The Menu Bar Blues: Should Menu Bar Only Apps Die?

This post is part of a series that revisits some of our readers’ favorite articles from the past that still contain awesome and relevant information that you might find useful. This post was originally published on September 21st, 2011.

I used to absolutely love menu bar apps. Years ago, it was a fairly tiny niche of the Mac app market that contained only a few really solid gems. These utilities provided a quick and easy way to control iTunes, run a quick maintenance script and get back to what you were doing.

At heart, menu bar apps were essentially thought to be little things that perhaps didn’t quite merit a full on application but still merited a permanent, always-on spot on your Mac. Things have changed though and I find myself becoming annoyed when I download an app and find that it has no alternative to the menu bar mode.

Should developers move past the trend of offering menu-bar-only apps in favor of giving users the power to decide? Let’s discuss.

Pros and Cons

In recent years, the menu bar app market has exploded. What was once a handful of utilities is now an impressively large secondary app market. As a Mac user, I see both pros and cons to this rapid expansion. Let’s take a quick look at both sides.

Why Menu Bar Apps Rock

The positive side of having more menu bar apps available is simple: there’s more to choose from! If Apple’s App Store experiments have proven anything it’s that, in the minds of most users, more is better.

Whether you’re looking for a todo app, a fully featured email client, somewhere to store notes or quick access to a web service, there are likely a handful of menu bar apps to get you there. Here at AppStorm, we love them so much that we recently posted a roundup of 25 such utilities.

Interestingly enough, in my opinion, menu bar apps have almost entirely stolen the thunder from Dashboard widgets. If you think about it, conceptually the two types of apps are very similar and almost redundant. In the short term, Dashboard widgets came with a lot of hype and grabbed a lot of attention but with time we’ve come to see that they have a fatal flaw: out of sight, out of mind.

Menu bar apps are always visible, no matter where you are in OS X. This makes it very easy to remember to take advantage of them. Dashboard on the other hand is relegated to a side screen that we can easily go weeks or even months without seeing.

Further, it seems that developers jumped ship on Dashboard widgets initially in favor of the iPhone App Store and more recently in favor of the Mac App Store. The distinction here is important: Dashboard apps are traditionally distributed free and can’t currently be sold on the Mac App Store while menu bar apps can easily fetch a few bucks at the least and are quite popular on the Mac App Store.

From these arguments we can see that menu bar apps have a clear advantage over Dashboard widgets both in the eyes of users and developers.

Why Menu Bar Apps Suck

Now, for all their amazing benefits and convenience, it’s easy to see some downsides as well. The most obvious and frustrating of these comes from having too many menu bar apps and too little screen space.

screenshot

Menu bar apps are cut off by menu options

The example above first shows all the various apps running in my menu bar if I’m looking at the Finder app. However, if I switch to Safari, some of these become inaccessible. This problem completely defeats the usefulness of menu bar apps. Rather than being handy utilities accessible from anywhere, they’re actually harder to get at than traditional apps because you can’t activate many of these either from the dock or application switcher. In this situation you have to bounce around until you find an app with few enough menu options that you can actually click on the menu bar app you’re hunting for.

Don’t Run So Many!

The solution here is quite simple right? Don’t run so many menu bar apps! It’s a valid argument, however, I think pointing the finger solely at users fails to look at the whole issue.

For starters, MacBooks are more popular than ever, meaning that a huge chunk of Mac users are using computers with screen sizes as small as eleven to thirteen inches, this doesn’t leave much room for menu bar apps.

To illustrate this fact, let’s take another look at my menu bar. Is it really that overrun with third party utilities? Have I gone menu bar crazy? To get some perspective, I highlighted the apps that aren’t built-in OS X features (there might be a little iStat voodoo happening with my time and date).

screenshot

Third party tools are highlighted

Notice that, before adding a single third party app, MacBooks already have a lot going on in the menu bar. In my screenshot there’s Spotlight, the date and time section, battery level indicator, wifi status, sound, iChat bubble, Time Machine and Bluetooth menu. There are also plenty of other default options that I don’t have turned on such as the International menu.

With all the menu bar functionality OS X has to offer right out of the box, MacBook users are left with a large number of utilities to compete for a very small space.

How Can We Fix This Problem?

Users who don’t run a lot of apps will likely think that this is a non-issue: simply don’t run menu bar apps! Easy right? I can see you typing your comments already!

However, for me, this is simply not an option as many of these apps (like Dropbox) are invaluable to my workflow. I’ll wager that plenty of other users will respond similarly about their own apps. Further, if I ask these developers what the solution to this problem is, I doubt that they would say to run fewer menu bar apps since that would cut into their own user base.

Ultimately, I think “Don’t run so many” is a copout answer that sidesteps the problem by shaking a finger at users rather than truly attempting to find a useful solution. So what, if anything can be done?

The Real Issue

As the market for menu bar apps continues to expand, the real heart of this problem lies in the fact that menu bar apps are becoming too difficult to avoid.

The Mac AppStore is chock full of great tools that use this format and there’s no easy way to filter them out. Despite the fact that there are two fundamentally different types of applications in the MAS (dock apps and menu bar apps), Apple has lumped them together.

One reason for this is likely that, while the two categories can be mutually exclusive, the reality is that they often overlap, meaning a single app has both options. And herein lies the solution!

Dear Developers, Give Me Options

Almost by accident, we’ve stumbled onto the simple answer that makes all of this trouble go away. Perhaps menu bar apps that solely occupy a space in the menu bar shouldn’t exist. I know, that’s a radical statement and menu bar app fans will quickly take offense. However, I think the alternative is a better OS X experience that puts more power in the hands of the users.

So what am I suggesting? The perfect model for the ideal app behavior can be found in TextExpander. Open up the TextExpander preferences and this is what you see:

screenshot

Choose between a menu bar app, a dock app or both!

It’s a beautiful thing is it not? TextExpander gives me complete freedom over how I want the app to work. I can make it a menu bar only app, a dock only app or choose to have both the menu bar and dock functionality.

To be fair, many apps have indeed adopted this functionality, not just TextExpander. That being said, it’s definitely not a standard behavior and the apps that aren’t playing along are those that eat up your menu bar unnecessarily. They’re awesome utilities that serve a very useful purpose, but they choose to tell users that certain functionality should only be found in the menu bar when ultimately, that’s a decision best left up to each individual.

Conclusion

If you’ve only skimmed up to this point you’re probably wondering what this article is all about. Am I calling for the death of menu bar apps? The answer to that question is simple: absolutely not. I love menu bar apps and find them to be an awesome part of the OS X experience.

However, with such a large portion of the Mac user base experiencing OS X on a small screen, I think it’s time for menu bar app developers to rethink their strategy and consider offering a non-menu bar mode for users who would prefer to have the app running in their dock. This isn’t a rule that Apple should impose on developers but simply something that developers should be courteous and thoughtful enough to offer of their own volition.

Apps like TextExpander set a clear precedence for a better system that allows each individual user to choose how the app will be accessed. It’s a superior, more versatile way to build apps and I think that developers should be eagerly hopping on board.

What do you think? Is this one long pointless rant or is there really a menu bar app problem for users with small screens? Do you agree with my suggestions or do you have a better solution? I want to hear it!


  • Jeffrey

    You can also tweak the system menu bar by using shorter display options. In your screenshot, battery, date, and user account all can be made shorter.

    • Blair

      How do you do this on Lion?

      • John

        You can choose to not show in the statusbar in system settings (time and date has an option to show clock in menubar, and energy settings has the battery info).

        After you set everything to not show you could install istat menus and from there choose how your clock and stuff will look like. My clock, for example, says “14 13:41″ witch is date and time short and sweet.

        You could also, if you use istat for memory and CPU, remove the MEM and CUP lables to save a little space.

        Settings to remove (charged) lable should be in system settings as well..

        I run 14 menubar apps and has room for maybe 7-8 more on my 15″ macbook (when in safari).

      • Ruslan

        Go to their respective System Preferences screens.

  • http://www.perezfox.com Prescott Perez-Fox

    First, I don’t use an icon for anything that doesn’t _need_ one. The volume, MobileMe Sync, Bluetooth, etc. all get hidden. I am almost offended at how many menu icons are placed there by default — pisses me off!

    I like apps that allow me to open the Preferences from the menu bar icon. It’s frustrating for some that are indicators-only, although those are fewer these days. And what I downright can’t stand is when a normal Dock-dwelling app places a cousin icon in the Menu Bar when it is launched. WHY!?

    TextExpander’s behaviour is generally good, giving us choice, but I sometimes accidentally quit the entire app when all I mean to do is close the configuration window and return to a normal operating state. It should know better, maybe eliminating the Command-Q option from that screen, or give me a warning with options “Close Window” or “Quit Application” to make sure.

    I’m picky, that’s all.

    • John

      Well, for someone that are using a BT mouse, the BT menubar icon is pretty useful, specially when you are on the road and want to turn off BT to save battery. And alt clicking the volume lets you choose airplay speaker for those who uses that. If there is something that people doesnt _need_ its weekday and month in clock (unless you are living under a rock), and name of computer. Removing that would save alot of space :)

  • http://twitter.com/brunogama Bruno Gama

    seriously you don’t need in your macbook the battery charger announcing when it is charged, neither the “Macbook”, week day and month.
    Removing this texts you have space for at least 4 more menubar apps, and you can disable bluetooth icon as well.

  • darkiller

    i totally agree! i’m a 13-inch macbook user and i’m facing just this problem! i have quite a few menu bar apps installed and i always cannot find the app i’m looking for and have to switch to finder or even change my clock from digital to analog for the time being. i wish there was some feature that would say, expand the menu bar to two lines to show ALL the apps on the top line when we move the cursor to the top of the window. The problem is especially bad in programs like say, firefox (i use safari, chrome and firefox all at once) where the menu options are particularly long!

    • Ruslan

      Try Bartender. It is free whilst in beta.

      • RayCon

        Bartender is awesome and very nicely solves the problem. While it’s an essential on my 11-inch MacBook Air, it also helps clean some things up on my 27-inch iMac.

  • http://about.me/jorgerdz Jorge Rodriguez

    My relationship with Menu Bar Apps is really all over the place. I love how many of them are implemented, like Evernote, Notify (when it used to work) and Hotspot Shield; but I also don’t use many of the apps that I have there like Bowtie and Twitter. I know there’s options to turn most of those icons off, but I’m just too lazy to look for them. I think moderation is the answer, as always.

  • Andy

    My solution: don’t show battery percentage, hide date (or show in shorter format), and show fast user switching menu as icon.

    Why didn’t you mention those; they take almost half of your menu bar?

    Best.

    • FSK

      +1

  • Nathan

    Even on my 15″ MBP, I still find this a significant problem. I’ve had to be really strict about what menubar apps get installed (and use things like iStat to compress my battery icon)

    Something that really annoys me though, is when an app that *should* be faceless uses a menubar icon. In particular, I use f.lux, and it irritates me to no end that there isn’t an option to turn off the icon. Certainly there would be some people who need the menubar menu, but for someone who practically never interacts with the app, it’s extremely frustrating.

  • OrbBox

    Well, for starters, get rid of the fast user switching in the upper right of the menubar. It’s taking up a huge amount of screen real estate.

    Even if you’re using multiple accounts, you can log out by keyboard shortcut, or from the apple menu in the left. It’s completely redundant.

    • OrbBox

      System Prefs>Users & Groups>Login Options>uncheck “show fast user switching menu as”

      • sheryl

        Or you could just use the icon. Without the fast user option at all, I can’t let little bro switch to his account without logging out. I disabled reopen windows when logging back in though, so for most people it probably is unnecessary.

  • Marc Garneau

    What would be nice is a menu bar app for menu bar apps, so that by choosing one (preferably with a keyboard shortcut), a drawer comes down so that I can access other menu bar apps.

    • Jo

      I (and I’m sure others, too, as comments suggest) have been waiting for an app that sort of works like OverFlow from Stuntsoftware for menubar apps ever since I started using menubar apps on a larger scale.

      I’m surprised that no dev has come up with a solution yet, as an app like this would sell like sliced bread if priced right (I’m thinking of something along the lines of $4.99 or less).

      I like the drawer approach that Marc above suggested. Personally my main requirement would be a keyboard-driven usage.

    • Ruslan

      There is an app for that and it is called Bartender. Does exactly what you want.

  • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

    Lots of suggestions for shortening what’s currently in the menu bar, thanks!

    I definitely know about all of these, but as I said in the article, ultimately I don’t think telling users that they’re doing it wrong is the answer. Take a look at the dock, I can keep cramming and cramming and still it adapts (though I keep it almost empty). Much better to make the system work the way users use it and give users the power to change it when it’s not working.

  • zdlo

    So far, I haven’t been able to find a better solution than NoMenuBar:
    http://www.jeb.com.fr/en/nomenubar.shtml

    I would love to be able to move the icons also. And no; no key combination allows you to do so for most of the apps.

    Maybe a second menu bar would do the trick?

    • zdlo

      …or better, menu items on the left disappear when we move the mouse over any of the menu bar app icons, and it shows all the menu bar apps.

    • http://novastormsoftware.com Justin

      I have an app (I mention it a few posts down) that does something similar but also has some nice extras that keep it out of the way instead of running constantly. (Also, yes, it will be free, if anyone is wondering).

      • zdlo

        Aha! That looks great!

        So, we assign a shortcut, and when we use it, the application menus dissappear until we click on a menu bar item, or anywhere else. Is that right?

        Maybe you should write an email to them, explaining the need for such an item, with a link to this article and its comments!

        I would be the first to download.

  • linusr

    use keyboard shortcuts..

  • Mats Christensson

    I have exactly that problem on my MacBook 13″. Installed iStatmenus and some more and now i have problems with menubar apps like Todo. They cant find a place when running Safari. I looked for a solution to customize the menubar, but i can’t find anything. Is there a way to customize the menubar?

  • http://novastormsoftware.com Justin

    The issue with menus cutting the menubar items off is one I solved with a little app I wrote a while ago. I’m going to put it on my website sometime in the near future. I tried to submit it to the Mac App Store but Apple rejected it because it doesn’t have “enough” functionality.

    I think solving the problem of blocked menubar apps is functionality enough!

  • Justin

    I’d like to see a menu bar app that lets you nest other menu bar icons. While some icons are frequently accessed or display useful information, others just sit there most of the time, taking up space. But I doubt customizing the menu bar like that would be possible without some sort of haxie.

  • Ed

    I agree with the author. I turn off nearly all OS X standard menu bar options, and if an app has the option, I also turn that off. It’s still difficult to keep the thing reasonably clean.

    My pet peeves are apps that don’t give you the choice – Dropbox, I’m looking at you.

  • http://benedictcohen.co.uk Benedict Cohen

    Another solution is to use a System Preferences pane instead of an menu bar icon. System Preference panes work well for apps that provider server-like functionality instead of status reports. Dropbox, for example, doesn’t need a persistent UI presence so would work perfectly well as a background service that can be tweaked in System Preferences. The System Preferences pane could included a check box to show a menu bar icon for those user who like having a messy menu bar.

    • Mario Carta

      Could not agree more! I got a lot of menubar apps that runs only for settings purposes. To name a few: Remote Buddy, dropbox, Palua and especially those that are iPhone companions like Plex media server, WiFi2HiFi, mobile mouse pro and 2Do sync server. For some time now, I’ve been struggling with their developers via e-mail to put the options in the system preferences. Some of them seems supportive, at least replying my e-mails, but most of all don’t even do that.

      The prefpane option, for this kind of app, with the checkbox options to have it on the menu bar or dock, seems to me the most reasonable thing to do.

      Another option is to have and app to create a menubar icon with the others menubar apps as items or submenus, but I don’t know if OS X support this at all. If not, Apple should do this as an update. I also thought of having scrolling arrows on the edges of a predefined menubar reserved space apps.

      Hope somebody hear us!

  • jan

    something like stacks (dropdowns) for heavy menu bar apps user would be great =)

  • Graham

    I’d like a way to just show/hide them quickly like windows allows you to

  • Mike Wallbridge

    I too use NoMenuBar. A simple click on its dock icon and there is your full list of Menu Bar icons. Works for me.

  • cargath

    Sorry, but don’t blame your own faults on app developers. Of course the user should have the choice whether to have an app sitting in the menu bar. But it wouldn’t help you, because you seem to have a freaking lot of unnecessary stuff going on there anyway.

    You have that section in your article raising the question if you crowded your menu bar too much, pointing out which icons are third party apps and which are Apple apps. Look again. I mean seriously, your workflow would be crippled if you’d remove the weekday from your date-and-time section, you need to be remembered it’s monday? There is a lot you could revisit to see if you _really_ need it sitting in your menu bar, like iChat, which also sits in your dock anyway.

    I’m always wondering why a lot of people run stuff that is supposed to be a background app in their menu bars. I don’t need Alfred, Moom or TextExpander up there. These apps are supposed to be invoked by hotkey, like Expose. The beauty of these apps is having them improve your workflow without even noticing they are there.

    Oh, and menu bar apps are NOT always visible anymore. Since the release of Lion i like to run a lot of stuff in fullscreen mode on my laptop. So i don’t know if you’d gain anything by putting everything in the menu bar on a laptop anyway.

    (i really need to stop using the word “anyway” in every second sentence ^^)

    (wtf, i forgot to enter a name and email and had to reenter the whole text, because your error message took me to another site…)

    • http://khurtwilliams.com Khürt L. Williams

      Agreed! I can’t imagine any effective workflow that involves repeated clicking on the menu bar.

  • jenn

    I despise menu icons as much as the widgets from dashboard. Not just crowding but if I want the thing off I do not even want to see an icon. First thing I do for new software is look for the option to turn off the top menu bar.

    Also, I refuse to buy menu bar only products (ie. istatpro – just went with geektool).

    Only thing I want to see in my menu bar is the date, if my wifi is connected, and time machine status.

  • JP

    As much as it pains me to say this, I wouldn’t mind if Apple took a lesson from Windows on this and did something similar to the system tray and allow you to hide some icons under a single more arrow. I love my menu bar apps but a number of them I just don’t use that often so an extra click to get to them would not be that big a deal.

  • Mike

    I want to know, is there a way to hide the spotlight icon completely but still be able to use it if I need to? I hardly use it since I have Alfred for those type of things, but its still nice to be able to use the old CMD + Spacebar if I need to get to spotlight. There use to be a terminal command, but I’m not sure if it works with Lion. And Onyx hides the icon and removes the functionality completely.

    • Jay

      Go to your ‘core services’ folder and move search.bundle to somewhere else. Restart and the spotlight icon will be gone. If you want spotlight back, just move back “search.bundle” to the core services folder

  • John

    Was curious if anyone knew how to do the following:

    -Change settings so that date stamp in menu would simply say “22″ for example and leave out “September”.

    -Remove the spotlight icon in the menu bar (magnifying glass).

    Thanks!

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      iStat Menus gives you tons of control over the Date & Time Format.

  • Tessa Thornton

    I’m generally happier with menu bar only apps that do something useful than with other apps that add menu bar functionality without asking. I love iStat Menus, ClipMenu, and Cloud App, and use them constantly.

  • http://itracki.com Matt
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  • http://pixelapse.com/Boarder24 Jaocb Elias

    Guys, we have the technology, we can fix this…

    No seriously check out this guys idea it pretty sweet wish it were true! Any developers who know how to do it so him a message! Also, I think apple should give out the SDK for being able to move menubar apps around, I hate menubar apps but I hate them that much more when I have my network monitor at the very left of the bar and it gets cut off when it should be right next to my WiFi so I can see it 24/7, I mean iStatMenu’s is able to move around the icons for it’s app, what gives!

    Here’s the idea: http://www.pixelapse.com/s/MY9PWQ

  • Stephen Schulte

    NESTED MENU BAR ITEMS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have been searching for someone who would do this: The original iOS had apps but no folders- but today we can drop one app onto another and create folders with up to 20 apps per folder (with an iPad, 12 with iPhone, iTouch). We simply need the ability to have folders in the Menubar which will hold ??? 20 or so menubar apps. So if I want quick access, I don’t put them in a folder – maybe 5-10 stay as “apps”. But let’s say for my DropBox, Google Drive and SugarSync I want easy access (this is so similar to having Safari bookmarks in drop down folder I just can’t believe no one has done this yet at Apple !!!!!!!!) – I put those 3 cloud service menubar items (icons? apps?) into a folder and voilà! Now instead of maybe a max of 15-20 menubar icons on a MBP-13″ – I could have at least 200, maybe more! I have all my Safari bookmarks arranged similarly; my iPad apps and such the same – even the dock has folders — WHY NOT THE MENUBAR??

    Can someone please do this? I’ve written to Apple and will again…

    Best regards,

    Steve Schulte
    Saturday 2 June 2012

  • Warren

    Check out Bartender, seems to be exactly what you all want

  • Andy Couch

    Bartender is the solution that works for me! I don’t know why this isn’t built into the OS by now.

    http://www.macbartender.com/

  • Karol

    Try Bartender: http://www.macbartender.com/
    It will help a lot.

  • http://www.androidgeek.in Serra Stone

    I love menubar apps! :D

  • Rich Rose

    The finder has been around for 20 plus years and we still don’t have functionality that Now Utilities gave us back in the day. For an OS that touts ease of use, Apple has gone a long way from the days of all apps behaving consistently. Faceless apps, background apps, menubar only apps etc should all be “illegal” AND apple should provide a management interface. Google Drive is locked up on my system right now, but i can only tell when i’ve got the right app in the forground and hover over the menubar to see the pinwheel of death over the Google Drive icon. Force quit? Nope. System pref pane? Nope. Can i kill it with Activity Monitor or the command line? Sure. Should inexperienced users have to do this crap? Absolutely not. Blerg.

    Thanks for calling attention to this kind of issue. Good article.

  • bkimbriel

    Have you heard of bartender?

    http://www.macbartender.com/

    It solved this problem pretty nicely for me :)

  • to

    Doesn’t http://www.macbartender.com/ do what most of you want?

  • Jeremy

    Should menu bar only apps die? Hell no. I don’t want dock icons. You can use Bartender and minimize what shows up on your menu bar. It’s simple, clean, and extremely useful.

  • Greyscale

    Only greyscale too – otherwise they can be distracting.

  • Jean

    Can we demand apple to integrate Bartender into next cougar like they did with Growl and Notification Center?

  • GV

    Bartender (http://www.macbartender.com/) has been mentioned several times. It solves the main problem vexing the article’s author by making it possible to create a second Finder Menu Bar that is accessible via the Bartender icon or a hot key.

    If one more icon is too much for you the Bartender icon can be made to disappear with access provided by a hot key.

    I have been testing Bartender on a 13″ MacBook Pro running Lion. Macs with small displays have always been problematic when Menu Bar app addicts like myself run out of space. Bartender fixes the problem and it runs flawlessly.

    An important note: Bartender is available at 50% off ($7.50) during its beta testing period. Beta testing has recently been completed but the discount offer is still available via the Bartender website. So if you are tempted I suggest demoing Bartender so you can take advantage of the sale before the app is only available at full price.

    • Jeremy

      I bought Bartender very early on, and it was pretty buggy at the time and STILL worth every penny. It’s gotten much better since. I’ve had zero issues since the first few updates. :)

  • Tim

    The control strip in OS 9 was better than menu bar apps.

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