July 05, 2011, 10:04 AM — Pity the unassuming workhorse of the keyboard: the Tab key. Even the Shift key gets more respect. But just because it's unpretentious, you shouldn't assume it does nothing more than adjust indents in a word processor: the Tab key has a few tricks up its metaphorical sleeve. These tricks all work in Snow Leopard and may work in Lion too, unless otherwise noted.
1. Select items alphabetically in Finder windows
In Finder windows, in all but Column view, pressing the Tab key selects the next file alphabetically. You may not have noticed this because so many windows are already sorted alphabetically, so it seems that Tab merely selects the "next" file. But you can sort window contents by Size, Kind, Date, and so on by clicking a column header or choosing from the View -> Arrange submenu. (It might be a good idea, for instance, to sort your Downloads folder by Date Modified.)
No matter how the window's contents are sorted, you can always access the next alphabetic item by pressing Tab, with Shift-Tab selecting the previous alphabetic file. (This works even with a Lion window grouped into categories with the Arrange By menu: the Tab key jumps around to different groups as necessary.)
2. Navigate with your keyboard
If you like to keep your hands on your keyboard, you can use the Tab key to move from one window element (buttons, pop-up menus, text fields and so on) to another. The recent story "How to use your Mac without a mouse" describes how to turn on this feature in Keyboard preferences. But when you turn on that setting, you'll often find yourself tabbing through every control in every window, often wasting more time than you save. Tabbing to every element in a dialog box can be handy, but on a webpage it could drive you crazy.
So, turn this feature on and off as needed without repeated trips to the preference pane by enabling the Change The Way Tab Moves Focus shortcut. In System Preferences, open the Keyboard preference pane and click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab. Select Keyboard & Text Input in the list on the left; on the right, check the box in front of Change The Way Tab Moves Focus.
To change the default shortcut, double-click on the existing one and press the new key combo. I use Control-Shift-Tab—it's easy to remember because it controls the way you change—or shift—the Tab key Function.
3. Hop around all parts of a Safari window