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On my Dell Latitude E6400, the up and down arrow keys are used to change the brightness of the screen when used with the Fn key.

I connected an external keyboard via USB and tried to increase the brightness while pressing the Fn key from the laptop keyboard and the up arrow from the external keyboard.

It did not work. Shift, Ctrl and Alt work correctly when used this way with an external keyboard.

Why not Fn?

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5 Answers 5

Abstract

As others have indicated, it the Fn key is a special case handled internally. I'll provide the technical explanation.

Technical Details

When you press a key on a keyboard, the keyboard controller (a small IC chip inside the keyboard) detects the electrical circuit and processes it to decode which key was pressed and then sends the scancode to the motherboard. The operating system receives scancode from the BIOS and then performs whatever action it needs to in order to process that keypress.

With most keys, this is simple enough. If you press the A key, its keyboard controller sends the scancode to the motherboard which then passes it to the OS which in turn usually prints 'A'. (If the OS detects that one of the modifier keys is currently held down, then it may do something different. In fact, you can configure it to do whatever you want when the A key is pressed with or without modifiers.)

Now the Fn key is special. When you press it by itself, nothing happens because it is exclusively a modifier key and is not (generally) meant to do anything on its own. When you hold it and press another key, the keyboard controller detects that and looks in its built-in table to see if it is a known combination. If the combo is not in the table, then it just ignores it, but if the combo is in the table, then it looks up the associated scancode and sends that.

What does the OS end up seeing? It does not see the scancode for the Fn key and the scancode for the other key. Instead, it sees a single scancode associated with whatever function the Fn-combo has been set to. For example, if the laptop manufacturer has set the Fn+Down Arrow combo to reduce the volume, then the OS sees the scancode associated with the Volume Down, which some keyboards actually have.

Application

So how does this explain why holding Fn on the laptop and pressing a key on an external keyboard does not work? Simple, because the keyboard in the laptop and the external one each have their own controllers. As far as the controller in the laptop sees, you pressed and released the Fn key and as far as the controller in the external one sees, you pressed and released the other key. What does the OS see? It sees that you only pressed the other key without any modifiers.

Demonstration

You can see that Fn key handling is special with a simple test. Plug two external keyboards into a laptop (thus giving you three keyboards). Hold the Ctrl key on one keyboard, the Shift key on another one, and then press the Escape key on the third. The Windows Task Manager should pop up. Why? Because Windows received the scancodes for all three keys, one from each of the three keyboards' controllers. (This was a Windows example, but pressing key combos in this manner should work the same in other operating systems. For example, even in DOS, you can reboot the system by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete on different keyboards.)

Note

Note: the information about how the Fn is specially processed and the resulting limitations on its use are only general, based on common implementations. There is nothing stopping a laptop manufacturer from deciding to implement it differently and allow the user to remap the key to some other function, provide an emulated Fn key on external keyboards via some specific chord, etc. In fact, there is not even an official standard for the Fn key; most manufacturers just use the same implementation that others have used because it's cheaper and changing what users are accustomed to is usually not good.

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Fn key combinations usually cause the keyboard interface to emit different signals. Since the Fn key is not interpreted by the OS, there is likely no easy way to use it with keys on a different keyboard and have the same result since the keyboard interface isn't listening to the other keyboard.

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I'd say because Shift, Ctrl and Alt action the same across all computers. These are standard keys.

Fn functions are specific to the laptop - some need certain drivers on the laptop for them to function correctly, therefore the laptop probably listens for the Fn function and the laptop arrow keys to perform an action, as opposed to an external keyboard which is just treated as your normal 'up and down' keys, regardless of the Fn key.

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but the up arrow is common, and I am using the function key from the laptop keyboard.. –  Lazer Jun 7 '11 at 18:53
    
But I mean the Fn key and up arrow have to be pressed both on the laptop for the function to kick in as the driver/software on the laptop listens for these keys. The USB keyboard probably doesn't send the same 'signal' when pressing an arrow key, so as far the laptop is concerned only the Fn key is really being pressed as there is no "link" between the two. –  Muffinbubble Jun 7 '11 at 19:04

I think (haven't tried it myself) that the external keyboard does not contain the programming that the laptop keyboard does. I'm guessing that if you have access to the FN key on the laptop keyboard, you also have access to the up/down keys on the laptop keyboard, just use those if it works with the external keyboard plugged in.

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This usually works for me when the brightness setting gets stuck in the min/max settings:

Hit Windows key and start typing Device Manager. Go to Device Manager -> expand display adapter -> right click on the child, click "Disable". Once the screen reloads, right click and click on "Enable".

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