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Shortcut Menus

Last updated Feb 25, 2005.

As someone who makes a living working on my computer all day long, every day, I'm always on the lookout for any tips, techniques, or technologies that allow me to do things better or faster. Shortcut menus are a perfect example. Paradoxically, although shortcut menus are ubiquitous, they're all but unknown to the vast majority of Mac users. That's because shortcut menus remain hidden until needed, and the method of opening a shortcut menu is anything but obvious.

To open a shortcut menu, you must Control-click an item, be it a file, a window, an email, or some other selectable element. Control-click is the Windows equivalent of right-click (if you have a two-button mouse connected to your Mac, the right button performs a Control-click by default; give it a try).

Keep in mind, however, that not all applications have shortcut menus, and even in those applications that use them, not every item has an associated shortcut menu. The only way to find a shortcut menu is to Control-click and see what happens. If there's no shortcut menu, Control-click is usually harmlessly interpreted as a standard single-click. However, if a shortcut menu was hiding beneath the surface, it magically appears, like a pop-up menu attached to the selected item. To dismiss a shortcut menu without making a choice, simply click anything other than the menu.

Like many applications, the Finder makes use of shortcut menus from which you can quickly choose commands that perform actions specific to an active window or the selected item(s). Because the choices that appear in a shortcut menu depend upon what is selected, shortcut menus used to be called contextual menus when they were introduced in 1997 as part of Mac OS 8. To see a shortcut menu in action, select a few JPEG image files in the Finder, then Control-click (see the following figure).

Figure 112

Figure 112 The Finder's shortcut menu for files duplicates many of the choices available in the File menu.

If you had clicked the File menu instead, you'd see that most of the items in the shortcut menu are exactly the same as those available in the File menu (Open, Print, Get Info, etc), albeit without keyboard shortcuts.

There's one item that appears in this shortcut menu that you won't see anywhere else: Slideshow. New in Mac OS X 10.4, Slideshow appears only if you've selected compatible image files (most of the common graphics file formats are compatible). Choose Slideshow from the shortcut menu and the entire screen goes black momentarily before the first image appears (see the following figure).

Figure 113

Figure 113 The Finder's shortcut menu has a built-in slideshow.

If you don't do anything, the slideshow continuously cycles through the selected images, cross-fading approximately every five seconds. If you move the cursor, the slideshow controller appears at the bottom of the screen. If you want to pause on a particular image, click Stop (or press the spacebar). Click Play to resume, or click the arrow buttons to manually move forward and backward through the images.

If you want the image to fill the screen regardless of its actual size, click "Fit to Screen" and instantly the image is resized. Click "Actual Size" to return the image to its original dimensions.

To see thumbnails of the images, click "Index Sheet" and all of the images shrink into a nice, neat matrix (see the following figure). While you're in index mode, move your cursor over the individual thumbnails and the file name appears centered over the image (see the following figure). To display a particular image full size, click it in index mode and the slideshow resumes, starting with that image. When you're done having fun with the slideshow, click Cancel (or press Command-period) to return to the Finder.

Figure 114

Figure 114 The index sheet in the slideshow provides a method of quickly identifying images visually or by file name.

As I mentioned, the Finder makes extensive use of shortcut menus, but finding them requires experimentation. You've already seen what happens when you Control-click image files. Try Control-clicking the Desktop, with nothing else selected. The shortcut menu should now include "Change Desktop Background" and "Show View Options." Open a Finder window and Control-click the toolbar. Now the shortcut menu contains items appropriate for modifying the toolbar. Move the cursor over an item in the Sidebar portion of the Finder window and then Control-click. You should see options for opening the enclosing folder, removing the item from the Sidebar, and renaming the item.

As you've seen, shortcut menus are practically everywhere, lurking behind the scenes, waiting to called forward to make your life easier. The biggest trick to using them is to just remember that they are there. Once you become accustomed to using shortcut menus, you can save yourself plenty of wear and tear, since you'll no longer need to move the cursor all the way up to the menu bar at the top of the screen to find the command you want.

And remember, shortcuts are available in almost all applications, not just the Finder. Start Control-clicking stuff and you'll be surprised at the treasures you'll find hiding just below the surface.