If this thing's so common, why haven't you heard of it?
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

Launch programs with keystrokes in Windows

March 8, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, The Post-Standard

   Want a free program launcher for Windows?
   You don't need to download it and you won't have to install anything. In fact, you already have it.
   This Windows program launcher, which lets you assign programs to key combinations, has been around since Windows 95. It has appeared unchanged in every version of Microsoft's operating system, and remains in the next one, called Windows 7.
   If this thing's so common, why haven't you heard of it? Because it's not a program. It's not in the Start Menu. It's not on the Taskbar. It's not even in the Control Panel.
   It's hidden in the properties sheet of shortcuts. To get to it, right click on any shortcut and click "Properties." See the text-entry box labeled "Shortcut key:"? That's where this gem is hiding.
   We need to back up here. What's a shortcut, anyway? Where can you find shortcuts? Let me explain.
   Shortcuts are pointers to actual programs. Sometimes shortcuts are called aliases, a better term because they're not the real thing; they're stand-ins for the real thing.
   (Why have these aliases at all? Because you can sprinkle them anywhere you want -- on the Desktop, in the Start Menu, in any folder. That way you don't have to hunt for the alias -- the shortcut -- to run, say, Microsoft Word, because you'll be able to find it in various places. Makes sense, right?)
   I mentioned the Start Menu because it's Shortcut City. Everything in the Start Menu is a shortcut. There's nary a real program to be found.
   This is good for our hidden program launcher, because it thrives in all those shortcuts. Strap on your virtual parachute and skydive into Shortcut City while we set up a launcher.
   How about the Calculator? Wouldn't it be great if it would pop open when you pressed Alt-Ctrl-C? Let's make it do that.
   Click the Start button, then go to Programs, then Accessories. Right click on the entry for Calculator and click "Properties." A properties sheet will open.
   Click once inside the "Shortcut key:" box and press the "C" key. Windows automatically adds Ctrl and Alt to create the key combination Ctrl-Alt-C. Click "Apply" and then "OK."
   To run the Calculator, press the shortcut keys -- Ctrl-Alt-C -- all at once.
   You can create other shortcut keys the same way. I use "W" for my Web browser, "E" for my e-mail, and so on. Tip: Any shortcut, even one for a folder, can have a hotkey that opens it.
   (What about keys that can launch programs on Macs? Alas, Mac don't have that function built in. But you can add it. I'll write about this and about a Windows method of doing fancier stuff with keystrokes soon.)