Are Computer Keyboards Universal? [ANSWERED]

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Whilst keyboards are universal in the sense that they can connect to any computer and have the same standard key layout, the position of modifier keys will differ depending on what operating system the keyboard has originally been designed to serve. 

What this means is that all computers will recognize the “A” character as the “A” and the “Z” character as the “Z”. 

However modifier keys including Control & Alt (for Windows) and Command & Option (for Mac) will not perform the same function should you move your keyboard across from one operating system to the other. 

It’s entirely possible however (and relatively straightforward), to re-map your keyboard to correct the modifier key issue so you can type away as you normally would. 

In this article, we’re going to learn with examples that:

  • Keyboards connect fine to a computer irrespective of the operating system  
  • Standard characters on a keyboard are universal across operating systems
  • Modifier keys such as Control (Windows) or Command (Apple) are not in the same position on keyboards and so this feature is not universal

Tip! If you are in the market for a new keyboard, irrespective of the operating system you intend on primarily using, a mechanical keyboard above and beyond a membrane board is highly recommended. Your fingers and wrists will thank you.

Keyboard connection methods are not universal, but that’s ok!

Keyboards can be connected to a computer by a number of methods (wired connection, Bluetooth, micro USB receiver) but this has no influence over what operating systems they can or cannot be used upon.

As all computers have a USB port, Bluetooth capabilities, or both – this means keyboards can be considered universal as far as connectivity goes. 

You might find when connecting a new keyboard to a new computer you are prompted to download a driver – a small piece of software that to allows you keyboard to “speak” to your computer’s processor. This doesn’t come without its own set of problems – just talk to Apple Magic keyboard owners who use Windows 10 on their Mac

Many of the newest keyboards do prompt a download of the relevant driver upon connection, or they can be requested by visiting Device Manager > Keyboards > Update Driver on Windows.

Standard characters layouts on keyboards are universal

No matter what keyboard you select, standard characters will work the same across all computers. If you know how to use these characters on one keyboard, you will be able to use them on all keyboards.

Standard characters include the letters, numbers, enter key, escape key, shift key, and caps lock.

The location of modifier keys are not universal across all keyboards

The biggest problem you will run into if you change between typing on a Windows keyboard to an Apple keyboard, or vice-versa, is re-learning the layout of modifier keys.

Modifier keys are those which are needed to ‘modify’ the normal action of a key. They are  pressed down whilst a second key is tapped to instruct a particular function or shortcut to take place. 

The combination of keys used to achieve shortcuts are universal across Window and Mac systems. For Linux systems they are slightly dffere check out this printable shortcut sheet from Visual Studio Code. 

Mac Shortcut Windows Shortcut
Command + C
COPY
Control + C
Command + V
PASTE
Control + V
Command + A
SELECT ALL
Control + A
Command + X
CUT
Control + X
Command + F
FIND
Control + F

Typically this becomes a problem for Mac users looking to upgrade their Apple Magic keyboard who find aftermarket options are more varied for peripherals designed for Windows.  

That being said, you can always download keyboard software that allows you to re-map the functions of your keys. That way, you can still use the keyboard, even if its modifier keys were not originally designed for your operating system of choice.

Using a Windows keyboard on a Mac

If you’ve recently connected a regular Windows keyboard to a Mac you’ll want to re-assign the modifier keys so that they respond as you would expect  from your native Command and Option keys. 

To do this visit:

  1. System preferences > Keyboard tab > Modifier keys
  2. Select the keyboard you wish to amend
  3. Now you’ll be presented with  it’s possible to assign any key on your Windows keyboard to perform the Option and Command function

The below video is short 4 minute tutorial showing you exactly how to alter the Mac modifer keys in practice.

Using a Mac keyboard on a PC

To utilise a Mac keyboard layout on Windows you’ll need to remap keys with a little help of a third party software called Sharp Keys

This is a well maintained, regularly updated free software available from GitHub. 

The below instructional video from Eli Codes runs you through exactly how Sharp Keys can be installed and used to make a Mac keyboard behave like a Windows device. 

Final thoughts

Most keyboards are universal in the sense that they can connect to any computer and the standard characters will work as expected. This allows you to perform all of the most basic functions of a keyboard regardless of your operating system.

However, modifier keys (or special keys) on a keyboard are not universal, and will either require you to re-map a small number of keys, or amend your existing typing habits if you wish to use a Mac board on Windows, or a Windows board on a Mac.

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