Why do F keys exist?

F keys, also known as function keys, have been a staple of computer keyboards for decades. But with the rise of more streamlined and minimalist keyboard designs in recent years, some people have begun to question why we still have a whole row dedicated to these odd-looking keys. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the history and purpose of the function keys to understand why they still endure as a core part of the modern keyboard.

The Origins of Function Keys

Function keys first appeared in the early 1970s on terminals and keyboards made by companies like Hewlett-Packard. At the time, most keyboards followed the typewriter conventions established earlier in the 20th century, with the standard QWERTY layout and a number row along the top. However, the rise of the personal computer brought a need for more keys and more functionality from keyboards.

Engineers found that they could add extra keys along the top row that could be programmed to perform specific functions depending on the application. For example, pressing F1 might open a help menu, while F2 entered text formatting options. The “F” stood for “function,” giving the name “function keys” to this new row of keys.

These early function keys were a boon to programmers and data entry professionals who could now automate common tasks by assigning them to various function keys. Users no longer had to navigate through menus and commands to perform frequent actions – one press of a function key could do the job. This improved workflow and productivity significantly.

The Role of Function Keys in Early Computing

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, function keys became standard across most computer keyboards, though the number of keys varied. Some had as few as 10 or 12, while most settled on around 15 keys as a compromise between size and functionality.

In these early years of personal computing, function keys filled several important roles:

  • Application shortcuts – As mentioned, function keys provided quick access to common commands in programs.
  • Hardware control – Keys like F1 to F12 could directly control hardware like adjusting display brightness or volume.
  • Programmable functions – Users could write programs or macros to perform custom actions when a function key was pressed.
  • Game controls – Games utilized function keys for gameplay controls before dedicated gaming keyboards became common.

So while primitive compared to modern GUI menus and keyboard shortcuts, function keys were an ingenious way for early computers to provide extra programmability and control through a simple row of keys.

The Standardization of F Keys

By the late 1980s, IBM compatibles and keyboards had become the de facto standard for personal computers. IBM keyboards featured a row of 12 function keys across the top, from F1 on the left to F12 on the right. This set the standard arrangement that persists today.

IBM’s layout was adopted by other computer manufacturers as they pushed to maintain compatibility across platforms. End-users benefited from having a common function key layout they could rely on when switching between various computer brands and models.

Around this time, operating systems like DOS and Windows began incorporating the use of function keys for common built-in commands. For example, F1 for help and F3 to exit in DOS; Ctrl-F4 to close a program window in Windows. This further cemented function keys’ place in the PC world.

Function Key Uses in the DOS Era

Here are some common uses of function keys in DOS-based operating systems and programs:

F1 Help
F3 Exit program
F5 Refresh display
F7 Access menu
F8 Toggle keyboard input
F9 Setup configuration

As you can see, function keys provided quick shortcuts for things a user needed to do regularly in DOS. Consistent placement and labeling aided memorization.

Function Keys in the Graphical Era

The widespread adoption of Microsoft Windows and the move to a graphical user interface (GUI) in the 1990s reduced dependency on function keys. dedicated icons, menus, and pointing-and-clicking with the mouse became the standard way to interact with programs.

However, function keys remained relevant for a few key reasons:

  • Backwards compatibility – DOS and legacy programs still relied on function keys, so they remained on new keyboards.
  • Gamer preference – Games continued using F-keys for game controls.
  • Productivity users – Shortcut power users still utilized function keys alongside menus.
  • Laptops – Smaller keyboards benefited from combining F-keys with other keys using an Fn modifier.

Though not as crucial as in the DOS days, function keys persisted as an optional way to interact with programs. Modern Windows systems still use some standardized functions like F1 for help, F2 for rename, and F4 for closing documents.

Common Function Key Uses in Windows

F1 Help/Support
F2 Rename selected item
F3 Search for files/folders
F4 Close active document
F5 Refresh/reload
F11 Full screen mode

The Persistence of Function Keys

Despite waning importance, function keys have shown remarkable persistence and can still be found on most computer keyboards today. There are several reasons for their continued existence:

  • Legacy support – As mentioned, older programs and operating systems still rely on function keys for shortcuts.
  • Consistency – The standard F1-F12 layout provides consistency for users across different hardware.
  • Backwards compatibility – Removing them could break compatibility with software that still utilizes function keys.
  • Specialization – For programmers, data entry, gamers, and power users, function keys still offer efficiency benefits.
  • Cost – Adding function keys doesn’t substantially increase keyboard manufacturing costs.
  • Keyboard real estate – The space already exists on full-size and laptop keyboards.

In essence, there’s been little incentive for manufacturers to drop function keys entirely. The benefits of keeping them has outweighed the costs.

The Decline of Function Keys

Nevertheless, in the last decade function keys have begun to lose relevance for mainstream keyboard users:

  • Operating systems like Windows, Mac OS, Chrome OS, and Linux now rely entirely on GUI controls, keyboard shortcuts, and pointing devices.
  • Mainstream programs and apps make little to no use of function keys besides F1 for help.
  • Gaming keyboards now have specialized keys for gameplay controls.
  • Keyboard minimalism has downsized function key rows on some laptops and keyboards.
  • Touch screens and alternative input methods like voice don’t utilize function keys.

For casual users on modern operating systems, the function keys go largely unused in daily work. Their original purpose has been replaced by more intuitive input methods. This has led some manufactures to start dropping them from keyboards aimed at mainstream consumers.

Examples of Keyboards Without Function Keys

  • Apple Magic Keyboard
  • Microsoft Surface Keyboard
  • Logitech K380 Multi-Device Wireless Keyboard
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch Laptop
  • ASUS Zenbook Laptops

Keyboards designed for portability and minimalism have been at the forefront of this trend toward eliminating function keys. However, traditional full-size keyboards still tend to retain function keys for the legacy and compatibility reasons mentioned earlier.

The Future of Function Keys

Given these recent trends, what is the likely future of those puzzling F-keys?

In the near term, don’t expect function keys to disappear entirely. There is simply too much legacy software and user familiarity to eliminate them cold turkey. Sudden dramatic changes to keyboard layouts also risk alienating users.

However, it’s likely we will see a continued decline in the prominence and use of function keys over time:

  • More minimalist laptops and keyboards with truncated or absent function keys for mainstream consumers.
  • Software shift toward keyboard shortcuts, touch screens, voice control, and other modern inputs.
  • Gamers and power users retaining F-keys on specialty keyboards and devices.
  • Enterprise technology retaining function keys longer due to dependence on legacy software.
  • Virtual on-screen keyboards completely omitting function keys on touch devices.

Rather than a rapid abandonment, we’ll likely see function keys slowly fade away on consumer-focused machines while remaining on specialty devices that still benefit from them.

Function Keys Will Likely Persist in These Scenarios:

  • Business/enterprise environments using legacy software
  • Specialized hardware like point-of-sale systems and data entry devices
  • High-performance gaming keyboards
  • Programming and coding focused keyboards
  • Scientific workstations and engineering hardware

Re-Imagining Function Keys

Rather than completely removing function keys, some manufacturers have explored repurposing them:

  • Media controls – Using F-keys for music and video playback functions.
  • Application shortcuts – Custom F-key functions for programs like web browsers.
  • Search – Dedicated function key to trigger a search in Windows or web browsers.
  • OS features – Keys to toggle settings like Wi-Fi or keyboard backlighting.

This takes advantage of users’ familiarity with the function key location while giving them new context-specific purposes. It provides an upgrade path as legacy uses of function keys decrease over time.


While their importance has diminished, function keys have proven to be a persistently useful vestige from the early eras of personal computing. Their longevity speaks to the care taken by computer manufacturers to ensure backwards compatibility across keyboard designs, even at the expense of introducing radical changes. And while used less frequently than in the past, F keys still offer efficiency benefits to power users in the right contexts.

Going forward, the function key’s relevance may continue to decline – but complete extinction seems unlikely anytime soon. Their legacy in computing history is secured. And who knows? We may just find ourselves pressing an old familiar F-key from time to time, if for nothing else but nostalgia.

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