Why Use the Keyboard in OS X Yosemite?

By Mark L. Chambers

To begin benefiting from the Unix underpinnings of OS X, get used to doing things with the keyboard. Although mouse skills can be applied to using Unix, you’ll generally find performing Unix functions to be faster and easier with the keyboard.

Unix keyboarding is fast

Why on Earth would any red-blooded Macintosh owner want to leave the comfort of the mouse to use a keyboard? After all, the graphical user interface (GUI) is what made the Macintosh great in the first place. With a Finder window, you can navigate and manage the various files on your hard drive with a few clicks. This sounds simple enough.

For some tasks, though, using the keyboard can be just as fast — if not faster.

Suppose, for example, that you need to copy a series of files with names that begin with the same characters. In the traditional manner using Finder, it’s a click-and-drag trek: Open a Finder window, navigate to the location where the files are stored, open another Finder window (Command+N) or open a Finder tab, navigate to the destination folder where you want to copy the files, and then drag the files to their intended destination.

Comparatively, by using the keyboard and the power of Unix, you can accomplish the same task with a one-line command. For some tasks, the mouse is definitely the way to go, but you can perform some other tasks just as quickly, if not faster, with the keyboard.

The Unix keyboard is a powerful beast

So maybe you’re not an expert typist, and using the mouse or trackpad still sounds inviting. For many scenarios, you’d be correct in assuming that a mouse can handle the job just as quickly and easily as a bunch of commands that you have to memorize.

Using the keyboard, however, offers some other distinct advantages over any pointing device. To allow you to control your computer from the keyboard, Unix offers a command line tool that you use to enter commands one line at a time.

OS X ships with Terminal, its command line application. From Launchpad, you can find the Terminal icon in the Utilities folder (depending on how you installed OS X, the folder may also be called Other). You can also find it here:

/Applications/Utilities/Terminal

One shining feature of the command line is its efficiency. One mouse click is equal to one command. When you use the command line, you can combine commands into a kind of super command (minus the silly cape, but with bulging muscles intact), with each command performing some action of the combined whole. From the command line, you can string together a whole bunch of commands to do a complex task.

For example, consider how many times you’d have to click a mouse in Finder to complete these steps:

  1. Find all files that begin with the letters MyDocument.

  2. From this list of files, add a number to the beginning of the filename, indicating its size in kilobytes.

  3. Save the names of all altered files to a text file.

From the command line, you could accomplish all these tasks by typing only one super command: a collection of three simple commands combined to form one instruction. The built-in Terminal program that ships with OS X Yosemite gives you everything you need to start using the command line.

Go where no mouse has gone before

Finder is generally a helpful tool, but it makes many assumptions about how you work. One of these assumptions is that you don’t have any need to handle some of the files on your hard drive. OS X ships with its system files marked “off limits.” To secure your system files, Apple purposely hides some files from view.

But what road do you take if you need to modify those system files? Yep, you guessed it: The command line comes to the rescue! You can use the command line to peer inside every nook and cranny of your Mac’s vast directory structure on your hard drive. It also has the power to edit files that aren’t typically accessible to you.

From the command line, you can pretend to be other users — even users with more permissions. By temporarily acting as a more powerful user, you can perform actions with the command line that would be impossible in Finder. (Just remember to make sure that you know exactly what you’re doing, or that you’re working with an Apple technical support person — one wrong move, and it’ll be time for an ominous chord.)