Speeding things up by using the keyboard instead of the mouse

Ever played Twister? It's like that.

Do you have one of those keyboards with buttons on it to start up programs or put the computer to sleep? Those are nifty, but I'll bet there's one button everybody's got that they don't use enough.

Meet the "Alt" key

There are two "alt" keys on your keyboard, even if it's a cheap one. They're easy to reach, one on each side of the space bar and they're labelled "Alt" (I think it's short for "alto" like the sax, but don't quote me on that). These unassuming, underused keys can change the way you use windows. Try this, for example. Hold down the Alt key (either one, they both work the same way), then press and release the "Tab" key. After you let go of Tab, let go of Alt.

Welcome Back

If all went right, you should have switched to another application you have open right now. If you didn't try starting up another application (your email, for example) then try it again. You might have noticed that after you let go of Tab, but before you let go of Alt (Windows programmers get into a lot of these little nitty-gritty details), a special window popped up in the middle of the screen. That special window shows an icon for every application you have running. If you have a lot of applications running (like email, Word, Excel, and a web browser) all at the same time, you can choose any one of them by keeping Alt down while pressing and releasing the Tab key over and over.

But Wait, There's More!

So you're no longer a slave to the task bar. Pretty handy isn't it? But it hardly justifies all the hype I gave Alt. The Alt key can be used to do more than that, and just as useful. Ever since early versions of Windows, the Alt has been used with other keys as a sort of a mouse replacement. Press the Alt key and look at the menu at the top of this window, and you'll see what I mean. The menu reacts to the Alt key. Depending on the version of Windows you have and the web browser you're using, you'll get a little different visual feedback. By pressing and holding the Alt key, you'll see that some of the words on the menu show underlines for some letters. In some cases these underlines are always there. Either way, when you hold down Alt, you can press the underlined letter to "click" on the menu. Try it with the "File" menu. Press Alt, then the "F" in "File" is underlined. That's to tell us to press the "F" key (don't worry, that's about as complicated as this is going to get). So press it already. Now that the menu pops up, you can use the arrow keys to get around in it and press the "Enter" key to pick an item off the menu. If you didn't want anything off the menu, press Alt again to get rid of it. Voilà, it's like using a mouse but you're not.

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