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The Verge at work: how to make the most of the Mac menubar

The Verge at work: how to make the most of the Mac menubar


This is why I can’t make the iPad my main computer

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Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Last week I bought a set of Beats X wireless headphones. They're pretty great, and the Apple-ified system of automatically pairing them to my Mac after I pair them to my iPhone works flawlessly. Less flawless: they seem to do a worse job staying connected to both my iPhone and my computer at the same time than the Bose QC35s do. This means that every time I want to use them on my Mac after using them with my phone, I have to click the Bluetooth menu, click the headphones, and click connect.

Three clicks. In the annals of First World Problems, this is pretty near the top. Even so, I wanted to fix it. And if this were an iPhone or an iPad, I would simply have to accept that that's the way things are. But no, this is a Mac, and on a Mac we have options for fixing these small problems. I have solved dozens of these little UI hassles on Mac and Windows PCs with little tools and scripts — all of which I've cobbled together with Googling, not with actual programming skill. In this particular case, a $0.99 app called Tooth Fairy solved my problem by giving me an easy way to connect and disconnect from the Beats X headphones.

A PC is Personally Configurable in a way the iPad just isn’t

Which got me thinking: there are plenty of people who have made the iPad their main computer with great success — but I am not one of them, and I don't think I'll become one of them in the foreseeable future. Same goes for Chrome OS and Android. These operating systems are just too limited for me: when I'm annoyed by the way something works, I want to change it better suit my preferences. On Mac and Windows, you can do it. On iOS, Android, and Chrome OS, it's harder, if not impossible.

Anyway, I come not to rag on the iPad, but to praise the Mac. Specifically, the little apps that live in the menubar and make my life easier every day. I've already extolled the virtues of Alfred, which I use for keyboard shortcuts, clipboard history, and more. Here, I'd like to talk about everything that's sitting in my menubar. It's a lot.

Here’s everything, starting at the upper left and working across and down:

Bartender 2, $15

The first thing you'll notice is that it's on two lines. Most of the time, that second line is hidden away thanks to the first item on my list, Bartender 2. It lets you more fully control all the little icons in that menubar, keeping it clean looking. Stuff that's hidden away in the secondary bar can briefly appear when there's activity, otherwise it's all a click away. (It's worth noting that the System Tray on Windows does this out of the box.)

Mailplane 3, $29.95

There are many options out there for taking Gmail and Google calendar out of your tabs and into your dock as a separate app, but I'm still partial to Mailplane. Since I hide my dock by default, I allow it to put an icon in my menubar so I see when I have new email.

Tooth Fairy, $0.99

This is the app that solved my Bluetooth headphone toggle problem. It puts a little icon in your menubar, and it simply connects or disconnects from your Bluetooth headset — and shows you the connection status to boot. I've set a keyboard shortcut to it (Ctrl + ` , if you must know) to make it even easier.

SoundSource, $10 (or free with other Rogue Amoeba software)

Rogue Amoeba has been making clever Mac utilities for 15 years now, and it’s finally made the thing that I've always wanted a Mac to have. SoundSource gives you a simple menu to control your sound inputs, outputs, and volume. Basically, I use my laptop in multiple situations: plugged into a monitor with speakers, solo, with Bluetooth headphones, and with various USB audio mics and devices.

It's always been a crapshoot knowing what my audio inputs and outputs would be every time I plugged something in. Now, there's no more remembering to option-click the speaker icon or opening up system preferences. If you've purchased any of the other software the company makes (I can't recommend Audio Hijack enough), it's free.

Mac Stuff

I have a bunch of stuff built-into the Mac in my menubar, some of it is hidden and some not. I always keep the following visible: Volume, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Battery, and Time + Date. A couple notes though: I used to use Clocks in lieu of the system time because it provides a good World Clock. But now I use World Clock in the Widgets pane.

Hidden Stuff: Airplay, Spotlight, Siri, and Notification Center. The latter three are totally unnecessary for me (I use Hot Corners and keyboard shortcuts for them), but there is a kind of hellacious hack you have to go through to get them hidden in Bartender's hidden bar.

Now on to the rest of the stuff in my menubar, all of which is hidden away so I don’t have to look at it.

Karabiner-Elements, Free

This is a little utility that I use to remap the Caps Lock key to F16, which I then use to launch Alfred. It's still in beta and will eventually be replaced with a full app with a GUI, but it works for what I need it to do now. And what I need is to not have a Caps Lock key — search is much more valuable than yelling on the internet. If I want to yell, I'll hold down the Shift key for every letter like I mean it.

FullContact, $9.99 / month

Is paying 10 bucks a month for proper, trustworthy, and reliable contact sync and de-dupe across all my devices kind of ridiculous? Especially when you consider that all of my devices and cloud services purport to handle that sort of thing on their own? Yes, maybe, but I pay it and will continue to pay it until I can spare an afternoon or three and build up the gumption necessary to clean it all up myself.

1Password, $2.99 / month

Are you using a password manager? You should be. Mine's 1Password, because I've been using it forever and I trust it to be fast, sync well, and keep my data encrypted and safe. There are plenty of others — LastPass is a popular option — but you should use one. This menu bar app means I can launch it easily with a keyboard shortcut.

Annotate, $¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Finding the perfect screenshot app is hard, but I finally did it. Annotate was made by Driftt and I love it because it has a great workflow for pulling up your screenshot, marking it up if you like, and then either dragging your marked-up image to an app or uploading it to any number of services.

As of this moment, it's available for $3.99 in the Mac App Store — but it's now officially part of CloudApp. Theoretically, their free tier will continue to stay free and this app will work fine. But I'm sticking with my old version, because I do not care for whatever extra features CloudApp wants to foist on me. First Evernote ruined Skitch, now I fear for my precious Annotate.

Everything beautiful dies. Or gets bought by a productivity tools company you don't care about. And then dies.

Moom, $10

There are a million different window management apps for the Mac, but I'm a Moom fan because it does a better job with overlapping windows. Keep your precisely tiled windows to yourself, I want my stuff overlapping. Slack on the left, Chrome / Mail in the middle, Twitter on the right. Moom is also great at keyboard shortcuts for different monitor setups and switching to them automatically.

(Bonus: I also use Hyperdock, which doesn't appear in the menubar, for more window management. It shows window previews in the dock and lets me move / resize windows with keyboard + mouse combos so I don't have to move the mouse to a window edge to move or resize it.)

Dropbox, variable monthly cost

Even though Google and Apple are getting better at the basics of file sync, I'm still sticking with Dropbox for now. It hasn't done me wrong and works well across every platform I use — and that latter part is worth the money I'm paying for cloud storage.

So that's my absolutely insane menubar — built up over the course of years and tweaked more than I care to admit. But crazy as it is, it's also the reason I am happier and more productive on a Mac than I could ever be on an iPad or Chrome OS. Sure, there are extension systems for those computers, but they don't hold a candle to what I can do when the entire system is available for tweaking.

Here's one more example. Before I found Touch Fairy, I used Apple Script (again: I am not a coder at all) to solve my Bluetooth Problem. I had a problem with the way my computer worked, so I fixed it. I do the same with lots of other little scripts and Automator actions: clearing folders, renaming files, and creating custom web searches. Just knowing that this customization is even an option is why I keep coming back to “real” PCs after I use the iPad or Chrome OS.

Here’s the Bluetooth script which I ended up not needing (bonus points if you see the typo that I fixed after tweeting this screencap):

When you run into a thing that bugs you on iOS, Android, or Chrome OS, you have two choices: accept that's just how it works or complain about it on Twitter. When you run into a thing that bugs you on a Mac or Windows, you also have two choices: accept that's just how it works or change it to suit your preferences.

I prefer the platform where I can change it.