Pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete

How to do it

Sometimes people have trouble executing this keyboard combination, because they think there is some special timing or skill involved. This is not so. It's really easy. Just think of Ctrl and Alt as Shift keys, and use them the way you use Shift to type a capital letter. You can execute Ctrl+Alt+Delete in two easy steps:

  • Press and hold Ctrl and Alt at the same time. You don't have to strike them both at the same time; just get them both down and hold them.
  • Tap and release the Delete key. You will see the results immediately, and you can now let go of Ctrl and Alt.

Ctrl may be labeled Control on your keyboard, and Delete may be labeled Del on your keyboard.

What it is for

This special key combination, pronounced "Control Alt Delete," has been around since the Personal Computer was introduced by IBM in 1981. The PC recognized this as a command to clear all software and data from its memory and reload its software from disk (called rebooting). This was useful when the computer had frozen up due to a program crash. It involved three keys so you would not strike it by accident—the PC would always restart immediately no matter what programs you had open!

On current Microsoft Windows based computers, Ctrl+Alt+Delete is still a key combination with special functions, such as:

  • When the computer is configured for high security, you have to do it before you can type your user name and password to log on to Windows.
  • When you are logged on, Ctrl+Alt+Delete brings up a special system control menu called Windows Security, from which you can lock your computer, change your password, log off or shut down the computer, and open the Task Manager to shut down individual programs. This is designed to work, just as on the oldest computers, even if a program has jammed up your whole computer. But, in rare cases where your computer is really messed up, you might get no response in Windows when you press Ctrl+Alt+Delete; it's a bit more complicated for Windows to bring up a menu than it was for older computers to just reboot.
  • When a computer has been locked—meaning you keep your programs running but everything is hidden—you have to use Ctrl+Alt+Delete, then type your password, to unlock it.
  • When you back up your saved passwords, Windows will ask you to press Ctrl+Alt+Delete before it will copy them to a disk or thumb drive.

Because this keypress is recognized and handled by Windows directly from your keyboard, it is used to initiate sensitive functions (such as those listed above) to make it more difficult for a pirate to gain control of your computer. To illustrate, a criminal could surreptitiously install a program on your computer that looks like the logon screen. When you type in your password, this fake logon program will send your password to the criminal! But when you press Ctrl+Alt+Delete before logging in, Windows will wipe away the pirate's fake logon screen and display the real logon screen, and it will not be possible for the program to intercept your password.