Keyboard vs. Mouse

Late in the 20th Century Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is at the PLEXICORP offices with Dr. McCoy and trying to explain how to construct "transparent aluminum" to Dr. Nichols, the plant manager.

Scotty is offered up the use of a Macintosh sitting on a nearby desk in order to demonstrate the design.
Scotty speaks out in a loud voice: "Computer..."

The Mac Plus sits there. Bones grabs the mouse and hands it to Scotty. Scotty pulls the mouse up to his face and says "Hello computer?"

Dr. Nichols looks concerned and instructs Scotty to "just use the keyboard".

Scotty says "The keyboard... how quaint"

After stretching his fingers like a concert pianist Scotty begins typing furiously on the Mac's keyboard, quickly producing a detailed 3-D graphic to describe how to manufacture transparent aluminum.

As Scotty would tell you, using the keyboard is clearly better than using a mouse.

I mentioned before that one of the myths that I clung to before considering a Mac was that it was a highly mouse centered machine. Indeed, Macs take better advantage of the mouse than most other operating systems do, especially in the drag and drop department. See an image in a web page that you want to grab? Perhaps an image of Scotty speaking into the mouse in Star Trek IV? Just drag it out of the browser and on to your desktop.

Clearly the mouse works great on Mac for many tasks, but so does the keyboard. The usual navigational shortcuts are there for text handling and there are system standard shortcuts for things like preferences, window management, file saving, etc. But if you are a touch typist tools like Spotlight, Quicksilver or LaunchBar add an entirely new dimension to using the keyboard.

In the time it takes to move your hand over to the mouse, position the mouse pointer on the screen and perform an action you can often do the same task more quickly by using the correct keyboard commands. I can select a couple of words by holding Shift-Option-Arrow and then bold it by pressing Command-B in Pages. The mouse alternative is to reach over to the device, position the cursor on the desired text, click and drag-select, then reposition the mouse to the toolbar and click the Bold button.

I personally find myself in one of two distinct phases of computer usage most of the time.

Text Creation Mode
If I am in text creation mode, especially when creating large volumes of text or program code, the keyboard is my primary device. As much as possible I try to keep my fingers on the home keys and use the various shortcuts to get around. My net typing speed is 54 WPM on my MacBook Pro's keyboard (you can test your own typing speed at

While I will occasionally grab the mouse when I'm in this mode, more often than not I simply try to use the arrow keys or shortcuts to perform tasks. I have a hot key to activate Spaces and switch to a different area, use Command-Tab to switch between applications, move between browser tabs using Option-Command-Arrow, etc.

This mode is also prime LaunchBar / Quicksilver time. A quick Command-Space and a couple of keys later and my application is front and center or the document I need loaded into Pages is right there.

Information Browsing Mode
When I am browsing through web sites or scanning through my RSS feeds in NetNewsWire I tend to be in full mouse phase, rarely even touching the keyboard. If I'm using my external mouse the scroll wheel gets a lot of work whereas if I am using the track pad on the MBP I use the two finger scroll.

Since I've set up my external mouse to use SteerMouse I also have mapped a couple of the extra keys on my Logitech Mx510 to open Spaces, move forward and back with the browser, open a link in a new browser tab, etc.

So which mode works best?
A commenter on this blog turned me on to a great article written nearly 19 years ago by Bruce Tognazzini, the founder of the Apple Human Interface Group and a renowned usability expert about using the keyboard vs. using the mouse. While Tog maintains in the article that people in tests are faster with the mouse than the keyboard, most people disagreed at that time with his findings. A lot of time has passed since the article was produced and if anything keyboards have become far more ergonomic and many standard shortcut combinations have had significant time to "bake" and become second nature.

When all is said and done my preference is to use the keyboard as much as possible. I know that when I'm in the zone and popping between tasks rapidly using the keyboard I feel extremely productive. When creating many of my blog posts I reference application specific features and I find myself bouncing between different sites and local applications, capturing screen shots and pasting in URLs for hyperlinks. Add in a tool like LaunchBar and my productivity goes up even higher.

I think James Doohan would agree.


Anonymous said…

Interesting - especially that you use NetNewsWire more with the mouse. It's actually one of the best applications for driving via the keyboard. I skim the new articles with up/down arrows, and tapping the right arrow opens the article in the column on the right. If I want to read the article immediately, I follow up with a Command-Shift-Left/Right arrow to cycle through the opened articles and the main list.

Adding the Function key on the MacBook Pro keyboard lets me navigate up and down in the article contents.

Of course the classic Command-W logically closes the current article and not the entire window

So I can do all of my newsreading at very high speed and my fingers never leave my second home row on either side of the space bar.
Anonymous said…
A few tips you may not be aware of:

1. Click two and a half times (double-click and hold the mouse button down after the second click) so select by the word, rather than by the character.

2. In many apps (TextEdit, for instance) try selecting text while holding down the Command key (to select non-continuous portions) or the Option key (to select text under the mouse; try making a small rectangle with the pointer over a paragraph) or the combination thereof.
Anonymous said…
Hi David,

Love everything about the blog. I'm a recent switcher too. Please continue the sharing of experiences.

The following is not an advertisement, but a recommendation that I give to all OS X users.

To reduce keyboarding and mousing per this blog entry check out TextExpander and/or TypeIt4Me. They are excellent.

It dramatically reduces typing. Most major OS X gurus use it. I learned about it from MacWorld, Merlin Mann, Leo Laporte, MacApper, and numerous other sites.

They support AppleScripts so you can use the keyboard as a launcher, macro, and AppleScript trigger to automate OS X.

I prefer TextExpander because it does not register backspaces as TypeIt4Me does with AppleScripts. It really is amazing in combination with AppleScript. Here is a link for everyone:

Here is a link to a video of TextExpander with Leo Laporte and Merlin Mann:

I have not attempted to use QuickSilver as it seems it's not being supported anymore. Using TextExpander along with AppleScript is very fast. Not as nearly as fast as voice recognition, but definitely more consistent.

TextExpander's main function is not AppleScripts but as a time-saver for typing using abbreviations that expand out to Snippets.

Here is the link:

No Mac user should be without TextExpander. To type the long word " TextExpander" I just type "tee;" and then it expands automatically.

Check out the links above. Highly recommended.

I use it in so many ways. Works for programmers too. They have an HTML plugin.

Here is a link for a video review / how to:

More videos from the developer's site:

Keep up the blogging, David. It's one of my favorites. I waiting for my MacBook Pro today, and will get a Mac Pro soon. Your blog was a definite help.

I'll try to participate in comments as I can for everyone's benefit. The posters here are super helpful and friendly too. A really nice community and following here that you have.

Robert said…
"Indeed, Macs take better advantage of the mouse than most other operating systems do, especially in the drag and drop department. See an image in a web page that you want to grab? Perhaps an image of Scotty speaking into the mouse in Star Trek IV? Just drag it out of the browser and on to your desktop."
This is actually just a feature of the browser you're using. I'm using firefox on XP and can do the same thing.
David Alison said…
@AlphaGeek: My technique with NNW is to have the stories open in the background. I scan through the list and double click on a line that looks interesting. Once I've queued up the stories I'll be reading I then start scrolling through each in the right pane, with my left hand crouched over the Command-W sequence to quickly close it when I'm done.

The big advantages for me doing this is that the scroll wheel (or trackpad) on my mouse scrolls really well and I'm always in a position to open links on the page that I'm reading.

@Ast: I knew the first, not the second; thanks man!

@SimpleLife: Great comments and links, thanks!

@Robert: 17 years of Windows and you'd think I would have figured that out. Doh! Thanks man.
Anonymous said…
Keyboard...How quaint.

First, David, I would refer you to Bruce Tognazzini's articles on keyboards versus mice.

I'm a long time Mac user (My first Mac was a "Macintosh") and Macintosh developer. I'd point out a few things about using the mouse on a Mac.

Your description, "In the time it takes to move your hand over to the mouse, position the mouse pointer on the screen and perform an action you can often do the same task more quickly by using the correct keyboard commands." I'll refer you to this follow up article by Tog.

That said, I believe the greatest efficiencies come from combining the two. For example, using the mouse to select a line with one hand while pressing the delete key with the other.
Eytan said…
@Robert/David - yes, certain applications in Windows support drag and drop. I think the point made by David and as a long time Windows and Mac user I can confirm, use of Drag and Drop on the Mac is ubiquitous. It is missing on the Mac as often as it seems to be present in Windows. It was implemented (for development) in a very different way, and therefore is really everywhere, and between apps to a much larger degree...
Anonymous said…
You can also drag and drop that picture directly onto the icon in the Dock.
Anonymous said…

One killer app for me regarding mouse usage is xgestures. You may have used some gestures as a firefox plugin but this is system wide for any application and it only costs $5.

I am constantly adding apps to its list whenever I find I am repeating the same command.
example in safari:
up = increase font size
left = back
right = foward
up,right = next tab

left,down,right (like a letter "c") brings up my clipboard manager (currently shadowclipboard) so I can multiple copy items in one app and then easily paste them in another app.

to use 1password is gesture/draw a "p" (up, right,down, left)

many more uses. I suggest checking out the demo.

Take care and great site. I am a longtime apple user (family had a apple IIc back when I was a kid) but I enjoy reading your articles and sending off links to friends I have helped switch.
TLM said…
I've been a part of a number of studies on keyboard vs mouse, and whenever the mouse "wins", it did not win because it's a mouse: It won due to familiarity, or due to laziness as the test subject would not even try to learn a keystroke; even the underlined menus were glossed over.

When a person makes an attempt to embrace the keyboard, his or her speed shoots way up. Period.

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