Toronto, Ontario
Technical Support in Publishing, Photography, Pre-Press, Print and Web. Application training, Workflow analysis. Macintosh, Unix and Windows. PHP, MySQL dynamic web development. MacOS X, e-commerce.
June 28, 2005
 - Tab Key Exposed
When you have many different applications open and several documents open ... pressing the “Tab” and “Command” together displays each open application...
A good friend once told me the trick to typing is to know where the “Delete” key. A couple of months ago, I wrote that the “Tab” key is just as useful. In that article, I tried to demonstrate that there are many keyboard shortcuts that make our days a little easier – yet these keyboard shortcuts aren’t that widely known.

For those of you who missed the article, I’ll recap the main shortcut – that is using the “Tab” key in combination with the “Command” key (or the “Tab” and “Alt” keys for Windows users.) When you have many different applications open and several documents open – a problem now that we have so much RAM to play with on our computers – pressing the “Tab” and “Command” together displays each open application in the center of the screen. Press “Tab” and “Command” again to toggle through the applications from left to right. Hold down “Shift”, “Tab” and “Command” and you’ll toggle to the left. Release the keys and you switch to the application that’s highlighted. (On Windows systems each open document will appear in the center of the screen.)

The problem occurred with the introduction of MacOS X and now every open document and window are interleaved. On MacOS 9 and earlier, all of the document windows were grouped together by application. Since MacOS X is based on unix and can take advantage of multi-threading, each application and document is handled separately. Sure it’s easy for me to understand, so let’s look at it another way. Imagine you’re working with two folders on your desk (real paper folders) and you dumped all the pages onto the desk. Sorting through the pages would be difficult. Similarly on the Macintosh sorting through the open windows and documents can be difficult.

We could partially fix this problem by installing an application that groups the windows together, the way they did on MacOS 9. For example, ASM (Application Switcher Menu) which groups the windows and installs the application menu back in the upper right hand corner of the screen ( - I have installed this application on every Macintosh I use.

I suppose that Apple realized that this was a problem, because they’ve included some new keyboard commands to enhance the system. You can see the complete list of keyboard commands at One of my new favorite shortcuts is to use “Command” and “`” (or Back Tick) which switches between the open windows within a single application. Most applications have a “Window” menu item which you can use to switch between documents, but why not try the “Command” – “Back Tick” shortcut. It works with almost every application. With this command you can sort through the mixed up windows. Handy if you’re like me and have too many windows going at once.
If you are running MacOS X Panther, version 10.3, you may have stumbled across Apple’s Exposé, which allows you to perform similar feats. (If you’re not sure – go to “About this Mac” under the Apple Menu.) Hold down the “F9” key and all of the windows and documents that are open will be scaled down and displayed across the screen. Then you can take you mouse and hover over each window. The name of the window will display over top of the highlighted window. Release the mouse and you will switch to that window. Exposé has a “wow” factor to it, and demonstrates the power of MacOS X’s Quartz graphic engine.

Hold down “F10” and you get the same result as the “Command – Back Tick” trick above but with Exposé wow factor graphic effect. This time you get the windows owned by the active application only. Again, you can highlight each with your mouse and switch between them.

But wait! There’s more…

Have you ever wondered what files are on your Desktop, but there are all those pesky windows blocking your view. You guessed it – there’s an Exposé keyboard command for that too! Hold down “F11” and all the windows open will head over to the edge of the screen, leaving you with an unobstructed view of the Desktop. While holding the “F11” key down you can select a file with your mouse and drag it onto a application icon on the Dock. Any action that you can do with the mouse on your Mac can be done while holding the “F11” key down.

I have been waiting for this feature, since I started working on the Macintosh – when System 6 was the latest thing! Now if I could only figure out how to do this with those papers on my desk… Messy desk – organized Mac!