcuts
Using a mouse or a touchpad to control a computer is so instinctive we barely think about it.
There is an intuitive link between moving something physical and having an on-screen pointer follow it, which helps to explain why nobody uses text-based operating systems any more.
But while pointing, dragging or clicking various bits of the screen is the most obvious way to get a computer to do things, it isn’t always the easiest: keyboard shortcuts can do the same thing in a fraction of the time.
Knowing just a few key combinations can speed up everyday actions in Windows itself and, better still, the same ones work in many Windows programs for common tasks such as saving or printing.
We will get you started by explaining the most useful ones and showing you how to find more – we have even produced a handy guide to keyboard shortcuts that you can download, so you will never be stuck without a shortcut.
A keyboard shortcut is a combination of one or more keys you can press to get the computer to do something you would normally use the mouse to do.
Using the mouse might involve moving the cursor to a menu or button, clicking it, waiting for a menu to appear, scanning for the option you want and clicking that.
But a keyboard shortcut carries out the same command with a fraction of the effort. For example, pressing the Windows logo key will display the Start menu, exactly as if the Start button had been clicked.
This is useful in itself but the Windows key can be used in combination with a wide variety of other keys to perform more advanced tasks.
Pressing the Windows key and holding it down while pressing D, for example, will display the Windows desktop. Combining it in the same way with the F key will open the search dialogue, allowing you to find files on your computer.
Pressing two keys at a time
Used in this way, the key acts as a ‘modifier’ that tells the computer the user doesn’t just want to type the letter D or F – a bit like the way the Shift key is used to specify a capital letter when needed.
Although the Windows key has been on PC keyboards since 1995, other modifier keys, such as Ctrl (Control) and Alt (Alternate) are even more longstanding, and can be used for many other shortcuts.
From now on, when we give examples of these we will write ‘Windows and D’ to mean ‘hold down the Windows key and press D’, or ‘Ctrl and S’ to mean ‘hold down Ctrl and press S’.
Combining two or more keys like this is at the heart of most shortcuts and, to help you remember them, the second key tends to hint at what the shortcut does.
In the examples above, D means ‘desktop’ and F means ‘find’, but other Windows key shortcuts are as easy to remember: Windows and R opens the Run dialogue box, in which you can give the name of a program you want to run, while Windows and L locks a computer so it cannot be used or viewed until the password is entered, which is handy if you are taking a short break while working on private documents.
Windows and M has a similar effect to Windows and D, minimising all the open windows to show the desktop. However, in this case pressing Windows and Shift and M (holding Windows and Shift while pressing M) afterwards will restore them to where they were.
While it’s not quite so easy to remember, there is one other essential shortcut for Windows. If several programs are open, holding down Alt and pressing Tab will display a list of them all and, as long as Alt remains held down, allow you to cycle through them one by one each time Tab is pressed.
Windows will switch to the program that is highlighted when the Alt key is released. If you are running Windows Vista or 7 with the Aero theme enabled, using the Windows key instead of Alt does the same job but with tiled 3D previews of each window.
Application and operating system shortcuts
So far all the examples we have looked at give commands to Windows itself but some of the most powerful and useful shortcuts work in almost any software that might be installed on a PC. One example that no Windows user should be without is the F1 key that will display help in almost any situation.
There is an important difference between such application shortcuts, though, and the Windows examples above.
While Windows responds to a shortcut almost no matter what the user is doing, an application shortcut works only within the program while its window is active. So if you need help in Word, don’t press F1 from within Internet Explorer or you will get help with your internet browser.
The upside of many programs supporting the same shortcuts, of course, is that they only need to be learned in one program but they can be used in many.
Just as F1 works in many programs, Ctrl and S, for example, will save the current document in most applications, save a copy of the web page you are viewing in a browser or even store your progress in some games.
Similarly, Ctrl and P will open the print dialogue box where relevant, while Ctrl and F will display a search tool in many applications – in Word, for example, it opens the Find and Replace box.
To get an idea of just how much quicker and easier computing can be with a good grasp of shortcuts, imagine you wanted to take the text of an email you have received and insert it into a Word document you are writing.
Starting with the email you could press Ctrl and A to select all its contents, and then Ctrl and C to copy them to the clipboard. Pressing Alt and Tab would let you switch to the Word document, after which Ctrl and V would paste in the copied text.
In this case, just four shortcuts would save using the mouse to highlight the whole email and navigate through copying its contents, switching to Word and pasting in the results.
Many other shortcuts use Ctrl as their modifier key (see Computeractive's print-out and keey shortcuts guide for a more comprehensive list), but Alt is used for a handful of useful ones, too.
After Alt and Tab, mentioned above, Alt and F4 is probably the most useful – it closes the open application just as if the X in the top right-hand corner had been clicked with the mouse.
Alt is more often used as part of a sequence of key presses, though. In most applications that have a group of menus such as File, Edit, Tools and so on, pressing Alt will access the menu bar, after which the highlighted menu can be changed with the cursor keys or opened by pressing Enter.
Cut corners in Office
While most old shortcuts still work on new programs, some now work in slightly different ways. From Office 2007 onwards, Microsoft replaced the cluttered conventional menus in applications such as Word and Excel with the Office Ribbon, which gathers sets of related functions together in a menu that’s meant to be easier to use (although not everyone likes it).
As a result, pressing Alt in most Office 2007 and 2010 applications doesn’t activate the menus but instead reveals a set of ‘badges’ next to various options, each showing the key that will activate it. Pressing the relevant shortcut key here will typically display a page of the Ribbon, on which each option will also be labelled with a shortcut key.
It makes sense that where programs have actions such as saving, printing and editing in common, they use the same shortcuts to activate them, but many programs have features that are unique to them.
These normally have shortcuts too, but they may not be as easy to discover as the widely used ones. It’s worth seeking them out, though, especially for programs you use regularly where they can save a lot of frustration.
Outlook, the email program included with many versions of Office, provides a good example. In the main window, pressing Ctrl and a number from one to seven switches between the inbox, calendar, contacts, tasks list and so on, while using Ctrl and . (full stop) and Ctrl and , (comma) when looking at an open email will move to the next or previous one.
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