Function keys were designed to be ultimate shortcuts or “hot-keys” on your keyboard. By definition, they were there so you could bind some sort of a function or a command to them for quick access. They are like the speed dial buttons on your phone. And yet, they remain some of the least used keys on your keyboard. Why is that?
Let’s face it, if we made a heat-map of average persons daily keyboard use the function row would probably barely register any strokes. This is sort of the opposite of what these keys were intended for. There are few reasons for it though. They are not standard, and may work differently in different applications. This context dependence is by design – the original idea was to leave them un-bound so that users can assign their own functions to them. Unfortunately some OS’s like windows do not allow users to define global shortcuts like this out of the box. So, application developers started assigning their own functions to them. This naturally turned out to be very confusing so over the years we developed unofficial conventions such as using F1 for help, F3 for search and F5 for refresh. When users can expect a key to work predictably, they start hitting these keys more often.
The de-facto standardization however doesn’t change the fact that these keys are like 100 miles away from the home row. Hitting any of them requires you to lift your hand and and move it about inch or two upwards to reach the key you need. You can’t you just can’t touch type them and this is an issue. This is why functions such as copy, paste or save which would be perfect for F keys are usually bound to easily touch typed key combos such as Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, Ctrl+S.
I find that I hardly ever use any F keys these days. For example, I like to use multi-button mice which allow me to back-forward and refresh pages with my thumb. This means I hardly ever touch F5. I don’t like full screen (kiosk) mode so I hardly ever touch F11. I do my searching using the ‘/’ key (works with vim and firefox which are the two apps I use the most) or Ctrl+F (most other apps) so I have no practical use for F3.
The only function key I actually do use is F12 which on my Kubuntu system is bound to the Yakuake pull-down console and I don’t even remember if that was by default, or if I bound it myself.
How do you use function keys? Do you bind them yourself? Let me know which one is your favorite!
If you don’t see your favorite key listed above, choose ‘other’ and let me know what it is in the comments, and how do you use it.
Also, Happy Halloween! Sorry that today’s post is non-spooky but whatever. :)