Thursday, March 3, 2011

Put Your Mac’s Caps Lock Key to Better Use

After reading about Google’s Cr-48 ChromeOS prototype netbook, I had two immediate reactions:
1. My Mac runs Chrome + 1000s of other applications. Why would I want to reduce that to just Chrome?
2. The Cr-48 has no Caps Lock key. Instead it has a web search key. Slap your left pinky against that key and instead of SCREwiNG with what you’re writing, you get a quick web search box. Awesome. Where can I get me one of these?

Well. It took a while (mostly because I forgot about it). But I figured it out. Read on to find out how to disable your Caps Lock key, and then how to set it to activate Threshold, Quicksilver, Launchbar, or Alfred (all of which can quickly run a web search).

Setting this up is a bit convoluted, and I’ll explain why, but afterwards: it works like a charm.

Part of the convolutedness requires that you use either option-space or command-space to activate Quicksilver (or other app). Ok, you can use other combinations, but it is even more tricky to set that up, and I can explain how to do it, but I’ll do so in another post (if enough people request it).

You’ll need to install two preference panes, both from the same developer. PCKeyboard Hack and KeyRemap4MacBook (regardless of the name, this should work with any Mac). PCKeyboard Hack lets you remap your Caps Lock key to any other key. KeyRemap4MacBook lets you do all kinds of crazy remapping of your keyboard (but it CAN’T remap your Caps Lock key for some reason). In this case we want to remap your Caps Lock key to whatever keyboard combination you’ve got set to activate Quicksilver (or whatever your launcher/web searcher of choice happens to be). Now the challenge, and the reason we need both preference panes is that you can’t reasonably use a single key to activate Quicksilver. Otherwise every time you hit the command key (for example), Quicksilver would pop up. And for some reason, PCKeyboard Hack only lets you remap your Caps Lock key to a single key (not a combination like control-space). So the trick is to (use PCKeyboard Hack) to remap your Caps Lock key to another key that you almost certainly never use (because its not on your keyboard), and then (use KeyRemap4MacBook) remap that key to either option-space or command-space (to activate Quicksilver).

Ok. Convoluted explaination of a convoluted process? Check. Now onto the details:

1. First you’ll need to download and install PCKeyboard Hack and KeyRemap4Macbook.

2. Next we’ll remap your Caps Lock key. Go to System Preferences and click on PCKeyboard Hack.

In the first row you’ll see “Change Caps Lock”, double click in that row under “keycode” and enter 110. 110 is the keycode for the PC Application key.

Apparently, its this key on a Windows keyboard.

I’m guessing you don’t have a Windows keyboard (since this is a Mac only trick). Even if you do, I don’t think that key does anything in OS X. So we’ve now remapped your Caps Lock key to a key that doesn’t do anything in OS X. First, do no harm.

3. Now we’ll remap the “PC Application Key” to a keyboard combination that activates Quicksilver. Go back into System Preferences and click on the KeyRemap4Macbook icon. There’s a huge list of options that shows up. (and many interesting tricks you can use to ease your keyboard-life). You can literally get lost in this list trying out different remaps. For this post we just need one. Rather than have you scan down the list looking for it, click on the search field and type “Change PC Application Key”. This should narrow the list considerably. What you want is either the “Application Key to Option_L+Space” or “Application Key to Command_L+Space” (depending on if you want to use Command-Space or Option-Space to activate Quicksilver).

Check the appropriate box.

4. If you’ve already got the appropriate keyboard combo set up to activate Quicksilver (or Threshold, Launchbar, Alfred, etc.) then you’re good to go. Hit the Caps Lock key and enjoy. Otherwise you’ll need to go into that application’s preferences and set that up (comment below if you need info on how to do that). Some of those apps have ways of setting a specific trigger to activate ready to web search (instead of just activating). Comment below and I’ll post some info on how to do that.

UPDATE: 5. My original post forgot one last step. It turns out that OS X limits how fast it responds to the Caps Lock key. Its an attempt to cut down on accidental Caps Locking. Which is great. But for our uses, the limiting is annoying because it slows down how responsive our new web search key is. To fix this go into System Preferences»Keyboard»Keyboard tab and click on the “Modifiers…” button in the Lower right corner. 

In the dropdown menu next to the Caps Lock key, select “No Action”. Now the Caps Lock key should be as responsive as any other key. Which means our new web search key is too. Enjoy!


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