The Personal Computing Paradigm
FKEYs are far less well-known than applications, and have a significantly better reputation than extensions and control panels. Contrary to what you might expect, FKEYs have nothing to do with the F1, F2,...,F15 keys atop your extended keyboard. FKEYs are tiny programs, often without any user interface at all, that are activated by holding Command and Shift, then typing a number (which number depends on the FKEY’s ID#). Usually they are very small—probably less than 10K—and perform a single very specific function. This explains why most if not all FKEYs are freeware or shareware, and why they aren’t very well-known.
FKEYs have two major advantages over other types of Macintosh software:
- They are available almost all the time, even inside modal dialog boxes.
- Since (like applications) they only load when you invoke them, FKEYs can’t cause conflicts the way control panels and extensions do.
The main disadvantages are that they are comparatively difficult to install and that you can only have 10 of them (one for each number key). However, utilities exist that let you overcome these shortcomings.
Macs come with several FKEYs already installed by Apple. FKEY #1 ejects the floppy from the internal drive. #2 used to eject the floppy from the second floppy drive; now it probably does nothing, since Macs no longer even have floppy drive ports. #3 and #4 are for taking snapshots of the screen.
FKEYs can be installed in one of two places: directly in the System file (the “official” way) and in font suitcases in the Fonts folder (a hack that seems to work). Either way, installation is quite easy using Apple’s ResEdit resource editor.
Despite the danger often associated with ResEdit, you really can’t cause trouble with it by accident. Nevertheless, since editing your System file is always somewhat risky (especially if you edit the open copy!), I recommend installing FKEYs in font suitcases. This has the added advantage that when you upgrade to a newer version of Mac OS, the FKEYs won’t be erased when the installer creates a fresh System.
The steps below describe how to install FKEYs using ResEdit. If you prefer an automated install utility, download FKEY Manager.
- Locate an empty font suitcase. It’s easy to create one by duplicating one of your existing font suitcases and dragging all the fonts inside it to the trash.
Alternatively, you can download the FKEY Trick package from
- Open your FKEY file and the empty font suitcase using ResEdit.
- Locate and open the FKEY resource in your FKEY file. You will see a list of the FKEYs in that file.
- Get Info on the one you want to install, and change the ID number to the number you want to use to activate it. (Make sure it doesn’t conflict with any already
- Close the Info window. Select the FKEY resource and choose Copy from the Edit menu.
- Bring the font suitcase window to the front and choose Paste from ResEdit’s Edit menu.
- That’s it! You can now save the font suitcase file, quit ResEdit, and install the suitcase in your Fonts folder.
FKEYs have a surprisingly wide variety of uses. Some of the most interesting ones are listed below. At first glance, some may look like they merely duplicate functionality already found in one of your applications: BBEdit has a feature for sorting lines, and almost all e-mail clients have commands for adding quote characters to a selection, so why bother with FKEYs for these tasks? Because they work equally well in SimpleText, America Online, the text entry window of Adobe Photoshop, and just about anywhere else you can think of. Take a look at the FKEYs listed below. Prepare to be surprised at oddly useful some of them are!
Apple designed the Macintosh with a single clipboard. This FKEY allows you to maintain two separate clipboards and swap between them as desired. It may not be as powerful as CopyPaste, but then AltClipboard is guaranteed not to cause extension conflicts. Download FKEY
Turns Balloon Help on and off, without a trip to the menubar. Download Master FKey
Displays a small window listing the contents of the clipboard (and the Alternative Clipboard if you use the AltClipboard FKEY), including the size of each item and the total (if more than one item). Download FKEY
Uses Apple’s PlainTalk to speak selected text or the clipboard. Download FKEY
Lets you easily measure, display, and record on-screen points, distances and rectangles. It’s a great help in many multimedia design applications, such as defining hot-spots in image maps. Download FKEY
Lets you measure the distance between objects on the screen. Useful for programmers, graphic artists, and media developers. Download FKEY
Adds Internet quote characters () to the beginning of each line of text on the clipboard. Download FKEY
DemoGod gives educators and presenters eye-catching effects with which to enliven and clarify demonstrations of Mac software. Its palette includes tools for painting and typing directly on the screen, and for grabbing and focusing an audience’s attention. Download FKEY
Allows you to write some text and save it as a clipping file. Download FKEY
Lets you edit a file’s type and creator codes, as well as change its bundle and inited flags. Download FKEY
Moves the frontmost window to the upper left corner of your monitor. Great for those who like their windows aligned “just so.” Download FKEY
Gamma is a measure of the overall tone of colors on your monitor. It controls how bright or dark the colors are, and whether whites are yellowish or as bright as possible. Macs and PCs each use different gamma settings, so Web images created on the Mac may look very dark when viewed with PC gamma. Since color correction software like Apple’s ColorSync is not universal, it’s a good idea for Mac users to make sure their Web graphics will look decent on PCs. GammaToggle FKEY lets you quickly switch between different gamma levels. Download FKEY
Hides the menubar in any application or the Finder. If the Caps Lock key is down it shows the backdrop over the whole screen. Download FKEY
Ordinarily, you are limited to one FKEY for each number on your keyboard—less, in fact, because the built-in ones use up several slots. MasterFKey is an FKEY that lets you use many more FKEYs. It presents you with a list of all the currently installed FKEYs (so you don’t have to remember which one has which number) and lets you trigger FKEYs that have ID’s greater than 9 with letter and symbol keys or the mouse. Download FKEY
Lets you use more than one clipboard. Download FKEYDownload FKEY
Instantly puts a PowerBook to sleep. Download FKEY
Quickly hides the contents of the screen from prying eyes. Can also be used as a primitive screensaver. Download FKEY
Sends the frontmost window to the back. This is useful for quickly cycling through an applications’ windows—or just to get a window out of the way quickly. It’s especially helpful in applications that don’t have Window menus. Download FKEY
Displays a pop-up menu of all open windows in the current application and brings to the front the one you select. Download FKEY
Web page designers and software developers often need to see what their creations will look like on monitors smaller than their own. ShowScreenSize overlays a grey rectangle on the screen showing where the edge of the smaller monitor will be. (You can pick its size.) Download FKEY
Sorts return-separated paragraphs. Download FKEY
This FKEY copies styled text from a window to the clipboard. With it, you can copy the uneditable text from error or help dialogs, copy from SimpleText read-only documents, or copy columns of text. This is my favorite FKEY of all.Download FKEY
Lets you set the system sound volume. Can be operated entirely with the keyboard. Download FKEY
Sometimes you want to paste what’s on the clipboard (into a dialog box, for instance) but the Edit menu is grayed out. This FKEY types the contents of the clipboard by simulating keystrokes, so that you can “paste” in the absence of a Paste command.Download FKEY
I hope that you found this overview of FKEYs useful. I am amazed that such an interesting and useful class of utilities is still so little-known in the Macintosh community. This is a shame because having used some of the above FKEYs for years—Text Capture and SendToBack, in particular—I don’t know how I ever got along without them. Further, while researching this column, I came across the Desktop Notes FKEY, which allows me to make clippings directly in the Finder—something I have wanted to do since I was first introduced to clippings files. I can’t help but wonder how many other great FKEYs are out there, waiting to be discovered. If you know of a great one that I didn’t mention, please let me know at email@example.com.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive