Your Mac’s Menubar: A Guide to the Coolest Menubar Apps
If you’re on a Mac, check the top-right edge of your screen right now. What do you see? If you’ve got the default menubar apps (sometimes called menulings), then you aren’t getting much use out of that corner.
Why not make your menubar useful and informative instead?
Anyone who’s ever seen my computer always asks about the stuff I have up in the menubar. Recently I was asked about this by some friends at Apple, and I realized that many people don’t know about all the fantastic menulings that are out there. The collection I use has changed slightly over time, but there are a few consistent apps I find totally indispensable.
In order from right to left, we have Spotlight, two great apps from ObjectPark (MenuCalendarClock for iCal, Fuzzyclock), the Apple system utilities (Battery monitor, Wireless Signal, Time Machine, MobileMe Sync) and, finally, Caffeine, Evernote, Blast!, Dropbox andSynergy.
Fuzzyclock: Real Time
The one that gets the most attention is fuzzyclock– after all, it’s not often you see a clock that says things like “threeish” or “almost one”. I love it– it’s not only faster to read, it’s more “human”. Some people (like my girlfriend) think it’s stupid because it isn’t precise — it rounds up to the nearest five-minute interval at certain times, like from :26 through :29, or from :5 to :9. Still, it’s never budged from my menubar–not with three Macs, over more than five years.
Caffeine: Keep Your Mac Awake
The most useful of the following menus is certainly Caffeine– a one-click toggle to keep your Mac “caffeinated” and ensure that the screen won’t dim (when you’re watching a movie, or even a short clip on YouTube). It’s such a simple and obvious utility that I’m amazed something like it isn’t built in. It’s got a great, subtle icon, and you can tell at a glance whether it’s on or not (is the cup full, or empty?).
MenuCalendarClock: Up to Date
Next up, let’s talk about MenuCalendarClock. Not only does it show you the date at a glance(something strangely absent from the built-in Mac OS X clock), but it also lets you see a FULL CALENDAR, complete with highlights on days you have events. From there, you can see your upcoming schedule and even create new events. It’s pretty much perfect, and free if you just want to see your calendar and don’t need to create those events. (A version for Entourage is also available, if you don’t use iCal).
Evernote: Never Forget
Next on our list is the virtually-indispensible Evernote, which deserves an article all to itself. Evernote is the first and, despite some ongoing complaints, arguably the best of the all-purpose information manager apps. It can store web pages, clipped text, images, PDFs, passwords, entire books. You can take a picture of a menu or a page of text with your phone camera, send it to evernote, and the it can READ THE TEXT and make it searchable. You can access your collection of notes, and add to them, via the Web, via your Mac or PC, or with an iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, or webOS device. Any device that can send an email can send notes to Evernote via a customized email address that is yours and yours alone. All this is 100% free– pay only if you need to upload more than 40 MB per month (which is, in short, completely insane for anyone but David Foster Wallace types).
In short, Evernote will probably change your life. That being said, it has some annoying tendencies on iOS (the apps are slow, strangely-organized and can’t make rich-text notes, and they won’t let you access your notebook without a Web connection unless you pay-upgrade your account), but my god, these are some minor issues compared to the overwhelming beauty of the thing. Evernote is an outboard brain, one that follows you on every device (and even no device), that can handle anything you need it to, and that makes every previous attempt at an “all-purpose storage system” look silly.
Dropbox: Online Storage Done Right
Next we come to Dropbox. Now, Dropbox is another essential tool for just about everyone. It’s a folder that stays on your computer, but which is linked to an online storage account. Anything you put there is immediately synced to all your other Dropbox folders, on all your other computers. You don’t have to do anything. It’s free, allows you to store up to 2 GB (more if you want), and has support in hundreds of iOS apps.
It’s an ideal online storage “vault”, accessible anywhere, and so easy to use and understand (after all, it’s just another folder on your computer) that you can feel totally comfortable moving files in and out of it for any number of reasons. The uploading process uses almost no bandwidth, and I’ve never felt a “strain” on my connection when it’s working. I save documents directly to it, secure in the knowledge that the files will stay on my computer AND be synced and available on another machine, in the same location. The dropbox menuling shows you whether it is uploading, and you can click it to see how much space you have left or check the progress of an upload.
Blast: Everything In Its Right Place
Blast! is an interesting one, which I’m still testing. Blast! keeps track of the files you use on your Mac and presents them to you in an attempt to make your life easier. Time will tell if I really use it more than, say, the Recently Used menu which does almost the same thing (but displays fewer items, and isn’t sortable). It does seem like a nice way to flip through your recently-used items, though, and it’s essentially a free app. I always appreciate free software, especially when well-designed
Backup & Sync Services
Why do I keep Time Machine and MobileMe in the menubar? Both of these utilities do their work invisibly, and usually don’t need to be monitored, right? But I keep them there because I like to check when the last backup was made (in Time Machine’s case) and whether MobileMe is syncing (since I do want to ensure that everything really is getting updated). As a related note, I can’t really recommend MobileMe (I got it from work), but there are some things it does really well– including keeping all of my stuff in sync in a way Gmail just can’t do.
Synergy: Eight Years of Hits
Finally, as a fitting end to this list, there’s Synergy: probably the longest-running celebrity in Mac OS X software. For more than eight years this has sat in my menubar, or at least running on my Mac (sans menubar controls). It’s simply the best iTunes controller ever made. Having followed its development since inception, I can say that at this point, Synergy is literally perfect.
Aside from the obvious (buttons to control iTunes), Synergy can…
- Show you the last 10 (or whatever) tracks you listened to
- Let you rate, skip, rewind, or play/pause tracks with the keyboard (with any keyboard commands you want)
- Send your play data to last.fm automatically
- Download album art from Amazon
- “Skin” the menubar buttons to make them look like just about anything
- Let you switch playlists without using iTunes
- Forego the menubar control altogether and just use keyboard shortcuts (typically my preferred method, to save space)
- And most important of all: Synergy displays a beautiful “floater” that unfurls gracefully onto the screen with the current song’s name, album, artist and cover whenever a track changes in iTunes. You can control every single aspect of its appearance, from its duration, to its level of transparency, to its position onscreen and the direction it unfurls from. If it just did this, I’d love it and recommend it. But Synergy does so much more that it’s become an essential app for anyone who uses iTunes.
That’s it for the neat little tools I’ve got on my menubar. How about you? Know of any awesome menubar utilities every Mac should have?