Near the top of almost every keyboard is a row of keys starting with F. F1 – F12, and these are known as function keys. Can you believe they’ve been around since 1965? They were presented as keys that could be changed to do whatever you want. The keys that can be programmed are also known as soft keys.
They are still soft keys. Operating systems (OS) and programs can be associated with them so that keys trigger specific functions. However, over the years, software developers have unofficially standardized them. Because of this, the function keys often do the same thing, no matter what operating system or program you are using. Not always, but often.
Let’s take a look at what each function key does in Windows.
F1 key – help on the way
Whenever you have a question or problem with the program you are using, the first thing to do is press the F1 key. This is a generic key that brings up the Help menu or opens the support website for the OS or program you are using.
In some cases, the F1 key gives you context sensitive help. That is, help that very much depends on what you are doing at the moment. Let’s say you worked with an image in a program and tried to change the color. If the program has contextual help, it will show you information about changing the color when you press F1.
On some computers, the F1 key can be used to access BIOS (Basic Input / Output System) setup when the computer starts up, but before the OS boots.
F2 key – name changer
For most items in Windows, such as files, folders, or desktop icons, pressing F2 renames the item. Just click once on an element to select it, press F2 and you will see the name become editable, edit the name and press Enter to confirm the change. This method is blindingly faster than trying to right-click an item, select Rename, and rename it.
In Microsoft Office Excel, pressing F2 makes it easier to edit the active cell than with a mouse click.
In Microsoft Word, simultaneously pressing the Ctrl and F2 keys (Ctrl + F2) will open a print preview window.
F2 can also be used to access the BIOS when restarting the computer on some brands and models.
F3 key – Finder
In most programs, pressing the F3 key brings up the program search window. Try it in a web browser and then you can search for text on the page you are viewing.
After you have searched for something, repeatedly pressing the F3 key will take you to the next occurrence of the search term. To find the next location where this happens, press F3. To find the next location after that, press F3 and so on.
F4 Key – Address and Nearest
If you are using Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer, you can press F4 to open or close the address bar. This can be useful for quickly navigating to recently visited locations. A drop-down menu opens in the panel, displaying items that you have recently accessed. Use the up and down arrow keys to select a location and press Enter to go there. No mouse required.
Alt + F4 is the fastest way to close a window or program. This can be useful when you need to quickly but safely shut down your computer.
F5 key – refreshing
In web browsers, Windows Explorer, and many other programs and utilities, you can press the F5 key to refresh the screen. In a web browser, this means the page will reload.
Why would you need to refresh the screen in Windows Explorer or other programs? What is displayed on the screen and what the computer does are not always the same. By pressing F5 to update, you force the program you are working on to receive and display the latest information. System administrators can use this, for example, when monitoring server activity.
Most Microsoft Office applications display a Go To dialog when you press F5. This can help you quickly navigate your work. Power Point is an exception where F5 can be used to start a slideshow.
F6 key – turn around
In any program there are places that can be selected with the cursor. By pressing the F6 key, you can quickly move the cursor through all the places it can select. For example, in the Chrome browser, pressing F6 will move the cursor focus to the address bar. Pressing it again moves it to the first tab. When pressed again, it moves to the first bookmark in the bookmarks bar.
Again, moving around the screen with key presses is much easier and faster than grabbing the mouse.
F7 key – check yourself
Microsoft Office and other text editing programs are where the F7 key shines. In Microsoft Word, press F7 and you will open the spelling and grammar checker. Press Shift + F7 and you will open the thesaurus. In Word, a thesaurus will show you alternatives to any word you choose.
Otherwise, most programs do nothing when you press the F7 key.
F8 Key – Be Safe
On older versions of Windows, pressing F8 while starting your computer will allow you to boot into Safe Mode. This is Windows mode that only runs the most essential Windows services, making troubleshooting easy.
In Microsoft Word, pressing F8 expands the selected text. Press once to select the entire word. Tap it again to select the entire sentence. Select the entire paragraph again, and the last press will select the entire document.
F9 key – clear and calculate
If you have a Microsoft Word document with fillable fields or tables with formulas, pressing F9 will update the field. Using Ctrl + A and then pressing F9 will update all fields.
In Microsoft Excel, F9 converts cell references to simple values. Shift + F9 will recalculate the worksheet you are using. Ctrl + Alt + F9 will recalculate all open books. You might not want to use this too often, as it could seriously damage your computer.
F10 key – bars and menus
In Microsoft Office, pressing F10 controls the ribbon. The Ribbon is where all the tools work, like choosing fonts or inserting images. Pressing F10 can activate access keys for ribbon items. If you are working with a hidden ribbon, F10 will open the ribbon and activate the access keys.
F11 Key – See everything
The F11 key, used primarily in web browsers and video players, puts the program in full screen mode. This is most useful when watching videos in VLC or YouTube. Press F11 again and the program will exit full screen mode.
F12 Key – Save As
F12, the last function key, is used primarily in Microsoft Office. If you want to save your document, book, or slideshow under a different name or in a different location, press F12 to open the Save As dialog box.
Ctrl + F12 launches a file open dialog. So, if you are working and decide that you need to open another workbook or document, use Ctrl + F12 to get them quickly.
Shift + F12 will save the document you are currently working on. However, you are probably already used to using Ctrl + S for this.
Since function keys can be programmed to do anything, this is not an exhaustive list of what they can do. If you use specialized software at work, such as Adobe Creative Suite or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, consult the help files to find out which function keys can help you. Who knows? It might make your life a little easier.