Among the most useful and most overlooked of Mac software applications are Menu Bar Apps. These are small, often single-purpose applications that reside in the top-right part of your Mac’s menu bar, usually behind a small icon. Apple includes a couple as part of the standard system software, like the Spotlight magnifying glass, the date and time, the wifi menu, and the volume menu. But there is a world of others.
In my ongoing efforts to share my own Mac setup with the world, I will document my Mac menu bar apps and perhaps you’ll find some useful ones too.
I should start with Bartender ($15) because this little app does one thing and does it well1. Bartender keeps your menu bar apps from filling up your menu bar until they jam up against the menu items coming from the left. This is especially a problem on MacBooks with their smaller screens, but even 27” iMacs can benefit as well. The basic operation is simple: Bartender creates a second menu bar below the standard one and then you just tell it which apps should appear on the standard menu bar and which on the second. You can even tell it to move app icons to the main menu bar when they’re doing something, like Dropbox indicating that its syncing files, and then moving it back when it’s done.
CleanMyDrive 2 (Free on Mac App Store) keeps your external drives free of the sorts of invisible files that both macOS and Windows can leave laying around on drives. It’s also an easy way to eject a disk quickly.
I wrote about Fantastical ($50 direct or in the Mac App Store) in my More Must-Have Mac Apps post. You can read the reasons why I use this calendar software there, but I will add that this is one of the few menu bar apps that win a place on the standard menu bar because I use it so much. A quick click of of the icon and then I’m typing in a new calendar event.
Fruitjuice ($10 in the Mac App Store) is designed to keep your MacBook’s battery in top shape. The way laptop battery technology works, it’s bad for it always sit on the charger. It needs to be exercised. Fruitjuice helps you do that by intelligently determining how long each day your laptop should be on battery based on the way you use it. And if your batter is in rough shape, it will suggest a maintenance cycle. It’s the sort of thing that should be built in by Apple.
What’s not to love about a snarky, malevolent AI that tells you the weather forecast? Carrot Weather ($12 on the Mac App Store) started as an iOS weather app, but was ported to the Mac to bring its delightfully demented forecasts to the desktop. From the secret locations to unlock to the Easter eggs, it makes getting the weather fun. Try poking the big circle over and over and see how the AI reacts.
Now we’re getting nerdy and geeky. iStat Menus ($18) gives you a peek into the most technical details of your Mac and it lets you customize exactly how much you see and how you will see it. I use it to keep track of free RAM, to check on CPU usage and which apps might be slowing things down, internal temperature and network speeds, but you can do so much more. Sure, you could get some of this from opening Activity Monitor or the Console, but then you have two more programs running. iStat Menus is always there in the background waiting for you to call on it and out of the when you don’t need it.
Full Apps with Menu Bar Menus
I have a number of menu bar items that are just interfaces into full software programs. Before Bartender I would turn these off to avoid using up precious screen real estate, but now I say keep them at hand in case I need them. Programs that have their own menu bar items include 1Password, Evernote, and Carbon Copy Cloner, all of which I covered in Must-Have Mac Apps.
Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, OmniPresence
I lump all these together because they are all portals to cloud storage. Dropbox, you know about. OneDrive links to Microsoft’s cloud offering and Google Drive links to, well, Google’s. OneDrive comes with Microsoft Office and is mainly a space to store Office documents between different Macs, Windows PCs, iPads, iPhones, etc. Likewise, Google Drive is mainly space for storing files used in Google Docs and Sheets, although it’s also used for Google Photos (a useful service that is a topic for another time). Each of these three services have free tiers and paid tiers with more storage.
Meanwhile, Omnipresence is a different animal. This is also a cloud storage space for files, but intended mainly for use by software from the Omni Group, including Omnifocus, OmniOutliner, and the like. You can store any file in there, really, but I use it primarily for those two apps.
Unclutter ($6 on the Mac App Store) is a special kind of menu bar app because it resides on the menu bar, but also above the menu bar. The idea is to keep your Mac from getting cluttered so Unclutter is a kind of drawer that slides down from the top of the screen as place to store files temporarily, keep brief notes, and to see your latest clipping from copy & paste. The drawer is activated by clicking on the menu bar icon, by a key combination or when I slide the cursor up to the very top of the screen. I make it even more useful by using Hazel to automatically sweep any file that lands on the desktop into the file storage. And I keep that file storage in Dropbox so that the files stored in there are available on every computer and iOS device that I have Dropbox on.
Yoink ($7 on the Mac App Store) is another temporary file holder. As soon as I start dragging a document or folder or app or anything else, Yoink pops up from the side of the screen. I can drop the file (or files) on it, and they will stay there until I grab them again. This is useful for moving files deep inside my documents folder or collecting files together that, say, I want to put in an email. It’s like having an extra hand.
I’ve written about Hazel several times and I will refer you to those entries. I will just add that the latest version adds a number of very nice improvements including the ability to preview rules to see if they will correctly deal with particular files and to be able to watch smart files to act upon files that share common characteristics but reside in different actual folders.
My relationship with TextExpander ($3.33 monthly) recently underwent some turmoil, but we’re back on good terms. At its most basic TextExpander takes unique typed shortcuts and expands them into prerecorded chunks of text. At its simplest, it will correct common misspellings (replacing “Jospeh” with “Joseph”, for example), but also putting in boilerplate text you use often. For example, if I type “xxmcfl”, it will auto expand into “Massachusetts Citizens for Life”. At it’s most complicated TextExpander can incorporate bits of scripting and fill-in fields. I used to use it in my radio producer job to create personalized boilerplate emails that I would send to upcoming guests. The exact content would vary depending on whether they would be in-studio or remote, whether they would be joining us via Skype or Google Hangout or by telephone, and so on. A few fill-in fields, a couple of checkboxes, and a complete personalized email would be ready.
TextExpander keeps statistics on how often you use it and how efficient it is at saving you time. At the time of this writing, it says I’ve saved almost 60 hours of typing. Sixty! That’s a whole week and a half of work!
When you’re out and about, using strange wifi to get online in coffee shops and airports, you can expose yourself to some nasty characters. That’s why I use Cloak VPN (starts at $3/month). Cloak is a Virtual Private Network, which means that it encrypts all traffic between my computer and Cloaks servers on the Internet. That means that any data flowing over public wifi hotspots can’t be sniffed out of the air. Yes, whenever you connect your laptop, phone or iPad to that public wifi in Starbucks or McDonald’s, a semi-intelligent hacker can intercept that data and see it. I installed Cloak on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad; told it which networks to trust (i.e. which networks I control like my home network); and now whenever I connect to an untrusted network it encrypts automatically. You can sometimes encounter oddities with some websites because to them it looks like your traffic is coming from random servers on the Internet, which is why I don’t have it on all the time.
I’ve already written about Keyboard Maestro as well and will refer you there for more.
Transporter is part of another cloud solution, but it’s different because this cloud lives on my network. The software connects to a device called a Transporter Sync that sits on my network and has a 1 terabyte hard drive connected to it. Just like Dropbox, anything on this drive can be mirrored to a folder on my Macs. What makes it different is that these files live nowhere but on my hard drive, putting it all under my control. this is especially useful people with unusual security requirements like attorney and health professionals. And because I have two Sync devices, I keep one on my desk at work so they synchronize with each over the Internet, providing backup redundancy. Unfortunately, it looks like Connected Data has stopped selling the Sync and based on what I’m seeing at their web site, it looks like they’re transitioning to devices for small and large businesses.
Karabiner (free) is a one-trick pony for me because it works with another small app, Seil, to implement a little productivity hack called Hyperkey. I described how I use the hack in my “How I Work” post, but the original idea comes from the brilliant Brett Terpstra.2
You know that little black bar that pops up when you select text on your iPhone or iPad and offers to “Cut” or “Define” or “Share”? What if you could have that on your Mac? You can with PopClip ($7 on the Mac App Store). What’s more you can customize it with dozens of different abilities that show up based on context. For example, if I select a UPS or other delivery service tracking number, PopClip recognizes what it is and offers to add it to Deliveries ($5 on the Mac App Store). Or how about those URLs that you get that have all kinds of extra junk in them like “?utm….” Another PopClip add-on can delete all of that for you at the time you copy it. If it detects a URL it will offer to open it in a web browser. An email address can be opened as a new email window in your email app. The possibilities go on and on.
Default Folder X
This one has it roots going back more than 16 years back in the old MacOS 9 days. Default Folder X ($35) improves the standard Mac Open/Save dialog boxes in ways that make you wonder why Apple hasn’t caught on. Last year, when Apple changed the operating systems security in a way that broke Default Folder pretty soundly, it took months for the programmer to figure out how to get it working again and I had to limp along with out it. Those were rough months.
At its most basic, Default Folder opens the Open or Save dialog to the last place that particular application opened or saved a file. It also lets you set up lists of your favorite folders on your Mac for easy access from within the dialog, as well as your most recently accessed folders. You can even delete, rename, compress, or email files right from within that dialog. It’s a massive timesaver.
Mountain ($6) is one of my newer installs and it solves a vexing problem I’ve been having. As part of my regular backup system, I use Carbon Copy Cloner to make a clone of my hard drive every day. However, if this exact duplicate of my hard drive stays connected to the computer, the Mac gets confused about what files it should be opening and what apps it should launch. CCC has a function to unmount the backup drive after it’s done with the cloning so that it remains physically attached, but the computer treats it as absent. This works fine, except if I have to restart my Mac or if i take the laptop away and bring it back to the desk and reattach everything the Mac sees the hard drive and mounts it automatically.
Among other things, Mountain can be told to keep certain drives unmounted, even at startup time, unless specifically requested. This is the ideal situation for a Mac menu bar app: removing small, but pernicious, irritations.3
Day One 2
Day One 2 ($30 on the Mac App Store) is a full-featured app with a menu bar function. It is a journaling app protected by strong password encryption. It’s a beautifully designed program that functions well with other services on the Mac, incorporating location data, weather information, and photos from the Photos app, as well as external web services like IFTTT.com. The menu bar icon functions as a reminder, popping up at a user-specified time each day, if you wish, and allowing you to enter a journal entry right there or open the full app.
Duet ($16 for the iOS app, Mac app is free) is a combination app because it requires a companion app on an iOS device to work. If you connect your iPhone or iPad to your Mac with a USB cable and you run this software, it turns your iOS device into a second display for your Mac. It’s pretty remarkable and a big help when you’re working remote from your desk.
The Adobe Creative Cloud subscription is a pretty handy tool. You can either pay $50 per month for access to all of the Adobe apps or $10 per month for the photographer’s bundle (Photoshop and Lightroom), which is what I get. It’s remarkable to me given how Photoshop alone used to be many hundreds of dollars and was upgraded for hundreds more every couple of years. I know there are cheaper and very functional alternatives on the Mac App Store, but I like the power of Photoshop and how I can use it for simple graphic design work. The menu bar app controls app updates and and links to the stock photo service and a few other web functions.
Another app serving mobile Macs, Tripmode ($8) locks down your incoming and outgoing network traffic. When you turn it on, it offers a user-customizable list of apps that it will prevent from accessing the internet. This is especially useful when I’m on a metered internet connection, like my iPhone personal hotspot function. All it takes is one online backup or one iTunes video download to use up most of my monthly allotment of iPhone data. With one click, everything it turned off and another click turns it on. And if I need an app for a brief time, I can flip it on and then flip it off (um, whatever), when I’m done.
SwitchRes X (€14) solves a particular problem I was having recently. At my new job, I wanted to use a Dell display as a secondary display, but I couldn’t get it to show a resolution that didn’t look awful, huge, and blocky. The Displays preference pane would only show a few possible combinations, none of which were acceptable. SwitchRes X shows every possible monitor resolution, from 640×480 to several thousand by several thousand. Not all of those will actually work, mind you, but some will and so I was able to find a resolution that was an acceptable compromise of high resolution and legible text.
Another one-trick pony, Quitter (free) lets you designate that when certain apps haven’t been used by you in a while they are either minimized and hidden in the Dock or just quit all together. For one thing, it prevents certain apps from using system resources when I don’t need them to and averts unpleasant behaviors in other apps that need restarting occasionally. So Messages, Evernote, Tweetbot, and other apps all get killed after a while. Slack gets minimized though. Chrome is a special case for me. It’s not my primary web browser, but I use it whenever I need to see Flash content (I refuse to install Adobe Flash Player and Chrome has a custom player built-in that is much more secure). But if left open too long Chrome tends to suck up more and more memory. Quitting it every so often fixes that and so that’s what happens. You can also set how long an app will be idle before getting quit or minimized, but that’s about it for features.
Capto ($30) is a screen capture utility that can either take a full or partial screenshot or a video of your screen (i.e. screencast). It stores the images and videos and you can edit or annotate them. I used to use the great Skitch for this, but Evernote ha 86’d this once great app that it bought some time ago.
A spiritual successor to the utility Caffeine, Amphetamine (free) will keep your Mac from going to sleep for a period of time by overriding your Energy Saver preference settings. Amphetamine is an improvement over Caffeine in that it allows you to set how long your Mac will override those settings and then let it go to sleep after that. This is useful, for example, when I’m podcasting or doing a presentation. Remember Fruitjuice, which I mentioned up top? When I’ve got it on battery, I will sometimes launch Amphetamine to keep it awake if I happen to stop typing for a couple of minutes, like when I’m reading a long article.
I often have to copy multiple bits of information from a single web page (e.g. URL, title, a snippet of text, and a photo attribution) and paste them somewhere else (e.g. a blog post). Copied ($8 on the Mac App Store) lets me copy several discrete bits and then paste them separately elsewhere without a bunch of switching back and forth. Even better it allows me to manipulate that text before pasting it, cleaning it up perhaps. I can also create templates that, for example, let me paste a URL in HTML format or Markdown format. Even better, it has companion iOS apps and can sync between them so that I can copy something on my my Mac or iPhone or iPad and have it available on all three.
Buying all those Mac Menu Bar Apps
Whew, that’s a lot! You might be looking at all those prices next to the apps and wondering whose fortune I’ve spent on them. Keep in mind that I’ve acquired these apps over many years, in some cases more than a decade ago. I’ve also picked up some of them when they were on sale or even free under introductory pricing.
Of course, this list of menu bar apps isn’t static. I’m constantly evaluating whether a particular menu bar app is worth its space in the menu bar or Bartender. And I’m not immune to the allure of blog posts and podcasts like this one that highlight other apps that I don’t have yet.
Do you use menu bar apps? Do you have any that I don’t? Are you curious about any of those I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments below.
- So well that it’s one of my Must Have Mac Apps. ↩︎
- In Brett’s original post, he refers to PCKeyboardHack and KeyRemap4MacBook. Those are now renamed Karabiner and Seil, respectively. ↩︎
- Another key function it performs for me is to do the opposite of what I just described: It keeps network drives mounted whenever they’re available, like when I return to my home network after work. ↩︎