Strange characters on your computers

Tips & Hints

There are a lot of characters hiding in your computer and a little bit of magic lets you release them.

Posted 4 August, 2005

On our July Weekend ABC spot, one caller discussed how he uses the ALT key to access symbols and European characters. There’s far more characters available than the hundred or so our keyboards display, so computers have tricks to access them. The caller mentioned a book listing all the combinations of ALT keys and numbers, but there are other ways to find the hidden characters.

The easiest way for Windows users is to use the character mapping tool. It normally hides in the System Tools section of the Accessories program group, but an easier way to get to it is to click “Start,” then “Run” and type Charmap. You can look through the chart to choose the character you need, then it’s a matter of cutting and pasting into your document.

Many programs have even more characters than the standard sets. Microsoft usually makes theirs available under the “Insert” menu, where you can choose Symbols and then insert them directly into your emails or documents. Similarly, Mac OSX users can choose Edit then Special Characters.

The ALT key method is still valid; it relies upon the Unicode numbering system. The Unicode consortium have given a number for every character they can think, for instance the letter “f” has the number 0066, these numbers are shown in the Charmap screen. If you know the Unicode number of the character you need, you can hold down the ALT key and type that number in the number pad, when you release the ALT key the character appears in your document.

The Unicode system applies to all computers. Mac users can use a combination of the option key and various other keys to access characters. Apple has instructions for OSX users on their website.

If you want a list of Unicode characters, the Unicode Consortium’s site has lists in dozens of languages.Their charts are a little fiddly, to use them, hold down the ALT key and then type the number or letter that corresponds to the row of your character, then type the numbers at the top which match your column. It’s probably easier to use the Charmap program or the insert menu of your favourite program.

The extended character sets are just one of the many useful but rarely used computer features. It’s worthwhile exploring your computer to find features like this. Like many things, computers reward the adventurous.
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