Mac All The Keyboards

The standard Macintosh keyboard layout makes it easy to add writer-desired special characters without pulling up a menu or relying on software trickery. Here’s how to get it on Linux and Windows.

By Ernie Smith

I’m sure the calculus is a little different for everyone when it comes to writing, and maybe I’m just a very distinct kind of nerd, but to me, the best keyboard layout in the world of technology is the standard Macintosh keyboard layout.

Here’s why. You know how I often might use things like long dashes or curly quotes in my writing—like this one? Well, it turns out that in some operating systems, namely Windows, it is actually very difficult to generate these characters using a standard keyboard layout, requiring the use of the number pad to access. Linux is also this way, but it is possible to change the settings relatively painlessly.

But on the Mac, all you have to do is hit the option key, which is located in the same place that the Windows key is on a standard PC. I don’t begrudge Microsoft for putting such an important key in that spot, but as a writer, I think having access to an em-dash without interacting with an additional menu is just more important.

In my years of using Windows, I was never pleased with the options. While the emoji menu puts special characters at arm’s reach, it also requires going through a visual menu, breaking flow. That’s a very disappointing thing if you use a lot of curly quotes.

Admittedly, there are reasons why some operating systems may favor other layouts. Not everyone is a writer or typographer, and programmers, for example, don’t want to be shoving curly quotes in their JavaScript files.

But all is not lost. See, English is not the only language in the world, and a number of other countries actually require special characters to express linguistic thoughts. Which means that there’s a key, AltGr, which effectively serves the same role as the Option key does on the Mac. (It’s not in the same spot, but we can move it.) And with the use of a couple of programs and a little tweaking, you can actually make a Windows keyboard act identical to a Macintosh keyboard.

So, here’s a quick how-to to get this working on Windows and Linux.

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With Windows, you need to use a couple tools to do this, both of which are kinda older and don’t have the polish of a modern Windows 11 app.

A while back, a guy named Andrew Dunning developed a set of keyboard layouts using a tool called Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator, a fairly old-school tool that works in most versions of Windows.

Screenshot 2024 01 08 101741

Microsoft’s Keyboard Layout Creator makes quick work of this whole Mac keyboard layout thing.

Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator, buried deep on the Microsoft website, then exports the end result into an application file that you can then install on your operating system, and boom, you have a keyboard layout with the Mac special characters mapped on the “third level,” as they call it. If you want to turn it off, switch to your original keyboard. You can even tweak the keys to your own desires.

However, it is not perfect, as the Keyboard Layout Creator does not touch the Control, Alt, and Windows keys, let alone the AltGr that this setup relies on. For swapping those, there are a couple options.

Personally, I’m using a tool called SharpKeys. While it is possible to use Microsoft’s own PowerToys to do this, SharpKeys makes the changes within the registry, giving them a more permanent feel. The process in PowerToys is similar, it just won’t be as polished because it’s basically remapping keys live in memory, meaning you might run into random application compatibility issues or odd key presses.

The problem is, SharpKeys does not do well with AltGr, which is not a standard key, but if you change up the key layout in the standard U.S. keyboard mode, then switch to the Macintosh layout you just created, it should work. I map the right Alt key where the left Windows key is, and that does the trick.

Here’s a screenshot of the mappings I personally use for my Mac keys setup:

Screenshot 2024 01 08 101655

A few small changes make the Windows login experience a lot more comfortable.

(I don’t use the right Ctrl/Alt keys much, but you could easily switch those as well if you wanted.)

But where should you put the Windows key? My recommendation is to move it where the Caps Lock is. Admit it, you don’t use the Caps Lock that much anyway, and it’s actually a much more convenient place to put a key that pulls up your menu. You don’t have to reach as far. And plus, other operating systems, like ChromeOS, have already done this. It just makes sense.

Now, your keys won’t match your labels anymore, but if you have muscle memory, they will just work.

One last change to make: Windows defaults to changing your keyboard layout whenever you press alt and shift, meaning that if you try to grab certain third-level keys, it will change up the keyboard on you. But you can turn this off by going into your settings app, and going to Time & language > Typing > Advanced keyboard settings and selecting “Input language hot keys.” Remove the key command so it doesn’t default to Alt+Shift, or don’t put in a key command at all.

And the result will be a keyboard where you can type in lots of special characters without having to lift your fingers off the keyboard once.


That was a little complicated on the Windows end of things, I admit. On the plus side, it’s a little easier to do this with Linux, in part because there is a default Macintosh layout available to use.

Admittedly, I’m a GNOME user, so my recommendations here are going to be targeted at that windowing interface (along with derivatives like Pop!_OS), but there are many others, and not all of them work the same. There may be cases where you may need to make changes manually to make it work in config files if you’re using a particularly esoteric Linux install—something I had to do with my JingPad—but with something more standard, it’s often quite painless.

First up, in the settings menu, go to Input Sources, then add a new keyboard layout. The one you’ll want if you’re an American like me is “English (Macintosh),” but the plus side is that there are Macintosh layouts for other languages as well.

Linux Mac Keyboard

The “third level” Macintosh keyboard layout on Linux.

Select your layout, and switch to it, and you’re halfway there.

Linux Key Layout

There are a lot of layout changes here, but don’t be too intimindated.

Next up, we’ll be going into a tool called GNOME Tweaks, which may or may not come by default with your distro. If you don’t have it, download it from your software center or using other means. Once you have it, load it up, and go to the Keyboard and Mouse section. Here, you’ll want to make a few changes:

  • Ctrl Key: Swap Left Ctrl & Left Alt
  • Key to choose the Third Level: Left Win
  • Caps Lock: Make Caps Lock an Additional Super

The menu is long and complex and allows for a wide variety of changes, but if you go in knowing what you need, you can make the changes quickly.

Once you make those changes, boom, you have a Mac keyboard layout.

Considerations For Keyboard Switchers

I will note that this setup can come with some quirks at times. I have an old 104-key Mac keyboard that I use for typing from time to time, and it swaps the option and command keys on me without me asking. You may need to tweak these settings to match what your keyboard does.

And unlike macOS, where the option key can do double-duty, the third-level and AltGr keys can only be used for typing in special characters, which can limit its usefulness in some ways. You can’t, for example, make it double as a Super key or Windows key, which is why the Windows key needs to go somewhere else.

Finally, there may be key settings still to change. On Linux, I have to manually change the screenshot setup, so it matches the Mac, but that’s pretty painless and can be done in the setup menu. You can really take this pretty far if you want.

But ultimately, the end result of this should be that, no matter the interface you use, you can get away with long dashes, monetary symbols like £, €, and ¢, and accent marks without having to learn odd key combinations on your number pad.

If you write a lot like I do, you may soon wonder why the Mac keyboard layout isn’t used everywhere.

Third-Level Links

One HTML hack I didn’t mention in my piece on the topic was the “tracking pixel,” which remains in wide use. Blogger Terence Eden decided to do a test to see how small you could get one, based on the formats you use. If you use a particularly esoteric format, you can get it down to a mere 23 bytes.

It’s wild to think that the Cowboy Junkies’ majestic cover of “Sweet Jane” is more than 35 years old. It feels like it was made yesterday.

Disaster, sometimes, creates fascinating circumstances. Hence, the story of the guy who found an undamaged, still-functioning iPhone from the recent Alaska Airlines ASA1282 door incident. Too good not to link, even if it is Twitter.


Have a frustrated Mac fan in your life? Share this piece with them. And see ya later in the week!


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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