“The finger cut, to save the hand”: Keyboard Shortcuts in Mathcad Prime

**Guest Post by Anji Seberino**

Lately there has been a lot of discussion, and expressed frustration, over shortcuts in Mathcad Prime.  The frustration seems to focus on two general areas.  The first is the fact that the shortcut for variable subscripts [aka literal subscripts] has changed, and the second is the perception that there are far fewer shortcuts available in Mathcad Prime when compared to Mathcad 15.

Let’s consider the case of the changed shortcut for variable subscripts.  This change has perplexed many Mathcad users around the world.  About three months ago, I read a book completely unrelated to Mathcad.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been observing the expressed frustration on this topic.  This past weekend, we dealt with horrible fires here in San Diego County that destroyed thousands of acres and burned people’s homes to the ground.  On the news, the media showed a beautiful home burning down, and the newscaster explained that firefighters made the decision to sacrifice that home in order to save the rest of the neighborhood.  That’s when it hit me… a quote from the book I read:

“The finger cut, to save the hand”

-Khaled Hosseini,  And the Mountains Echoed

Let’s make one thing clear – In no way what-so-ever am I drawing a comparison between the devastation of losing one’s home to a change in a piece of software.  My thoughts are with all the families that were impacted, some of whom are my close friends.  When the media showed that particular house, I realized that what the newscaster said is a recurring theme in everyday life and everyday business.  When I read the book, I didn’t stop, ponder, or pay much attention to those words.  But now, they pop up in my head regularly and I see their relevance in multiple situations each and every day.  They describe the case of the changed shortcut for variable subscripts quite well.

One of the objectives of Mathcad Prime was to create a more intuitive version of Mathcad.  In order to do that, some shortcuts (the variable subscript in-particular) had to be changed.  In Mathcad 15, the <period>  key is used for this shortcut.  This is convenient; however,it is not intuitive.  I will agree with everyone on this point – use of the period to define subscripts is incredibly convenient.  I cannot possibly argue with that.  Now let’s switch gears and consider the case of the shortcut used to define range variables in Mathcad 15 – range variables are visually represented by two sequential dots (two sequential periods), where the shortcut is the  <semicolon>  key.


This is neither convenient, nor intuitive.  This is one area in Mathcad Prime where we could make a sacrifice in one area in order to make an improvement on a broader scale.  Range variables are used quite frequently, since they provide a quick and easy way to generate outputs by iterating over a sequence of inputs – a very common and necessary practice in engineering.  In order to make the range variable shortcut more intuitive in Mathcad Prime, we used the keyboard sequence <period><period>instead of <semicolon>.


Since use of the <period> was reallocated to the range variable definition, this meant that unfortunately it would no longer be available for defining variable subscripts.  The new keyboard shortcut for defining variable subscripts in Mathcad Prime is <Ctrl><underscore>.  Making this change resulted in increased convenience and intuitiveness in the area of working with range variables, but compromised convenience in working with variable subscripts.  It’s not ideal, but back to my quote – it’s an example where a sacrifice based on convenience was made to make improvements in another area and for the overall betterment of a situation.  I realize that this may not alleviate the frustration associated with the change and the inconvenience, but hopefully it will shed some light onto why the change was made.

The case of the variable subscript aside, some other shortcuts had to change as well.  For instance, in order to implement shortcuts consistent with industry standard Microsoft Office for formatting text, it was necessary to use <Ctrl><b>, <Ctrl><i>, and <Ctrl><u> for bolding, italicizing, and underlining text.  In Mathcad 15, <Ctrl><i> is a shortcut for inserting an integration operator, and <Ctrl><u> is a shortcut for invoking the Insert Unit Dialog.  To use <Ctrl><i> in Mathcad Prime for italicizing text, something else had to be used for inserting an integration operator.


There’s also been some speculation that Mathcad Prime does not have as many keyboard shortcuts as Mathcad 15.  To be honest, when I started writing this, I didn’t know which version had more shortcuts.  I decided to count them.  I visited the shortcut quick reference guides in both Mathcad 15 and Mathcad Prime, printed them out, and tallied them up.  Keep in mind that this method of counting does not necessarily compare apples to apples, mainly because we are comparing a ribbon-oriented user interface to a toolbar-oriented user interface.  Nevertheless, here are the raw numbers:

Mathcad Prime 3:      106

Mathcad 15:               78

I am not going to cross-check each and every keyboard shortcut to assess which ones are the same, which ones are different, and which ones are new.  I will say that the shortcuts in Mathcad 15 are centered around the toolbars, with an additional 13 shortcuts for various operations.  The shortcuts in Mathcad Prime 3 include these toolbar-centric shortcuts from Mathcad 15  (the toolbar operators have been relocated into the ribbon), plus a collection of new shortcuts for creating different types of regions, working within regions, and working with the document.

All in all, many of the shortcuts have remained the same from Mathcad 15 to Prime 3.  For those shortcuts that have changed, hopefully this helps to explain the reasoning behind the changes.  “The finger cut, to save the hand” might sound a little aggressive, but the fact is that we make decisions in our everyday lives based on this premise, and in the case of Mathcad, it is no different.

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9 thoughts on ““The finger cut, to save the hand”: Keyboard Shortcuts in Mathcad Prime”

  1. Raiko Milanovic says:

    A well written contribution. Even though I’m finding your quote not applicable (after all the houses in San Diego were on fire which hardly can be said of Mathcad 15) I see what was to be gained by changing some shortcuts. I’m sure users can adapt to a different shortcut quickly.

    However, most comments Mathcad Prime’s usability circle around the fact that in order to get some equations written one has to juggle keyboard inputs with mouse clicks. This is not ideal.
    Talking about: I don’t understand why a ribbon UI is supposed to be superiour to a toolbar when the task and actions required to achieve it are identical. I click an icon on the toolbar (in Mathcad 15 the menus are needed seldom) I type code. Im Mathcad Prime I click a ribbon icon, which is larger but otherwise the same, I type code. Here, there seems to be no advantage in using the ribbon.

    On the other hand I see disadvantages in the manner the ribbon has been implemented. E.g. in Mathcad 15 a XY-graph of multiple data sets can be made by typing in the appropriate place and separating data sets by comma. In mathcad Prime I have to let the keyboard go and click a ribbon icon to add another data set. This disturbs the flow of typing which impedes the work flow.

    The ribbon as such does not inherently provide an advantage. Microsoft decided to impelment an ribbon for making software functions “discovarable” not “easier usable”. Judging from the comments the overwhelming majority of problems was about how to use a certain functions and which constraints had to be considered but I rarely found an inquiry of a user desperate for advice where to find a certain function.

    Please correct me, if there are advantages of the ribbon I haven’t identified yet but as I see it the ribbon is plainly new, not even shiny, and that doesn’t justify it.

    1. Aaron Shaw says:

      Hi Raiko,

      Thank you for your response and interest in Mathcad, we appreciate your feedback. Please see below for an answer to the question regarding XY plots and for our thoughts on the ribbon interface.

      1. [Shift][Enter] in Prime replaces the [comma] in MC15 for adding a new trace to XY plot.
      2. The “discover-ability” of the ribbon is beneficial for users unfamiliar with Mathcad, who are familiar with modern UI design driven by Microsoft products. We understand that there is a learning curve to go through, and we want the new layout to be more usable for them. With regards to people unaccustomed to Mathcad, we believe the Prime UI is more accessible than the MC15.0 layout.

  2. Aaron, I think there is an error/somethings missing in your 1. answer?

    I use the Shift-+Enter to insert new datasets/functions in a plot (+ Tab to jump), and find this much more intuitive than using the comma (as in MC15).

    Also Ctrl+M for inserting matrixes is the same, but much more intuitive to use Shift+Enter to insert new rows (and if you stand on the left or right of the element decides of the row goes up or down) + Shift+Enter for inserting columns.

  3. Sorry, Shift+Space for inserting columns…

    1. Aaron Shaw says:

      Hi Torgrim,

      Yes you are correct, the brackets prevented the first part of my answer from showing up. Thank you for pointing this out.


  4. Fred Kohlhepp says:

    Sometime around version 7, Mathcad swapped the editor; the appearance of the cursor changed (remember the red rectangles with the clipped corner) and many of the shortcut keys changed–we all had to learn new finger sequences.

    PTC has done it once more, many of the shortcut keys are different, and we can argue to our hearts’ content about whether it’s more intuitive or convenient. But we’ll all adapt, we’ll all learn the new methods and sequences.

    IF the new software is worth the effort. Mathcad 7 (or whatever the new editor came with) was as capable and maybe a little more so than its predecessor–it was a highly useful product that could read the earlier version sheets and (almost always) execute them without revision. This time, now, we’re being asked to endure the pain of learning the new editor so we can begin to use a product (on it’s third release) that still cannot do some things the original can do and still can’t read the older sheets without first a batch process followed by a significant manual edit.

    Give me a tool that works and I’ll learn how to work the controls. Give me a tool that doesn’t work and I’ll look for a better tool.

  5. Virgil P says:

    The main problem with Prime 3 GUI is that the Ribbon:
    – is slow;
    – is of a very low quality;
    – it’s ugly;
    – the text and icons are very blurry;
    – the buttons are very wide because of the text length.
    The easiest and correct solution is to use for Prime 4 the ribbon from Creo or a MS Office 2010/2013 Ribbon.
    Thank you

  6. Raiko Milanovic says:

    Hi Aaron,

    thank you for taking your time to respond. I have a question though. Has there ever been a comparison on the ergonomics/efficiency of the classic menu as compared to the ribbon?
    I’m asking as Microsoft offers an add-on to utilize the classic menu in office 2013/365 so they’re probably not as convinced of their own ribbon as one migth think.
    Customers are stubborn at times 😉

  7. Sante Pelot says:

    Can’t you make everyone happy? If you had an option to revert to “classic” keyboard shortcuts, then new users get intuitive part, and old users get the convenience of not having to memorize everything again. Better still, add the ability to customize keyboard shortcuts.

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