Function keys acting funky? An F-lock keyboard could be the culprit…

January 16, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Recently, a client of mine called me into his office and plaintively asked why he couldn’t get a certain familiar keyboard shortcut to work. I tried the shortcut myself, to no avail. Then it came to me: “Maybe he’s using an F-lock keyboard.”

I examined the keyboard and quickly discovered the notorious F-lock key.[1] One quick press, and the keyboard shortcut in question again worked as expected. The client was thrilled, and I was relieved.

Not all keyboard problems have such a simple solution. However, if the key combos that you rely on to perform your daily tasks suddenly stop working, suspect the F-lock keyboard. It’s easy to test and, if that is indeed the culprit, easy to fix.

Introduced by Microsoft in 2001, the F-lock keyboard gives users the option of changing the way the function keys — as well as keys such as Insert, Num Lock, Prnt Scrn, Scroll Lock, and Break — operate. Sounds useful, no? In theory, the idea that people can remap their keyboard by pressing a single button makes a certain amount of sense. The problem is that Microsoft chose to make the alternate keyboard (the one with the remapped keys) the default, requiring users to figure out (1) that the unexpected change in functionality is by design — i.e., nothing is broken, and (2) how to restore the conventional functions to the F-keys and the others that Microsoft has modified.

To make matters still more confusing, the default setting is considered “Off” rather than “On” (it might help to think of the standard functions being turned off unless you deliberately press the F-lock key to turn them back on again). And even after you restore the conventional settings by pressing the F-lock key, the keyboard might revert to the alternate settings if there’s a power surge or if you have to disconnect and reconnect the keyboard for some reason.[2]

Here is a list of the function key commands that go into effect when the F-lock key is “Off” (i.e., the default state of the F-lock keyboard):

F1 — Help (same as the standard setting)
F2 — Undo
F3 — Redo
F4 — New
F5 — Open
F6 — Close
F7 — Reply (to e-mail)
F8 — Forward (e-mail)
F9 — Send (e-mail)
F10 — Spell
F11 — Save
F12 — Print

When you purchase an F-lock keyboard (or a computer that comes with one), you’ll likely receive a disk that contains Microsoft’s “IntelliType Pro” software that allows you to remap the function keys yourself. I have no personal experience with this software, so I don’t know how user-friendly it is or isn’t.

There are also a few hacks available, but I don’t recommend them for anyone other than advanced users — such as IT people — who understand (and are able to repair) the potential negative consequences of such hacks. (CAUTION: If you do decide to attempt a hack, it’s a good idea to back up the Registry and/or set a restore point beforehand so that you can roll things back to their previous state if something goes wrong during your experiments.[3]) Remember, the easiest fix is simply to press the F-lock key, which will toggle between the conventional F-key functions and what Microsoft refers to as the “enhanced” functions. If for some reason that doesn’t work (and it’s worth trying twice just to make sure[4]), it’s possible that something else is causing the problem.

For more information about the F-lock keyboard, see the links below:

F-Lock (short but helpful Wikipedia article)

Resolve unexpected Function (F1 – F12) or other special key behavior (Microsoft Knowledge Base article)

Microsoft Keyboards — F-Lock Key (Microsoft MVP Jason Tsang’s helpful post, which includes information about a couple of available hacks)

Function Keys (Older thread on WordPerfect Universe that deals with the F-lock keyboard and one possible hack)

new keyboard (Another older thread on WPU with userful information and links)
[1] The F-lock key typically is located at the upper right side of the keyboard. However, there are several different F-lock keyboards in circulation, and the location of the F-lock key — as well as which specific alternate commands are available — depends on the make and model of your keyboard. Note that Logitech, Viewsonic, and other manufacturers besides Microsoft also make F-lock keyboards.

[2] This problem is less of an issue with the newer F-lock keyboards, which tend to retain the user’s preferred settings even after a power loss.

[3] If you don’t know how to back up the Registry and/or set a restore point, you probably shouldn’t attempt a keyboard hack. If necessary, your IT person probably can do it for you.

[4] Should the keyboard not work as expected, you might try closing out of all open programs and shutting the computer down, unplugging the keyboard, reattaching it, and rebooting.

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