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I have global Windows shortcut keys assigned to several different cmd.exe instances. I do this by creating shortcuts to cmd.exe on my desktop, and assigning each one a unique shortcut key (for example, CTRL + SHIFT + U). Pretty basic stuff. I'm using Win2K8 (R1 and R2).

This works just fine... most of the time. But with infuriating regularity, sometimes it doesn't. Or it will work with a long delay (many seconds). It doesn't matter what app currently has focus (it can even be one of the command prompts). It doesn't matter what keys I assign (I've tried a few variations of WIN, CTRL and SHIFT). I did notice that this is often, but not always, correlated with explorer.exe struggling in some way or another (say, an explorer window opened to a file share that's unavailable, or an app being unresponsive, or whatever). In other words the shortcut key handling appears to be very sensitive to unrelated system activity. Note that whenever I have this problem I can always successfully ALT + TAB to the window I want to get to, but that's tedious.

I use the shortcuts to these command windows hundreds of times a day so even a 1% failure rate becomes really annoying.

Is there a way to fix this, or is there some third-party utility out there that will RELIABLY intercept custom key combinations to bring focus to whatever apps I want, in a way that is independent of other system activity?


There is a property of the Windows shortcuts that I would not want to lose if switching to a third-party hotkey tool: Windows shortcuts are idempotent. Once you've launched a shortcut to some app, pressing the shortcut key combo again takes you to the already launched process - it does not launch a new process.

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+1: I had no idea what the heck idempotent was. –  surfasb Dec 28 '11 at 0:29
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5 Answers

Use Autohotkey. The scripting language is non standard and can be difficult to learn, but if all you're wanting to do is reliably launch programs, its simple. Plus you can base shortcuts off the Windows key! Use following sample script and modify it to your needs. (Lines starting with ; are comments.)

;win + alt + e ... unload ipod
   run d:\Downloads\Apps\deveject\eject ipod.bat

;win + w ... launch winamp
    run c:\program files (x86)\winamp\winamp.exe

;win + a ... launch AS400
    run C:\Program Files (x86)\IBM\Client Access\Emulator\Private\1.ws

;win + Shift a ... launch AS400 Printer
    run C:\Program Files (x86)\IBM\Client Access\Emulator\Private\3.ws

;win + ctrl + Shift a ... launch 2nd AS400 
    run C:\Program Files (x86)\IBM\Client Access\Emulator\Private\2.ws

Save this as a .ahk file on your desktop, install autohotkey and run it.

Every time you press any key combination, AutoHotkey will scan this script. If it matches any of the key combinations that preceed a ::, it will execute the next command. If the return statement is missing, the AHK will continue to scan the script for matches after executing your statement. The key combinations are described below.

# = Windows Key
+ = Shift
^ = Control
! = Alt

You can use these in any combination with the letters of your keyboard. One combination I find extremely useful is as follows.

; ALT Backtick ... ctrl f4
    Loop, parse, RcvCtrlW, `,
     IfWinActive %A_LoopField%
        sendinput ^w
    sendinput ^{f4}

; win Backtick ... alt f4
   sendinput !{f4}

This is Alt + ` and Win + `. When this script is running and I press alt + `, the script sends ctrl + F4. Win + ` becomes alt + F4.

Autohotkey is basically its own programming language. I have scripts set up that simulate "Rocker Gestures" system wide. I have GMail like shortcuts for my email. If you spend the time to learn some of its tricks, you can get nuts with it. Lifehacker has a whole bunch of useful scripts for Autohotkey. Have Fun!

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Hmm - an important feature of the Windows shortcut key that I rely on is its idempotency. The first time I hit CTRL + SHIFT + U to bring up a given prompt, it launches cmd.exe. The next time I hit that combo, if that cmd.exe is still running, it simply brings it to the front, instead of launching another instance (which is what the Autohotkey run command does). Is there a way to easily do that with AHK? –  Peter Baer Feb 18 '10 at 19:25
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Here's how I use AutoHotKey in a manner that meets your idempotent requirement.

As an example, I've hooked Caps Lock+a to a Firefox window on Stack Overflow, Caps Lock+s to Firefox at Super User, and Caps Lock+d to a command prompt.

   SetTitleMatchMode, 2
   DetectHiddenWindows, Off
   IfWinActive, %TheWindowTitle%
      WinMinimize, %TheWindowTitle%
      IfWinExist, %TheWindowTitle%
         WinGet, winid, ID, %TheWindowTitle%
         DllCall("SwitchToThisWindow", "UInt", winid, "UInt", 1)
         run %TheAppPath%

; the actual hotkeys:
CapsLock & a::StartOrToggleMinimize("Stack Overflow", "c:\program files\mozilla firefox\firefox.exe -new-window stackoverflow.com")
CapsLock & s::StartOrToggleMinimize("Super User", "c:\program files\mozilla firefox\firefox.exe -new-window superuser.com")
CapsLock & d::StartOrToggleMinimize("cmd", "cmd")

You can change the title match mode to be as restrictive as you need. If I had another hotkey that matched on "Mozilla Firefox" (instead of "Super User", for example) it would cycle through all my Firefox instances, since each has that text in the window title and I have it set to match the text anywhere in the title.

This script is heavily based on this article at LifeHacker.

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How can this script be modified to NOT be idempotent? Specifically, I want multiple instances of a program if I press the shortcut keys (I'm running putty, and need to be able to connect to 4+ servers at any given time, and don't want to have to reach for the mouse) –  Doktor J Feb 17 '12 at 21:09
If there is specific, unique text in the window title for each instance, you can assign hotkeys to match that text. See the Caps+a and Caps+s above for two different instances of firefox, @DoktorJ –  yhw42 Feb 18 '12 at 1:52
But what if I never want it to match? When I'm switching between them, I just ALT+TAB, so I don't need shortcuts for each instance of PuTTY -- I just need a shortcut that always opens a new instance of PuTTY, no matter how many PuTTY windows I already have open. Will just calling "run c:\tools\putty\putty.exe" directly from the assigned hotkey do this? –  Doktor J Feb 18 '12 at 15:06
@DoktorJ: Oh! Yes. That's exactly how you'd do it. Though I think you can assign hotkeys in the Windows shortcut properties as well. I had assumed you meant to have Caps+1 point to a specific instance of PuTTY (which is better than AltTab in my opinion :) ). –  yhw42 Feb 18 '12 at 15:38
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Yet another alternative to launch your programs fast and intuitively:


Launchy is a free windows and linux utility designed to help you forget about your start menu, the icons on your desktop, and even your file manager.

Launchy indexes the programs in your start menu and can launch your documents, project files, folders, and bookmarks with just a few keystrokes!

alt text

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This looks like the Win7 start menu search. –  Tyr Apr 28 '11 at 0:05
@Tyr: it does. I started using that in Windows XP, but continue to do so in Win7. I haven't used the start menu search very much, but my impression is that Launchy is still faster. I may be wrong on that though. –  Gauthier Mar 19 '12 at 15:18
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It is not unrelated activity, explorer is the process that handles these shortcuts.

There are utilities (e.g. http://www.vsisystems.com/keyboardshortcuts.htm) that purport to have this functionality, but I don't know if any of them would solve the speed issue.

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If Explorer is busy then it can't handle the shortcuts, so another program is required.

A simple and efficient launcher is PS Hot Launch VVL:

This is a free utility that allows you to define your own hotkeys so that a single key press can launch an application, insert commonly used text, change your audio volume, or just about anything else. The program requires Win95/98/ME or WinNT/2000/XP, and is an excellent performer even on slow machines. PS Hot Launch is the perfect alternative to the Start menu and the Quick Launch panel.


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