Keyboard navigation in a GUI world

Filed under Hacks & mods;

Computers have come a long way since the Apple II, with important improvements to both hardware and software. But along the way, a few valuable computing aspects were lost.

A recent story looks at features that lost the evolutionary war: "… there are some things they don’t do that the old, slow, often command-line-intead-of-GUI-oriented applications did." The first page of the story focuses on the losses associated with the transition from a command-line interface (CLI) to a graphical user interface (GUI). One consultant laments the loss of programmable function keys and other shortcuts that extended keyboards once offered. These features were never available to the Apple II user, but I can commiserate with the need for shortcuts that don’t require a pointing device.

My first six years as a Macintosh predominantly took the form of a laptop (a PowerBook 1400cs) with an external trackball (an ADB Kensington TurboMouse). That trackball had four buttons that could be programmed for a variety of custom functions, such as right-clicking or switching applications. My right hand rarely strayed from that device, as it was impossible to use Mac OS Classic without it.

After switching to Mac OS X on December 7, 2003, I began to rely less and less. I found this reinvention of the Macintosh operating system featured keyboard-based shortcuts that I’d previously used the TurboMouse for. Now, I could switch windows, applications, and more while keeping my hands on the keyboard. In this way, OS X is actually a bit more similar to the Apple II with which I grew up. Navigating Microsoft Word will never be as intuitive or efficient as using AppleWorks, but it’s a bit closer.

With all my Macs having always been portable, it’s important for such power to be inbuilt, though I imagine those with desktop computers might enjoy the options such a stable position brings. For example, Andrew Plotkin, in an interview with The Setup (the same site that previously interviewed Bert Kersey), recommended the Matias Tactile Pro 3 keyboard, saying, "If your typing doesn’t sound like a hailstorm on a tin roof, you’re not typing." (This is despite the keyboard being connected to a MacBook Pro; says Plotkin, "I essentially never move it — I’m not a laptop person at heart.")

As a former or current Apple II user, by what input device or method do you prefer to navigate your modern computer? Is there particular hardware you favor or recommend?

  1. My preferred input device is still the keyboard, and I also miss having keyboard shortcuts for repetitive actions. For example, in Photoshop Elements, I don’t bother initiate scanning FROM that application, even though there is a menu entry for it, because it takes a few steps to do. If I could apply a keyboard shortcut to it, I might use that more often.

    AppleWorks (on the Apple II) had many shortcuts, both build-in and programmable (via UltraMacros). That was the ultimate in adaptability!

  2. Michael Kent says:

    The GS Finder actually does a pretty good job of allowing the use of the keyboard for navigation and shortcuts. For example, in a volume window you can type a letter key on the keyboard, and Finder will highlight the first icon alphabetically that begins with that letter. You can continue typing a filename or then use the arrow keys to navigate through the icons in the window.

    Then there’s the tunneling feature….


  3. Yeah, I definitely get annoyed when I have to take my right hand off the keyboard and reach for the mouse. This happens mostly when I want to make a selection of text to copy to the clipboard.

  4. The keyboard. I went from the Apple II to the Alpha Micro (dumb terminals) to UNIX (more dumb terminals). I’ve always hacked away at a keyboard. Somewhere between the Alpha Micro and UNIX I got a Mac 512K to replace my Apple II as my personal computer. I only used it for two apps: MacWrite for my resume and Zterm as a VT series terminal to UNIX machines. I even installed a UNIX shell on the Mac so that I could use that instead of Finder. Actually there was a 3rd app: Tetris, which also used keys. Tetris was my Apple II Loderunner replacement for mild problem solving and entertainment.

    John Hedtke’s comment about the CONTROL key from the article is spot on. Fortunately, you can remap the CAPS LOCK on OS/X with almost no effort. Works with all Apple keyboards.

    I do not like mice, and I do not like taking my hands off the keyboard. Or using arrow keys if I can avoid it. That is why I use the VI editor in X11 on OS/X. If I have to use a mouse then I prefer the trackpoint enabled keyboards, sadly this is not an option with Apple, so at times my right hand has to drift left (when at home with Magic Pad) or down then traveling. This is inefficient.


    0. Use all the Mac short cuts you can (System Prefs, Keyboard Shortcuts)
    1. Remap the caps lock to control (System Prefs, Keyboard, Modifier Keys).
    2. I use X11/xterm (but terminal also works) as my finder. I use cd, cp, rm, etc… and if I need to open a file then I type “open filename” and if it’s a long file I use tab completion (something the Apple II needs :-). “open .” or “open dirname” will launch finder with that directory.
    3. To find a file or launch a program I use Command-Space to startup spotlight. Then I arrow down to the results I need.
    4. To manage windows use Mercury Mover. However it does not work with X11, so for that I have to use wmctrl.
    5. ctrl-shift-f2 to get to the menu bar. You’ll thank me for this when your batteries die in your BT trackpad.
    6. From the CLI use “hdiutil detach” to eject things.
    7. Command-K if I need to connect to a drive or service from Finder.
    8. Change the Tab in Syspref/Keyboard to switch focus to “all controls”.

    As for physical gear. I like the Apple keyboards (internal to my Air and my BT keyboard). I like the low profile and quieter keys. I think it’s a perfect keyboard.

    I stopped using mice in 1996 when I got my first IBM Thinkpad and was quickly converted to the trackpoint. I have two IBM travel/rack keyboards at home with this integrated as well. Sadly when I went back to Mac I had to learn to like the trackpad. The gestures support is a real winner here and tap to touch make a lot of sense to me. So, I’ve adapted.