How to Customize Your OS X Keyboard and Add Shortcuts

By Matt Klein on February 19th, 2015

Mac users know keyboard shortcuts are the way to go in OS X. Using the keyboard to perform routine and repetitive tasks is a great timesaver and really ups your skill level, but did you know you can add or even customize keyboard shortcuts?

Controlling your Mac with the keyboard is no small part of OS X’s (and earlier versions as well) DNA. When you use a Mac, you’re almost obligated to use keyboard shortcuts to do things other computer users might default to the mouse for.

For example, while you can always use an app’s menu to quit it, it’s just faster and easier to use “Command + Q”.

Similarly, there’s an icon that you can click to access Spotlight, if you really want to always go to the upper-right corner and do so, or alternatively, you can just use “Command + Space”.

So the point here is, keyboard shortcuts are great on OS X and the more you know the better. Having command of keyboard shortcuts is a fantastic way to up your OS X skills and achieve the ranks of true power user.

The Keyboard Settings

Before we dig into the shortcuts, let’s take a look at OS X’s keyboard settings, because there’s some interesting things you can do that have nothing to do with combinations and bindings. The first tab is dedicated to keyboard behavior, so if you want to adjust how fast keys repeat or whether functions keys use special features or act as standard function keys, you can do that here.

Of special note are the controls to adjust your keyboard’s backlight (such as on Macbooks). By default, in low light, your keyboard’s backlight will turn on whereas in bright light, it will turn off. If you just want to control that aspect of your computer yourself, you can uncheck this box.

On that note, the backlight’s timeout can be adjusted from five seconds to never. Setting the timeout is especially useful if you use your computer to watch movies in the dark. You can make volume adjustments and so forth, then the backlight will automatically turn off so it doesn’t distract you.

At the bottom of the Keyboard tab, the “Change Keyboard Type…” button will open a wizard that will ask you to press certain keys so it can identify it for you. This way, adding external keyboards is a breeze.

Of greater interest perhaps, is the option to adjust your modifier keys.

This is going to be useful if you’re using a non-Apple keyboard, such as the off-the-shelf standard 102-key variety, where the key layouts are different from Apple’s.

The Keyboard settings also have a “Text” tab, which is great if you use shorthand for certain oft-used phrases. In the following screenshot, you can see our custom replacements, which will automatically change when you use an applications like TextEdit or Messages, where shorthand might come in handy.

You can also turn off autocorrect, which doesn’t always appeal to everybody, choose your spelling dictionary, and enable or disable smart quotes and dashes. For anyone wondering how to adjust OS X’s text correction capabilities, this is it.

Finally, there’s Input Sources, wherein you’re able to add alternate keyboard languages and layouts. In the screenshot, we see how this looks when we select the Dvorak layout. It still uses the Latin alphabet but the nearly universal QWERTY layout has been transformed into something altogether different.

That’s all for these three Keyboard settings panels. Just remember, if you want to change your keyboard’s behavior, text and autocorrection, or your keyboard’s language or layout, this is where you do that.

Finding Your Inner Mac Keyboard Ninja with Shortcuts

Now it’s time to up your keyboard game. If you’re new to OS X or just have never learned any of its myriad combinations, here’s a good article to start with. Take some time also to familiarize yourself with the shortcuts you see on menus and throughout the system.

Look at all those keyboard shortcuts.

Mac shortcuts are a little different than on other systems. Macs use a series of symbols to denote modifiers. This takes a little getting used to because its not the same as seeing CTRL or ALT or SHIFT, but with a little patience and practice, you’ll have them mastered in short order.

A Quick Mac Keyboard Primer

With that said, why don’t we just go ahead and cover what all those little symbols mean?

Command is easy enough to figure out because that’s the so-called Apple Key, but what’s up with all those other funky modifier symbols?

Keys on a Mac keyboard have names, such as the aforementioned Command key, and then there’s the usual suspects like Option (Alt), Control, Escape, and so forth. Unfortunately, to write all these into the system would require way too much screen real estate. Menus would have to be super-wide to accommodate Command + Shift + Option and so forth, so Apple has incorporated a unique set of symbols to represent each.

Old school Mac users will likely know them all by heart, but new converts or casual keyboardists will probably find some of them head-scratching. In all practicality, you only really need to remember Control and Option.

Command and it’s associated symbol are usually printed right on the keyboard (or substituted as the Windows key on other keyboards). Shift is easy enough to figure out, Caps Lock is rarely used, and Function is pretty obvious.

The Shortcuts Tab

We’re going to wind up this article by finally talking about those keyboard shortcuts we’ve been alluding to throughout. The “Shortcuts” tab in the Keyboard preferences is your gateway to ultimate keyboard control on your OS X.

The Shortcuts settings have all the different aspects on OS X you can affect in the left pane, and the right pane breaks each one down into individual actions.

At the bottom of the settings there’s an option to control full keyboard access. What this means is that when you’re interacting with a window or dialog, you can select whether Tab will move keyboard focus between text boxes and lists only, or all controls.

In other words, tabbing through a dialog means that you’ll either move between a few elements or every element. Here’s how this will typically work.

Left: Text boxes and lists only. Right: All controls.

When you add or modify a shortcut, first select the type of shortcut you want to change. For example, let’s change how we take screenshots. By default when you take a screenshot you use the keyboard combination “Command + Shift + 3” and this will take a picture of your screen and save it to your desktop.

We double-click this shortcut’s key combo until it is selected, hold down the modifiers and then the new key. In the following example we’ve changed the “Save picture of screen as a file” to “Command + Shift + 1”.

If your change(s) result in a conflict, then an exclamation point in a yellow triangle will appear next to it, such as here where the Input Sources shortcuts conflict with Spotlight’s. In this case, the conflict is negligible but in other’s it might cause headaches so do your best to use a shortcut that isn’t already used, or change the shortcut with which it conflicts.

By default, the system already has a lot of shortcuts built into it. Many of these are universal and can’t be changed, but you can adjust them per application. For example, as detailed in this article, you can change the Quit shortcut for Google Chrome (or any other application), but you can’t change Quit system-wide.

The reason for this is very simple, you need to use the exact wording of the menu shortcut. Quit is different depending upon which application you’re using so it will be printed on the menu as “Quit Google Chrome” or “Quit iTunes,” and so forth.

You can, however, change other common application menu items such as “Window -> Minimize” because it is the same on every application.

Thus, the shortcut to minimize Windows will now be “Option + Command + M” instead of “Command + M” and this will be a system-wide change.

You can do this with other generic shortcuts like “Preferences…”, “Print”, and so on. You just need to make sure the menu text matches exactly regardless of whether it’s for all applications or you’re changing something that is application-specific.

As we mentioned, there’s quite a few shortcuts programmed into the system already, and there are many that aren’t.

Many system actions don’t have keyboard combinations.

Also, if at any time you decide you want to revert to the default shortcuts, or you’ve made a mess of things, you can click “Restore Defaults” and roll everything back.

That’s about it for all things OS X keyboard-related. It’s fairly easy to see why longtime Mac users are such enthusiastically emphatic keyboardists. Being able to not only use a keyboard shortcut to control system functions and application features, but also to add new shortcuts or change existing ones, are great powers to have.

We want to know about how you use shortcuts. Do you defer to the mouse for most or all your computing? What are some of your favorite or most useful shortcuts? Our discussion forum is open, we encourage your feedback.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 02/19/15
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