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How to navigate your computer without your mouse

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There are plenty of situations when you need know how to operate your computer without your mouse: like that time you kept putting off replacing the batteries on your wireless mouse until that day there was no more juice and you were out of AA's or when you Judge Judy-ed your mouse with your fist-gavel in a 12-year-old-smack-talking-online-multiplayer-opponent-induced fit of rage.

Now you believe me.

Study up on the following tips for navigating your computer without a mouse so that you're prepared for that inevitable dysfunctional wireless mouse at your next big presentation to management. These tips have been written for Windows XP, but should apply to most Windows operating systems, including Vista.

To open a program or folder from your start menu, press the Windows or "start" key (pictured below). If your computer does not have a Windows key hold Ctrl and press Esc. Once the start menu appears you can navigate your choices with your arrow keys or by pressing the first letter in any of the items. If there is only one item in your menu for that letter, that program will launch when you press that letter. For example, if you are trying to open Adobe Photoshop CS2, you could press your "A" key. If it is the only program in your menu starting with "A", then it will launch as soon as you press "A". If there are multiple programs starting with "A", then you will need to press "A" until Adobe Photoshop CS2 is highlighted and press your "Enter" key to launch it.

windows key

When you have multiple programs open, take note of which one is active. This is indicated by being on top of all other windows and having a dark border. You can toggle which window is on top and active by holding the "Alt" key and pressing "Tab". Continue holding down "Alt" after the first time you press "Tab" to pull up the summary of the available open programs and files shown here. Pressing "Tab" again (still holding "Alt") will cycle through your options one at a time.

alt-tab windows XP
When a program is your active window, to access the file menus start by hitting "Alt".  

windows explorer

An underline will appear under one letter of each of the file menu choices (some programs will present this to you differently, such as Microsoft Word 2007).

after pressing alt
To access any of those menus, hit the letter that is underlined in the file menu title. For example, if you are trying to access the "View" menu in Windows Explorer, hit "V" after you have pressed "Alt". The menu will drop down and you can then navigate your choices using the arrow keys on your keyboard. To select an option in the drop down menu, navigate to it and press "Enter."

after pressing v for view
If Windows Explorer is the active window because you've opened a folder, you can navigate using your arrow keys to select items and the "Enter" key to open them. Press "Backspace" to go back to the folder you were just in.

To close the active window or program, save your work if necessary, then hold "Alt" and press "F4".

To get back to your desktop when you have programs open, hold down the Windows ("start") key and "D" (for desktop) at the same time.

When you are on your desktop, with no open windows, you can navigate the items on your desktop using the arrow keys. You can also jump to files with a specific first letter by pressing the corresponding letter on your keyboard. Like the start menu, if you have multiple items starting with that letter on your desktop, focus (shown below) will cycle through those items in alphabetical order, so you may have to press that letter multiple times.  

focus on file on desktop

Other tips:

If you're not sure how to get to something on a web page or in a program, it's always worth trying the "Tab" key to cycle through items on that web page or program; cycle forward with just "Tab", or cycle backwards by holding down "Shift" and pressing "Tab".

In web browsers and Windows Explorer, hold "Alt" and press "D" to access the address bar.

Congratulations! You have now protected yourself against rising AA battery prices and prepared yourself for the consequences of your next Halo 3 match.
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Expert Comment

Hi masmus,

That's a very nice article - thank you for taking the time to write it.

The following shortcut keys are ones I find particularly useful, so you might consider adding them in:

- Alt + Space. This loads the context menu with the usual app control functions (Minimize, Maximize, Close, Move etc) for the currently active application which you see by clicking its logo in the top-left of the Window.

- Windows key + Tab. This is similar to Alt + Tab but allows you to cycle through the applications on the taskbar. Press it once, then release the Windows key, and you can then tab around the other elements on the task bar (Start button, Quick Launch and System Tray)

- That "Alt Gr" button to the right of the spacebar. Useful to mimic a right-click on an element to pull up its context menu. Works well with the above shortcut when moving around applications on the taskbar.


LVL 54

Expert Comment

Great article.  I really enjoyed it and learned a few keys.  One that I use regularly because of being use to a non-Windows key keyboard is Ctrl+Esc.  It is the same as pressing the Windows key or clicking the Start menu.

Thanks for your time with this and the contribution to EE and its members.

LVL 12

Expert Comment

Nice article.  Well written and useful.  My favorite keyboard shortcut is still the 'alt+tab' that you mentioned that allows you to switch between open windows.  I still love watching people say in amazement 'how'd you do THAT???'.  

Well done!
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LVL 13

Expert Comment

Good stuff masmus. I used this the other day when I was at home with my busted wireless mouse. I owed you a helpful vote.
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Expert Comment

Another amazing way to stun your friends by launching programs quickly (and a great time-saver):

(I got this one from a book called "Upgrade Your Life" - great book!)

Create a folder somewhere (My Documents?...), and call it "shortcuts", or something to that effect.

Put shortcuts to your most used programs and files in there. (You can alt+drag the icon for them into the folder to make the shortcuts. By the way, ctrl+drag can copy files from folder to folder the same way.)

Rename the shortcuts to be short, easy to remember names for them.
Examples: xl for Excel, wrd for Word, docs for My Documents, cal for Calculator, pho for Photoshop... the possibilities are endless.

Copy the path to your shortcut folder. You can get it in the address bar of the folder, which you can see by clicking view, toolbars, address bar.
(Example: C:\Documents and Settings\User Name\My Documents\Shortcuts).

Go to Control Panel, and open System.

In the Advanced tab, click Environment Variables.

Under System Variables, select Path, and click edit.

Push End to go to the end of the variable name box.

Type a semicolon (;), and then paste the path to your shortcut folder.

Click OK three times.

Now you can type WindowsKey+r to open the run box, type your short name for any program or file, and press enter.

Your program or file will open in lightening speed (depending on your computer), and to the unobservant, it will seem as if the computer read your mind!

(Don't forget to create a shortcut for your shortcut folder, because the more you use it, the more you will want to add to in!)
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Expert Comment

by:Tony Barkdull
You can also (if you did not cover it above) press Windows key + U for the Utility Manager (XP) or press (Alt + Left Shift + NumLock) and enable Mouse Keys and use the arrow keys to move the mouse pointer

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