Command+Q, Command+W, Alt+Tab and Other Keyboard Stories

I am sure I am not alone amongst the people new to Mac OS X and familiar with Windows but initially I didn’t like the Command+W (Mac OS X – Close Window) and Command+Q (Mac OS X – Quit Application) over Alt+F4 (Windows – Close Window or Application). Skip a few weeks on though and I really like the Mac model of quitting windows and applications. I think the shift in my attitude towards this is mainly for three reasons:

  • The consistency with which these key combinations are implemented within applications. They always just work, predictably. Ctrl+W is implemented in some Windows applications but so inconsistently that I forget it works.
  • The key combinations are very easy to press with one hand (something Alt+F4 couldn’t ever be accused of :) and are extremely natural once learned so that using them takes almost zero cognitive power between the thought to close an application or a window and the window closing. The interface is most definitely not getting in the way here.
  • The fact that Command+Q works from within the Command+Tab application switch view. It is extremely quick to just move your hand between the Q and Tab keys while holding down Command to quickly quit many applications. This is the “killer app” for this shortcut ;)

Command+Tab (Alt+Tab in Windows) is a bit of a different story for me though and I am not won over with this one yet. I know there are many other ways of switching windows in Mac OS, but as a windows user for such a long time I just can’t help my hand naturally hitting Command+Tab when I want to switch windows. My main issue with this feature in Mac OS is that it shows applications rather than windows and while I can completely understand the design decisions made but I am still at the stage of hitting this when wanting to switch between windows rather than purely applications. I also find it confusing to see what are basically background applications (Quicksilver, Adium, Finder with no open windows) listed in this view and I waste a lot of time tabbing around applications in this view.


I think what I have to do here is start using Expose more and as I am writing this post up, I have mapped it to a mouse button to try and make it more accessible (Fn+F9 as a default pretty much ensured that I didn’t use it :)

There is one more thing about the Command+Tab view that I am going to mention in this post even though it has nothing to do with the keyboard. I love that the icons are drawn dynamically so for example I can see new mail in the Mail icon, I can see my new posts in my NetNewsWire icon and I can see who sent me a message in my Adium icon. I am surprised this is not being used in more innovative ways if (as I suspect) a mac application is responsible for drawing its dock icon just like any other part of its interface rather than simply showing an icon like in Windows.

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41 responses to “Command+Q, Command+W, Alt+Tab and Other Keyboard Stories

  1. I’m a long time Windows (and Mac) user who’s also dealt with this a little. As you stated in your post Command+Tab switches between running applications, but you can also hit Command+` to cycle windows WITHIN an application.

    I know this isn’t exactly like windows Alt+Tab, but it’s pretty close. And since Tab and ` are so close to each other it’s convinient as well. Personally, I like Expose the best, but I definately sympathis with you seeing that I use Windows for a good part of the day and then transition to the Mac.

  2. For the Expose and fn+F9 combo… Why don’t you apply the mouse gesture with Active Screen Corners for the expose, dashboard, etc.? Go to System Preferences > Dashboard & Expose and set the active screen corners to your prefs. That way you expose all of the open windows (or just one app, or show your desktop…) by just dragging the mouse pointer to the corner of your screen. I got so used to this I catch myself doing the same thing on my windows machine at work. It sucks to find out that it’s not working there. :)

  3. I have been a mac user for the last 1 1/2 years and totally agree with you on the Command+Tab issue. I might be able to count on my ten fingers the number of times I have actually used the Command+Tab feature ;-)

    I have got used the following three modes for switching windows/apps:

    1. Exposé – brilliant
    2. Command+

  4. Pierce Glennie

    Personally I almost always use exposé – it works wonderfully!

    Why not change the keyboard shortcut for exposé to make it easier to press. On my iBook the F9 – F11 keys aren’t used for anything else so at least I do not have to press “fn”.

    The only problem with using expsé all of the time is that it means that I almost forget how to switch windows on a PC – it comes naturally to press the F9 – F11 keys. Personally I have never really used Alt + Tab even when I used to be a windows user. I didn’t use a lot of keyboard shortcuts in windows as most seemed soo unnatural.

  5. You might check out the extraordinary Witch:, that lets you switch apps and windows in a very powerful way. Peter Maurer is one of those Mac developers who dreams up all sorts of classy productivity tools and Witch is no exception.

  6. > but you can also hit Command+` to cycle windows
    > WITHIN an application.

    Perfect, I didn’t know that! Very useful.

  7. The first thing I do on Apple notebooks is switch the F buttons to be software related, in system preferences.

    F9 is better than Fn + F9.

    I also find that assigning the bottom right screen corner to expose makes things much easier and more intuitive than pressing F9. I can just throw my mouse to the bottom corner of the screen and it invokes Expose.

    I love Expose. Its one of the few things I wish Microsoft would just unashamedly steal for Vista (Flip and Flip3d do not cut the mustard)

  8. Ton, thats perfect. I have blogged it straight away.

  9. Cmd+H is my personal favourite. It’s quick; and if you use Onyx or Tinker Tool you can enable the hidden option to make hidden apps appear transparent in the dock so you can better see hidden apps. For Exposé, I’m with everybody else that the screen corners rule. I put All Windows in the bottom left, and the Desktop on the right. That way you can drag things into the corners to invoke Expose.

    There is also a lot I don’t like about Apple shortcuts. Nearly all of them are one key too many. For example, rather than being able to navigate folders with Enter/Backspace, as you can in Explorer; you have to use Cmd+Up/Down. Also the Home and End keys are all but useless; I’ve always preferred Window’s quick way to select lines, or go to the end with Shif+End, or Shift+Ctrl+End (Which is Cmd+Shift+PgDown on OSX, with an added fn for laptop users). New folder in iTunes is Alt+Shift+Cmd+N! >.

  10. (an emote here broke your page, darned angled brackets)

    I just found something out though. If you have your laptop keys with fn-lock on; and press Alt+Sound the sound preferences load; or Alt+Brightness, the display preferences load, or Alt+KeyLight for Keyboard & mouse. neat!

  11. Pingback: My Journey to Macintosh » Witch

  12. Being another keyboard fan, one thing I still can’t get around is how to temperory stop OSX’s use of Function keys in Excel.

    In Excel lots of function keys have specific usages (eg, F9 for calculate). But since OSX use F9 for expose I need to go to the toolbar to do the Calculate, or go to Preferece-Keyboard to switch the function keys off. I wonder if there is any quicker way to do so?

  13. Have you ever tried Command+? At least on a german keyboard layout this switches between windows.

  14. for some reason it does not show the combination I wanted to type. The shortcut I was suggesting is command + (the key next to the left shift key, the symbol that is also used to open e.g. HTML tags)
    Sorry for double posting

  15. Gecko:
    “the symbol that is also used to open e.g. HTML tags”

    Do you mean Command+<? It opens an application’s preferences for me.

  16. This is very true, i noticed in you +tab screenshot you are using grab, are you aware that +shift+3/4 will also allow you to make a screenshot?

  17. Ollie:
    I needed to use Grab because I needed a timed screenshot :) If you try and use Command+Shift+3/4 then you cant have the Command+Tab screen up.

    For most stuff, I love the basic screen capture.

  18. Yes, that´s the shortcut I meant. For some reason it turned to a question mark after I had sent the post.
    So there really seems to be a different Shortcut layout for german keyboards, because I open the application’s preferences with
    command + , (comma, just in case)

  19. For the Expose and fn+F9 combo… check out this hint on macOSXhints Until I used this hint to implement the control + comma, control + period, and control + slash Expose commands I rarely used Expose on my laptop too.

  20. Gecko:
    I think thats just the keyboard layout. The < key on this keyboard is Shift+, so Command+< is actually the same as Command+,

    Don’t you love globalisation issues :)

  21. Hey. As stated above, I am a HUGE fan of the expose mouse corners. I have the lower left set to show desktop, the lower right set to dashboard, and the upper right to show all windows. I love it because it stays out of the way and its easy when your dragging finder items to get to the desktop.

    Try it out!

  22. But I am a keyboard junkie :)

  23. Looking at your open apps, I MUST reccomend that you try Vienna over NetNewsWire. Well, maybe not, but depending on how ytou like to read your news. The shortcoming I found with NNW Lite was how it allows you to sort posts. I couldn’t find a combo that worked well for me. In Vienna, there is a Smart List that shows all unread articles, and you can sort them a variety of ways. I like mine chronologically, oldest at the top. Couldn’t do that in NNWL. With Vienna, then, you put a thumb on the spacebar and pinky on Return, and hit space to mark an article read and move down to the next newest, and if you want to open the article you are looking at in a browser, you just hit Return. space space space Return space Return space space space space… you can see how fast you can run through your articles and then cmd+tab to the browser and you can read the full articles for all the ones you were interested in. Fast and useful!

  24. Here’s something cool. If you have a ton of windows open in a single app (say a bunch of finder windows) then you can use Command+Option+W to close all of them at once.

  25. Figures…all you windows users and your crazy keyboard infatuations! :D

  26. An add-on that will cure your issues with Command+Tab and is a much better implementation of Apple’s Command+Tab is LiteSwitch X. This is the third party application that Apple ripped off when they added the improved Command+Tab functionality to Mac OS X 10.3 but it offers a few extra features like the ability to cancel a quit command if you accidentally quit the wrong application, the ability to exclude applications from the list, and the ability to Force Quit an application that has locked up (just double tap F). Another neat trick in LiteSwitch X is to hit H to hide the selected application (I can’t remember if this works in Apple’s or not). It also has some nice options for the window layering so you can set it to bring all the windows of an application forward when you switch.

    Generally in my experience with getting people to switch to Mac OS the hardest thing for former Windows users to get down seems to be the fact that Mac OS is application-centric while Windows is window-centric. There are some inconsistencies in Mac OS X that really don’t help new users get a grip on this though. Some single window application quit when you close the window but some don’t. I believe the current Apple human interface guidelines state that single window applications should quit when closed but even some of the Apple applications don’t follow this guideline.

    Anyway check out LiteSwitch X, I think you will like it.

  27. I actually love cmd+tab, have been using is the day I got switched and the best feature about it is that you can bring out the bar with cmd+tab and then select the app you wnat with your mouse.

    When occasionally needing to use Windows, it’s annoying as hell, that I can’t select the app I need with a mouse in alt+tab.

  28. To prevent Quicksilver showing up in the cmd-tab application switcher, open Quicksilver preferences and uncheck the “Show icon in dock” option (you will have to relaunch QS for this to take effect – just hit ctrl-cmd-q to do this – QS will launch again immediately after quitting).

    NB: this will mean that you can only invoke Quicksilver using the keyboard shortcut or via the menu bar icon. Personally, I uncheck “Show icon in menu bar” too, so that QS is completely invisible when in the background.

  29. Here’s another quickie shortcut: as long as you’re not already in the Finder, to quickly close all windows and display your desktop (which is the Finder), Option+Command+click the desktop. (Nothing happens if you’re already in the Finder).


  30. Just FYI again, you can use Ctrl+F4 in 9X & XP to close windows in applications with multiple windows/tabs/files open. Works for things like Firefox, mIRC, Word, etc.

  31. Sure, Ctrl+F4 works for closing MDI windows, mostly… and it is the mostly that gets it :) In all Mac apps that I have seen, no matter the type of window, Ctrl+W always closes the current window. That sort of consistency is hard to beat.

  32. Other screen capture options not mentioned:

    Kinda like print screen as it wont put the image on the desktop but you can paste the shot.

    Apple+Shift+4+Space A camera appears and you can grab windows.

    Loads of shortcut peeps LOVE Quickeys:

    When using F9 etc hold shift for the Matrix feel…

    Just my two pence.

  33. What do you think of command-` (command-tilde) for switching between windows? This is a standard menu equivalent across apps.

    Have you used it?

  34. @PBenz: Nice tip, I like that.

    @Drew: I am currently using that because Witch isn’t working out because of the bug in it.

  35. Great blog. I switched over 4 years ago and thought I had a pretty firm grasp on most of the more common keyboard shortcuts, however the cmdQ within cmdTAB was a great tip! Also cmd` for switching windows within apps is another neat one I didn’t know about.

  36. memet Bilgin

    I just got a mac book too, and am transitioning from Windows power usage.
    The problem most people don’t get when talking about expose is that there are some of us who use the keyboard really fast. ALT+TAB/CTRL+TAB were excellent and quick ways to get around. I agree that expose is awesome, but for a programmer that switches windows pretty much as they type (and believe me, this is common), switching back and forth from mouse to keyboard is unacceptable.

    That being said, I did learn some great stuff in here, namely Command+H (equivalent of Win Chord: ALT+SPACE N). And Command+` and Command+TAB are pretty much equivalent to the good ol’ CTRL/ALT+TAB

  37. Another tip…

    You can use ctrl-F4 to cycle through all open windows in all applications in Tiger.

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