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What is a Hotkey?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hotkey is a keyboard key, that when pressed by itself or in combination with other keys, carries out a function. Hotkeys provide convenient shortcuts to common tasks that are otherwise accessed through menu navigation. Users can also assign shortcuts to keys within many software programs by using macros to create hotkey functions.

Most operating systems have a library of built-in hotkeys with many of these standardized to help users that might switch operating systems or use more than one platform. Software programs, including word processors, spreadsheets and Web browsers also incorporate standardized hotkeys in addition to offering specialized hotkeys specific to the program.

For those running Microsoft® Windows® operating systems, holding down the Control (Ctrl) key while pressing the "C" key (Ctrl + C) copies selected text to the clipboard. Ctrl + V pastes the text into an available window. Ctrl + X cuts text, and Ctrl + Z is the undo function. The F-keys (F1 – F12) are commonly used by themselves, with F1 being the standard shortcut to Help menus. On Apple® Macintosh® computers, the Apple or Command key replaces the Control key for the same key combinations that copy, paste, cut and undo.

Some keyboards feature extra keys that are user-programmable, (though standard keys can also be programmed). Macros can be assigned to these extra keys to create custom hotkeys. Custom hotkeys are especially useful in productivity software, in debugging tools, and in gaming applications.

Programming a hotkey is quite easy. The process normally takes only a moment, and essentially involves opening a macro program to record the sequence required to carry out the desired function. The recorded movements are assigned like a script to the chosen key(s). Pressing the hotkey from that point forward will activate the sequence, automating the function. In Microsoft® Word, for example, the macro program is available through Tools > Macro > Record New Macro.

To view existing hotkeys in your operating system, check the main Help menu (hotkey F1 will get you there). Search for "keyboard shortcuts" or "hotkeys / hot keys." Printing the list and keeping it handy can aid you in memorizing the hotkeys you find most helpful. Don't forget to check inside your favorite software programs as well, including your email client, Web browser, and productivity software.

Using hotkeys can improve productivity and reduce repetitive mouse movements that might contribute to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. If you find yourself continually reaching for the mouse to carry out a necessary task or function, consider looking for an existing hotkey combination or creating your own.

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Discussion Comments

By WalrusTusk — On Aug 02, 2010

@empanadas - If you're just looking to switch between programs, you can also hold the Alt button and the Tab button and it will come up with a little menu of running programs. You just keep hitting Tab in order to flip through the programs that are open. Saves you a lot of trouble in assigning a hotkey.

By empanadas — On Aug 02, 2010

@plaid - I think the most useful hotkeys are the desktop hotkey and the windows hotkey. Although, I've run into some problems with accidentally hitting them in the middle of playing myself, so I would advise that people put those hotkeys off to the side.

By plaid — On Aug 02, 2010

@Pimiento - My husband plays MMORPG (Multi-Player Role Playing Games) online all the time. When he first started, he didn't use hotkeys really. Now that he plays more and more people are online to play with, he has all of his hotkey commands set up.

By Pimiento — On Aug 02, 2010

I use hotkeys all the time in PC gaming. I'm sure a lot of people do - in fact, I know a lot of people that do. There are also special keyboards that have a hotkey manager to help us gamers with our... addiction.

By anon97275 — On Jul 19, 2010

I thank you. It is a good explanation!

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