The Mac Menubar: Explained.

by Milind Alvares

The Mac Menubar: Explained.

by Milind Alvares on March 24, 2010

Post image for The Mac Menubar: Explained.

[tweetmeme]The other day I saw a new article on a Mac blog titled ‘Mac menubar explained’. I wanted to link to it, but apart from the title there wasn’t much in that article worth mentioning. But the menubar does need to be explained to new users. It’s one of the most confusing UI changes when you switch over from a PC. Because it’s just as similar as it is different from the toolbar. This article is beginners only—very basic—so if you’re the type who yawns while reading kiddy articles, I’d recommend you skip past this one.

Where does the menubar begin? 1983. With Lisa. It was then incorporated into the Macintosh, and has been part of the system, performing various different functions along the way. I’ve never used the previous Mac menubars (except for a brief experience with OS 9), so I’ve grown to know and love the menubar of today—the one on Mac OS X. Mac users, new and old, are quite used to how it works. The menubar is a stretch of UI that’s non-dynamic in its approach, providing a familiar way to interact with practically any well written Mac application. Its ever presence makes it practically invisible, almost part of the hardware. In fact, Apple has adapted the menubar to suit the tones of their current generation hardware. There are however some tricks you might not be familiar with, which is where this guide comes in.

How hideous that Apple logo looks at the center of the menubar; Mac OS X public beta.

The menubar can be divided into four aspects. The Apple menu; the application menus; the menubar applications; and system functions. Let’s start with the most static of all items, the Apple menu.

Denoted with its characteristic  logo, it pretty much defines the Mac desktop.

The Apple menu has been a feature in Apple’s Mac OS since its inception. It is the first item on the left hand side of the menu bar. The Apple menu’s role has changed throughout the release history of Mac OS, but the menu has always featured a version of the Apple logo. In System 6.0.8 and earlier, the Apple menu featured a Control Panel manager, as well as Desk Accessories such as a Calculator, the Scrapbook and Alarm Clock. If MultiFinder (an early implementation of computer multitasking) was active, the Apple menu also allowed the user to switch between multiple running applications. Mac OS X features a completely redesigned Apple menu. System management functions from the Special menu have been merged into it. The Apple menu was missing entirely from the Mac OS X Public Beta, replaced by a nonfunctional Apple logo in the center of the menu bar, but the menu was restored in Mac OS X 10.0 due to negative user feedback. – Wikipedia

The Apple menu is so crucial to the Mac look and feel, that Mac skins for Windows most definitely changed the start button to the Apple logo. But the Apple menu is vastly different from the Start menu. It deals with functions related to the full system, and has almost nothing to do with third party applications, or any other customisations you may have applied. Sleep, Restart…, Shutdown…, and Log Out adorn the bottom of the screen. Notice how some items have an ellipsis (…) tailing it. This is menubar language for “has a dialog before an action is taken”. If you hit Sleep, the Mac will shut down without warning. Restart on the other hand will ask you if you’re sure. If you don’t want a dialog, hold down the Option key with the menu visible. Notice how the dots disappear.

Next, come the application menus. These are basically toolbar items, but instead of residing in every window of the application, they adjust dynamically to the application/window selected. You knew this already. There are some things that generally stay static though. The Application menu, the one with the name of the app, generally holds the Preferences, Check for Updates, and the Services menu. Services are great, you can read about them here. The other important menu here, is Help. Since Leopard, help has been integrated into the application menus. Not only can you search for help articles from the documentation, you can also locate items from the menu. So if you can’t find where the Levels setting is in Pixelmator, just search for it in the Help menu. This can also be used to keyboardize your workflow. Just hit the shortcut Command + Shift + / and type in the name of the command. Select, and hit return. You can also select the menubar with the Ctrl+F2 shortcut, but I wouldn’t suggest using that. And that’s because…

The Application menus are completely keyboard friendly. While most application will ship with standard shortcuts, you might want to change some shortcuts or even add new ones. So if you want to assign a shortcut to the “Adjust Size…” item in Preview.app, just go to your System Preferences (from the  menu) » Keyboard » Keyboard shortcuts, and add a new shortcut. Enter the exact name from the menu (including the ellipsis), specify the app as Preview, and without even a restart your new shortcut is active.

Moving on, Menubar apps. These are apps that don’t want to run in the Dock, sometimes for stupid reasons, but mostly because they show you some additional information that wouldn’t be possible from the dock. There’s not much I can say about these apps, other than recommend you a few important that would appeal to everyone.

Tune Instructor: Get iTunes controls and much more in your menubar, for free.

I Love Stars. If you like to have your iTunes tracks to have stars, this is the tool to have. I Love Stars makes it superbly easy to rate the currently playing song, but most importantly, will flash a reminder when an unrated song starts playing.

Caffeine. Ever have your display go dim while playing a video in the browser? Caffeine puts an icon in your menubar, which when toggled, will keep your display on no matter what your system settings. It comes in handy in way more situations than that YouTube scenario I described.

iStat Menus: Have all your system stats like processes, CPU cycles, uptime, right in your menubar. Slick, too.

Notify: If you’re a Gmail user and need to be notified of new email, nothing beats this slick floater, with support for multiple accounts, and if you go Pro, even reply to mail.

HyperSpaces: Adds the ability to customise your Spaces like never before. Each space can get a separate wallpaper, a floating name, and a lot more. A great tool for just $13.

Droplr: Merely drag images, urls, text, and more into its menu icon, and it automatically uploads it to its own web server, and copies a shorturl to your clipboard. Brilliant functionality, for free.

Clipmenu: A clipboard organiser right in your menubar. With support for multiple clipboard types and history, its easy access might just win you over. It’s also free.

BashFlash: If you’re running Snow Leopard on a 64-bit system, here’s an effective way to kill Flash whenever it behaves badly.

Ejector: Sure you can drag the disk image from your desktop into the trash eject button, and it’s fun when you’re starting off, but for super fast ‘pro’ workflow, you can’t go wrong with Ejector. You’ve got to have it.

Right alongside menubar apps, to the extreme right, are the system functions, also known as Menubar Extras. Time Machine, Bluetooth, Wifi, Time, and Spotlight are the usual suspects. You can add more items by looking find them in your Macintosh HD » System » Library » CoreServices » Menu Extras folder. Just drag things from here onto the right side of your menubar, and they should slide in. If you need to rearrange or remove system functions, hold down the Command key and drag them around or out of the menubar.

One of the features you can’t access from the Menu Extras folder, is the lock screen function. For that, you need to open up Keychain Access from your Applications » Utilities folder, jump into its preferences (Cmd+comma), and check mark ‘show status in menubar’.

That’s it. I don’t think there’s anything more I can think of. I hope it was in the least bit useful.

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