Chromebooks – Their Functions Keys are Different and that’s OK!

I just realized that in all hullabaloo I made about the keyboard when talking about upgrading my laptop, I totally didn’t mention that Chromebooks replace the traditional function keys at the top of the keyboard with a row of … well, function keys. I also didn’t mention that I think the Chromebook function keys are really cool!

For anyone who doesn’t know what I am referring to, “Function Keys” are the set of numbered keys (from F1 to F12) at the top of PC keyboards that exist as a programmable human interface for software. These keys date back to an era before the mouse and graphical user interfaces were common, at a time when the more keys you had in front of you, the more you could accomplish with the computer in a timely manner. I remember learning programs for DOS, such as Word Perfect and Lotus 123, which had so many keyboard shortcuts that they came with paper overlays for the the keyboard! These overlays mapped the functions visually for the user, because no mere mortal could possibly remember all of those shortcuts. Even today, most software has an array of keyboard functions that stretch far beyond what you see when you look at the keyboard, ChromeOS included, but the function keys remain an integral part of most productivity software as well.

But, what do you see when you look at a standard PC keyboard? Like, what are those F1 through F12 keys for anyway? Unlike the TAB or ESC key, there’s no immediately obvious function for any of the “Function Keys”, so… what are they for?

Again, the function key row exists to help translate the intangible world of on-screen software in to the real where we physical creatures can poke at it. Given that computers can run many different kinds of software, it made a lot of sense to have a single keyboard layout that had the necessities for language as well as some extra keys that a program can use for “other stuff”. Sure, we could live in a world where every program comes with its own custom keyboard that we swap out multiple times a day, but as fortune would have it, the folks who formed the PC market weren’t the same people as those who formed the gaming console market…

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So, the input paradigm we have firmly entrenched in the PC market is a keyboard with a set of ill-defined “F Keys” that remain a mystery to many people, because those folks either don’t use software that capitalizes on the existence of the F Keys or because they simply aren’t trained to use that area of the keyboard any longer. From my experience in the tech support industry, I would say that the latter is most often the case, because I can’t think of a single piece of software that doesn’t have at least one useful function that is tied to the function keys, yet I have encountered many people who have no idea what the function keys are for. Judging by what Google has done with the function keys on their Chromebooks, I’m not the only person who has noticed this trend.

Chromebook Function Keys

By explicitly defining what each of the function keys does in ChromeOS and then visually representing those functions graphically on the keys themselves, Google has taken an underused portion of the PC keyboard and made it integral to the everyday use of a Chromebook. A person a can look at the keyboard on a Chromebook and immediately know exactly what every key does. And, all of the things that the keys do are genuinely useful to the normal workflow of the device – letters, numbers, volume keys, navigation keys, brightness keys, and so on, all come together to form a tool whose purpose is as easily recognized as that of a vacuum cleaner or a car stereo.

I commend Google for having the courage to change the icons on the the physical function keys themselves, because such changes to the status quo are quite risky in the computer hardware business. Just as Apple took a risk when they released the iPhone without a physical keyboard, Google’s Chromebook keyboard is a risky step in the right direction for purpose driven computer hardware; The iPhone was designed to be mobile and extremely versatile, so using a touch screen made it possible to pack as much programmable interface as possible into the limited space provided by the chassis; A Chromebook is designed to deliver the best possible web browser experience on a device that is both affordable and optimized for long periods of human input, so it made sense to explicitly define the role of every key on its keyboard.

The function keys available on my HP Chromebook 14 G4 are, from left to right:

ESC, Back, Forward, Refresh, Maximize/Normal-Size Window, Switch Window, Lower Brightness, Raise Brightness, Mute Volume, Decrease Volume, Increase Volume, and Power.

In addition to the predefined functions keys, ChromeOS also has an abundance of keyboard shortcuts, which are complete with their own handy on screen map that can be accessed by pressing the CTL+ALT+? keys.

Finally, it is possible to change the role of the function keys on a Chromebook to be like the function keys on any PC by selecting “Treat top-row keys like function keys” in the keyboard settings dialog box.