You might be aware of the option key (or alt as it’s also known), but do you know what it’s for? I’ve recently seen more uses for it, so today I thought I’d just draw your attention to this key on your Mac and give you a few examples of what it does.

What is the Option key?

The option key is a ‘modifier’ to allow other keys to have multiple uses (in the same way that a Shift key gives other characters). By holding down the option key you can get your Mac to act in ‘alternate’ ways. Many of these alternate behaviours hark back to older versions of the Operating System, some are shortcuts and others give more detailed options.

Some examples

WiFi information

If you click on the wireless symbol in your menu bar whilst holding down the option key, you’ll get extended information about your wireless network and connection, along with the available networks that you’d see without the option key.

Restart & Shutdown

When going to the Apple menu and shutting down or restarting, you’ll normally get an “Are you sure?” message. Hold down the option key and the context of the menu changes subtly (e.g. from ‘Restart…’ to ‘Restart’). The desired action is done without a secondary prompt (unless other programs need one, such as saving files etc.)

Getting to System Preferences quickly

If you want to get staright to the displays panel in System Preferences, hit Option and brightness up/down. This also works for the the Mission Control panel (Option & Mission Control), the Keyboard panel (Option & keyboard brightness up/down) and the Sound panel (Option & volume up/down)

More finite control of brightness or volume

By combining the alt & shift key with brightness or volume controls you’ll notice the increments are in 1/3’s of each normal increment. Try it, that’ll make more sense than my explanation – it’s a great way of getting the volume to just the right level.

Window behaviours in Yosemite

If you don’t like the way the window sizing buttons work in Yosemite, if you hold down the Option key when pressing them, they’ll revert to the behaviour we saw in earlier versions of OS X.

Get Info in iTunes 12

When you click ‘Get Info’ on a song in the latest iTunes, there’s a new look. Some people prefer the old look; click option when doing Get Info and you’ll see the earlier look.

Boot from another hard drive

If you have another bootable drive (and if you’re running anything newer than  you will at least have a recovery partition), you’ll be able to access that by holding down the Option key when booting until you get a list of bootable volumes on screen.

Extra keyboard characters

You’ll notice that some characters are missing off British keyboards. For example, on a British Apple notebook there’s no #. Option & 3 will get you it. Option & v will produce a square root symbol (√), and Option & P will give you a Pi (π)


These are just a few examples; there’s many more out there and I urge you to try the Option key whenever you can to see if it changes what you see or the way OS X (or an app) works. Let me know what you find in the comments please!