Mac OS X: The Power of Full Keyboard Access

We’re all familiar with the “hey, you’ll lose your work if you don’t save” dialog box. I’d say that it keeps me from disaster at least four times a day. What a lot of you may not know is that you can avoid the tedious process of dragging your cursor up to choose “Don’t Save,” and you have a couple of options for how you can go about it. 

The first way to dismiss the box is to use the built-in keyboard shortcuts. Obviously, hitting Return will perform the action of the button in blue (which is usually “Save”), but you can also choose “Cancel” by pressing Escape. For “Don’t Save,” the shortcut is Command-D. Neat!

If you don’t like keyboard shortcuts, though, there’s another way to avoid touching your mouse or trackpad (and boy howdy, do I love to shun mine at every opportunity). Within System Preferences > Keyboard, choose the “Keyboard Shortcuts” tab, and then toggle the radio button under “Full Keyboard Access” from “Text boxes and lists only” to “All controls.”

What this means is that you’ll be able to use the Tab key to move between “Don’t Save,” “Cancel,” and “Save,” and the highlighted choice (indicated by the blue arrow in the screenshot below) can be activated by pressing the Spacebar. Note that the blue button (see my red arrow) can still be invoked by pressing Return.

After turning that preference on, you can use other new shortcuts that you may find handy, too. The one I use most often is Control-F2 (or Function-Control-F2 on some keyboards), which accesses the menu bar. You’ll then be able to tab through the menus and use the arrow keys to navigate them. Control-F3 or Function-Control-F3 will allow you to use the Dock from your keyboard, too. 

One caveat: Some folks may find that turning on keyboard access for all controls makes certain actions more complicated. In Safari, for example, hitting Tab with that toggled on will step through almost everything—all of your bookmarks, all links on the page you’re looking at, and so on. That’s great if you like that behavior, especially since you can then use the Spacebar to open a highlighted bookmark or hit Return to activate a link, but it can be frustrating for some who may use the Tab key often while browsing. I find, though, that being able to cycle through options in a dialog box is so useful that I can’t stand when that preference is turned off. Feel free to like something different. I will allow that just this one time.