Using F-Keys in Mac OS X

January 31, 2007

F-Keys are used for special operating system wide functionality in Mac OS X. In this article we’ll discover how to take control of the Mac OS X F-Keys and use them in applications that map keyboard shortcuts to F-Keys.
By default in Mac OS X the F-Keys provide operating system wide functionality. For instance, F3 and F4 handle volume. F9, F10 and F11 are used for Exposé’s window tricks. That’s nice for being able to get at those features from within any application, but it really messes things up if an application uses F-Keys as a part of their standard keyboard shortcuts. NetBeans is a perfect example. Shift-Command-F4 is the keyboard shortcut for closing all documents, but on Mac OS X, F4 turns down the volume – not the desired output.
The trick on Mac OS X is that little fn key in the corner of your keyboard and a single setting under System Preferences -> Keyboard & Mouse. By default the F-Keys do Mac OS X things. If you want them to do application specific things you can hold down the fn key and then press the desired F-Key. If you’d like to reverse this behavior, check the box next to “Use the F1-F12 keys to control software features.” With that box checked everything is reversed. The F-Keys will do application specific things and to access the Mac OS X features, you will need to hold down the fn key while you press the desired F-Key. Pick your poison. In either case you have all of the functionality, it’s just a matter of which one you have to hold the extra key for.

Keyboard And Mouse-1

Joshua Smith


Amazon Book: Mac OS X for Java Geeks
Amazon Book: Mac OS X Panther Hacks
Using NetBeans on Mac OS X
Marc Liyanage Blog: NetBeans Mac Customization
Marc Liyanage Blog: More NetBeans on Mac OS X

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  1. Hi,
    the solution you describe here doesn’t work on my MacBook Pro and Netbeans 6.*
    I had tried that before a long time, even with netbeans 5.

    You need something else.

    I will find it and tell you about it.


  2. More specifically for key F9 to F12. The rest of the F buttons work fine as they were supposed to do inside Netbeans.

  3. Thank you for putting this out. I couldn’t disable the extended function keys by turning them off in the Keyboard Shortcuts tab. I was about to discard the Apple KB and buy a third party one.

  4. I also needed to change settings on the “Keyboard Shortcuts” tab.

    F9 through to F12 are in use by the “Dock, Expose and Dashboard” shortcuts. Disable them, or set different keys for that functionality and you’ll have function keys F9 -> F12 available for applications.

  5. thank you for posting. This was very helpful.

  6. Thanks a bunch for the helpful website. You’ve saved me a whole mess of trouble. I’ve been googling for two days trying to solve this problem. Thanks again. God Bless.

  7. I’ve never posted on anyone’s board, but I’ve needed this info for so long, but never bothered to look it up. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  8. Peopple with Mac desktops don’t need to use the fn modifier key to access the F-key functions as the keys serve no dual purpose.

    • If you use Photoshop, for example, there are some combinations for which you want to turn OFF those features…
      so the keys HAVE a dual purpose…

  9. Cool thanks for the info. It was helpful in operating a old school game that ran on DOS or something like that. Of course this is on my Intel iMac… (emulation program used…)

    THanks a lot. Helpful.


  10. Do you know how to switch them when I’m booted on the PC side of my Mac? I need to use the F keys, but I have to press “fn” in order to make them work in games I’m playing. Right now, when I press them, the brightness or volume controls activate.

  11. I found the answer to using the Function keys while using Bootcamp in Windows XP.

    While running Windows, in the Bootcamp Control Panel item found in the lower right tray, there is an option to configure the keyboard.

  12. Thanks for the post, Eclipse debugging F7 now works correctly :)

  13. As a MAC newcomer, this article was of valuable help, thanks!

  14. Mac has a UI straight out of 1992!

    Jacking the function keys is retarded. Terrible. Fail.

  15. I have a Mac Pro Keyboard on an old eMac Edu CD. It has 15! function keys. Is there any way to assign F13 – F15 to do things like Log Off, Restart or Shutdown? I’m currently running OSX 10.3.9, but should be upgrading to 10.4.11 shortly. Thanks.

  16. Thanks for the F-Key tip. I just bought a Mac and have RSI so can’t use the mouse at all.

  17. Thank you!!

  18. on my mac mini i have a third-party windows keyboard, and the keys F1-F12 work as normal but when i have the FN held down they do as the icon on the key states. what i was wondering is how to reverse this, so the are the modifier keys with no Fn held down. and in my setting menu there is no option like on yours, there is also 2 separate categories for mouse and keyboard

  19. I think OSX has changed some menus since most of above answers were posted. I just tried this in Snow Leopard, Mac Pro, Mac keyboard. What worked for me looks like this:

    System Preferences
    —-Keyboard Shortcuts tab
    ——go through list of apparently pre-assigned links between Fkeys and functions like Spotlight. Uncheck them all. Then go back to:
    —-Keyboard tab
    ——check the box for “Use all F1, F2….”

  20. Old Post.. but useful – Because I forgot how to do this. Thanks! :)

  21. Works on mine. Thanks for your help!

  22. We have a Mac 10.40x . All of a sudden the numeric key pad is not working. When we press a number nothing happens. Do you know how to fix the problem?

  23. Thanks for the post man…very helpful!!!

  24. Thanks for this! It was very useful….

  25. As a relatively new Mac user you have saved me buckets of frustration and hours of Google searching. Thanks!

  26. THANK YOU!
    i have found a 1/2 dozen blogs and posts and articles and not one could dumb it down enough for me. i’ve had this macbook for almost 4 years, i’ve upgraded the harddrive in it and reseated extra RAM, and yesterday, while changing some of the functions (for the option key) i inadvertantly reversed the F-keys and my volume keys no longer worked w/out the Fn button. I looked at everything within the keyboard options (i thought) and could not figure out how to reset it, the frustration was maddening! Thanks for your post!

  27. This little app should resolve your problems : http://www.molowa.com/mac-os-x/palua/palua-3-0/

  28. When I press the FN key and the F9 key together nothing happens? It is suppose to tile the windows. Can you help?

  29. Great article. That was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks

  30. Thank for your the explanation. It worked for me on MBPR.

  31. I know this post is way old… but if you can’t get F12 (or any other function keys) to work in an application by following these instructions here’s how I did it (I’m in Mountain Lion btw):

    I went to the Apple Icon > System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts… from here you can unassign function keys from the OS by unchecking (for instance, F12 is assigned to “show dashboard” under “Mission Control.” Did exactly what I needed.

  32. Thanks a lot for information. I started using mac and was wondering while using the android studio , why the specified shortcut keys (with F6) was not working. Thanks again. I very much appreciate this.

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