What is the FN Key for on a Computer?

by Contributing Writer

Every key on a computer keyboard is capable of a range of functions, depending on how it's used in combination with other keys. Knowing what keyboard shortcuts are available and how to perform everyday functions quickly is important to working efficiently. The "Fn" key, found on nearly all laptop and portable computer keyboards, allows you to do a number of things without taking your hands off the keyboard.

Modifier Keys

The "Fn" (or "FN" or "Function") key on laptop PCs is usually found in the lower-left corner of the keyboard, near the "Shift" and "Ctrl" (Control) keys. The Fn key functions much like Shift and Ctrl -- as a "modifier," meaning it does something only when used in conjunction with another key. In many programs, for example, if you hold down the Ctrl key and press the letter "O," a dialogue box will appear to allow you to open a file. The Fn key works the same way. It's typically used in conjunction with the "F1" through "F12" keys.

Saving Space

Typewriters of the past had little more than letter and number keys, while today's computer keyboards typically have about 100 keys. On laptop computers, saving space is a high priority. With the Fn key being used with the F1 through F12 keys, users have 12 more keyboard functions available -- but the computer manufacturer only had to add one key.

F1 to F12

The F1 through F12 keys, found on the top row of most laptops, perform different functions based on the active program. In Microsoft programs, for example, F7 usually runs spell-check, while F5 refreshes a browser window. When used in conjunction with the Fn key, the F1-F12 keys typically offer hardware controls, such as screen brightness and contrast, volume and CD/DVD controls. These functions vary depending on the computer's manufacturer and features.

What to Look For

Computer manufacturers try to make their keyboards as user-friendly as possible, but with the multiple symbols on each key and the number of modifier keys, it's easy to get confused. Look for a symbol on the Fn key, such as a square or triangle. When that shape appears on other keys, it means those keys have Fn-enabled functions. Sometimes Fn functions are designated by a different color. On some ThinkPad models, for example, Fn functions are printed on the keys in blue.

Other Tips

The documentation that was included with your computer will have more information on the model-specific functions of your Fn key. Also look online for specific help for your computer's manufacturer and model number. On some computers, you can program the Fn key to perform additional functions.