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Is there a function key on your Mac you never use? Here’s how to make it do something else.

Do you ever use Launchpad? Me neither, so I think dedicating a physical key on the keyboard to it is pointless – but I do check my calendar a lot. I remapped the Launchpad key (which kind of looks like a calendar anyway!) to launch Itsycal, the tiny keyboard friendly calendar Itsycal: Tiny Keyboard-Friendly Calendar For Your Menu Bar [Mac] Itsycal: Tiny Keyboard-Friendly Calendar For Your Menu Bar [Mac] Read More . Now I can press that button to quickly check my appointments.

You might want to re-map some other key, for some other purpose. What about the Mission Control key, or the keyboard brightness ones? If there’s a key you never use, here’s how to make it do something else.

Step One: Take Back Your Function Keys

mac-keyboard

Once upon a time, the top row of keys on every Mac were simply labeled: F1, F2, and so on. Many programs used these for keyboard shortcuts, but in the late 90’s Apple started assinging them to specific functions – things like showing you all of your windows, or changing the volume. Eventually they added icons to the keys themselves, showing you what function they’re for, and making it harder to assign them to functions yourself. The old-fashioned F-number labels remain, but you can only trigger the old-fashioned F-number keystroke by holding Fn while hitting the respective key.

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Confused? All you really need to know is that these keys are locked to serve one function by OS X, but you can unlock them to work more like regular keystrokes. Think of this as “flipping” their default function. There are two main ways to do this:

  1. Using the Keyboard pane in System Preferences. No software is needed, but it’s an all-or-nothing approach.
  2. Using a free app called Karabiner. You’ll need to installing another program, but you can toggle some keys to switch while keeping others normal.

Which approach you use is up to you – personally I use Karabiner. You could also look into FunctionFlip, which in theory is a simple way of flipping your function keys Switch Your Mac Function Keys with FunctionFlip [Mac] Switch Your Mac Function Keys with FunctionFlip [Mac] Read More , but I had trouble getting it to work with El Capitan.

For the first option, simply open System Preferences, then head to the Keyboard section. On the first tab, called Keyboard, you’ll see the option to “Use all F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys”.

system-preferences-keyboard

Press this button and the all of keys will, by default, work as function keys. Go ahead and press them: a lot of them won’t do anything. Some will continue to work as before, but we’ll get to that later.

If you’d prefer to switch up some function keys but not others, download Karabiner (previously called KeyRemap4MacBok Reconfigure Your Mac Keyboard for More Geek Power [Mac] Reconfigure Your Mac Keyboard for More Geek Power [Mac] If you're the type of Mac user who likes to customize every feature or program on your computer, you might want to check out the system preferences application, KeyRemap4MacBook. It essentially enables you to re-map... Read More ). Install it (it’s free) and fire it up. This can feel a little intimidating, but don’t worry: just scroll until you see Change to F1..F19 Key:

karabiner-change-functional key

Expand that option, then expand Fuctional Keys to F1..F12, as seen above. You can now check any category of keys to make them work, by default, like F-number keys instead of keys with a specific function.

Step Two: Changing The Keyboard Shortcuts

Now that you’ve change what pressing your key does,

There are two places to do this:

  1. For system-wide keyboard shortcuts, check the Keyboard pane in System Preferences.
  2. For keyboard shortcuts related to a specific application, check the Preferences pane for that application.
  3. If neither of the above approaches work, try installing BetterTouchTool.

Whatever your approach, I think we should first open up System Preferences, then head to Keyboard, before finally hitting the Shortcuts tab:

mac-preferences-shortcut

As you can see, many of the F-number keys may be set to trigger shortcuts regardless of whether you’ve “flipped” them or not. Be sure to disable any shortcuts mapped to an F-number key. Then explore any functions you actually want triggered by your keys.

On to the section option: configuring keys to work with specific programs. Remember when I mentioned bringing up a mini calendar whenever I press what once was the LaunchPad button?

itsycal-keyboard-shortcut

Doing this was straight-forward: I just went to the program’s options page, then set F4 to be the application’s keyboard shortcut.

Finally, if there’s some function of your Mac you can’t find using either of these approaches, I recommend installing BetterTouchTool.

better-touch-tool-shortcuts

This program lets you set custom keyboard shortcuts to do just about anything, including triggering other keyboard shortcuts, so dive in!

Things You Could Create Keys For

So, what could you use your unused keys for? Here’s a few ideas.

emoji

An Emoji Key. OS X comes with an emoji tool Secrets of OS X Mavericks: What You Really Need To Know Secrets of OS X Mavericks: What You Really Need To Know You probably already know about the major features of the latest, free upgrade for Mac OS X. Here are the hidden ones. Read More , but the keyboard shortcut (control+command+space) is kind of hard to remember. You can use BetterTouchTool to trigger the more complex keyboard shortcut every time you hit one of your F-number keys, for faster emoji enjoyment.

A calendar key, as I explained above. Personally I use Itsycal, but you could assign this to Fantastical or even Apple’s default Calendar app.

Launch the notification center. The old-school Dashboard had its own key on older Macs, but notifications widgets have replaced the Dashboard These Notification Centre Widgets Make Dashboard Irrelevant These Notification Centre Widgets Make Dashboard Irrelevant The Dashboard is dying. Most users ignore it, and not many developers are building things for it. Replace all of your Mac's Dashboard widgets using the new Today view in Yosemite. Read More . There’s no key to open the Notification Center, though, so why not create one yourself?

notifications

A weather key. There are a lot of great Mac weather apps 6 Wonderful Weather Apps For Mac, Most Of Them Free 6 Wonderful Weather Apps For Mac, Most Of Them Free There are many ways to find the weather forecast on your Mac, but nothing beats a dedicated app. Here are six of the best. Read More out there, including at least one snarky personal weather robot CARROT is Your Snarky Personal Weather Robot for Mac & iPhone CARROT is Your Snarky Personal Weather Robot for Mac & iPhone A sarcastic robot, with little regard for humanity, working as your personal weather forecaster? That's interesting. Read More . If you look at forecasts often, why not re-map one of your keys to open your favorite forecast?

I could go on: you could launch automator scripts with your F-keys How To Use Your F-Keys For Launching Apps & Finder Items [Mac] How To Use Your F-Keys For Launching Apps & Finder Items [Mac] The F-keys on your Mac keyboard can be a powerful set of application and Finder item launchers, saving you the trouble of burrowing through the Finder and bookmarks to launch say iCal, Address Book, your... Read More , for example.

Which keys do you feel like replacing, and what will you program them to do? Let’s talk about this in the comments below.

  1. Sylvia
    July 29, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Hi Justin,

    I'm doing a lot of keyboarding, and would like to add a delete key that isn't "so far away" from the rest of the keyboard

    (also it's that I use the "wrong finger" for this — my right ring finger instead of the right pinkie, and I despair of re-learning it effectively at this point.)

    I would like:

    RETURN key becomes DELETE
    Right-Hand Side SHIFT key becomes RETURN

    What would you do? It didn't seem to be addressed by your article, though granted, I only skimmed. Thank you very, very much, Sylvia

  2. Genevieve
    March 29, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Well, what do you know! I've managed to work it out! Turns out I had been using the Spanish ISO keyboard which somehow got deleted from the input source options. As soon as I started displaying my keyboard in Spanish again, all the keys regained their original function. Good news! Best :)

    • Justin Pot
      March 29, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Glad it worked out!

  3. Genevieve
    March 29, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Hi,
    Do you think you could help me revert to the original key assignment on my MacBook Air. Suddenly, symbols I used to be able to type using the shift key have changed. For example, I used to type inverted commas which are depicted above the number 2 by holding down shift and 2. Now when I do that, I get the @ symbol which is depicted beside the 2. All the other punctuation marks and symbols have also been changed and I have no way of accessing the most basic symbols such as question mark, inverted comma, forward slash etc. Many thanks. I would be very grateful if you could point me in the right direction. Thanks, Genevieve

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