Windows tips and tricks for keyboard aficionados

In the comments to yesterday’s post on subtle changes to the Windows Update feature, Bob noted something that I take for granted. He was disappointed that the new dialog box was missing the underlined characters indicating keyboard shortcuts:

The old dialog has an underlined “s” and “f” for keyboard users. But the new dialog box doesn’t have any keyboard equivalents.

This I hope is just an oversight that will be remedied in later releases. Keyboard users get used to being slighted but these keyboard accelerators are also used by the physically impaired that can’t manipulate a mouse.

Good news, Bob. Those keyboard accelerators are still there. In Vista and in Windows 7, many program windows and dialog boxes hide keyboard accelerators and menus by default. To make them visible, tap the Alt key (the same one you would use to execute the keyboard shortcut – Alt+F or Alt+S in this case).

Here’s what the Windows Update Settings dialog box looks like when you first open it:


And here’s the same dialog box after I’ve tapped the Alt key:


As you can see, each of the visible options now has an accelerator key (Alt+U for “Install new updates” and so on). Note that the Windows Update session is hosted in Windows Explorer, so tapping the Alt key displays the normally hidden menu bar as well.

As Bob correctly notes, this feature is especially useful for anyone who has a physical limitation that makes it difficult or impossible to use a mouse. So, logically, you’ll find the option to always show those shortcuts in the Ease of Access Center in Vista and in Windows 7, under the heading “Make the keyboard easier to use.” Here’s the Windows 7 version:


The option underneath it is interesting, too. If you don’t like the way Windows 7 automatically rearranges windows when you drag them to the top, bottom, or side of the screen (a feature called Aero Snap), you can disable this capability here.

5 thoughts on “Windows tips and tricks for keyboard aficionados

  1. Ed,

    That will work in Vista/Windows 7 for a window in front of you, if for example on ‘this’ webpage and I ‘right-click’ to see the context menu items available for the image or text there is no way in IE7 or IE8 to turn on the ‘keyboard shortcuts’, if you ‘know’ them eg. ‘w’ for a new tab they work, you just cannot turn them on.

  2. Stephen, those are two different things. Keyboard shortcuts are fixed and need to be learned. Accelerators are defined by the designer of a dialog box or application and apply on a case-by-case basis…

  3. It’s hardly new. Hiding accelerator keys was added to Windows 2000! As always, press Alt to show them.

    This did require a bit of co-operation from applications: the standard controls do it by default, but if you developed your own controls or did your own drawing, you were supposed to ask the system whether to show underlines when you draw your window, then respond to messages telling you to show and hide the underlines.

    If Windows Update used to show underlines always, that was a bug.

  4. Mike, in Windows XP and Windows 2000, WU is hosted in IE, and there are no keyboard accelerators at all. In Vista and Win7, it’s a separate control, so accelerators are available. You are correct that the underlined characters are hidden by default in Vista’s WU; the OP might have enabled them full-time at one point and simply forgotten.

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