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Mac: The Option Key

Dip into the creamy wonders of the Option key.

#8 • July 25, 2016

Welcome to Value Berry number eight! I’m your host, Justin Michael, and today I’m going to reveal an incredible wealth of functionality hidden behind the humble, unassuming Option key on your Mac.

The Option key is the unsung hero of modifier keys on the Mac. The Command key is usually the one in the spotlight, basking in the fame and attention that comes from being used for the most popular keyboard shortcuts (like cut, copy, and paste), but you’ll be surprised at the power lurking behind the relatively obscure Option key.

The Option key is so named because the intent behind the key is to give you access to another option or some kind of alternative. The symbol that represents the option key (⌥) is inspired by an electrical circuit symbol for an SPDT switch, which allows the current to flow down one of two available paths depending on how the switch is set. The symbol is easy to interpret as taking another road, a train track switch, or an abstract diagram representing an alternate path. Personally, I like to think of it as a hyphen going down a playground slide, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with what the Option key actually does.

So what alternatives does the Option key give you access to? There are so many! The Option key is, in many ways, like ranch dressing: it pairs well with so many things and, occasionally, it’s fun to have all by itself!

First, you’ve got the caret. Just as ranch dressing goes great with carrots, the Option key pairs well with the caret (c-a-r-e-t, meaning the blinking vertical bar that represents the text insertion point on your screen). Normally the arrow keys on your keyboard will move the caret left or right one character, or up and down one line. However, with the Option key, things become much more interesting. Holding Option and hitting left or right will move the caret one word at a time instead of just one character at a time. Likewise, combining the Option key with the up and down arrows lets you go up or down one paragraph instead of only a single line at a time. This lets you navigate text using just the keyboard much, much faster.

Next up: accents and special characters. The Option key allows you to easily type numerous special characters, including accented characters, like the first E in “sautéed”, which has an acute accent. To type the word “sautéed” just type normally until you get to the first E, then hit Option E to type the acute accent, then hit the E key normally to produce the accented é. Did you know that croutons are often sautéed? Those go great with ranch, too.

All kinds of special characters are available with just a couple of keystrokes. One I use all the time is Option 8, which produces a bullet. This one is easy to remember because the asterisk on the 8 key is usually a stand in for a bullet (but now you can type the real thing easily if you want to). Going one step further, you can also add the Shift key into the mix to access even more symbols. Option Shift 8, for example, produces a degrees symbol.

To see all the things you can type with the aid of the Option key, turn on Keyboard Viewer, which will give you a realtime preview of what you can type when you hold down the modifier keys. To open Keyboard Viewer, click on the Apple menu in the top left corner, choose System Preferences, click on Keyboard, go to the Input Sources tab, and make sure Show Input menu in menu bar is checked. Then, in your menu bar, click on the Input menu bar item (which looks like a little window with the Command key’s clover symbol in it) and choose Show Keyboard Viewer. Once the Keyboard Viewer appears, hold down Option and all the symbols you can type with it will appear. Hold down both Option and Shift to see even more!

But what about the mouse? Does the Option key work with it, too? You bet it does! If you hold Option and click on an app you’re not currently using you’ll switch to that app as usual, but the app you were just using will be hidden, all in one quick step! Just like hiding a salad under a healthy dose of ranch dressing!

The Option key can also be used to reveal alternate button and widget functionality. For example, in the Finder’s list view, holding Option while clicking on the disclosure triangle next to a folder will reveal the contents of not just that folder, but all nested folders as well. In the Displays preference pane in System Preferences, holding Option reveals a Detect Displays button that can come in handy if you’re having an issue with an external display. If you click inside a scroll bar you normally jump a page closer to where you clicked, but holding Option when you do this will take you to the exact spot you clicked instead. Just like pairing ranch dressing with potatoes, there are simply too many combinations to list. The next time you find yourself wishing there was another option when clicking on a thing, try holding Option and see what happens! It might not work out, like ranch on hash browns, but it could turn into a tasty treat you keep coming back to, like ranch with french fries!

You can also use the Option key to quickly access specific preferences panes using the top row of keys on your keyboard. For example, holding Option and hitting either of the brightness adjustment keys opens the Displays preference pane. Option plus any of the volume keys opens the Sounds preference pane, and so on. This is a little-known but really great combination, like dipping tacos in ranch.

In a web browser, like Safari or Chrome, you can hold Option while clicking a link to download what that link points to, instead of opening it in the browser. The web page or file will be downloaded to your regular downloads folder. From there you can open it at your leisure. It’s just like throwing a packet or two of ranch into your bag for lunch later.

Then there’s the Dock. If you right-click on an app in your Dock you’ll see a contextual menu with various options, including Hide and Quit. Holding down Option will change some of these options into other choices, like Hide Others and Force Quit. Force Quit is especially useful for misbehaving apps that are frozen or doing something they’re not supposed to. Commanding an app to Force Quit tells the system that it should do its best to terminate the app as quickly as possible without regard for what the app wants or what it might be doing. This can be dangerous; if you have unsaved work in an app and command it to Force Quit, that app will be terminated without asking you if you want to save your work, so be careful to only Force Quit apps when you’re sure that’s what you really want to do. Just like you’re really sure you want to force yourself to quit getting those heavily processed and breaded chicken nuggets that you love to dip in ranch for a quick-but-not-at-all-healthy lunch or snack.

Holding down Option when dragging certain items, like files in the Finder or layers in Photoshop, ensures that you duplicate what you’re dragging instead of moving it, just like ordering a second patty on your cheeseburger ensures you’ll have that much more tasty meat to dip into your ranch dressing.

It’s clear at this point that ranch goes great with a ton of things on the menu, and the Option key goes great with the menu options on your Mac, too. When you have a menu open, like the Window menu, hold down Option to see variations of the commands available to you. For example, in the Window menu, holding the Option key changes the Minimize option to Minimize All, letting you minimize all of the current application’s windows at once. You can also hold Option while clicking on some menu bar items to reveal additional information or functionality. Some examples:

  • Option clicking the Notification Center menu bar item toggles Do Not Disturb on and off.
  • Holding Option when clicking on the battery menu bar item reveals the current condition of your Mac’s battery.
  • Additional options are revealed when Option is held while the Time Machine menu bar item is open.

So, as you can see, the Option key is a fantastic modifier key that reveals useful functionality when combined with many apps, other keyboard keys, mouse clicks, drags, and much more. But earlier I said that the Option key, like ranch dressing, is occasionally great on its own. This is true when your Mac starts up; if you hold Option down, all by itself, just as you hear the startup chime, you’ll get access to the Startup Manager which lets you select which disk you want to boot from.

That’s the Option key, an incredibly useful modifier on your Mac’s keyboard that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Now, I’ve covered a lot of what the Option key can do, but there wasn’t time to cover everything. If you’re wondering if the Option key might help you out in a certain situation I encourage you to give it a try and see what happens! You might be surprised!

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