Access All Areas

Keyboard AccessOften, it takes me a while to warm up to software features that more savvy users begin taking advantage of as soon as a publisher unleashes them. Case in point: I’ve been running Mac OS X for over two years and Panther practically since the first weekend it was launched, but it’s only been in the past few weeks that I’ve been using the operating system’s improved Full Keyboard Access feature.

This addition to Mac OS X 10.3.x allows users to control just about anything you can click on with a mouse by using only the keyboard. It’s something that Windows has had for a long, long time, and in spite of my frequent dismissive remarks about that OS, this is one area where Microsoft has a long usability lead; Apple is a latecomer and it shows.

Apple Keyboard

Playing Catch Up

To be sure, I’m delighted that it’s now possible to select any of the items from an application’s menu bar, e.g., File, Edit, View, etc., with just a touch of the keyboard. It makes one-handed operation of the computer much easier, and it often eliminates the need to switch to a mousing device, which is a big help to me since I use a Wacom tablet.

But I’ve been struggling to integrate it with my workflow smoothly. To begin with, the default method of invoking access to the menu bar — control-shift-F1 — is convoluted enough on my desktop Macintosh. But on my PowerBook, I must also add the Fn key in order to modify the F1 key so that it, er, functions like an F1 key. Apple should have made this feature as readily apparent as the Windows key, which is one of the clearest, smartest things that Microsoft ever did in conferring power-user level control to beginning users.

Windows users also benefit from having had this feature widely available in the operating system’s APIs for much longer. Thanks to the way Mac OS X is structured, there’s some level of keyboard access in most all applications, so one can count on, at least, being able to navigate a program’s menu items via keyboard. But few applications outside of Apple’s own have yet integrated the feature fully. So I can invoke a menu item that calls up a dialog box, for example, but I still can’t manipulate the menu item’s radio buttons, pull-down menus or check boxes. This is sure to improve with time, but it’s frustrating to me to still be behind the curve in this major area of usability.



  1. In case you haven’t seen it, the latest version of Panther has an Fn switch option, that lets you access the F-keys by just pressing them, and makes you press the fn key to adjust brightness, volume, etc (which is the way it should be).

  2. I read about that Fn switch option and even found it once, but when I went to look for it recently, I couldn’t recall where it was — I wasn’t looking that hard, though. Still, I actually like the way the Fn keys work by default, i.e. they control screen brightness and volume rather than acting like Fn keys, since I rarely use F1, F2 etc. Or at least, I like having hardware buttons to control those hardware functions.

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