What’s the “Super” key?

If you’ve ever tried to configure your keyboard shortcuts, you may have come across something called the Super key. If you look on your keyboard, there’s probably no key labelled “Super“. So, what is it?

Tux on a Super key

That’s Super Tux, alright.

Microsoft and Apple must be full of themselves, because the Super key is usually mapped to the Windows key on PC keyboards and the ⌘ key (the Command key, formerly the Apple key) on Mac keyboards.

The Super key was originally a modifier key in between the Hyper and Meta modifier keys on the Space-cadet keyboard used on MIT Lisp machines. Calling the key a “Windows Key” on non-Windows systems feels a little awkward, so instead of calling it that, we borrow the name of the Space-cadet keyboard key.

Space-cadet keyboard

The Super keys on a Space-cadet keyboard

Nowadays on Linux, its function varies depending on the interface. Fundamentally, it’s used as a modifier key like Ctrl, Alt and Shift. Desktop environments that appeal to beginners like Cinnamon and Unity tend to bind tapping the key to open the applications menu. Other Windows shortcuts like Super+E to open a file browser or Super+D to show the desktop are also common. They may even add their own bindings like Super+T to open a terminal.

As with pretty much everything in Linux, you can define your own keyboard bindings that use the Super key. Be careful, though: there isn’t actually a “Super” state (unless you do advanced things using xmodmap). You can bind using Super_L and Super_R (the left and right Super keys, respectively), but if you want both to act as a single modifier, you’ll have to map both of them. Any tools that show just “Super” regardless of which Super key you press probably does that internally.

I use the Super key extensively on Linux. My window manager is wmii, which uses the Super key for its default “modkey”, the key that acts as a base for the window control bindings. As a result, the Windows logo has been effectively erased on my keyboard. I’m a regular Linux user, so consider that deep symbolism.

My ThinkPad T430's overused Windows Key

The Windows Key on my Lenovo ThinkPad T430

What do you use the Super key for? Tell us in the comments!


One thought on “What’s the “Super” key?

  1. I use the Super key a lot to start programs fast on my Ubuntu Distribution of Linux. Simply:

    Pres [SUPER]
    Type ‘files’
    Press [CRT]

    An a nautilus file explorer starts. You can even see a selection of programs for example if you press [Super] and type’t’. You see lest of programs like terminal, Texmaker etc. you can select from. I started using Linux a couple of years ago after being fed up with Windows after 20+ years as a Windows fan boys and I have never looked back 🙂

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