Character Maps – Discussion 1

You might remember my introduction to the Compose key a few weeks ago. While the default settings in each of the programs I reviewed are usually good enough for common characters, what do you do when you need something that they don’t list?

If you have Internet access, then a simple Google/Yahoo/DuckDuckGo/Bing search for its description should be enough to find it. Then you can just copy and paste the character wherever you please. If you’re going to use it a lot in the future, then the best action might be to add a new entry to the compose key database so you can type it faster.

Don’t give up hope if you don’t have (reliable) Internet access – your OS has a built-in tool to help.

The Character Map

On Windows and *nix this tool is known as Character Map (or a direct translation thereof); on Mac OS X it is Character Palette. It contains a long list of every character from each font installed on your computer.

Select a font (or use the default), then start scrolling to find the character you want. A menu on the side lets you change which category of characters is displayed. Double-click a character to add it to the text-box at the bottom of the window, from whence you can select and copy it.

Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge them.


Windows 7

KDE 4.10

Mac OS X 10.5.8


Typing More Complex Characters – Review 5

There are many times when the default keyboard layout is sufficient. The base character set ASCII is enough for most text in English and a number of other languages that also use the Latin alphabet.

However, there are times when 128 characters are just not enough. You may want to type one of the over 100,000 characters defined within Unicode. That’s when I look at the compose key. The two keys pressed immediately after this are combined into a single symbol.

Unfortunately, a dedicated compose key is rare to find on keyboards. Windows has built-in support for a compromise: by holding Alt and typing out a specific number, you can generate some of the more sought-after characters not available on your keyboard.

For Windows users, I recommend Zive FreeCompose.


FreeCompose program logo.

While running, FreeCompose allows the user to reassign one of the standard keyboard keys for use as compose. Additional configuration options are offered for the Caps Lock key, one of the most popular choices.

Options and 'About' dialogs for FreeCompose

FreeCompose options dialog, available from the right-click menu, allows you to change what characters specific key combinations will form.

Mac and Unix-like Configuration

Mac OS X and X Window-using systems come with compose key support. They require only a little setup.

Mac OS X users can set one key to act as compose with a little work – see Bob’s guide for details. All you need to do is place (by copying or creating manually) a new keybinding file in the appropriate folder.

The keybinding file holds all the relations between entered and composed characters. Editing this file is the only step needed to change how compose works. FreeCompose’s options dialog does the same thing, but is more user-friendly.

Users of other operating systems can either look at the section of System Settings devoted to keyboard shortcuts or edit the Xorg configuration. Compose key shortcuts are built into X and don’t need to be entered manually.

Either way, the compose key is a powerful tool for typing letters and symbols that may otherwise be challenging to enter.

Price $0 (Free)
Compatible OS‘s Windows 2000,XP,Vista,7,8; Most (if not all) other OS’s
Licensing The New BSD License

Magnifying the Screen – Review 3

Ever want to magnify just part of your computer screen? There are a number of tools out there that can help with this task, not least of which are those included with the operating system.


Zoom is the program of choice for Mac OS X users. It can be enabled or disabled by pressing Alt-Command-8.

A screenshot highlighting the middle segment of the 'Seeing'-related Universal Access options.

Location of Zoom preferences in the Universal Access part of System Preferences.

When enabled, just press (and optionally hold) Alt-Command-= to zoom in, or Alt-Command– to zoom out.

Zoom comes standard on all Mac systems.


KMag is a program included by default with the KDE Software Compilation, which in turn is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD, and others.

Demonstration of KMag's screenshot, 'zoom out' and recursive zoom features.

Demonstration of KMag’s screenshot, ‘zoom out’ and recursive zoom features. The blurred effect was added to the screenshot in a separate program.

KMag, like many of these programs, has a static window which shows a specific section of the screen. Unlike the other environments, though, KDE includes an additional ‘desktop effect’ which is much easier to control.

The program also lets you rotate the magnification, add post-processing filters, or even zoom out.


GNOME-Mag is the default magnifier of the GNOME desktop environment.

Windows Magnifier

Magnifier is the default magnification tool of the Windows desktop.

Magnifier lens showing some of the Ease of Access Center, as described in the caption.

Demonstration of Magnifier’s separate lens, inverted colours, and 150% magnification.

It can be started from the Ease of Access Center, which can be found in the Control Panel. Pressing Windows-U will launch this Center directly.

The main magnifier window - effectively a floating toolbar. Behind the window is Windows 7's Ease of Access Center.

Screenshot of the magnifier in its default state – 100% magnification.

Features include a separate dockable lens, inverted colours, and autostart on login – all optional. However, there are no keyboard shortcuts for zooming.

OS Default Magnifier Program
Windows XP,Vista,7,8 Magnifier
Mac OS X 10.5, 10.6, 10.7, 10.8 Zoom
GNOME Desktops GNOME-Mag
KDE Desktops KMag & Magnification Effect
Price $0 (Free)
Compatible OS‘s Whatever you’re currently running.
Licensing Same license as the rest of the shell – Microsoft License, Apple License, or GPL