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The Alt key on a Windows keyboard (far right key)
For a list of keyboard shortcuts see Table of keyboard shortcuts

The Alt key on a computer keyboard is used to change (alternate) the function of other pressed keys. Thus, the Alt key is a modifier key, used in a similar fashion to the Shift key. For example, simply pressing "A" will type the letter a, but if you hold down either Alt key while pressing A, the computer will perform an "Alt-A" function, which varies from program to program. In non-US keyboard layouts, rather than a second Alt key, there is an 'Alt Gr' key to the right of the space bar. The key is located immediately to either side of the Space bar.

The Alt key has come to replace the Meta key of the old MIT keyboards. In their original function, both Alt and Meta would set the high bit of the signal generated by the key to 1 (for example, A generates 01000001 while Alt-A generates 11000001). However, in modern software, due to the requirement of the high bit for internationalisation, Alt no longer works in such a way.

The Alt key is well known as part of the Control-Alt-Delete key combination, which in some operating systems brings up the task manager. In the X Window System, Control-Alt-Delete is known as Control-Alt-Backspace, which usually causes the X server to shut down or restart.

Other well-known combinations which the Alt key is part of include Alt-F4, to close a window, and Alt-Tab, to switch between windows. Additionally, in many traditional GUI environments, including Microsoft Windows, Alt is used to access pull-down menus.

The Alt key on an Apple keyboard

Some keyboard layouts treat both Alt keys on the keyboard as the same key, while others do not.

Since 1990's Alt has been printed on the Option key on most Mac keyboards. Alt is used in non-Mac software, such as Unix and Windows programs, but in OS X it is always referred as Option key. Option key's behaviour in Mac OS X differs slightly from that of the Windows Alt key (it is used as a modifier rather than to access pull-down menus, for example).


Alt key for special characters

In some software, like DOS and Microsoft Windows, holding down the Alt key while typing in numbers (often referred to as Alt codes) on the numeric keypad allows the user to type special characters not normally available on the keyboard. For example, holding down Alt while typing 0225 on the numeric keypad will result in á. These extended keyboard characters are useful for persons using foreign languages, mathematics, currency symbols, business use, etc. It is important to make sure the Num Lock key is on.


Mac OS X

On a Mac, the Alt key is not used to enter numeric character codes. Instead, keyboard letters and numbers are used. The diagram below shows the special characters a Mac keyboard will produce when the Alt key is pressed.[1]

A diagram of the Characters available when the Alt key is pressed on an Apple Mac keyboard

The highlighted orange keys show the accents available from the combination of the Alt key and the keyboard characters e ` i n u. The accent then can be applied to associated letters both lower and uppercase.

Table of the key combinations to product accents on the Mac OS
Type Accent Combination Lowercase Uppercase
Acute ´ Alt + e á é í ó ú Á É Í Ó Ú
Grave ` Alt + ` à è ì ò ù À È Ì Ò Ù
Circumflex ^ Alt + i â ê î ô û Â Ê Î Ô Û
Tilde ~ Alt + n ã ñ õ Ã Ñ Õ
Umlaut ¨ Alt + u ä ë ï ö ü Ä Ë Ï Ö Û

The additional characters a Mac will produce are a combination of both the Alt key and the Shift key pressed down together. With this combination pressed the keyboard will now produce a different set or an uppercase version of the previous set in some cases.

A diagram of the characters available when the Alt key and Shift key are pressed on an Apple Mac keyboard

See also



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