Turf Battle: Dock vs. Menu Bar

by Chris Adamson

Use and abuse of the Mac's "monolithic" menu-bar has a long and proud history. Surely anyone with a Mac in the 80's had installed SuperClock, which added a clock to the menu bar. In fact, so many people did so that Apple finally just put the feature right into the OS. And when they took it out in the Public Beta of Mac OS X, users demanded that it be returned, which it was.

But with Panther, aren't we seriously running out of menu bar space, and aren't we doing things on the menu bar that could and should be on the Dock?

Here's the right side of a fairly typical Panther menu bar:


From left to right, those icons are iChat, AirPort signal strength, keyboard (so I can type in Japanese or look up unicode values), battery indicator, clock, and my user name (fast user switching is on).

If I were on an 800x600 screen, I'd probably already be in trouble, but watch what happens when I run XCode:


Clang! XCode's huge number of menus has clobbered all my menu-bar extras! Now how am I going to look up unicode hex values or check my battery... switch to the Finder just to get my menu-bar goodies back?

Yes, I can mitigate this by turning off fast-user switching, using an analog clock, etc. But that doesn't resolve the basic issue that the menu-bar is a fixed space. It doesn't scroll, items on it don't resize, so when there's too much stuff up there, someone's going to lose. If only there were some UI element that could scroll and resize and be nice and handy...

Oh wait, there is! The Dock! We could put these menu-bar icons on the dock, and they'd gracefully resize when there are too many. Moreover, use of color is better tolerated by the Dock, which could be used by "indicator" dock icons. For example, here are two such dock icons that give me info at a glance:


Even though my Dock is very small, I can still read these indicators easily. On the left is Fire, which shows I have two logged in buddies. If you look closely, you'll notice two dots on the left side of the icon, indicating I'm logged into two services (Yahoo and MSN). With magnification on, I could mouse over the icon to see it more clearly. The next icon is Activity monitor, whose use of color is easily readable even at this size (but wouldn't be if I were red-green color-blind... maybe the colors should be configurable).

Wouldn't it be great if I could put my battery and AirPort indicators down there? Well, pre-Jaguar, I could. Earlier versions of Mac OS X had "Dock Extras" to do just this. Later versions of Mac OS X actually delete these applications, so it was only in a MacWorld article that I could find a picture of these dock-based indicators:


I find these Dock-based indicators much more convenient than their menu-based replacements. So what happened? In an Ars Technica review of 10.1, John Siracusa notes that Apple had originally been concerned with menu bar clutter in the Classic Mac OS, and retaliated by making the menu bar off limits to third party developers, which resulted in ungainly hacks, which apparently prompted Apple to offer a proper menu-bar API. I guess since then they've gone to town themselves, as a tour of /Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras shows.

There's a good argument for menu items and against Dock-based indicators: lots of users hide their Dock, so an indicator there is completely wasted. Point taken. Another is that Dock icons have to be square-ish in nature, which didn't work particularly well for the digital clock (it's also true that the fine lines of Apple's clock don't scale down very well - bigger hands would be an obvious fix).

But this may be a matter of taste and user choice. Right now, the Date & Time system preference lets me either have a menu bar clock or a floating window clock. I'd like a third option: putting it back in the Dock. I've gotten more used to the Dock as a useful tool, and menu-bar addiction is one Classic-ism I'm more than ready to leave behind.

Dock or menu bar? What's your preference?


2003-12-31 08:36:49
my setup
Not to make things more complicated, but I use LaunchBar, remove all items from my dock and only utilize that for currnetly running apps. I also rarely use the menubar.
2003-12-31 08:54:53
Alternative FUS Interface
I tripped across a konfabulator widget which replaces the FUS menu item a few days ago. This at least removes the worst menu extra of the lot.


2003-12-31 09:36:25
Alternative FUS Interface
Or you can use FUS++. It still uses menubar space, but instead of your full name it can display your short name or login picture, which takes up about as much space as the iChat menu.

Here's the address:

2003-12-31 10:13:30
You can configure the Activity Monitor colors
You configure them in the CPU tab for the CPU view in the menu bar.
2003-12-31 10:20:13
You can configure the Activity Monitor colors
Cool! Thanks!


2003-12-31 10:22:30
Configure Activity Monitor Colors
Actually, the Red/Green (and other) colors are configurable. In the main Activity Monitor window itself there are tabs at the bottom with CPU, System Memory, etc. In each of those, click on the colored square next to the parameter you wish to re-colorize and you'll be presented with the standard color picker.
2003-12-31 10:34:16
Alternative FUS Interface
FUSKey allows you to assign a keyboard shortcut to fast user switching, so you go straight to the login screen. you can then "disable" FUS in the preferences, and the menu goes away. Yet FUS still works. To switch, I just hit fn-cmd-delete, and poof, it's done. No wasted menubar space at all.
2003-12-31 10:51:50
Vote for MenuBar
I like having these widgets in the menu bar. Its using otherwise dead space. Since they are menus (in addition to indicators), its a good place for them.

Yes, a small screen will truncate the items, but screen size is also an issue with the dock.. the icons will become really small, making the indicators useless.

2003-12-31 11:05:29
my setup
Launchbar is great, especially now that it no longer eats up menubar space.

But I think that Konfab widgets are the way to go for little information doohickeys.

2003-12-31 11:37:25
Bring back the Control Strip
I love the menu bar extras, but you quickly run out of space on laptop screens.

I think Apple had it right with the Control Strip in the Classic OS. You could adjust the length of it or you could hide it. I loved it. I had modules for Audion, Quicktime, iTunes, FaxSTF, ConflictCatcher, Default Folder, Office 2001, and more. StripLaunch was a great application launcher module. There was so much functionality in the Control Strip.

Unfortunately, the Dock occupies the space that the Control Strip would.

2003-12-31 12:16:01
Hate the dock I does, gollum gollum
The dock is a poorly conceived piece of garbage that has no place in OS X as it currently exists.

First, I have four items in the dock that don't need to be there. They are utilities like SuitCase that are implemented as applications in OS X but were extensions in OS 9. The dock should have a filtering mechanism that allows the user to indicate which applications shouldn't appear in the dock.

Second, items appear in the dock based on their launching chronology and move up and down the dock as applications are launched and quit. Short of dragging an application to the dock so it appears there whether it is running or not, there is no way to pin an item to a specific location nor can we have items appear alphabetically.

Third, the dock takes up important real estate if placed on the top or bottom of the window. On 12" notebooks it isn't convenient to place the dock on the left or right. The only real solution is to auto hide the dock.

Please! Don't move the menu items to the dock. A much better thing to do would be to throw the dock away and try again.

2003-12-31 12:45:04
Blame Suitcase
Don't blame Apple for utilities appearing in the Dock that shouldn't. They can run as a faceless background app in Mac OS X if they wanted to, I've done that for ports of projects that used to be Control Panels/Extensions.
2003-12-31 15:58:44
You read my mind
I think that Menu Extras are a bad idea for exactly this reason. However, I think Apple realizes this and that is why it is a closed API.

Dock extras were a great idea and it really bothers me that we have moved away from them.

I would like to know my battery power while using XCode, after all.

Hopefully we will see Apple limit their own use of Menu Extras and resurrect the concept of Dock extras. It was a good and scalable paradigm that was never given the attention it deserved.

2003-12-31 18:01:26
my setup

I agree this is the way to go since you can use Expose to view the desktop quickly :)
2004-01-01 07:51:12
I want neither. I want my control strips back.
2004-01-01 08:00:26
If the Info.plist of an app has a property LSUIElement set to 1, then it does not appear in the dock or app switcher. I used that to make LaunchBar hide. It's quite useful. You can hide your SuitCase, etc. using the same method: Right-click (or Ctrl-Click) on the app in the Finder and select Show Package Contents. Navigate into the Contents folder, then open the Info.plist. If you have the Dev Tools installed, it will open in the Property List Editor, and you can simply change the LSUIElement to 1 (if it is there) or select the expanded Root entry and click Add Child to make a new entry for LSUIElement and set it to 1. If you don't have the Dev Tools, you'll have to manually edit the XML with any XML editor, or vi from xterm, etc.
2004-01-01 09:07:15
In earlier versions of OS X there were some unhappy consequences of making an application faceless. I recall a few utilities (LaunchBar was one, if I remember properly) that offered a way to do it but warned it wasn't a good idea.) Perhaps this is why Apple hasn't made this configuration user easy?
2004-01-01 16:19:13
Vote for Dock - and OS separation
The Menu bar is for the App, the Dock is for the OS.

Steve had it right, NeXT had it right. When an app crashes, the Dock is still available. X11 apps would prefer not even to have the menubar.... and in 10.0 it was possible to turn it off.

Shame on you Steve for giving in!

Greg Harewood

2004-01-01 17:01:48
partial dock?
I don't keep much stuff in the menu bar: clock, battery indicator, system volume control and Meteorologist. Even so, some apps' menus begin to impinge on them.

Since I don't hide the dock, putting such stuff there wouldn't be a problem for me. For those who DO hide the dock, it would be nice if the dock could be configured with three sections instead of two. The third section would be for just these types of status-display icons, and could be set not to be hidden even when the rest of the dock was.

How problematic would this be to implement, either as an OS feature or as a haxie?

2004-01-01 21:52:52
I use an app called Drop Drawers, which shows it's icon on the doc. I tried all your suggestions, but could not get them to work. The app won't open in Property List Editor nor is there a "Show Package Contents" in the contextural menu.

I contacted the Co. and they said that it's an OSX limitation that makes it almost imposible to hide certain App icons.

Doesn't sound right to me, but i'm starting out in the development side. So what do I know.

2004-01-01 22:10:06
A vote for the Control Strip
I agree, the Doc has many liminations, one being that there is only ONE. Since there isn't more than one Doc, then I vote for the Control Strip.

There are just to many things that need to be accessed quickly, yet don't need to be visible all the time. The fast user switch (advanced users can use the keyboard, but try explaining that to your girlfriend), the volume control (since there isn't a mute on my Ti, I use the Pth Volume) and Confabulator's menu item, to name a few, don't need to be on the menu bar.

A control strip would solve all this problems by alowing the menu strip to show only the things that need to be visible like date, battery, CPU, Drive Activity, ect.

Bring back the Strip!

The sad part is that someone had a menu strip going and then it fell thru. It be great if we could start it up.

Any takers?

2004-01-02 12:37:35
Dock vs. Menu Bar
While I am recent switcher to the Mac worl I have already found an alternate solution. Everything (except fast user switching and the keyboard language) that is in the menu bar normally can and is displayed by iPulse. This utility comes from iconfactory and has been a boon for saving space and being efficent. It is worth checking out, seriously.

(15" PowerBook, 30gig iPod)

2004-01-03 08:36:39
Dock Fun from Donelleschi solves the problem
Although I don't have the menu bar crowding problem you describe (my screen is quite wide), I see your point. Conversely, I've felt my Dock was too crowded. Enter Dock Fun from Donelleschi: multiple Docks, easy switching. Smooth. Check it out: http://www.dockfun.com/index.php
Solves both out quandries.

Anon. Coward

2004-01-07 17:20:55
dock & menu bar etc
In OS 9.2.2 I made extensive use of both the launcher and the F keys. Launcher gave me 8 windows each of which held up to about 20 aliases and was launched with an F key while the other F keys used for commonly used files & programs.

In Panther I have lost both of these facilities. Swear, swear & filthy language. Up to a point the launch bar helps, but not much. I actally use launchbar to launch my old launcher which seems daft.

And I can't get that damn dock to stay put away - I set the prefs to turn off 'autimatically hide and show' and it turns itself back on again.

It's bad enough that panther is so slow anyway bu to have to pay for someting like Keyboard maestro just get my old functionality back is a pain in the ass.

Whats worse is that panther has molested my CD-writer so that it won't write on OS 9 anymore - it just says the disk failed to be written - si am more or less committed to Panther.

How long will it take Apple to put back what we had before?

2004-01-07 18:43:56
Another Launcher's "Docklet"
I like Another Launcher - despite the misleadingly understated name it comes the closest to the combination of features I need, at least until some miracle worker recreates FinderPop in OS X. (C'mon, somebody, please get on the case.)

A nice feature that Another Launcher has is that it allows you to put its custom menus either in the menu bar or in a small, very configurable, floating "Docklet". I keep the tiny docklet with my oft-used custom menus snug in the upper right hand corner of my desktop, right beneath the menu bar (IE, under the clock and User switching menu.)

Another Launcher lets you set the docklet to remain visible or "accordion" if you prefer (IE, appear only as a miniscule icon, which you click to extend to the full size.) I leave it extended, as it is very unobtrusive in its position at the upper right corner of my desktop. This way I get to have my OS X dock hidden, and run an app with 12 of its own menus eating up the whole menu bar, and still have all my custom menus visible and available.

The best situation I could imagine would be if I could move *any* menu extras I wanted into a little docklet like this one, instead of just Another Launcher's functions.

Incidentally, I also see a lot of potential in Konfabulator, with its ability to position floating Widgets anywhere on screen you want - although at present most of the widgets that seem useful to me as replacements for Menu Extra indicators & such (Battery, etc.) are much too large. If useful widgets appeared that ate up less screen real estate (MUCH less) I'd probably consider it indispensable.

2005-02-11 16:04:34
What about the KDE Kicker as a model?
As I've modified both the dock and the menubar--pretty much hacking both to bits at the same time--I've been chasing the look and feel of the KDE panel (KDE is the default desktop for most Linux distributions). I think I favor the Dock generally, but what I'd like is not only the ability to add "indicators" but also the the ability to add a desktop pager and contextual menus, all of which the KDE panel has.

I've found two very useful apps to help me have these features, but they still lack something, a certain nuance, that the KDE panel has.

A-Dock was a welcome find: it can replace the original Dock completely, and has one major advantage over the Dock: You can drag a folder to it to make a pop-up contextual menu, all organized into whatever labels you'd like. I did this with my Applications folder, and I put it on the left end, where KDE's "K" menu is by default (and where Windows "start" menu is, dare I add).

But the downside to A-dock? No indicators allowed. Not even a clock. Just apps and folders.

So, I found MenuStrip. This is meant to augment the Menu Bar, but it does much more. Of course, it can't replace the Menu Bar, since you can't turn the Menu Bar off, but it brings back an old feature: the Control Strip. Put your apps into the Menu Strip (there's a configuration tool to do this), and when you need space, click on one end, and it gracefully retracts off-screen, with a little tab just visible for when you want it back.

MenuStrip comes with a built in clock, so you can turn off the Menu Bar clock, but it doesn't allow indicators or applets like a desktop pager. Like A-Dock, it allows linking to folders as contextual menus. So, once again, I've got my applications folder at the left end, and I've turned off my A-Dock for now.

Major downside? You have to use the "preference" tool to edit the Menu Bar--there's no drag-and-drop. And I've still got my "indicators" in the menu bar. Not quite yet the KDE Panel I'm after.

2006-03-06 10:14:25
In case anyone is interested in a method of hiding the mac menu bar, see my blog at: http://blog.cypher-sec.org (where you can actually turn it off). :)

I'd post it here, but it's kind of long.


dienesh dillika
2006-03-09 06:46:59
hi this is ashu sharma