iStat Menus: Behind the Scenes of Your Mac

If you like to know what’s happening behind the scenes on your Mac, Bjango’s iStat Menus 3 (currently on sale for $10) is one of the very best apps available to you. I’ve heard people recommending it for years, but though I’ve tried it several times, it’s never really stuck for me – until recently.

Bjango recently released version 3 and, although there are some significant changes in this version, there’s not much new except for the addition of battery monitoring.

I’ll walk you through the app’s main features, and conclude with a few comments on what I’d like to see added in the future, as well as suggesting a couple of alternative options.

Getting Going

If you’ve ever downloaded iStat Menus before, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s no longer a Preference Pane, but now comes packaged as an ordinary application. Your Mac should automatically unzip the compressed file, and then you simply drag the app file into your Applications folder. Then, like with any other application, double-click to start it.

The first time it runs, iStat Menus will ask if you want to upgrade some of its associated components – these help it to monitor various aspects of your machine, so go ahead and say yes to all of them. You’ll then be greeted by iStat Menus 3’s pleasing new main window:

Opening iStat

Opening iStat

In this General tab, you mostly get to change some visual aspects: the theme and colour scheme, whether or not menubar graphs have rounded corners, and – in case you prefer a monochrome menubar – whether iStat Menus graphs and icons should render in black rather than colours.

The Tips & Help tab tells you everything you need to know to work with iStat Menus – but then that’s why I’m here!

Tips and Help

Tips and Help

It’s interesting to see that Bjango have implemented an ‘iPhone/iPad aesthetic’ in iStat Menus (and on this tab even borrowed from the appearance of iPhone homescreen navigation). I find this visually pleasing, and hope that more desktop apps might take on this look in the future.

What it Does

On to the nitty gritty. Each of the headings down the left hand side of the main window gives access to specific options for monitoring that area of your Mac.

CPU

So, on the CPU tab, you’ll find a few different ways that you can track and visualise how your machine’s CPUs are currently occupied:

CPU

CPU

You could choose to have a graph, a percentage indicator, and/or a pie chart – all you need do is drag the options you prefer from the display of ‘Inactive Items’ into the ‘Active Items’. Whichever items you choose from these options – and I default to the one that takes up the least menubar space – you’ll see the same menu when you click on the icon:

CPU Reports

CPU Reports

That’s a nice clear display of where your processors’ power is going, a historical graph of the past while, a list of the top five processes, and some further details of number of processes, uptime and actual running time.

Memory

Once you understand what’s going on in one panel of iStat Menus 3, the others are easy to grasp. On the Memory tab, you again have a number of different ways of visualising data in your menubar, and, as before, you select the options that work best for you by dragging them from ‘Inactive Items’ to the ‘Active Items’ list.

Memory

Memory

Disk Usage

Disk Usage lets you monitor internal and external drives, again offering a few different ways for you to see how much space is available on your drives. The pull-down menu is nicely implemented, demonstrating the app’s attention to simple good looks:

Disk Usage Pulldown

Disk Usage Pulldown

Disk Activity

The Disk Activity tab lets you monitor when your Mac writes to or reads from any of your hard drives. Again, you can click on the menubar icon to get a good, clear display of what’s going on:

Disk Activity

Disk Activity

Network

The Network settings allow you to see incoming and outgoing network connections on all your available network adaptors:

Network Details

Network Details

Sensors

The Sensors panel is where you really get into the inner workings of your computer, giving you access to a number of different kinds of information by reading from various hardware components.

Sensors

Sensors

This panel works a little differently to the others: in the top section you can choose from a few ways of displaying your information – whichever of these you choose will display the same pulldown menu when you click on them:

Data Items

Data Items

Which you’ll see is a very thorough display of information about your operating temperatures, fan activity, and different aspects of power consumption. If you choose the textual display – dragging it to the ‘Active Items’ list – then you can also specify which of these various pieces of information is displayed directly in the menubar:

Menu Bar Readouts

Menu Bar Readouts

Date & Time

The Date & Time tab lets you display the date in your menubar. You can, of course, do this with the Date & Time Preference Panel in System Preferences, but it just looks better with iStat Menus.

An Improved Time/Date Readout

An Improved Time/Date Readout

Clicking on the time or the calendar icon drops down this menu:

Calendar Dropdown

Calendar Dropdown

I love the display of the current lunar state – though probably not so useful to those readers who aren’t werewolves – it’s a really nice addition to the app (and reminds us that Bjango have also developed a fine iPhone app for monitoring the moon, Phases). Mousing over that section of the menu gives more detailed information about the New Moon and Full Moons over the following couple of months.

World Clocks

The World Clocks section of the tab lets you add clocks with a neat search function:

World Clocks

World Clocks

Mousing over this section of the menu lets you see details like sunrise and sunset times at each location.

Battery

The Battery tab is an excellent feature of iStat Menus – especially when you tick that box to ‘Customize menubar for different states’.

The Battery Tab

The Battery Tab

With that selected, you can specify just what information you get as you’re working with your Mac. I don’t really care how long it’s going to take for my battery to finish recharging – at any rate, not enough that I need that information displayed all the time, when it’s easily available just by clicking on the menubar icon.

But I care much more to know, not only in the form of an icon, but in exact minutes, right there in the menubar, how much time is left before I run out of power. So, with the options selected in the screenshot above, I’m not bothered by information I don’t find useful but can tell at a glance that I’d better get ready to relocate and plug my old MacBook in to get some juice soon!

Menu Bar Battery

Menu Bar Battery

It’s great that the menus available when you click on any of iStat Menus 3’s menubar icons include a shortcut to the most relevant apps for digging a bit deeper into that item’s information.

The Memory and CPU items, for instance, give you shortcuts to Activity Monitor and the Console, and the Date & Time menu has links to the Date & Time Preference Panel, and to open iCal. All the menus also let you open the main iStat Menus 3 window.

Conclusions

I really don’t need all the information iStat Menus 3 has available – I know some people love to see exactly how every bit of power and their computer’s resources are being used. That’s not for me: too much information becomes just so much noise – and I hate having too many icons in my menubar anyway.

I like that iStat Menus 3 makes it possible to choose the least conspicuous icon, and then to have the detailed information quickly available from the drop down menu. As it stands, though, I currently only make use of the CPU, Memory, Date & Time, and Battery sections. When I do need more detailed information, it’s easy enough to turn it on in iStat Menus 3, or to call on either of the Dashboard widget versions of iStat – iStat Pro or iStat Nano.

Things I would add? The calendar drop down isn’t of any use to me until it can display my iCal events. I know there are other apps, such as Object Park’s MenuCalendarClock, that do this well, so I’m hoping that it’s something that might be added in a future update. That, actually, is the one thing that would make this the perfect app for my needs – accepting, as I said previously, that I don’t take advantage of many of its functions right now. It’d be nice, too, if the battery drop down would display the state of my bluetooth Logitech mouse – again, perhaps this will comes with future updates.

Finally, many have been miffed that Bjango are now charging for this app, when it was previously free. Whenever a developer makes this kind of change, it inevitably upsets people. In this case, it seems part of the irritation is that there are not that many feature additions from the previous, free version.

I consider the purchasing price an investment in the app’s future. It’s unrealistic to expect developers to continuously work on software with no reward or support for their efforts. And this is a fantastic piece of software to support.


Summary

iStat Menus keeps you informed with exactly what's going on behind the scenes of your computer - CPU/memory usage, disk space, battery life - you name it, and you can keep track of it with iStat. All through a beautiful interface.

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