Better Diacritics on Windows

As someone who spends half their life on macOS and the other half on Windows 10, I've spent quite a bit of time refining both operating systems to be as similar as possible. But one area that macOS is, frankly, just better at than Windows is special character support. Don't get me wrong, Windows has been improving in this area for some years and does have a few tricks up its sleeve I wish macOS would adopt (Win + . to launch an emoji keyboard is fantastic), but adding accented characters or accessing additional punctuation is still a pain in the butt.

On macOS, all you do is long-press a specific key. Want an accented á? Just press (and hold) the a key, then use the arrow keys or numbered shortcuts to select the variation you want:

Screenshot of Slack text entry with an accented A highlighted. Above the letter is a tooltip showing eight letter variations, with the second option selected.
Gotta love a clean and simple interface.

On Windows? Well, holding the a key just types a bunch of letter As in a row. You could use the aforementioned emoji/special character widget (shortcut again: Win + .) or you could memorise the Alt-code (e.g. for an en-dash use Alt + 0150) – assuming you have a numerical keyboard to hand – but neither are anywhere near as user friendly or elegant as the Apple option.

As someone who types a surprising number of accented characters[1], this irks me. As someone who uses en-dashes like they're going out of style, "irks" is an understatement[2].

So every now and then I try to find a solution, and I think I've finally done it! *insert Futurama "Good News, Everybody!" meme*

It turns out that my favourite, secret Windows feature, Power Toys, now has a Quick Accent widget. It's a little clunkier than the Apple equivalent – the selection menu appears in one set position on the screen, rather than above your cursor, and you have to access it using a quick key rather than the simpler long-press mechanics of a Mac – but it works.

Screenshot of a Windows Notepad document called QuickAccent.txt. A letter O has been typed and a floating menu has appeared outside of the application with nine letter variations as options. An accented O has been selected.
Definitely not as elegant, and it weirdly floats around your screen, but I'll take this over the stock experience in a heartbeat.

Better yet, it caters for more than just accented characters (though this really isn't clear based on the product description), providing quick access (y'see what I did there 👀) to a host of other special characters via certain key combinations. For instance, want an en-dash, em-dash, or just about any other line-as-punctuation? Use the hyphen key and knock yourself out!

If you want to try it yourself, you'll need to download and install Microsoft Power Toys (Windows 10 or 11 only), then enable Quick Accent in the settings menu. I have the activation key set to use arrow keys, as I found the space sometimes registered incorrectly/I typed too fast, and placed the toolbar in the centre of the screen, but there are various other settings you can play around with, including blocking it from running within certain programs (definitely useful).


I should also mention a couple of other, similar tools that I came across whilst trying to solve this problem, in case Quick Accent doesn't quite scratch your itch, or Microsoft ends up scrapping it.

First, there's HoldKey, which is a specialist long-press widget that more closely approximates the macOS functionality. If you particularly want to use a long-press as a trigger, or need number shortcuts, or just prefer having the selection menu close to your cursor, HoldKey is a better option. The downsides are that you can't select a character using the arrow keys (number keys and mouse only) and it lacks support for some of the special character combinations that Quick Accent covers (most notably for me: there is no way to type an en-dash at all 😲). It does have a paid-tier option that unlocks some extra shortcut functionality (a little like a slimmed-down AutoHotKey) but I couldn't get this to work the way I wanted on the free trial and wasn't a huge fan of the UI.

There's also Key Manager, which offers a much more customisable set-up better suited for power users, but also comes with a heftier price tag as a result. I couldn't actually grok if this would work the way I wanted – it does have long-press to activate and people often recommend it for macOS-like accent functionality, but the documentation is quite opaque – so I never tried it out, but worth knowing it exists.

Finally, a special shoutout to the one other tool I'm still using, even though Quick Accent technically solves this problem for me: Em-n-en 😁 This is a super-niche tool (with a great name), built specifically to solve my biggest Windows irritation: access to en- and em-dash characters. If that's all you're after, this has you covered, with three separate override options: keyboard shortcuts, automated conversion (a hyphen with no letters on either side will be swapped out automatically), or shortcodes. I really like the latter; all I have to do is type --= and it inserts an en-dash for me (==- is the em-dash equivalent), which is so incredibly quick and easy to remember. A perfect little tool, top marks all around! 👏

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  • <p>Annoyed by Alt-codes and incomplete keyboard shortcuts? Yearn for the long-press functionality of every other OS? Just freakin' want easier en-dash access? Windows doesn't have to be this annoying; there are some options!</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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