Keyboard Shortcuts: Alt + Tab and Ctrl + Tab

Today’s shortcuts are great for those of us who 1) don’t want to take our hands off the keyboard to use the mouse or touchpad, and 2) have a lot of things open at the same time. Or in my case, have so many things open that taking my hands away from the keyboard to navigate between all of them would slow me down. And now that I think about it, it’s great for when you have a limited number of things open that you want to toggle between often.

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but I always have a million things open. Probably when a fast laptop happened to be on sale when I needed a new one and so I got a computer that could handle having a million things open and running at once. For instance, I pretty much always have two Internet browsers open with 2-6 tabs open in each, as well as something playing music or video, and a Word file or two. Oh, and it’s not uncommon for me to also have PowerPoint and photo editing software (typically Paint, GIMP, or both) open along with all of that.

Now, the way most people would move between all of these open windows and tabs is point and click—they would use the mouse to move the cursor to what they wanted to open and then click. This is how I do it a lot of the time myself, but I also use keyboard shortcuts to move between open software and open tabs online. Here’s how moving between open windows works in Windows 8.1. (The keyboard shortcut is the same in Windows 7, buy it looks a little different.)

open windows labeled

On my taskbar, you can tell which programs I have open because they have a square around them. Looking at the taskbar above, at the far left is the Windows button and next to it is a start button replacement I use called Pokki. Neither is open, but the next icon, the Internet browser Firefox, is open, which I know because it does have the outline around it. So does the File Explorer icon that comes next, but not the calculator after that. The other open windows are: Chrome, Windows Media Player, Word, PowerPoint, GIMP, and Paint. Let’s say I’m checking my email on Firefox when I open an email from a coworker I need to give my full attention, so I want to stop the video I’ve got playing. If I type Alt and Tab at the same time, this menu pops up on my screen.


The icons on the menu represent the currently open windows (as well as the Desktop at the end) and they are organized by most recently used. So, in this case Firefox is on the far left and when I typed Alt + Tab, the second tab, Paint, gets highlighted. If I release the keys, Paint is the window that will appear on my screen. But I don’t want to use Paint, I want to get to Windows Media Player, which is the fifth icon. So, while I continue holding down Alt, I release and type Tab again. That highlights the next icon on the list, Word. If I type Tab twice more while holding down Alt, I reach Windows Media Player. When I release both keys, Windows Media Player is the active window, and I can pause my video and go back to give my full attention to the very important email from my coworker.

important email


Now, if I’m online and I have multiple tabs open, which is always the case, I can skip through my tabs in two ways. One is to type Ctrl and Tab at the same time to move one tab to the right.

firefox tabs
Hey! Look! The Ohio Digital Library has magazines now!

For instance, I’m looking at the Ohio Digital Library and I want to read the Thomas Hardy book the new Carey Mulligan movie is based on, but I forget the title of the book. If I type Ctrl + Tab, the tab to the right of the Ohio Digital Library, which happens to be Project Gutenberg, opens. If type Ctrl + Tab again, I get to IMDb, a great site for looking up movie information. There I discover the book I’m looking for is Far From the Madding Crowd. Huzzah!

I could have gone straight from the Ohio Digital Library to IMDb by typing Ctrl + 6, because IMDb is the sixth tab from the left. Which of these methods I use generally depends on if I think it will be quicker to count the tabs or just hit Ctrl + Tab until I reach the tab I want. I showed the shortcut using Firefox, but it works the same in Internet Explorer and Chrome

And there are some ways to navigate around all the stuff you have open.



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