Print

TechMan column: Numpad is vestige of the adding machine

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

 Welcome to the first episode of the infrequent TechMan series, “It’s right in front of me, but what is it?” This also is the first TechMan “hands on” column.

So put your hands on the keyboard and read on.

 Today’s topic is the numpad (which derives from “number pad,” not from another word we won’t mention here), a grouping of 17 keys to the right of a standard keyboard. There are usually three small bulbs above the numpad that can be on or off. Most laptops do not have a numpad for reasons of a smaller keyboard.

 I’m assuming that numpads arose from the belief in the early days that computers would just be fancy adding machines. The numpad keys are arranged in the same pattern as an adding machine.

But “adding machine” is just one of three modes that the numpad possesses. It is the way the keys operate with the num lock on (when the little light, usually the left one, is on.) The num lock key is the upper leftmost key of the numpad.

 If the num lock is off, the key’s function is indicated by the lower label on each key.

 You will notice that, on most keyboards, these keys have the same function as those just to the left of the numpad. Why? You got me.

 “Delete” (Del), “Insert” (Ins) and the arrow keys are self- explanatory, “home” and “end” take you to the beginning and end of a line, and “page up” and “page down” scroll you one screen’s worth at a time.

 You can combine other keys with the numpad keys. If you hold down the Shft key while using the arrow keys, you will select and unselect in that direction, just as with the standard arrow keys. Holding down the Ctrl key with home or end will move to the top or bottom of the document. Adding the Shft key will select to the top or bottom. (These keys may work differently in some programs.)

As an aside, the other two lights above the numpad indicate the condition of the caps lock key (the most irritating key on the keyboard, as far as I’m concerned) and the scroll lock key, the use of which has been forgotten by all. humans.

 If you are constantly enraged by mistakenly depressing the caps lock key instead of the Shft key, you can enable a warning tone. In Windows, go to the start menu, settings, control panel, accessibility options, keyboard. With the “use toggle keys” box checked, you will hear a beep when depressing the caps lock, num lock or scroll lock key.

 It doesn’t solve the problem, but at least you get a chance to turn off the caps lock before YOU START TYPING LIKE THIS.

 There is a third mode for the numpad number keys on a PC keyboard, which produces what are called Alt codes.

 If you hold down the Alt key (num lock on or off) and type specific strings of numbers, you can produce symbols not visible on the keyboard.

 Try it. Open a word processing document, make sure the num lock is on, hold down the alt key and type 0169 on the num pad. Release the alt key and you’ll see the copyright symbol. Now you can copyright everything you write. Go ahead and try these: alt 0128, alt 0165, alt 0215. There are dozens of these. Whoopee.

 The Apple Macintosh keyboard lacks a num lock key (perhaps Microsoft could use this in a commercial: “I’m a PC and I have a numlock key.”). The num lock key is replaced by the “clear” key. The numpad also has other differences.The Apple numpad also adds an “equals” key, has a “help” key, instead of an “insert” key, and, on the most recent aluminum keyboards, a “fn” key, which toggles the use of the function keys.

 Lately Apple has begun to drop the numpad. For new iMacs, the wireless keyboard lacks a numpad and the wired keyboard comes with or without.

In some video games, the numpad keys are used to move characters, because unlike the “standard” arrow keys, they allow diagonal movement. And some systems use the numpad for input of Chinese characters.

So the next time you look down and see the numpad squatting there quietly to the right of your more useful keys, have a little pity. Sure it’s outmoded, redundant and maybe not cool, but it does have its uses.

 Want to send a question to TechMan? Just fire an E-mail to questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and include your name, hometown and a daytime phone number. Visit his blog at post-gazette.com/techman. You also can listen to the weekly audio Tech Talk podcast at post-gazette.com/podcast or catch the video version at post-gazette.com/multimedia.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.