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May 26, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: Print Screen button

Steve writes:

I'm not sure if this qualifies, but every PC keyboard ever shipped includes a "Print Screen" button. In days long since passed, I think this button may have actually printed what was on the screen. In modern times, though, the "Print Screen" button just copies the screen to the clipboard. The contents of the clipboard must then be pasted into a graphics program and printed from there.

Shouldn't this button be labeled "Copy screen to clipboard, paste into graphics program, and then print"? Or maybe just "Copy screen to clipboard"?

I have no screenshot because I'm on a Mac and I'm assuming that at least one This is Broken fan can rustle up a PC keyboard.


I found this pic using this one obscure search engined named Google:

Posted by: Adrian at May 26, 2005 12:37 AM

Ok... I didn't even know I HAD one of those buttons until I just looked at my keyboard. That's a cool feature. I feel really, REALLY stupid for not knowing what that did, but hey... you learn something new everyday.

Posted by: Chaos at May 26, 2005 12:45 AM

I teach into Windows classes and this button is a very common source of confusion. It *is* broken... why not just call it the "Copy Screen" button. Granted, that would not be perfect, but as people learn the concepts of cut and paste it would be something that makes at least some sense.

Posted by: Snit at May 26, 2005 01:10 AM

How about "Screen Capture?" Or "Screen Shot?"

I'm on a laptop, so mine is just says "prt sc." Maybe "Screen Capture" could be abbreviated "Sc Cap."

I agree, broken. But prepare for the "That's not broken, YOU'RE broken" comments from the idiots out there who don't understand the point of this site...


Posted by: =David at May 26, 2005 01:37 AM

Of course, if you changed the label all the existing manuals and printed material that describe the button would be broken.

Perhaps the breakage was Windows making the "Print Screen" button not print the screen, rather than the keyboard itself?

Posted by: Lionfire at May 26, 2005 01:56 AM

I don't consider myself an idiot, but...

Perhaps the reason it still says "Print Screen" or even more cryptically "PrtSc" is that there's 25 years of software behind it, some of which is still being used today, making reference to pressing the "Print Screen" button. (And before anyone jumps on me saying "No one still uses software that old", our commercial playback system at the TV station where I work is run through a DOS program that does indeed refer to the "Print Screen" button.)

It's definitely broken by today's standards. But I think fixing it would just shift the "broken-ness" in a different direction.

Posted by: furd_burfel at May 26, 2005 01:58 AM

As noted, the key is a hold-over from the early days of computing. If you examine your keyboard carefully, you'll find others. For example, how many people know what the ESC key was originally for?

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at May 26, 2005 08:05 AM

While we're at it, remind me exactly what I can "Pause" and "Break" when I'm not busy PrtScning.

Posted by: Jeff at May 26, 2005 08:36 AM

The most broken key on a standard windows keyboard is scrlk in my opinion. I have only ever found one application where pressing the key does anything (Excel) In that application it causes your selected cell to remain locked while the screen scrolls when using the arrow keys. Normally the arrowkeys change the selection to the next cell in the direction you press.

On my keyboard print screen is directly over sys request, which I don't believe is used for anything.

Finally here's some tips for using print screen. (I happen to use it every day).

Just pressing print screen will capture the entire screen and put it in the clipboard for you to paste into photoshop or paint.

Pressing ALT print screen will only capture the active window, so next time you do a screen cap for a power point presentation, you won't have your start menu on the bottom.

I have never found a way to capture the screen that includes the mouse pointer as well, so I usually do a screen capture of a program, then screen capture my control panel/mouse screen, and then photoshop the appropriate pointer into the mockup.

How to have fun with the print screen button and coworkers. Take a screen capture of your victim's computer using just regular print screen. Paste that into ms paint and save it as background.bmp. Next create a folder on their desktop and move all of their icons into the folder, and make the folder hidden. Then set their background image to background.bmp. Finally drag the start menu to the top and turn it to auto hide. Then you can sit back and watch them repeatedly click on icons that don't respond. I've watched people try 3 different mice, after I suggested they wore out the "clicker".

Good times....

Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 26, 2005 09:07 AM

On my very modern Microsoft brand keyboard, the PrtScn, SysRq, and Insert keys are all the same single key, with multiple functions. Likewise, Pause, Break, and ScrLk are all on the same key. I guess it says something about how many people use those functions that the work of what used to be 6 keys is now done by 2. Of course, you have to figure out some esoteric modifier keystroke to get to 2 of the 3 functions on each of those keys.

On the other hand, this same new keyboard has devoted an entire key solely to telling the file system navigator (Explorer) to go to the My Music directory, which on all 4 of the PCs I use is empty.

Posted by: Todd Bradley at May 26, 2005 09:32 AM

To Carlos Gomez: The ESC key is the replacement for the Meta key, one of the four "Bucky Bits" on an MIT Knight (aka space-cadet) keyboard, when using The One True Editor, emacs, of course.

Posted by: Steve at May 26, 2005 09:33 AM

Joshua -

LOL. I'll have to try that.

It's probably already been on ThisisBroken, but I think the 'Insert' key is still the most broken of all.

Posted by: a cheesepuff at May 26, 2005 09:48 AM

Cheesepuff: Believe it or not, I used the Insert key just yesterday, in a DOS program that I still use.

Posted by: Robert A. Dugger at May 26, 2005 10:37 AM

Steve, your inner geek is shining through! I mean that in a good way. :)

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at May 26, 2005 11:19 AM

I use Pause/Break all the time. It's very nice when the program you've written goes awry and needs to be stopped.

Remember, it's not broken as long as people are still making use of it. The names can just be funny :)

Posted by: Andrew Bakke at May 26, 2005 11:22 AM

Joshua Wood - use something like SnagIt! for capturing the mouse as well.

Posted by: Eliot at May 26, 2005 11:52 AM

On the original IBM PC, the print screen keyboard button was a great innovation. You could print out what you were looking at with a single keyclick. In those days, people did a lot of printing out of stuff on a computer and putting them into file cabinets.

(The computer didn't have a hard disk and a floppy held around 160K.)

The time may have come to relable the key, but with all the keyboards that already have the key labled "print scr", good luck with that.

Posted by: Miles Archer at May 26, 2005 11:54 AM

"How to have fun with the print screen button and coworkers. Take a screen capture of your victim's computer using just regular print screen. Paste that into ms paint and save it as background.bmp. Next create a folder on their desktop and move all of their icons into the folder, and make the folder hidden. Then set their background image to background.bmp. Finally drag the start menu to the top and turn it to auto hide. Then you can sit back and watch them repeatedly click on icons that don't respond. I've watched people try 3 different mice, after I suggested they wore out the "clicker"."

That is stinkin' hilarious. I just did to my computer, now only I can use it!! Heh, you don't have to put all the icons in another folder though, just set it to "Hide Desktop icons"

Posted by: T-1000 at May 26, 2005 11:56 AM

T-1000 I'm glad you liked it. :D

Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 26, 2005 12:16 PM

I'm not disputing that by modern standards, the names of the buttons are outdated, but so is the fact that all railroads rails are spaced the same distance apart as a horse carriage's wheel.

It's a standard that would serve almost no purpose if changed, and cost a great deal of money, not to mention requiring every manual to be re-written.

It would be a waste of time and resources to change it, and ultimately, be nothing more than a cosmetic change. (Uh.. the railroad analogy ended a sentence or so ago) This isn't something that causes inefficiency, a loss of productivity.

It's just not worth bothering to change, and the change itself would be more broken, due to the irrelevance of the matter, and the problems it could cause disproportionate to its importance.

Posted by: Mink'O'War at May 26, 2005 12:16 PM

It's called "backward compatibility" and is the bane of, well, the entire x86 and Windows existence.

Posted by: Jacques Troux at May 26, 2005 12:36 PM

Mine says Prt Scr, and underneath that (on the same button) is Sys Req. Then there's Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break.

Why do we need these buttons?

my desk has such a big overhang above the keyboard that I usually can't see these keys anyway, along with most of the F keys which I don't think we really need either.

Now someone is going to say all they ever use are the Function keys, but I still think the only part of the keyboard you need are-

1) Everything in the letters & numbers part, 2) the arrow keys

3) the 'delete' button.

Posted by: Bob at May 26, 2005 01:50 PM

Also, it is ironic that the "Prt Scrn" button is on TIB, because it is probobly the most useful key on this website! How else would you take a screenshot without a special program?

Posted by: Another Alex at May 26, 2005 01:52 PM

I know I am going to be in a very small minority. I work for a company that processes insurance claims. We use a systme that runs in a green screen (think DOS)inside a window on our PCs. When the green screen is active, and you press the print screen button, it prints the contents of the green screen.

Although this is very old technology, it is still used (albeit by a very small minority), so for me, it isn't broken.

Posted by: Randy at May 26, 2005 02:02 PM

I just sent one of my WAY too arrogant co-workers out the door in total frustration. He's the one who does no wrong and insists he can fix everything. Joshua - this has made my entire day!

Posted by: DJ at May 26, 2005 02:25 PM

It is broken in a sense, but it is also just following tradition. After all, "Shift" doesn't make sense either if one doesn't understand its mechanical typewriter origins - shouldn't be "Temporarily Capitalize"?

It's also why we drive on freeways, even if they are not necessarily free.

Posted by: quanta at May 26, 2005 02:27 PM

DJ, happy to be of service. I have some other computer related pranks you can do to ruin people's day.

Before optical mice, I used to steal my coworker's mouse balls, that was fun. Then there's always the Hey I'm looking at Porn link that you can send them.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 26, 2005 03:48 PM

Insert is not a useless key, and its function hasn't even changed since its inception. In every single situation I've ever been in (with the exception of vi-style editors and, I presume, emacs, as they fall into the "wacko" category already), the Insert key switches between Insert and Overtype; controlling whether the next character you type is inserted (and other characters move to the right) or overwrites the character next to the cursor. Duh. In the days before being able to select blocks of text, it was invaluable.

SysRq, on the other hand, has only had actual function on perhaps one computer I've ever used; an old Toshiba laptop (circa maybe 1990), where pressing it would activate a TSR to show you BIOS-like settings at any time.

Posted by: Stuffit at May 26, 2005 04:59 PM

Pause for me is especially useful when booting up, it lets you read stuff from the BIOS screen and the stuff that is on the screen where it says "Verifying VMI pool data..." (Yes, I do tech support for computers running esoteric, expensive hardware on older OSes.) I need this to verify that our card has grabbed IRQ10 (who uses IRQs anymore?)

As for Break, I haven't used it since the last time I had to break out of an infinite loop in QBasic. I do use it a touch in MATLAB, but very rarely. Ctrl C works just as well.

I used to map Pause to AltF4 for exiting programs on a whim.

Posted by: engunneer at May 26, 2005 05:27 PM

Scroll lock is used to stop a terminal from scrolling by while you're reading the messages printed on it. Try pressing it when your unix system boots up, or in an xterm that's scrolling too quickly.

Posted by: Philip at May 26, 2005 05:42 PM

Bob- Some of the F keys are actually very useful. For example, ALT+F4 will immediately close the current program; I think that a lot of people use this function.

Posted by: Jonathan at May 26, 2005 05:42 PM

At least on Mac OS X systems, the F-keys are rather heavily used.

F5 is used for auto-complete in text fields. F9-F11 by default are for Exposé. F12 Activates Dashboard (In OS X 10.4). F14 and F15 decrease and increase screen brightness, respectively ( these keys are Print Screen and Scroll lock on traditional PC keyboards).

Though this all may be moot, as this is largely a PC-oriented discussion. Modern Macs (for a few years I think) have removed the "Print Screen", "Scroll Lock", "Pause", "Insert", and "Num Lock" labels from keys.

Posted by: Jon at May 26, 2005 06:05 PM

In addition to "PrtScn"

I have noticed that there is usually a "SysRq" -- system required -- underneath. I believe this means that there is, or was, a programme that could be added after the computer was purchased and used to set up the computer so that it really *would* print the screen with the touch of a button.

I, for one, find its screen-grabbing ability infinitely more useful, though. >=)

Posted by: Rach at May 26, 2005 06:32 PM

In my opinion, SysRq, Scroll Lock, Pause/Break are the most useless keys.

Posted by: Fuzzy at May 26, 2005 07:08 PM

Heh. All of a sudden I feel really old, because not only can I remember using each of these keys on a regular basis but also because at work I am still stuck using a terminal window that uses them (and all 24 F keys as well, though the terminal still wants to call them 'PF' keys and you have to use {shift} - {F#} to access 13-24).

Even this is soon to end: By November the terminal interface is supposed to be replaced by an XML web-based app.

Anyone else here use escape codes in the DOS PROMPT command to get nifty colors and stuff other than the ubiquitous "C:\>"?

Okay, anybody here remember what a command line is? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Posted by: Erich at May 26, 2005 07:39 PM

Joshua: You are purely evil. I love it.

Posted by: Faolan at May 26, 2005 07:48 PM

I thought this was interesting, I found it in a NY Times article about an unmarked keyboard that just happened to run as well.

I might have to get one just to switch out my dell keyboard for this one.

Stupid person: What happend to the keys?

Me: We'll I type so fast that I burned them off. You still have letters on your keys, you must not type/work very much.


Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 26, 2005 10:55 PM

I'm a Mac fan, but it's always bugged me that we have to do this bizarre combination of keystrokes to get a screen shot (Command-Shift-4 to drag a marquee around what you want to capture, or Command-Shift-3 to shoot the entire screen).

I'll admit it's convenient in OSX, because it sends a PDF file to your desktop of the image capture. Still, it would be nice to have one button, or a less arcane combination of keystrokes.

Posted by: Mac at May 26, 2005 11:12 PM

"I guess it says something about how many people use those functions that the work of what used to be 6 keys is now done by 2."

AFAIK, Print Screen and System Request (not "System Required") were always one key, as with Pause and Break. (for PCs anyway) You hold down Ctrl and press Pause to get Break, and IIRC Ctrl+Print Screen is System Request. I've never seen anything that actually uses SysRq, mind you, and I don't remember what exactly it was for, though ISTR reading about it someplace.

Then there's those annoying newer keyboards without Insert. What if I want to use ctrl+ins or shift+ins?

Posted by: josh at May 27, 2005 02:21 AM

Jon & Jonathan- I was going to add

'now someone will say the only part of the keyboard they actually ever use are the function keys.' but i decided against it.

Posted by: Bob at May 27, 2005 06:11 AM

_@_v - but why do apple's own macintosh keyboards have the 'print screen' 'scroll lock' and 'pause' buttons (above keys f13 f14 and f15 on my board)?

_@_v__/ - to 'print screen' (or at least print it to the hard drive) in mac you hafta do a vulcan death grip of pressing command+shift+f3 to 'print' the screen and command+shift+f4 to bring up a select box to enframe what you want to 'print' to the hard drive or by holding down the 'ctrl' key while making a selection you can 'print' to the clipboard.

_@_v__/ - and by pressing the 'caps-lock' key after pressing command+shift+f4 you can print a selected open window to the hard drive - holding down the option key will print that window to the clipboard...

_@_v__/ - none of these of course even come near that blessed 'print screen' button.... though i suppose since macs can run soft-windows (and many of the older macs actually could hold a pc emulator card) it might concievably get some use...

Posted by: she-snailie_@_v__/ at May 27, 2005 07:10 AM

So now I think we can conclude that the PrtScr key, the Pause / break key, the Insert key, and the Scrllck key are not totally broken and they inspire great memories of the days when your computer was expected to crash twice a week. mmm... Windows 3.1 ...

Posted by: john at May 27, 2005 07:36 AM


Now it crashes twice an hour.

mmm... Windows 95

Posted by: Joshua Wood at May 27, 2005 08:27 AM

john: I disagree, just because they were accurate and/or particularly useful at one point doesn't mean they're not broken now. :P

The PC world needs to enter the late 20th century and remove unnecessary labels/keys from their keyboards. Apple has done it just fine. ;)

(And to those who still use ancient software which needs those keys, I suspect you can find ancient keyboards for that as well. :P)

Posted by: Jon at May 27, 2005 09:10 AM

3 broken keyboard elements:

-On my keyboard I have a whole row of buttons above the rest of the keys. These buttons COULD be useful rarely but they need a separate application runnning to use them. You cant even use them for most applications.

-Why are there 2 sets of numbers???

The F# Keys. yeah, sure, I use ALT F4 all the time. But why couldn't they have made it ALT 4, which currently has no use?

Joshua Wood: Get Windows XP Professional. It has NNNEEEVVVEEERRR frozen (on its own accord.)

Posted by: no one at May 27, 2005 04:40 PM

Whenever I use print screen on WinXP home, it doesn't do anything.

Posted by: cheeseman at May 27, 2005 05:53 PM

Just be glad the key labeled BREAK doesn't do what it says....

Posted by: Moe Rubenzahl at May 27, 2005 11:22 PM

Another horrible prank you can do is run a virus scan on someone's computer, do a screen capture, and change the "Corrupt" or "Infected" files number to a really high number. Save this and set it as the background. Hide the icons, start menu, etc. Watch as the terrified user can't get into the "frozen" computer because it "has 10,432 infected files".

Posted by: random person at May 28, 2005 02:42 PM

We use several of these keys that correspond to functions within our company software. The software is fairly new (purchased/installed 2 yrs ago) and is a windows-based program. Among all of the function keys, PrtScr is by far the most used.

Posted by: Kathy at May 28, 2005 07:15 PM

In the good old days of simple MSDOS, "Print

Screen" printed what you could see on your

screen. "Ctrl-Print Screen" printed the whole

document, including the part that you would have

to scroll to see. You're probably all to young

to have any experience with this.

Why is it that so many of the people commenting

on these things are such pitiful spellers? Haven't

any of you ever gone to school?

Posted by: Wilmot Fink at May 28, 2005 08:10 PM

Cheese man, try ctl+prtsc. that might work.

Posted by: Pulaskee at May 29, 2005 02:53 AM

Actually, i just looked at my 1st post, and I *did* say 'now someone is going to say all they ever use are the function keys'. So, i don't see why everybody's pointing out their use of function keys, since I meant that i personnally think the function keys are useless, but I'm sure some people all the time.

To Jon- When I used an iMac I used the F-keys all the time too, but hardly at all on my Presario.

Posted by: Bob at May 29, 2005 08:31 AM

To Wilmot Fink: Why is it that so many of the people who criticise other people's spelling don't check their own? It doesn't look *too* clever.

On the subject of useless keys, I think Num Lock has been covered here before. On a full-sized keyboard, it seems to have only one purpose - to annoy the hell out of me when I press it by mistake. I can't remember when I last turned it off deliberately.

The other two keys not mentioned here that are virtually useless are Alt Gr and the Windows Shortcut Menu key.

Posted by: David at May 29, 2005 11:04 AM

Those of you who seem to consider the function keys useless need to pay more attention to the menus in the software you use. There's a lot of commands that can be entered with the function keys instead of taking your hand off the keyboard and putting it on the mouse to go drag menus down.

This is most prevalent in things like word processors

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at May 29, 2005 12:32 PM

In DOS, pressing the Print Screen key causes the computer to send whatever images and text are currently on the display screen to the printer. Some graphics programs and Windows, use the Print Screen key to obtain Screen Captures.

Alt-PrtScr sends a screen shot of the currently active window to the clipboard.


for detailed discriptions of each key on the windows keyboard.

Posted by: KS at May 29, 2005 02:06 PM

Print Screen still makes sense when you consider you can print to a file in Windows (this is pretty much what happens when you use Acrobat to turn a Word file into a PDF). You can argue that when you hit Print Screen you are printing it to a temporary file in memory (the clipboard).

I do understand the potential for confusion though.

Alt-Gr is for non-U.S. keyboards that have non-Enlgish character such as the accented characters in French.

The Pause/Break key is pretty much as it says. Pause will pause the comptuer where it's at (works during POST on most machines and in DOS boxes). Break (usually Ctrl+Break) will cause the computer to stop what it is doing. It's equivalent to Ctrl+C in DOS.

Most programs ignore the Scroll Lock key:

But it is still commonly used in many flight sims such as: MS Flight Simulator, MS Combat Flight Sim series, and older ones that were around before the mouse really became necessary to computing like Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

Apparently Sys Req is still used by Linux/Unix:

I guess I should get back to work now.

Posted by: Mark at June 2, 2005 10:51 AM

Now here's the core of the problem; print means "PRINT" and not "make external device paint stuff on paper". That is; The screen is viewed as a printing device although it doesn't actually "press (a mark or design, for example) onto or into a surface."(

Every programmer in the world knows this, and prints text to screen in code like: System.Out.printline("java") every day, but they have during the last years become vastly outnumbered in terms of PC-user persentage. Now, like the qwerty keyboard; old, outdated (but back then good) standards are a pain in the floppy-drive to replace, and we will be stuck with them for the next umpty years.

Posted by: TechPhilos at June 7, 2005 11:44 AM

I am truly amazed at the number of people who can't see the value of the non-alphanumeric keys. I figure they're probably the types that reach out and grab their mouse every few seconds, favouring the clumsy 'move arm, grasp device, point cursor at specific part of screen, then click button, then move arm back again' to do the most basic of tasks rather than moving two fingers an inch or so to press a couple of keys.

I cannot imagine how tedious it would be to operate a computer without using the so-called 'broken' keys. Want to take a screenshot? One keypress (or two with an ALT), and then a CTRL-V to paste it. Seems a lot easier to me than obtaining a seperate piece of software to take screen captures (although they do have their place, such as taking captures that include the cursor). I would estimate I use the printscreen button upwards of twenty times a day, and not for the operation of any antiquated or esoteric software as some have suggested.

Insert is another supposedly 'broken' key that is of great value. After typing a run of text, if I decide to change a portion of it, it is far easier to simply use the Insert key to selectively overtype or insert characters than it is to highlight and delete portions of the text. Nobody has so far spoken out against Home and End, but they are invaluable to me as well.

A cut-down keyboard may help to relieve a little mental strain from those who are obviously troubled by those pesky mystery keys taking up an extra inch or desk space that could be used to display your collection of Gonks and comical erasers, but if you tear yourself away from yet another game of Solitaire, you may find that your keyboard is a very useful and efficient tool, rather than a poor cousin to the mouse as some seem to believe. You might also learn what else you can do with your computer. It isn't just reading your Yahoo horoscopes, kids.

To actually address the original post (skipping over the point of what the term 'print' actually means - it has already been mentioned that it does not mean 'put marks on paper' in this context), can you imagine the size of the key that would be needed to hold the the phrase "Copy screen to clipboard, paste into graphics program, and then print"? I suppose they could abbreviate it down to CpyScrCBpstgfxPRN. :p

Posted by: Ando at June 18, 2005 07:04 AM

hey i think it comes from the old days when "print" meant "display" instead of print (as in printer).

Posted by: jon at August 18, 2005 10:56 PM

Well, it's called print screen for those people still using DOS, and in Linux it directly saves your image, or immediately prints your desktop, depending on your settings.

Posted by: Trent Chernecki at September 9, 2005 10:18 PM

Well, on my computer its certainly not "broken" in that sense, since when i'm pressing the "print screen" key its actually bringing up a send to printer thing >.> -_-; i actually want it to do the making a copy to clipboard thing. it doesn't actually print the screen, it just prints blank pages! This is broken brokeness -_-; i demand my computer be broken again -_-;;

Posted by: Little at April 8, 2006 05:39 PM

Replying to an old thread, but:

"Heh. All of a sudden I feel really old, because not only can I remember using each of these keys on a regular basis but also because at work I am still stuck using a terminal window that uses them (and all 24 F keys as well, though the terminal still wants to call them 'PF' keys and you have to use {shift} - {F#} to access 13-24)."

Well, on my Linux server boxes I have those ancient WANG model 724 keyboards installed...tons of useless buttons when used on a computer running Windows, but on Linux, they suddenly become useful again. All 32 function buttons are used (to switch between displays) and the 'GL' key closes a windows in Gnome. 'Help' and 'Cancel' I haven't figurd out yet, but if you pipe the keyboard input to the terminal you can see it does return a command. Plus, the keyboard includes a PC speaker that clicks whenever you hit a key and beeps (continuously) when you get a kernel panic.

And, SysRQ is sometimes useful for the RSEIUB forced reboot.

Posted by: Trent Chernecki at May 11, 2006 08:17 PM

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