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The Five Most Important Shortcuts in Mac OS X

Updated on January 10, 2012

I have been using the Macintosh OS since System 7.5.1 in 1995. Granted, a lot of things have changed since then. But I've been there through the changes, and as Mac OS X has evolved, I have come to rely on five shortcuts that make computing life much easier.

1. Command + Shift + 3: Snapshot of Entire Screen

This is useful when you want to have a record of everything you are seeing on the screen, whether it's due to a troubleshooting issue, or to have a record of an online purchase, or for a myriad of other reasons. Holding down this combination of keys will produce a camera click sound, followed by the resulting picture being placed on your desktop. In earlier versions of OS X, the pictures were named simply “Picture 1,” “Picture 2,” etc. In current versions of the OS, the default picture name is “Screen shot” followed by the year-month-date and time. The default format is PNG, which can be used in any modern imaging program.

(Trivia fact: PNG stands for Portable Network Graphics.)

2. Command + Shift + 4: Snapshot of Selected Area of Screen

I find this keyboard combination to be even more useful than the one above. Pressing this combination will turn your mouse pointer into a cross-hair that you can drag to select the exact area of which you want to take a snapshot. I have used this in a pinch many times when it is necessary to save or convert an image file that is being otherwise troublesome. Simply selecting the area of your computer screen that contains the image you want to convert or create will then produce a PNG file on your desktop, with the same naming convention described above.

3. Command + Option + Escape: Force Program to Quit or Force Finder to Relaunch

If you're coming from a Windows background, this is the equivalent to Ctrl + Alt + Delete. Pressing this combination will produce a window through which you can choose which currently running program to quit. This is useful if a program has frozen and you can no longer interact with its menus. In fact, the Command + Option + Escape (or “Force Quit”) menu will usually indicate which program is being troublesome by placing “(Not Responding)” next to its name.

This can (and should) also be used when the Finder itself has become non-responsive, displaying a seemingly endless “spinning beach ball.” Before physically turning your computer off to restart it, try Cmd + Option + Esc, and if the window appears, you can simply select “Finder” from the list of programs. The action bubble below will then change to “Relaunch,” and after you click it the Finder will indeed relaunch. This could take a few moments, but it will usually solve the problem.

(Note: On older machines, there is a chance that this will act like it is solving the problem, but will instead shut the Finder down and leave the computer in state of limbo. In that case, physically shutting the computer down by holding the power button down for five seconds will be the only way to restart.)

The "heads-up display" that appears upon pressing Command + TAB.
The "heads-up display" that appears upon pressing Command + TAB.

4. Command + Tab: Jump Between Open Programs

Similar to Ctrl + Tab on Windows, this easy combination will produce a “heads-up display” over your display with the logos of all currently running programs. You need to release the tab key immediately but keeping holding down the Command/Apple key. You can then choose from among the programs by using the left and right arrow keys. You will notice a white “rounded square” moving amongst the logos. When you release the Command key, the program whose logo is currently bounded by the round-square will activate.

This comes in very handy when you're in the midst of typing or other keyboard-intensive activity and need to quickly switch to another program without reaching for the mouse.

5. Command + Option + P + R: “Zapping” the PRAM

This is a more technical key combination that can only be used during startup. In the 1990s, Apple recommended doing this on a semi-regular basis as part of basic computer maintenance, and it can still be used that way, but usually it is only done when something is acting strangely. For instance, I have used this to reactivate a supposedly dead FireWire port in a matter of minutes. This combination basically clears out some of the OS preferences to eliminate any conflicts that may have been created between programs and the OS that could lead to ports and other aspects of the OS malfunctioning.

Upon startup or restart, wait for the chime and then immediately press this key combination and hold all keys down. You will then hear the startup chime again. It is recommended to wait until you hear the chime a total of three times after the initial chime, but you can wait up until five or six times. Release the combination, and startup will continue, hopefully with the troublesome preferences files cleared and the problem resolved.


I hope you learned something here that will help you in your computing future with Mac OS X. As I said above, I have found these five shortcuts to be extremely useful in the past, and I hope they are useful for you as well.


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    • lukeuk profile image

      lukeuk 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      These are all very good tips. To be honest with you, I only ever use mission control to jump between windows. Nice hub.