Mac menu bar apps

10 April 2014, 06:06

I’ve become a fan of Mac menu bar apps — those mini-apps that run as icons near the clock at the top right of the screen. In fact, I thought I’d share my list of favourites. Share your own in the comments below.

First, here’s a snapshot of my current menu bar, chopped in two so it’ll fit on-screen:

From left to right the icons are:

Cloak 2: Ultra-easy VPN software that automagically protects me when I’m on public Wi-Fi because it knows what are safe and unsafe networks. It has companion apps for the iPad and iPhone, and costs just $3 per month. MacWorld did a review recently, which is much more useful than anything I can add.

iBetterCharge: Click on it and it shows the battery charge level of any iPads, iPhones, or iPod Touches that have been used via iTunes (provided they’re on the same Wi-Fi network). It’ll also tell you when they’re running out of charge, and when they’re fully charged. There’s a few minor bugs but it’s otherwise pretty neat. Free of charge.

FormatMatch: Sits there and does nothing more than strip the formatting out of any text copied to the clipboard. I can copy text from a website, for example, and instantly paste it in without worrying the font will be wrong and that I’ll have coloured text (and without having to hit the ridiculously complicated “paste unformatted” keystroke). It’s free but I’d pay for a version that stripped out everything but bold and italics, because often I want to keep them when copying and pasting. Free via the Mac App Store.

unDock: Click it and it ejects any attached removable storage devices like disks or USB sticks. My MacBook Pro spends most of its time on my desk attached to a 1080p monitor plus at least one external drive, but when I need to take it somewhere I click this icon, wait a few seconds, then unplug everything. $1.99 in the Mac App Store although there’s also a lite version for free that unmounts just one drive.

Identical: Drag one file to this icon, then another, and you’ll see instantly if they’re identical. I use it a lot when I need to, which is when working collaboratively. Free of charge in the Mac App Store.

Shades: Click and a slider appears to adjust screen brightness, but with a caveat. That 1080p monitor I mentioned earlier is a crappy Samsung model that broke after two years of use. It has two issues: the buttons to adjust settings no longer work reliably, and if it’s set to anything other than maximum brightness it emits a whistle that drives me crazy. Maximum brightness gives me a headache. So, I hike-up the brightness to 100% and use Shades to “fake” adjust the brightness, which it does by applying a dark screen overlay. It’s a bit temperamental but works very well and doesn’t affect screenshots. Free of charge.

Spideroak: Encrypted cloud backup software with possibly the worst client app I’ve used in 20 years of desktop computing. The background service appears pretty solid but because of the client I can’t really recommend it. It’s around $100 per year for 100GB.

Skitch: Click to create a screenshot, usually by dragging around the area I want to capture. Ideal for my day job of computer journalism. Drag the icon beneath each captured screenshot to a Finder window to copy the PNG screenshot there. It’s supposed to integrate with Evernote but you can ignore that. Free in the Mac App Store.

Dropbox: Installed because some of my colleagues use it. I don’t really need a day-to-day cloud storage service other than for backup (see Spideroak, above).

Little Snitch: Acts as an outgoing firewall, telling you when apps attempt to access the Internet and blocking them if you select to. I owned a previous version that stopped working when I upgraded to Mavericks. I’m loathe to pay for an upgrade to a new version, partly because the developer insists on adding tax on top of the cost (why?), so this is the trial version that works for three hours until nagging you that it’s only a trial.

Bluetooth: The built-in Mac Bluetooth icon.

Time Machine: In addition to Spideroak I backup to an attached G-Drive via Time Machine. I recently restored my entire MacBook Pro from a Time Machine backup after a botched Windows 8 installation, and it worked like a dream (aside from iCloud not quite syncing properly, which was fixed by deselecting and reselecting iCloud in System Preferences.)

Speaker: The Mac speaker icon — click to adjust the volume plus other things.

Battery: The Mac battery icon — click to see remaining battery life, plus other things.

Fast User Switcher: The Mac icon that lets you switch between user accounts without having to log out. I sometimes create dummy accounts as part of my computer journalism, and have a DTP account with lots of fonts installed within it for when I have to layout books as part of my other job.

Day-O: Replacement for the built-in menu bar clock and date display. Click it and a simple calendar appears showing the current month, which is a feature I really miss from my days using Windows. Although I installed Day-O for the calendar feature, I found it can be configured to show just about any type of date and time info in the menu bar. In addition to the usual numbers, I have it show the week and day number as a kind of carpe diem. The year’s wasting away and there’s lots to be done! The time/date formatting code I use, which you can also use:

d MMMM yyyy '(day 'D', week' w')' • E, h:mms

Spotlight: The Mac search icon that forms the heart of my Mac experience. It’s how I start apps (hit Cmd+Space, type the first few letters of the name, and hit Enter when it appears beneath) and how I open files (type the first part of the filename or what I know to be in the file, and hit Enter when it appears beneath). In Mavericks it’s starting to go a little senile, however. I have iTunes installed, and iTunes Producer. If I search for “iTunes”, the Producer app is always the first choice in the list. Why? Surely it should be iTunes? It’s the same when I search for Disk Utility — Disk Tools Pro appears above it. I get around this by typing only DU — did you know that Spotlight lets you search by initial letters only?

Notifications: The Mac notification system. I find the pop-up notifications from apps useful (provided I see them before they slide away) but not the notification area that appears when you click this icon. Whenever I look at it, I find a tonne of old notifications. Like quite a bit of Mavericks, the notification system is only half-finished and needs more work. My experience is that quite a few Mac features start out as semi-useful, and mature into actually quite useful things later on (although I’m still waiting for Dashboard.)

Know better?