Across the top of almost every keyboard lies a series of keys beginning with F. F1 through F12 and they are known as function keys. Can you believe that they’ve been around since 1965? They were introduced as keys that could be changed to do whatever you want. Keys that can be programmed are also known as soft keys.
They’re still soft keys today. Operating systems (OS) and programs can tie into them so that the keys will initiate specific functions. Over the years, though, software developers have unofficially standardized them. Because of this, the functions keys will often do the same thing, regardless of what operating system or program you are using. Not always, but often.
Let’s look at what each function key does in Windows.
The F1 Key – Help is on the Way
Anytime you have a question or a problem with the program you’re in, your first step should be to press the F1 key. It is universally the key that will bring up the help menu or open the support website for the OS or program you are using.
In some cases, the F1 key will get you context-sensitive help. That is, help that is very specific to what you are doing at the time. Let’s say you were working with an image in a program and trying to change the color. If the program has context-sensitive help, it would show you information about color changing when you pressed F1.
On some computers, the F1 key can be used to access the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) set-up when starting a computer, but before the OS loads.
The F2 Key – The Name Changer
For most items in Windows, like files, folders, or desktop icons, pressing the F2 key allows you to rename the item. Simple click-once on the item to select it, tap F2 and you’ll see the name becomes editable, edit the name and tap Enter to commit the change. This method is blindingly faster than trying to right-click on the item with your mouse, selecting Rename, and renaming it.
In Microsoft Office Excel, tapping F2 allows you to edit the active cell more easily than going the mouse-click route.
In Microsoft Word, using the Ctrl and the F2 key together (Ctrl + F2) will display the print preview window.
F2 can also be used to access the BIOS when restarting your computer on some makes and models.
The F3 Key – The Searcher
In most programs, tapping the F3 key will bring up that programs search window. Try it in a web browser, and then you can search for text on the page you’re viewing.
Once you’ve searched for something, often tapping the F3 key again will find you the next instance of the search term. To find the next place it occurs, tap F3. To find the next place after that, tap F3, and so on.
The F4 Key – Address and Closer
If you’re using Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer, you can tap F4 to open or close the address bar. That can be useful for quickly going to recently accessed locations. The bar will open a drop-down showing you the most recently accessed items. Use your up and down arrow keys to select a location and tap enter to go there. No mouse necessary.
Alt + F4 is the quickest way to close a window or program. This can be handy when you need to shut down your computer quickly but safely.
The F5 Key – Refreshing
In web browsers, Windows Explorer, and a host of other programs and utilities, you can tap the F5 button to refresh the screen. In a web browser, that means it will reload the page.
Why would you want to refresh the screen in Windows Explorer or other programs? What’s on the screen and what the computer is doing don’t always match. By tapping F5 to refresh, you force the program you’re in to get and display the newest information. Systems Administrators might use this while monitoring server activity for example.
Most Microsoft Office apps will display the Go To dialog when F5 is tapped. This can help you navigate through your work quickly. Power Point is the exception, where F5 can be used to start the slideshow.
The F6 Key – Cycle Around
In any program, there are places that you can select with the cursor. By tapping the F6 key, you can quickly move the cursor through all the places that it can select. For example, in the Chrome browser, tapping F6 will move the cursor focus to the address bar. Tapping it again moves it to the first tab. Tapping it one more time moves it to the first bookmark in your bookmark bar.
Again, this is where moving around the screen with a keystroke is far easier and quicker than reaching for the mouse.
The F7 Key – Check Yourself
Microsoft Office and other text-editing programs are where the F7 key shines. In Microsoft Word, tap F7 and you’ll open the program’s spelling and grammar checker. Use Shift+F7 and you’ll open the thesaurus. In Word, the thesaurus will show you alternatives for whatever word you have selected.
Outside of that, most programs don’t do anything when you tap the F7 key.
The F8 Key – Be Safe
In older versions of Windows, tapping F8 when starting your computer will allow you to boot in to Safe Mode. That’s a mode of Windows that runs only the most necessary Windows services, making troubleshooting problems easier.
In Microsoft Word, tapping F8 extends your text selection. Tap it once to select the whole word. Tap it again to select the whole sentence. Once more selects the whole paragraph, and a final tap will select the whole document.
The F9 Key – Clear and Calculating
If you have a Microsoft Word document with fillable fields, or tables with formulas, tapping F9 will update the field. Using Ctrl+A then tapping F9 will update all the fields.
In Microsoft Excel, F9 will convert cell references into plain values. Shift+F9 will force a recalculation of the worksheet you’re using. Ctrl+Alt+F9 will force a recalculation of all open workbooks. You might not want to use that too often as it can really bog down your computer.
The F10 Key – Ribbons and Menus
In the Microsoft Office, tapping F10 manipulates the ribbon. The ribbon being the place where all the tools like selecting fonts or inserting images live. Tapping F10 can activate access keys for ribbon items. If you work with the ribbon hidden, F10 will reveal the ribbon and activate access keys.
The F11 Key – See it All
Used mostly in web browsers and video players, the F11 key will put the program into full screen mode. This is most useful when watching videos in VLC or on YouTube. Tap F11 again and it will bring the program out of full screen.
The F12 Key – Save As
F12, the final function key, is used mostly in Microsoft Office. If you want to save your document, workbook, or slideshow with a different name or to a different location, tap F12 to bring up the Save As dialog.
Ctrl+F12 will start the Open File dialog. So, if you’re working along and decide you need to open another workbook or document, use Ctrl+F12 to quickly get it.
Shift+F12 will save the document you’re currently working on. You’re likely already used to using Ctrl+S to do that, though.
All the Functions
Since the function keys can be programmed to do just about anything, this isn’t an exhaustive list of what they can do. If you use specialized software like Adobe’s Creative Suite or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) application at work, investigate the help files to see what function keys might help you with. Who knows? It might just make your life a bit easier.