Obviously, Apple has a long-standing love affair with the mouse. Fair enough, they’re damn useful things. However, some people prefer to use the keyboard wherever possible. For example:
- My wife prefers keyboard shortcuts, because she has a bad wrist and using a mouse for more than a couple of minutes is agony.
- I prefer keybaord shortcuts, because I find the mouse is slow and imprecise for performing repetitive actions, and my time is important to me. Also, if I perform those actions a lot, it hurts my wrist too.
Macs have always had a bit of a reputation for being poor when it comes to keyboard shortcuts, but one of the things that sold me on the Mac last year was that Apple are supposed to have improved shortcuts considerably in the last few years. Well if the iMac I have in front of me represents an improvement in keyboard support, I shudder to think what old Macs must have been like.
Take iCal, for example. How do I switch between the Calendars, day view, and To Dos panes via the keyboard? How do I create a new To Do and choose its category via the keyboard? How do I get to the info drawer via the keyboard? That’s right – I can’t. And yet these are all fundamental actions that you need to do all the time when using iCal.
(While I’m bitching about iCal – try clicking the day view pane, then scrolling a long list of To Dos half-way down by dragging its scrollbar with the mouse, then clicking a To Do to select it. iCal helpfully jumps back to the top of the list, selecting the wrong To Do entirely, and making you lose where you were in the list. Nice.)
Or let’s have a look at Image Capture, for scanning documents. Now let me see – what’s the one button you’re likely to press time and again when scanning a multi-page document? That’s right, the Scan button. And what’s the keyboard shortcut for the Scan button, hmm? …Anyone? …Bueller? Actually, Image Capture teases you. You can enable full keyboard access (Control-F1) then press the instantly-memorable Command-Option-` to move focus out of the drawer, then press the Tab key to tab between the Options, Overview and (yes!) Scan button at the bottom of the window. But then… you can’t select the Scan button! Return… Space… Command+O… nothing works. Brilliant. They’ve really thought this through haven’t they!
Spell-checking in Mail’s a classic, but at least there’s a solution for this one. You can bring up the spell checker dialog with Command-:, but how do you close the spell checker dialog via the keyboard? Esc doesn’t work because the dialog doesn’t have focus. Command+accent doesn’t switch to it either, like you’d expect. After about four months I worked it out: you have to press the “just pops into your head” shortcut of Control-F6, followed by Esc to close the dialog. Not exactly intuitive is it, for something you want to do every time you spellcheck your mail message.
I could go on all day, so I’d best wrap up: Apple’s keyboard shortcut support feels distinctly “bolted on”, and it feels like you’re fighting the OS every step of the way if you want to do things via the keyboard rather than via the mouse. Windows and GNOME are light-years ahead of Mac OS when it comes to keyboard support – shortcuts are usually comprehensive, consistent and memorable, and you can easily access any option in the menu with a couple of keystrokes. Yes I know you can assign arbitrary keyboard shortcuts (that you then have to memorise, mind) to most application menu options via System Prefs>Keyboard & Mouse, but why should you have to bother? Aren’t computers all about saving time? And what happens if you need to use someone else’s Mac for a day?
Apple have some catching up to do, it seems.