The alt/option key (depending on your keyboard) is the unsung hero of the keyboard. Since the Mac’s earliest days, it has provided access to special font characters, revealed alternative commands in menus, and more. Here are some of our favourite things the alt/option key can do.

Reverse scrollbar preference
Most of the time, we use the scrollbar – for example, in Apple’s Safari or Microsoft Word – to move through a page or screen. But sometimes – in a long document, for instance – we know that we want to go to a point about three-quarters of the way through a document. Clicking where we want to go is easier than clicking and dragging the scroller to get there.

You can choose between these actions – Jump To The Next Page or Jump To Here – in the Click In The Scroll Bar To setting in the Appearance preference pane. Or have it both ways: alt/option-click in the scrollbar to temporarily reverse the setting you’ve made in System Preferences.

Open preference panes
You love the convenience of dimming or brightening your screen with a quick press of F1 or F2, but sometimes you need to adjust other aspects of your display. Hold alt/option while pressing either of the function keys that controls brightness, and the Displays preference pane opens. This works with other function keys, too: hold alt/option while you press any of the volume function keys (F3 to F5 or F10 to F12, depending on your keyboard), and the Sound preference pane opens. If you need to press the Fn key to trigger the special features on the function keys when you’re on a laptop (the ones represented by icons), just add the alt/option key to the mix: Fn-alt/option-F1, for instance.

Alt/option-click to open multiple Inspector palettes
You can open multiple Inspector windows in Apple’s Keynote and Pages by using the View > New Inspector command.

But this always opens a Document Inspector, so you must then click on the icon for the Inspector you need.

Instead of using the menu command, alt/option-click directly on an icon in an existing Inspector palette to open a new Inspector for that category (see ‘Open Multiple Inspectors’ - next).

Open multiple inspectors
Alt/option-click on an Inspector icon at the top of a palette to open a separate palette for the new Inspector, so you can easily access all the different controls you need all at once.

Switch speakers from the menu bar
You need to switch from the internal speakers to your headphones for a Skype call, or you’re the last one left in the office so you want to blast music through your external speakers.

If you’re using Snow Leopard, and your Volume menu is in the menu bar, you don’t have to open the Sound preference pane to switch output devices: press alt/option before you open the Volume menu, and instead of getting the volume slider, you’ll see a list of available input and output devices. (To make the Volume menu appear in the first place, go to the Sound preference pane and select the Show Volume In Menu Bar option.)

Choose a startup disk
Hold down alt/option when you turn on your Mac, and you’ll see available startup drives displayed on screen. Choose the one you want, and you’re good to go.