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Saturday, July 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Practical Mac: Navigating without a mouse

Special to The Seattle Times

"What did you just do?"

The question isn't accusatory but genuinely curious. I'm looking for some files on a friend's Mac but doing it without using the mouse.

Because I've used Macs for years, it's second-nature for me to navigate the Finder entirely using the keyboard. But for those who are relatively new to the platform (or to personal computing in general), the mouse appears to be the only way to get around.

In fact, a host of keyboard shortcuts and commands are at your fingertips (literally) that you may not know about. Most of them speed up common operations such as selecting and copying files, launching applications, and switching between windows.

While we wait to see if Apple releases rumored new Power Mac replacements at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference on Aug. 7, I thought I'd put a little extra "practical" in this week's Practical Mac.

Getting around: When I'm working in the Finder, I rarely touch the mouse. To demonstrate, let's suppose I want to locate a file named "Bills to Pay.xls" that's stored in my Documents folder. Since that folder is within my Home folder, I press Command-Shift-H to bring up a new window for the Home folder.

Command is the name of the key to the left of the spacebar, which is imprinted with an apple icon and a little clover character. That key is unique to Apple keyboards; if you're using a standard PC keyboard connected to your Mac, use the Windows key as the Command key.

To do the same with the mouse, you'd go to the Go menu and choose Home; in fact, the characters listed next to the menu items are the keyboard shortcuts.

Instead of pointing at the Documents folder, I simply start typing its name. Typing D highlights the first item beginning with D, Desktop, and typing O highlights Documents. This technique works in all Finder windows and most applications.

To open the Documents folder, I could press Command-O, which is the same as choosing Open from the File menu. However, I don't even do that: press Command and the down-arrow key instead to open the window. Think of using the arrow key as drilling down into the hierarchy of files and folders. The benefit here is that you can go back a step and press Command-up-arrow to navigate up the hierarchy.

Last, to select and open the file, I type B and I to select the "Bills to Pay.xls" file, and then press the Command-down-arrow key again to open the file, which also launches its parent application, in this case Microsoft Excel.

As you know, it's easy to end up with lots of open windows on your desktop, whether they're Finder windows or multiple open documents within an application.

To help organize things, Apple created Exposé in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger: Press F9 to view all open windows so they're not overlapping, or press F10 to do the same with just the windows of the active application.

I use Exposé on occasion when the number of windows gets particularly hairy on my Mac, but 90 percent of the time I invoke Command-~ (that's Command plus the tilde key, the one at the upper-left corner of the keyboard next to the number 1 key).

This simple combination brings open windows to the front of the desktop one by one. Usually I switch between two or three Finder windows or Word documents, depending on what I'm working on.

A similar shortcut will shuttle you through your open applications, saving a mouse trip to the Dock: Press and hold Command-Tab to bring up a bar containing the icons of the applications.

While still holding down the Command key, press Tab again to highlight the next application to the right; if you hold the Tab key down, the selection automatically moves to each application in turn.

You can also hold the Shift key to move from right to left on the bar. (And if you have your other hand on the mouse already, you can also move the cursor to the application icon you want.) When you reach the application you want to activate and bring to the front of your workspace, just release the Command and Tab keys.

Application launching: If this keyboard sleight of hand is old news to you, let me entice you with what has become my most invaluable piece of software: LaunchBar (www.launchbar.com, $20). With LaunchBar installed, I can open applications without going to the Applications folder. I press Command-spacebar to activate LaunchBar, and then start typing the name of the application.

Under Tiger, Command-spacebar activates the Spotlight search feature, which can also accomplish the same thing by typing an application's name. However, I found that LaunchBar is much quicker.

Plus, I can also type lots of other things, such as someone's name to bring up their Address Book entry, to get at my information faster, or the name of a song to play it in iTunes. (A similar utility is Quicksilver — quicksilver.blacktree.com — which I haven't used recently.)

Obviously, it took much more text here to describe what are actually quick and simple actions. But once you start using keyboard shortcuts like this, you'll wonder why your mouse has gotten so much attention over the years.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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