Saturday, September 16, 2006

Take a shortcut!

In the previous posts focus was on keyboard shortcuts. But what makes something a shortcut actually? Obviously to perform an action with one or more keystrokes as long as it is quicker than with help of a mouse. Nowadays I hardly use the mouse. I still use the mouse occasionally to navigate within my Internet browser. Personally I think there's still no good keyboard alternative, I mean, there are shortcuts, but it's not perfect. Maybe I will spend another post on this subject sometime.
Keyboard shortcuts can be implemented in various ways. I would like to group them into three categories.

  1. Launchers
  2. Hotkey's
  3. Active Strings

What they all have in common is that by merely using the keyboard actions can be performed like launching a program, a macro or a script, opening a document or going to a web site. The identified groups can also work together. For the record, this blog does not write about application shortcuts. The only reason is that I wouldn't know where to start with; there are so many! But that shouldn't keep you from using them! Maybe when I run out of ideas I will write some interesting stuff about application shortcuts, but for the time being there's enough material to write about the system wide or global shortcuts.

1. Launchers

It may come to a surprise and not look obvious, but launchers can be excellent shortcuts as long as you can start them with the keyboard. I know that many launchers are designed to be operated by a mouse, the "point and shoot" kind of. But even those launchers can be activated by a keystroke in most cases. As an example the most commonly used (and controversial) launcher is the Start Menu. It is tempting to click that shiny button with the mouse and wade through all the menu's until you reach the program you want to launch. But what's wrong hitting the Win-key (or Ctrl+Esc if your keyboard doesn't have one), subsequently hit a letter with an underscore (e.g. "P" for Programs), and than hitting the first letter in the menu that contains what you want to open or launch. And if you need to open a submenu first just hit Enter or the Right Arrow key. Of course you can scroll through the menu's by using the arrow keys, but that is mostly not efficient. E.g. it only takes me six keystrokes to launch a start menu program called "SyncToy": Win-key, P (opens up the Program Menu), S, S, S, and finally S. This takes about 3 seconds. By the way, I needed to hit S a couple of times, because there were other entries (submenu's and programs) also starting with a S, so the number of keystrokes may vary per user - if you're lucky one S will do. Alternativally you can hold down the S and the system will automatically wade through all the entries starting with a S. If you make use of "pinned-to-the-start menu" programs, starting a program will be even faster. And if you use a program often it appears in main menu, so you don't have to open up the program menu at all. So, for me the Start Menu isn't so bad after all. Launchers do not have to be menu driven as in the previous example. The Run command dialog box (shortcut Win+R), for instance, is a launcher where you just type what you want to launch. I will come back to launchers in more detail at some other time.

2. Hotkey

This category is very common and doesn't really need an introduction. In my view every combination of keystrokes that start up something is a hotkey. The number of keys doesn't count as long as you can manage to hit them all at once, e.g. Win and Ctrl+Win and Ctrl+Alt+Win and Ctrl+Alt+Win+P are all hotkey's. Most things can be achieved using 1 to 3 keys; hotkey's with more than 3 keys are often hard to remember and are difficult to handle. Avoid hotkey's that cramp your fingers! There are special tools to define hotkey's. I'll come back to that.

3. Active Strings

Active Strings (or hot strings or active words) are not widely known shortcuts. And you need a special tool for it. In other words, this feature is not built into the operating system. But because active strings are so convenient I assigned a separate category to them. I will tell you a lot more about this later, but to give you an idea just think about the AutoCorrect, AutoText, AutoFormat and Smart Tags you'll find in Word. Only Active Strings can do a lot more than that.

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