Exploit hidden macOS and app features with the Option key

in macOS edited February 2017
This one often overlooked keyboard button unlocks options and speeds up your work all over macOS -- AppleInsider shares a few of our favorites.

Apple makes things simple by working hard to figure out what you are likely to need most of the time. As you use your Mac more and more, there are times when the most likely thing isn't quite what you want -- and with multiple ways to get from point A to B, Apple's got you covered there too.

All across macOS Sierra and in many other apps, the Option key unlocks handy features.

The Option key is regularly also labelled Alt and with most keyboards you've actually got two of them on the bottom row near the space bar. As you'll see, the way that you use this key isn't consistent, but in every case you're about to learn, pressing it gets you extra options.

For instance you can use this to skip the "Are you sure?" message when you want to empty the trash. You can close every window on your screen instead of schlepping around clicking on the red button on each individual one.

You can also troubleshoot wifi and Bluetooth problems or get finer audio controls.

This is all built-in to the Mac but then on top of that Apple's applications do the same. Microsoft and Adobe don't follow Apple's lead on this but once you've seen what Option does, check it out in any application you're using.

Option in the Finder

Any time you're using a menu in the Finder, then you have a choice. Click on a menu as normal or do that plus hold down the option key.

You can press Option first and then click. However, if you click on the menu and only then while it's open press Option, you can see the change in front of your eyes.

On the left, the regular File menu from the Finder. On the right, exactly the same menu but as it appears when you press Option.

Look how Close Window has changed to Close All. Look how you get a new menu item called Open and Close Window. That last one sounds a bit redundant, like it's going to flash open a folder and then shut it again on you. If you have clicked once to select a folder in a list of files, though, what this does is open that folder into a new window - and close the old one.

There are several changes in just this first File menu and some are available all of the time, some are greyed-out. Those ones are only available when you've done something that can use them, such as select a folder before you opened the menu.

The reason all of this happens is that by pressing the Option key you've made what's called a positive choice. You're not likely to accidentally press Option and click a menu item, you have chosen to do this. It's your choice and you know what you want to do, so the Mac does it.

This is why under the Finder menu the Empty Trash that usually asks if you're sure no longer does. By making this positive choice, you've told the Mac you know what you're doing and you know what you want.

Since we are all prone to clicking in the wrong place, incidentally, there is a handy extra menu item available to Option users in the Finder's Edit menu. Where you usually see Select All, if you press Option you get Deselect All. So when you've got a long list of files and you've accidentally selected the lot, you can just choose this instead of trying to find the right place to click to undo the selection.

Option and the positive choice are meant to help you. So one thing that Apple does to protect new users from potential problems is hide a special folder called the Library. This is where a lot of settings and crucial files for keeping your Mac running are kept and there will be people who use Macs all day and never once need to go into it.

Sometimes an application developer who's talking you through fixing a problem will need you to go into this Library for them. Choose the Finder's Go menu and then press Option.

Suddenly, the previously hidden Library folder is right there in the list of places you can leap off to. Very helpful for troubleshooting, and purging the last remnants of a recalcitrant app.

Option in the menubar

Just as you may never need to go into your Library and may actually never even need to know it exists, there are also menubar functions you'll rarely need. Yet, they are ones that when you do need them, you really need them.

These are handled slightly differently to the Finder menus. You have to press and hold Option before you click on them.

Holding the Option key, though, click on the wi-fi icon in your menu bar. Instead of the regular list of nearby wi-fi networks, you get much more detail about your current connection.

Your screen will differ in the detail of the wi-fi connection but also in how many options you get. You may have to wait for a moment with the Option key pressed down before the wi-fi menu fills out to contain all of these extra choices.

When it does, though, notice that you also get options for getting diagnostic reports to help you figure out what's going wrong with your connection.

It's the same with the Bluetooth menu. In both cases, the logic is that usually these two just work but occasionally things go wrong - and when they do, it's frustrating enough that the last thing you want is difficulty finding menu choices that help.

It's about quickly getting more control when you know what you want to do next. So next time you're using your keyboard's volume controls, tap Up or Down while holding the Option key. Rather than just adjusting how loud the audio is, this opens the entire sound System Preferences to let you make finer choices. It's a short cut to switching between different speakers or microphones too.

Personal Favorites

You're going to find which of these works best for you, but our three favorites are are at opposite ends of the menubar. Over on the File menu in the Finder and apps like Pages there is that change from Close Window to Close All. When we're done for the day, that just tidies up everything.

Full disclosure: we use this every day - and we never use it. Rather than choosing Option plus the File menu, we use the keystroke that does this without our taking our hands off the keyboard. You can see the keystroke in the menu: as well as changing what the menus say when you press Option, Apple also shows you a different keystroke to get the same effect.

So in the regular File menu there is Close and next to it Apple's written the keystroke Command-W. Hold down the Command key, tap the letter W and the current window closes. Press Option and the File menu shows that Close All is Option-Command-W.

Much as we like that, our other favorite Option trick can't be done from the keyboard and it takes place at the furthest end of the menubar. Hold down the Option key and click on the Notification Center icon to the right of Siri. That immediately switches on Do Not Disturb for the day.

To switch Do Not Disturb off again, just hold Option and click on that icon again.

That's perhaps the smallest speed improvement. If you don't use the Option key trick then you have to click on Notification Center, wait for it to slide open, then scroll to the top and click the Do Not Disturb on/off switch.

Maybe that's the case with all of these -- any individual one other than the wi-fi and Bluetooth extras only saves you a moment, but those moments add up. It doesn't take a lot of time to find another way to your Library nor to close each window individually. Yet it's long enough that it breaks your concentration on what you want to do.


  • Reply 1 of 16
    Interesting read, I never knew about the extra options on the wifi and bluetooth menus.
  • Reply 2 of 16
    Nice about copying the path! My all time favourite shortcut involving ALT, which I have never seen mentioned anywhere but use every day: When you use Cmd + Tab to switch to a different program, it wont show if it is minimised. But toggle to the program you want, let go of Tab, while still holding Cmd, then press Alt and let go - now the minimised program gets maximised. If you do it on the Finder it will open a new window for you. So handy and its become second nature to me now.
  • Reply 3 of 16
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,033member
    Useful article, but it's all "Mac 101" stuff. Perhaps AI should create a category for this content. It would be nice to link to a section wear a new or less adept Mac user can find all these helpful tips.

    I do see on the desktop site one of the topics is Tips but it seems to be incomplete with other recent tips, as well as convoluted since the tips aren't only for the aforementioned user groups.
  • Reply 4 of 16
    Headline makes it sound like hackers have found a macOS exploit involving the option key
  • Reply 5 of 16
    Also recommend trying combinations of ⌥ Option - ⌘ Command - ⇧ Shift (separately, or in tandem). Have been using the magic of these three keys together since the days with my PowerBook in graduate school.

    A rather detailed list of Apple specific keyboard shortcuts can be seen here .

  • Reply 6 of 16
    Soli said:
    Useful article, but it's all "Mac 101" stuff. Perhaps AI should create a category for this content. It would be nice to link to a section wear a new or less adept Mac user can find all these helpful tips.

    I do see on the desktop site one of the topics is Tips but it seems to be incomplete with other recent tips, as well as convoluted since the tips aren't only for the aforementioned user groups.
    You would be surprised how long you can be using macOS without knowing this. I have been using Mac computers since before OSX even but ever since that came out I figured the fastest route was to use cmd + space (or alt space for alfred), open up a terminal and then use ifconfig. Not once did I even wonder if the wifi icon had these options hidden somewhere.
  • Reply 7 of 16
    volcanvolcan Posts: 1,799member
    For me the most useful thing the option key does is quick special characters for typography. Open the Keyboard Viewer and toggle the option key to see the available characters. Can be used in combination with Shift, Control, Command and even the fn key for more options.
    edited February 2017
  • Reply 8 of 16
    sully54 said:
    Headline makes it sound like hackers have found a macOS exploit involving the option key
    not if you know the actual definition of exploit. we are just used to it being used in that area, and therefore assign it a negative connotation. 
  • Reply 9 of 16
     More important than all of these (for me), hold down the option key while dragging any object and it will place a copy of that object where ever you drop it.  Super useful in any graphic design task. 
  • Reply 10 of 16
    dewmedewme Posts: 4,657member
    Truth be told, the Option key behavior on macOS is a rather "odd" UI paradigm. I've never been a fan of hidden (or semi hidden) options such as the dependence on right-click context menus to invoke commands on objects. While users can be "trained" to seek out these hidden commands in context menus and Option activated menu items and even though programmers can try to establish defacto standards for such optional interactions, such as the context menu "Properties" behavior in Windows, an over reliance on the use of these user interaction patterns exposes a weakness in the UI model since they make learning an application for the first time much more difficult and nonintuitive. Ideally the user interaction should be intuitive and discoverable and not fall prey to RTFM smackdowns that ensue when baffled users seek enlightenment. The enlightenment published in articles such as this one are certainly appreciated but the underlying UI pattern is arcane and really should be eradicated by better design. User interaction architects and designers can, and should, do better.  But thank you AI nonetheless for uncovering a few hidden gems.
  • Reply 11 of 16
    I always liked control-option-command-8 to invert colors,
    useful for rapid-fire blinking of imagery projected onto buildings.
    edited February 2017
  • Reply 12 of 16
    SoliSoli Posts: 10,033member
    loquitur said:
    I always liked control-option-command-8 to invert colors,
    useful for rapid-fire blinking of imagery projected onto buildings.
    Why not change that to something more efficient if you use it often? I don't think Command-8 is being used by anything. I've done that with many shortcuts, as well as using text shortcuts to expand a few types characters into more complex forms.
  • Reply 13 of 16
    You can't live on a Mac without using the Option key, try option clicking on files literally everything. With FCP and Logic it's everything, saves you tons of time. Lots of little goodies, how about the instant dictionary? Control + command + d over some (HTML) text, may take a few times if you've never done it, or highlight the text. Good stuff everywhere!!! (needless to say in iTunes option click is on everything)
    edited February 2017
  • Reply 14 of 16
    PatMPatM Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    I am also old school, preferring elegance and discoverability over anything. I go way back, thus truly appreciate having an OS or application that can be picked up and effectively used right away. In a perfect world, a user should not have to hold down special keys or mouse buttons to activate functionality. In this sense, macOS is devolving over time. And some things are just plain kludgey. For example, the replacement for the "Save As..." command might be the lamest paradigm shift ever. I don't think Microsoft could have even come up with that. Thank God for QuicKeys, AppleScript, etc. to work around such nonsense. I do not understand why Apple makes many of the changes it does today, but what really bakes my noodle is how it thought the changes were a good idea to begin with. IMHO, any change with software should be made only when it confers a clear benefit for the end user. In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • Reply 15 of 16
    WeirdwaterWeirdwater Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    Greatest time saver for me is accessing the display and sound preferences quickly.
    Simply hold alt/option and press one of the screen brightness buttons. The same goes for the volume controls.
  • Reply 16 of 16
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member
    Bugs me that you can use Option as a toggle when you have file, edit etc menus in the title bar open, but you have to be holding it when you click on the wi-fi, bluetooth etc icons in the title bar, it doesn't work if you press option after the pop out menu is already open.

    Inconsistent UI.
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