Some of the most useful utilities I’ve found for my system are available as tiny “menu extras.” These little widgets, almost always compact icons, sit on the right side of the menu bar. Sometimes the icon itself is useful, sometimes it’s just a symbol. Sometimes the item’s menu is where all the action is, sometimes you use it in other ways.
After buying it at Macworld Expo last year, I used You Control for about 6 months as my only right-side menu bar utility, using it to put everything I wanted in the menu bar. My theory was that with only one utility providing all the items, it would take less memory and processor time, and be a little more stable. But in the end I found that the You Control versions of various menu widgets simply were not as good as the independent options I’d found, and I switched to the stand-alone versions I’m using today.
Here’s my current Mac OS X right-side menu bar. From left to right, I have QuickSilver, WeatherPop Advance, Timbuktu, Desktop Manager, Shh, MenuCalendarClock, the Mac OS X menu bar clock, Script Menu, iSync menu extra, Internet Connect VPN menu extra, AirPort menu extra, and the battery menu extra.
Although I didn’t intend for this post to bash You Software, whose products I like, they just released a public beta version of a virtual desktops utility which competes with one of my favorite items. I tried You Control: Desktops, and will be sticking with Desktop Manager, primarily because YC:D doesn’t allow you to assign keyboard shortcuts to individual desktops, so there’s no way from the keyboard to go directly to your desired desktop. You can choose a desktop from a list, but that’s potentially 4 keystrokes, not just one. Desktop Manager is also free, while YC:D will cost money.
Another unusual item in my menu bar is Shh. I like this tool a lot, because it’s incredibly flexible. Basically, it runs shell commands (the commands you can type at the command line) and puts the results in a menu bar. A great example is finding out what your IP address is (if yours changes); there are a bunch of utilities dedicated to doing just that, but why not use a more general tool that can do that, and a hundred other things — limited only by your expertise at the command line? (I’ll explain my own Shh commands in a future post.)
A last thing I love about these cool little tools is that they are not expensive. QuickSilver (possibly the most useful utility on my system) is free, as is Desktop Manager, and all of the items built into Mac OS X 10.3 (“Panther”). Shh is $5 and WeatherPop Advance is $8. MenuCalendarClock is free for the basic features, and $18.95 to unlock all features (which are totally worth it). Of all the widgets here, only Timbuktu cost more than $20, and I only have that for my consulting, for which it’s necessary — and so tax-deductible.