MacMost Now 596: Understanding the Function Keys

The function keys, also called the F-keys, serve two purposes on your Mac. Found at the top of all Apple keyboards, these keys can be used for special functions like volume control, iTunes playback or accessing Mission Control. But they can also be used as F1, F2, F3, etc., keys. Find out how to switch between the two modes.

Video Transcript
Hi. This is Gary with MacMost Now. On today's episode, let's look at the function keys.
So I get a lot of questions that can be answered by simply knowing a little bit more about the function keys, or F keys, at the top of Mac keyboards. If you look at the top of a Mac keyboard, whether it's part of a MacBook or the keyboard that comes with an iMac, you can see these function keys at the top. They start with F1 on the left, next to the Escape key, and go all the way to the right. Now there's also special symbols on a lot of these function keys. See, these function keys actually have two different purposes.
There's also a different number of them, depending upon the keyboard you have. For instance, on my Bluetooth keyboard, I've got only up to F12. However, an Apple extended keyboard has up to F19. In addition to that, the symbols on them change over the years. For instance, the latest MacBook Airs have a special symbol on them for mission control, whereas older ones, they only have symbols for volume control and for iPod-like functions, like playing a song, next, previous tracks, things like that.

Now the key to understanding these keys is to look at System Preferences under Keyboard, and then make sure Keyboard is selected, not Keyboard Shortcuts. And you'll see this option here for 'Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys', so when this is turned off, then all those special symbols indicate what the keys do. For instance, the ones with the volume buttons will then control volume up and down, the brightness ones, the mission control or expose keys - they'll all work as those special symbols indicate. However, if you turn this on, now those keys work as F1, F2, and so forth keys, which means that they'll activate keyboard shortcuts that correspond to those keys.

Now some people don't see this, because they never see the F keys used anywhere in programs they use. And in fact, all the iLight and iWork applications, they rarely if ever use the F keys. But if you use software, say, from Adobe, like PhotoShop here, they're used a lot, for instance, in the Window menu here, you can see F5 here is a shortcut for bringing up brushes. So if I hit F5, you can see that brushes appear. And there's all sorts of other ones in here. You can see, for instance, Shift-F5 will fill an area.
So Adobe uses these a lot and so do a lot of other applications. So whether you have these set up as F1, F2 keys or set up as special function keys depends on how you use your Mac. Someone uses, say, Photoshop a lot, they want to have these as the F keys. Someone who doesn't use them at all as keyboard shortcuts may want to have them set up to use volume, brightness, and the iTunes control keys.
But there is a way to quickly switch between them. If you look on your keyboard, there's an fn key. Now it's a different place on different keyboards. For instance, sometimes it's at the lower left. My Apple extended keyboard actually has it near the upper right, just to the right of the Delete key. So look for that fn key, and that toggles the use of these function keys back and forth. Kind of like the Shift key, how that affects like say, lower case and upper case. The fn key affects whether or not you're using these as F keys or as special function keys. So if you have it to be used as special function keys, control, say, your volume, and then you quickly want to use one of these F key shortcuts, you can hold the fn key and then press, say, F9, and that will actually be F9. Without holding down the fn key, F9 will be whatever the special function is for your keyboard.
So the fn key means you always have access to both the sets of functions for these F keys. And the System Preference allows you to choose which way the fn key goes, whether it gives you the F keys or whether it gives you the special function keys.
And I should also note that those keys that don't have a special function, like, for instance, the keys all up at F17, 18, 19 on my extended keyboard, or even some of the keys on my Bluetooth keyboard, like F5 and F6, they'll work as F keys whether or not you have the fn key pressed or not, or which system preference you have set. So if there's no special function, it's always an F key.
And you can always set your own keyboard shortcuts for these functions as well. Go into Keyboard Keyboard and then set it so it's checked, so you're using it as function keys. Then go to Keyboard Shortcuts and you'll see, for instance, Mission Control in a line(*) Show Desktop and Show Dashboard are F11 and F12. You can set your own, say, Show Launchpad. When I click here, where you can put your keyboard shortcut, and I can set it to F7, or I can even do something like Shift Option command F8, by holding down those keys and clicking on them there. If I had this turned off, I could set the same keyboard shortcut, but I'd need to hold down the fn key as well. So fn F7 gives me F7. And I would activate that with fn F7. That brings up launchpad.
So it can get a little bit confusing, because there are two ways to switch between how these function keys work. So when in doubt, just set System Preference either way, and then remember to use the fn key to get the opposite functionality for those f keys. Hope you found this useful. Til next time, this is Gary with MacMost Now.

Comments: 4 Responses to “MacMost Now 596: Understanding the Function Keys”

    Mr Anthony Cotton
    8/25/11 @ 12:03 pm

    Again you have touched on a topic that is not on any other website. This is what i like about this site. The keys you mentioned might as well come from Mars. I use Photoshop a lot, and i do use a couple of shortcut keys. I have never used the keys you have mentioned. I was looking at my keyboard while i was watching your video,and i said to my self yes i will give these a go. Thanks Gary

    Mr Anthony Cotton
    10/7/12 @ 6:07 am

    On your keyboard in the video, my keyboard is exactly the same has yours,but yours has Control,Option,Command,Shift,and Caps lock printed on your keyboard,but mine hasn’t, just symbols. The keyboard with the new iMac that came, is also the same. You said in your video it`s some times confusing. I use Photoshop a lot,but when i am on the internet the keys- Control,Option,and Command are said in, say a Photoshop Tutorial,and i get lost off. Can you get printed labels to stick onto these keys. It would make my life a lot easier Gary.

      10/7/12 @ 9:27 am

      I’ve never seen stickers, but I suppose you could use a label printer, or just a marker.

    Mr Anthony Cotton
    10/8/12 @ 11:55 am

    Thanks for your answer Gary.

Comments Closed.