Knowing Your Startup Key Combinations for Intel Macs

Whilst the idea of the computer mouse (essentially an inverted trackball) has been around since the 1960s, many people were still using keyboards as the sole input method some twenty years on. Even after the mouse became a standard computer accessory in the mid-1980s, many programs relied on keyboard shortcuts to perform particular functions.
Even with new input devices, in addition to mice and trackpads, there is still a place for keyboard shortcuts. In this tutorial, I will show you the various keyboard key combinations that perform particular tasks when starting up your Mac.

Keyboard Twister

There’s a joke, at the expense of PC users, that says a PC keyboard only needs three keys: Ctrl, Alt and Delete, this being the key combination required to force-quit rogue programs, to bring up the Close Program dialogue box or to invoke Windows Security.
It’s sometimes known as the three-fingered salute, and requires the use of both hands to achieve the key combination, given that the spacing of the keys is such that operation with one hand is impossible.
Tip: Ctrl-Alt-Delete is not a default keyboard shortcut for anything in Mac OS X. In the Mac OS X Server login screen, however, pressing Ctrl-Option-Delete (the Option key is sometimes marked Alt on a Mac keyboard) will show an alert saying This is not DOS. (Source)

Mac-Specific Keyboard Shortcuts

In our earlier tutorials, 40 Nifty Shortcuts to Make Your Life Easier and 40 More Essential Keyboard Shortcuts to Improve Your Workflow, Jacob and Samuel showed you a number of ways to improve your productivity by way of the keyboard.
This tutorial, instead, concentrates on some very specific key combinations to achieve particular effects when starting up your Mac.

Startup Key Combinations

Startup key combinations are invoked immediately following the startup chime, and before the grey Apple logo appears in the middle of the screen, when you power-on your Mac.
The object of these key combinations is to perform different functions, many of which are useful in the maintenance of Macs. The key combinations listed in this tutorial are specifically for use with Macs with Intel processors.
Tip: If you have a Windows keyboard, you can usually use the Windows key as the substitute for the Command key on the Mac keyboard.
Tip: If you are having difficulty invoking startup key combinations, ensure that you press and hold the keys immediately after the startup chime. Alternatively, use a wired keyboard where possible, to rule out any issues possible with Bluetooth keyboards.

Available Key Combinations

Boot From External Device

Pressing the C key immediately after the startup chime will enable the option to boot from a range of media such as a bootable CD, bootable DVD or a bootable USB drive. This might include OS X install media (up to OS X 10.7 Lion) or USB install drives that you have created for other versions of OS X.

Apple Hardware Test (AHT)

Pressing the D key immediately after the startup chime will boot your Mac into a suite of diagnostic utilities that enable you to test the hardware of your Mac. This is a useful way to rule out any hardware issues when trying to diagnose a possible problem with your Mac (which is why you may not have heard of it and, no doubt, have never used it!)
Tip: Remember D for Diagnostics.

Reset the PRAM/NVRAM

This one is a bit of a finger-twister and, unless you are more dextrous than I, you’ll need both hands. The PRAM, on PowerPC Macs, or NVRAM, as it is on Intel Macs, is the non-volatile (random access) memory that stores various information about your Mac. This information includes:
  • speaker volume
  • screen resolution
  • startup disk selection
  • recent kernel panic information, if any
Resetting the NVRAM, on Intel Macs, may be one way of solving an issue related to the above areas.
When you invoke the Command-Option-P-R keyboard combination, keep the keys held down immediately after the first startup chime and release them upon hearing the second startup chime.

Select a Startup Volume (Drive)

Pressing the Option key immediately after the startup chime will show you the available startup volumes.
A startup volume is a hard drive, USB drive, CD or DVD that contains a usable operating system from which the Mac can be booted.
This is particularly useful if you have your hard drive partitioned with two (or more) operating systems from which you wish to boot your Mac. Or, in the case of maintenance and recovery, when you need to boot from an external drive.

Eject a CD or DVD

Pressing the Eject or F12 keys immediately after the startup chime will eject any removable media, such as an optical disc.
This is a useful option on those occasions when you just don’t seem to be able to get OS X to eject a DVD from the SuperDrive.
That said, the reliance on optical media is diminishing now that modern Macs are supplied without a SuperDrive.


Pressing the N key immediately after the startup chime will allow you to boot the Mac from a compatible network server. This option is most likely to be used by businesses with a network of Macs.

Target Disc Mode

Pressing the T key immediately after the startup chime will allow another Mac with a FireWire port (the target Mac) to be used as an external hard drive connected to another Mac (the host).
Target Disk Mode is useful for accessing the contents of a Mac which cannot be booted from its own hard drive.

Safe Boot Mode

Pressing the Shift key immediately after the startup chime will start up your Mac in a way that performs particular checks and prevents certain software from automatically loading or opening.
This is particularly useful if any maintenance is required on your Mac and can be used to resolve or isolate certain problems that exist on the internal hard drive (startup volume).

Verbose Mode

Pressing the Command-V keys immediately after the startup chime will start up your Mac in verbose mode. Verbose mode is typically used for troubleshooting; it shows what is happening during system startup.
It is possible to start in verbose mode every time you start your Mac, by opening Terminal and entering the following command:
sudo nvram boot-args="-v&"
To disable verbose mode booting, enter:
sudo nvram boot-args=
If you just want to boot into verbose mode on an ad-hoc basis simply hold the Command-V keys.

Single-User Mode

Pressing the Command-S keys immediately after the startup chime will start up your Mac in single-user mode.
Single-user mode is a mode in which a multiuser OS X operating system boots into a single superuser for the purposes of maintenance.

Default Boot Image From a NetBoot Server

Pressing the Option-N keys immediately after the startup chime will start up your Mac from a NetBoot server using the default boot image. This is of most use to businesses with a network of Macs.

OS X System Recovery

Pressing the Command-R keys immediately after the startup chime will start up from the OS X Recovery System.
The OS X Recovery System is available with all Macs that originally shipped with OS X 10.7 Lion onwards. That said, the following Macs may require the download and installation of updated EFI Firmware for these computers to use the OS X Internet Recovery feature:
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, Early 2011)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, Early 2011)
  • MacBook Pro (17-inch, Early 2011)
  • iMac (21.5-inch, Mid 2011)
  • iMac (27-inch, Mid 2011)
  • MacBook (13-inch, Mid 2010)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid 2010)
  • Mac mini (Mid 2010)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch and 17-inch, Mid 2010)
  • iMac (21.5-inch and 27-inch, Mid 2010)
  • MacBook Air (11-inch and 13-inch, Late 2010)
The OS X Internet Recovery System allows you to start your Mac directly from Apple’s servers. Starting up in this way performs a quick test of your Mac’s memory and hard drive to check for hardware issues. OS X Internet Recovery can download and start from a Recovery System image before you are offered the same utilities and options as a local Recovery System.


In this tutorial I have shown you the different startup key combinations, and their uses, that are possible with Intel-based Macs.
It is useful to know what these startup key combinations do as they can assist in troubleshooting and maintenance of your Mac.


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