Macs can use nearly all keyboards built for Windows PC, whether they are USB or Bluetooth, but you may notice that the layout of some of the modifier keys are different on a Mac keyboard from the layout of a Windows keyboard. Specifically, the WINDOWS and ALT key of a Windows keyboard are switched compared to the Mac keyboard layout of OPTION/ALT and COMMAND keys. This can lead to erroneous keyboard shortcuts or other unexpected key press behavior when using a PC keyboard with a Mac.
A simple solution to this problem is to remap the Windows and ALT key and the command and option/alt keys on the Windows PC keyboard connected to the Mac, so that the keyboard layouts will mimic expectations based on the standard Apple modifier key layout, rather than what it says on the PC keyboard. For most Mac users who connect a PC keyboard to their Mac, this will dramatically improve their typing experience when using a PC keyboard.
Using a Windows PC Keyboard on Mac with Remapped Windows & ALT Keys
This trick works the same with all Windows and PC keyboard with the standard CTRL / Windows / ALT key layout, and all versions of Mac OS:
- Connect the Windows PC keyboard to the Mac as usual, either by USB or Bluetooth
- Pull down the Apple menu and choose “System Preferences”
- Click on “Keyboard”
- Choose the “Keyboard” tab and then click on the “Modifier Keys” button in the lower right corner of the preference panel
- Choose the PC keyboard from the “Select Keyboard” dropdown menu at the top of the Modifier keys screen to insure you are modifying the proper keyboard connected to the Mac
- Click the dropdown next to “OPTION Key” and select “Command”
- Click the dropdown next to “COMMAND Key” and select “Option”
- Click “OK” and test out the newly remapped keyboard keys *
Once finished you will have a new digital layout of the Windows PC keyboard keys when used on the Mac:
- WINDOWS key becomes the ALT / OPTION key on Mac OS
- ALT key becomes the COMMAND key on Mac OS
* NOTE: Some PC keyboards also have the “CNTRL” and “ALT” keys switched too, compared to a standard Mac key layout. If applicable, go ahead and switch those with the same Modifier Key trick outlined above.
A simple way to confirm the keyboard modifier keys are switched as expected is to issue a keyboard shortcut, like a screen capture (Command Shift 3) or a Close Window command (Command + W). It should work as you’d expect based on the Mac keyboard layout.
Obviously this isn’t going to change the actual physical keyboard appearance, so you’ll have to get used to the appearance of the keys saying one thing, but doing something else. But if you are mostly a touch-typer and never look at your hands when typing this shouldn’t be an issue.
Essentially you are reversing the Windows PC keyboard Windows and ALT keys (which become the Command and Option/ALT keys when connected to the Mac), which puts them in line with the default Mac and Apple keyboard layout of those buttons. Thus, the Windows PC keyboard Windows key becomes the new ALT / OPTION key on the Mac, and the Windows PC keyboard ALT key becomes the new COMMAND key on the Mac, just like it would be on an Apple keyboard.
For example, here’s a Windows PC keyboard with a different modifier key layout than the Apple keyboard layout:
And here’s a Apple keyboard with different modifier key layout than the Windows PC keyboard:
Thus you can see why switching the modifier key behavior when the PC keyboard is connected to the Mac can be helpful.
This trick should be particularly useful to Mac users who have a favorite PC keyboard laying around they want to use, or perhaps prefer a particular Windows PC keyboard for one reason or another. And yes this tip works the same regardless of the Windows PC keyboard connected to the Mac, and regardless of the Mac operating system or the Mac itself. You can switch the modifier keys in any release and with any keyboard this way.
By the way if you’re coming to the Mac from the Windows world, which is perhaps why you have a Windows PC keyboard in use on a Mac in the first place, you’ll probably appreciate learning the Home and END button equivalents on a Mac keyboard, what the Print Screen button equivalent is on a Mac, potentially using the Delete key as a Forward DEL on a Mac, or discovering how to use Page Up and Page Down on a Mac keyboard, and understanding what and where the OPTION or ALT key is on a Mac too.
So, try this out if you have a Windows keyboard you want to use with a Mac, or if you want to try an external PC keyboard on a Mac then go ahead and don’t be shy, because simply swapping those two modifier keys can remedy one of the biggest annoyances when using a Windows PC keyboard on a Mac.
If you have any other helpful tips for using a Windows or PC keyboard on a Mac, then share them with us in the comments below!