What’s the difference between the hotkeys F6 and Alt+F6?

Raymond Chen

Some time ago, I listed some of the historical system hotkeys, and I noted that of the ones on the list, only Alt+F4 and Alt+F6 are still around.

You’re probably familiar with Alt+F4. It’s the hotkey for closing the current window. The Alt+F6 hotkey is not as well known. It’s the hotkey for switching among windows within an application.

But what kind of “switching among windows within an application” are we talking about? Many programs use F6 or even Ctrl+F6 for switching windows.

More specifically, the Alt+F6 hotkey is for switching among top-level windows in an application. For example, start Notepad, type some text, and then press Ctrl+F to call up the search dialog. At this point, you can use Alt+F6 to switch between the search dialog and the main Notepad window.

At least, that’s what it used to do. You can try it yourself on Windows 95. But it doesn’t seem to work in Windows 10. Not sure if that’s a bug or a feature.

Anyway, that’s what Alt+F6 was for.

One related hotkey F6 is not a system hotkey, but it is a common application convention for switching among sections of a window, or more generally, between sections of an application. For example, in most Web browsers, the F6 hotkey moves between the address bar and the Web page.

Another related hotkey Ctrl+F6 is also not a system hotkey. It is a common application convention for switching among documents within a single window. In the old days, these were Multiple Document Interface windows, but nowadays they are more likely to be tabbed windows.

That’s the rundown of F6-related hotkeys. Only Alt+F6 is a system hotkey. The others are application-defined hotkeys, but most applications use them for navigating within the main application window.