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A Tale of Two Keyboards

One the great things about the Mac mini is that it works with any USB keyboard. One of the bad things about USB keyboards is that Apple and Windows keyboards are slightly different. This can cause confusion when you're moving back and forth between Mac OS X and Windows.

Windows keyboards don't have the Command (sometimes also called Apple) and Option keys familiar to Mac users. In their places, on both sides of the spacebar, are the Alt and Windows keys. The keys do more or less the same things on their respective systems. The Apple andWindows keys do pretty much the same thing, although the Apple key sometimes takes the role that Windows assigns to the Ctrl key. The Windows Alt and Mac Option keys are also generally equivalent.

The problem is that these keys are laid out opposite between the two operating systems. When you use a Windows keyboard with a Mac mini (or any Mac), the Command and Option keys are switched.

This is the sequence on a Windows keyboard:

This is the sequence on a Mac keyboard:

This difference is, to a large extent, more confusing to describe than it is to live with. But I tend not to use keyboard shortcuts. For those people who do use shortcuts, key placement is more of an issue.

Fortunately, what is done in software can be changed in software. And there is a utility program for Mac OS X that's specifically designed to bring your rowdy keyboard under control.

DoubleCommand (doublecommand.sourceforge.net/) is a free program that lets you swap the functionality of the Windows and Alt keys, making your Windows keyboard work just like a Mac keyboard. It can make other keyboard changes as well, but this simple swap is what will make Windows users feel right at home on their new Mac minis.


I have gotten so adjusted to pressing the different keys when I switch from Mac to Windows that I don't even bother with DoubleCommand. But I am a hunt-and-peck typist, and a touch typist might feel differently. Play around and see what works best for you.

An alternative is to use a KVM switch just for video and use separate keyboards and pointing devices for each of your machines. For example, if your Mac mini has the built-in Bluetooth wireless option, you can use the Apple wireless keyboard and mouse. I've done this on occasion, and it allows the Mac mini's keyboard and mouse to be easily stored when not in use.

One reason to use separate keyboards, even if it means running a cable from each keyboard to its respective computer, is so you can continue using the special features on some PC keyboards. This functionality is often lost when such a keyboard is used with a KVM switch.

The Apple Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse option is especially valuable in home entertainment applications because it allows you to sit some distance away from the computer and monitor. This can be important from convenience, aesthetic, and safety standpoints.

If you do end up using a wired Apple keyboard and mouse with your Mac mini, you save a USB port because the mouse plugs into one of the two USB ports on the keyboard itself.

While I'd hate to have to physically swap screens when I move from the Mac mini to Windows and back, I sometimes don't mind having two keyboards and mice connected to two separate machines.

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