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Navigate Mac OS X dialog boxes using only your keyboard

Navigate Mac OS X dialog boxes using only your keyboard

Recent switchers from the Windows world might get frustrated at the Mac operating system’s apparent anti-keyboard bias when it comes to dialog boxes. The option to Tab through buttons is there – just not by default.

Have you ever had a dialog box pop up on your Mac and then need to move your mouse cursor away from whatever you were doing to select one of the options in the window? For example, every time a document is closed without being saved first, a message is displayed asking if you’d like to Save, Don’t Save, or Cancel. Or maybe you’re trying to quit Safari with a bunch of windows still open and you’re asked if you want to quit anyway. The answer is obvious – everyone has experienced this hundreds, if not thousands, of times while using their computer.

While Mac users have to move their cursor and point to a button, Windows users are able to use the Tab key on their keyboard to move from one button to the next in these types of dialog boxes. As it turns out, Mac users can do the same thing. Apple just has it disabled by default for some unknown reason.

Tab through dialog boxes in Mac OS X

In the Keyboard & Mouse section of System Preferences there is a Keyboard Shortcuts tab. The bottom portion of that window contains a “Full keyboard access” area for “In windows and dialogs, press Tab to move the keyboard focus between…” The default option in Mac OS X is “Text boxes and lists only,” but selecting “All controls” will give us the functionality we’re looking for. And that’s all there is to it.

The next time you come across a dialog box you will find one button filled with blue. Pressing Enter/Return will activate this button. Pressing Tab on your keyboard, however, will generate a blue glow around another button. Continuing to press Tab will cycle through all of the options in that window. When the blue glow surrounds the menu option you want to select, press Space on your keyboard to activate it. It is important to remember that Enter will always choose the button with the blue fill, while Space chooses the button you’ve tabbed to with the blue glow. It all sounds way more complicated than it really is, so just give it a try! This tip is a huge time saver and will undoubtedly increase your productivity on a regular basis.

23 Comments Have Been Posted (Leave Your Response)

I always wondered why the tab key wouldn’t work on those dialog boxes. Such a simple fix! Thank you :)

Unfortunately, this still doesn’t work for all dialog boxes (for example, keychain password dialog box for connecting to wireless networks).

Great info, but it doesn’t work in Photoshop (and probably many others). Pretty frustrating.

Thanks, This has always driven me insane. Call me fussy, but why can’t you just use the arrow keys like on a pc?

Thanks for the great tip!!!

Well the tab change the blue outline around each button but hit enter and you still get OK

This does not work

James,
Try pressing the spacebar to activate the outlined button. Hitting Enter will activate the solid filled button every time, whether a different button is outlined or not.

I am using mac more and more lately and this was one of the first irritants for me, along with the maximize button. Thanks for pointing the preference, it seemed to work on a couple of dialogs that I tried (MacVim and Entourage), so definitely a big productivity gain.

This info was exactly what I was looking for – thank you!

Such a simple thing, and yet it was driving me crazy. Do Apple and Jobs hate us?

I’ve switched to ‘all controls’ and still no dice. Help!

This feature is both a blessing and a curse. It allows you to tab through dialogue boxes, but it also forces you to tab through all the buttons on all of your applications.

If you used to use tab in iTunes to go from the search to the playlists to the song field, for example, it now tabs through a lot of new fields you don’t want.

I hope apple will separate this feature into two options. Seems like its everything or nothing right now.

you can contact me at my name shown, plus “gmail.com” at the end.

It seems that with the following keyboard shortcuts, you may be able to get by without the “All controls” option. Still, it would be a lot easier if apple gave us a simpler way to control our computer.

ESC – selects CANCEL
cmd+”.” – selects CANCEL
cmd+”d” – selects DON’T SAVE
cmd+”r” – selects REPLACE
ENTER – selects the blue highlighted box

“s” – selects SLEEP in the shutdown dialogue
“r” – selects RESTART in the shutdown dialogue
cmd+alt+eject – makes the compute sleep (this is a global shortcut, try it!)

@ant – thanks, that was driving me mental, much appreciated.
@mareo – thanks for the extra shortcuts. At least in Windows the shortcut letters are underlined. Another Mac un-usability feature.

Had it all figured out except for the space bar. Why is it so hard to find the answer to such simple things? Thank you so much for posting this article.

Mareo Raft Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

haha..so simple but so frustating, thanks for the tip !!
i wonder why apple disable it :s

After 13 years of using Mac I finally learned this trick. It has bothered me for 13 years >_<

Anyone know of one that moves to an open dialog box?
cmd + tab allows moving between open prgms…

Windows Alt+tab moves between ALL open items on the desktop

Mac Cmd+tab ONLY moves between open programs!
Using Mtn Lion…

Why isn’t this on by DEFAULT in OS X?
This is a basic OS function… every other OS is like this by default.

@Wow, it is probably kept this way for historical reasons, i.e., they don’t want to change the current behavior in newer versions of the OS, to avoid confusing users that have got used to it.

Thanks Sir! you saved my day. Another reason I hate Apple just because they want to be different, no matter it’s for the good or bad for their customers.

Fuck year. Still wish OSX had dialogue hotkeys, like how Windows underlines. Alt+Anything.

@Dan (or whoever is here now): cmd+~ (tilde) will move focus to other windows in the /same/ program. Good shit.

Protip:
Keep holding cmd when you’re cmd+tabbing to your target, and BEFORE you release cmd to select it, angle your left thumb down some more so you’re holding down cmd and ALT as well. Now release cmd only.

This will force open the window for target program, ie it was minimized to dock.

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