yours, tiramisu

how i use a windows keyboard with a mac

When I was in college, I had both a Windows PC and a Macbook Air. I used both regularly, and despite the differences in keyboard and OS, I didn't have too much trouble switching between them. My guess is that the different keyboard layout and look/feel of the UI gave my muscle memory enough cues to intuit which computer I was on and subsequently which keys to press.

Now, I use Windows for work and a Mac mini for personal use, but since the Mac mini doesn't come with a keyboard, I use the same Windows keyboard for both my Mac and my work laptop. Unfortunately, I quickly ran into all sorts of issues typing on a Windows keyboard on my Mac, since the modifier keys are laid out in a different order on Mac and Windows.

Macintosh: ⌃ | ⌥ | ⌘
Windows: ⌃ | ⌘ | ⌥

The first thing I tried was remapping the Windows keyboard modifiers to match the Mac layout. This helped me tremendously. Now I could copy-paste, open/close tabs, and select an entire body of text with the same keystrokes as I used on Windows.

This left me with the following setup:

Windows keyboard key Remapped MacOS key
Ctrl Cmd (⌘)
Windows (⊞ Win) Ctrl (⌃)
Alt Option (⌥)

After a while I noticed that quite a few things still bothered me about switching between my Mac and Windows computers. The most irritating of them all was how I'm used to using Ctrl + Backspace to delete a word on Windows, but on Mac ⌘ + Backspace deletes the whole line of text. Likewise, Ctrl + ← on Windows moves your cursor left one word, but on Mac ⌘ + ← moves it to the beginning of the line. On Mac deleting or moving by one word is bound to the Option key, or the ⌥, now mapped to my Alt key. These may seem like trivialities, but it's hard to untrain more than 10 years of muscle memory, and I found myself making mistake after mistake when typing on my Mac. I tried to deal with it at first, but found myself caught between a rock and a hard place. At first, I found myself making mistakes only on my Mac. I don't use my Mac terribly often, so it was bearable. Now that I've used my Mac for longer, I've started to build muscle memory, and now I find my index finger wanting to go to the Alt key on Windows when I want to backspace a word.

I eventually stumbled across Karabiner Elements when looking for a solution. Karabiner lets you remap not just individual keys but also specific key combinations. It's a great app, even if its UI is a bit challenging to learn how to use. Even a (bad) programmer like me needed a while to figure out how to use all its features. Here's what I did to get to a configuration I was comfortable with:

First, I went back to the modifier remapping settings in System Preferences and reset them to default. They don't play well with Karabiner, so I found it easiest to do all my customizations in Karabiner.

Next, in the Simple Modifications section of Karabiner, I added two remaps to swap the bindings for left_control and left_command. This achieves what I had set up before in Apple's System Preferences.

Finally, I imported Complex modifications for the key combinations that were tripping me up the most. You can find import on the Karabiner-Elements complex_modifications rules page. The search function on this page is unforgiving and doesn't work so well, so it took me a long time to figure out the kind of keywords I needed to use in order to get the results I wanted. Here are the modifications I have right now:

This is an ongoing work in progress as I figure out how to get the best out of all my devices, but if anyone has any questions, feedback, or advice, please let me know! I hope this helps someone out there struggling with the same issues I was, since it took me a long time to figure this all out.

#english #technology