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I got my first (and only) Mac about a year ago and discovered I hated one of the major features that makes OS X different from Windows. I resented having to move my mouse so high, just to get at the file or edit menu way up there in the menu bar. I’ve since come to love the menu bar and I’ve recently begun experimenting with some small apps that sit there unobtrusively waiting for me to glance at them or access them — often with a hotkey.

Just one thing to keep in mind. If you have too many items in your menu bar they might get hidden behind the actual menu for whatever program is in current focus. The program menu takes precedence over the apps.

Here are my five favorite menu bar items:

(1) Gmail Notifier

GMail Notifier If you’re not one of those people who keeps your browser open all the time, with at least one tab on your GMail account, then this little Google doohickey will come in very handy. It’s a Gmail icon that sits inconspicuously in your menu bar. That is, until someone sends you an email.

Then the fun begins. The icon turns from menu bar gray to Gmail red and to draw your attention up there, it plays a configurable little email sound. If you’ve got Growl installed, it’ll even show you a pop-up summary of the message (which you can turn off if it gets too annoying.) As long as you have unread messages in your inbox, the icon stays red and the message count appears next to it.

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Click on the icon, and you’ll get a menu with options like “Compose Mail”, “Go to Inbox” and “Check Now” and a list of the latest new messages in your inbox. Pretty darn handy, if you ask me.

But wait, there’s more. If you use something other than Gmail to write your emails, no prob. You can configure it to open up any number of other mail clients (mail.app, Thunderbird etc.)

It works on your regular old vanilla-flavored Gmail, of course, but it also works with Google Apps. I’ve got my personal email open almost all the time in a Firefox tab, but I’ve got GMail Notifier configured to “bing” me whenever I get a new message on my Google Apps account.

The Gmail notifier comes pre-packaged with a bonus Google Calendar notifier as well, if you’re into all that “remembering appointments” stuff.

(2) iStats Menu

I don’t think I’ve begun to use the full functionality of this great little app. It’s is a suite of menu icons that keeps track of things like upload/download speed and memory usage. I’ve got three of the possible eight items, currently sitting in my menu bar and I find them extremely useful. (I first used iStats as a Dashboard widget, but “out of sight, out of mind.” I hardly ever used it, since I hardly ever go into Dashboard.)

iStats Menu

The underlined ones are the ones I use.

  • CPU – Displays how hard your CPU is working. Display for each core.
  • Memory – Shows how much RAM is currently being used. Can be displayed numerous ways.
  • Drives – Shows how much disk space you have left and has options for showing disk activity.
  • Network – Shows the upload/download activity and speed in KB/s. Also has a graphical option, or both.
  • Temps – Shows the temperatures of various items like your CPU and main hard drive.
  • Fans – Shows the speed of various fans
  • Bluetooth – Shows any nearby Bluetooth devices and other options
  • Date & Time – Displays date/time. Clicking brings up a calendar and link to iCal

All in all, a great little program that I like to glance up at several times a day. The CPU menu is great to figure out just why you’re getting beach balls all the time. I’ve solved several little CPU hog problems with this. The upload/download monitor is great to remind you that “Oh yeah, I’ve still got that legal file downloading. I wonder how it’s doing.”

(3) Weatherbug Lite

This is a simple little app that does one thing really well. It shows the current temperature in your area (or any area you choose.) Most of the time, that’s all it will do. It will sit there and tell you how balmy or frigid it is outside. And, if you’re outside the US, it understands Celsius just fine, thank you very much. You can also configure it to warn you about weather alerts for your region, so you’ll be aware of that impending blizzard or hurricane before your friends know what hit them.

4. Delibar

Delibar

Delibar gives you direct access to your delicious bookmarks. The bookmarks are sorted by tag, which can sometimes be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re a tagaholic as I am. Often, though, you’ll just want to see one of the last few bookmarks you’ve tagged and that’s where this comes in handy. The last 15 sites you’ve bookmarked are easily accessible from the top of the list. The only extra feature I would like to see is a live search box, similar to Spotlight and Monocle, but strictly for bookmarks. (Are you listening Delibar people?)

5. Monocle

Monocle If you like using Spotlight for searching your hard drive, then you’ll love Monocle. It does for Google what Spotlight does for your drive. Monocle sits as a magnifying glass icon in your menu bar until you click on it, or invoke it with the configurable hotkey (I chose ⌘G as my hotkey) Once open, just start typing and it shows you the Google Suggest hits for your search terms. Hit enter and it takes you to the Google results, or results for any number of other search engines. You can add as many as you want and you can switch between them without leaving the keyboard. Monocle is great if you don’t have a browser window handy, but want to do a quick search.

I’d love to hear about what’s in your menu bar.

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