What is the most useless key on your keyboard? It would probably be grammatically correct to say “least useful” rather than most useless, but I actually want to talk about keyboard keys that excel at uselessness. Keys you would actually never consider using on purpose. Keys that get in the way, that offend you by the mere fact that they exist, but which have been enshrined in your regional keyboard layout for one reason or another and now you are stuck with them.
There are few candidates to the “most useless” title out there. Most western keyboards have a little strip of 3 keys between the main keyboard and the numeric block. These are labeled PrtScn/SysRq, ScrLk and Pause/Break. Most users never actually touch these, but the first two are actually genuinely useful. Most systems use Print Screen to take a screen-shota. Linux boxes use its SysRq functionality it as part of the multi-key graceful reset combo (also known as Rei Ayanami + Subway Sub). The Scroll Lock key is utilized by Excel to enable free scrolling and while it is mostly toggled by accident, it has some legit uses.
The Pause/Break key has very little utility to an average user, but as a sysadmin I actually pressed it few times on purpose. It lets you pause the POST sequence hardware checks giving you some time to actually read warnings or info-dumps that would otherwise scroll too fast off the screen. So while relatively useless these keys do have at least some value to me. While I probably wouldn’t miss them too much if they were gone, I don’t mind that they exist. They are tucked away in a very remote section of the keyboard, away from the home row and frequently used keys so it’s not like keep pressing them on purpose. And even if I did hit one of them by accident, in most cases such a key-press is a no-op.
I probably don’t have to explain why I use the “Print Screen” button a lot. Ok, in case it is not clear from the context, I use it to take screenshots. While dedicated screen-shot centric tools are usually much better at this, being able to quickly take a snapshot of the entire desktop or just the current window comes in very handy – especially if you happen to be working on a machine that is not yours.
Do you know which key is the most useless one in my book? It is Caps Lock. I have never, ever actually used that key on purpose. Oh, I toggled it by accident many, many times but I never really been in a situation where I would need to “ALL CAPS” mode for a while. Which is precisely what makes it so useless. It is located in a rather privileged spot on the keyboard – right off the home row, where it is easy to reach. It is also sandwiched between two rather useful keys that tend to get a lot of use: Shift and Tab. As such, it is incredibly easy to hit by accident. And unlike other arguably “useless” keys it actually has a visible and direct impact on what you type. And yet, I find no use for it whatsoever.
For me holding shift with your pinky as you type and releasing it when you are done actually seems like less works than aiming for the Caps Lock key. Especially considering that all my life I have been training my fingers not to hit that particular spot by accident.
I do realize that this key has some utility – for example, someone typing with just one hand may actually find a toggle much easier to use than a modifier key. So I wouldn’t necessarily push to remove it from the keyboards. But, whenever I get a new machine, remapping Caps Lock is one of the first things I do.
I already described how to do this on a Vanilla Linux box back in 2007. Since then I noticed that most modern Unix desktop environments such as KDE, Gnome, Unity and OSX actually allow you to do this via their keyboard settings panel which is very convenient.
Windows seems to be the only prominent OS on the market that does not offer an option to arbitrarily re-map keyboard keys in their default control panel. Not sure this is out of stubbornness or some sort of concern for user safety. Still, it is a missing feature and as it happens with all missing features there are ton of third party applications out there that implement a solution to it.
The one I’m using at the moment is called MapKeyboard by InchWest. Why do I like it? For one, it is a self-contained executable that requires no installation. You just download it, run it, re-map a key, then forget about it. It does not need to stay on your system to make the mapping stick either. It is a fire and forget tool with a really simple user interface:
Once you decide to remap your useless key, the question is what are you going to remap it to. For me the answer is very simple: I remap it to the key that is in a very weird position on the keyboard, but which I use hundreds of times per day: Esc. Some of you might not be able to relate to this, but for Vim users the Escape key is probably the most commonly used key on the keyboard. Vim is a modal editor, which means every key on the keyboard is bound to a command. To actually input text, you enter insert mode by pressing the i key which allows you to type. Then once you are done and want to move around or jump to another line you exit the insert mode with Esc. Unfortunately this means taking your hand off the home row after almost every sentence or word. Granted, you can also use Ctrl+[ to emulate the Esc key but having a dedicated Escape in the privileged position off the home row is actually really convenient.
How about you? What is the most useless key on your keyboard and what do you usually remap it to? If you use Windows, what remaping software do you use? Let me know in the comments.