Use the Tab Key to Switch Between Dialog Buttons in Mac OS X
Would you prefer to use the keyboard to speed up navigation around your Mac? That’s what the Full Keyboard Access setting allows for. Using a Keyboard option, you can have the Tab Key able to switch between dialog buttons, fields, screen items, controls, and anything else in a dialog box within Mac OS X. This can greatly enhance the speed at which you use your Mac, but it’s a feature that Apple has never chosen to enable by default. Additionally, tab key navigation can be a very helpful setting for accessibility purposes, since it’s often easier to leave your hands on the keyboard than move around a mouse or trackpad.
If you’ve never tried this setting, or you know you like it and want to have such a feature that is fairly common to other operating systems, you can quickly enable tab navigation in virtually every release of Mac OS X.
How to Enable Tab Key for Navigating Mac Dialog Boxes, Buttons, & Controls
Here’s how to turn on tab key navigation on the Mac:
- Launch System Preferences from the Apple menu
- Click on the “Keyboards” preference panel
- Select the “Shortcuts” tab (sometimes called “Keyboard Shortcuts” in older versions of Mac OS X)
- Look near the bottom of the window for a mention of “Full Keyboard Access: In windows and dialogs, press Tab to move keyboard focus between:” and click to select the radio button next to “All controls”*
- Close System Preferences
* If that sounds confusing, see the below screenshot for clarification. The setting is easily overlooked.
Navigating the Mac with Tab Key, Arrows, & Space Bar
Now anytime you have a dialog window pop up you can quickly navigate to the alternate choices and options by using the keyboard.
- Navigate between screen options by simply hitting the Tab key
- Use the Spacebar to select / choose the currently highlighted item (like a mouse click)
- When an item has been selected on screen with Tab, use the Arrow keys to navigate up, down, left, and right (you can also use this to control dials)
Give it a try yourself, and you will quickly see just how useful this great feature is!
As you can see in the System Prefs, you can also toggle the feature between the two options by pressing Control + F7 on the Mac keyboard too.
Note the difference here, by default in Mac OS you can only use Tab to move between “Text boxes and lists only”, the “all controls” option isn’t described well, but it’s literally everything in a window or dialog box of Mac OS X that becomes controllable through this option.
Of course, if you decide you don’t like the feature you can just go back to Keyboard system preference panel and disable it again, that’s up to you.
Tab key dialog navigation is a feature that exists with basically every version of macOS and Mac OS X (regardless of how the system software is spelled or capitalized) so whether you’re using macOS Big Sur, Catalina, Mojave, High Sierra, Sierra, El Capitan, Yosemite, Mavericks, Lion, Snow Leopard, Tiger, or just about any other Mac OS release you’ll find the feature available to use on the Mac.
Do you use tab key navigation on the Mac? Do you have any tips or tricks for navigating by tab on the Mac? What do you think of this feature? Let us know your experiences and tips in the comments below.