A Newbie’s Information to the macOS Menu Bar

In contrast to Windows and many Linux desktop environments, macOS does not append a menu to every application window. Instead, it has a single, global menu bar that changes context to the active application. The macOS menu bar is consistent and permanent – if you wish.

This menu bar contains other items like a simple app launcher, status menus, and access to the control center and notifications. You can configure various aspects of the appearance and behavior of the menu bar. So you can get the most out of it.

The Apple menu is a constant in the top left of your screen and sits behind an icon that looks exactly like the Apple logo.

The Apple menu contains commands for common global tasks such as:

  • About this Mac: Information about your computer's hardware, including monitors and disk usage.
  • System settings: Adjust the Mac settings.
  • Appstore: Discover new software.
  • Sleep: Put your Mac into sleep mode right away.

The Recent articles Menu shows both apps and documents you've recently used. Hence, it can act as a simple app launcher.

The application menu is to the right of the Apple menu. It contains functions specific to the current app, the name of which appears as the first menu heading. Other menu headings are specific to each app, but common ones are:

  • file

  • To edit

  • view

  • window

  • Help

The commands in each menu vary. Some end with an ellipsis () indicating that they will open a dialog or other window instead of taking an action immediately. Some have an arrow (>) Symbol at the end, which means that it will open a submenu.

Many menu actions have a light gray key combination next to them. Press this key combination to activate this item without opening the menu.

The menu bar always contains a Help at the end of the application menu. It's there whether you're in the Finder, Safari, or System Preferences. This menu not only provides access to the app documentation, but also a search box. The search box applies to help pages and useful for the menu items themselves.

If you need to find a menu item but aren't sure which menu it belongs to, this can be a quick way to find it. The operating system usefully opens the corresponding menu and even shows an arrow on the menu item you are looking for.

Status menus appear on the right side of the menu bar. They are usually single-color icons that provide access to small utilities. Some programs you install add an icon to this area, but macOS has several standard status menus, including:

  • Bluetooth

  • battery

  • Wireless Internet access

  • sound

  • Keyboard brightness

  • Do not disturb

  • Screen mirroring

  • Sirius

You can show or hide most of these icons through the Dock and menu bar settings. You can also rearrange most status icons by pressing and holding Command line, then click and drag it.

Most status icons open a menu when you click on them. These menus can be highly stylized and often serve as the main interface for smaller utilities.

Related: The ultimate list of Mac menu bar apps

Control Center and Notification Center

Big Sur made some big changes to macOS, including two icons on the far right of the menu bar: Control Center and Notification Center. These provide easy access to general settings and all of your notifications.

The system settings give you some control over what is displayed in the Control Center, just as you can hide individual status menus.

To access the Notification Center, click the clock in the menu bar in the upper right corner.

You can access the menu bar at any time using a keyboard shortcut. To use Ctrl + F2 to focus on the menu bar. You may also need the function Key if your Mac has one.

Once you've focused on the menu bar, use the one arrow Key and place or return to select an item from the Apple or App menu.

If you use the Help menu frequently, you can use the button to jump directly to the Help search field Command +? (or Command + Shift + /) Abbreviation. You can access any menu item from here by typing its name and then selecting.

When viewing an application in full screen mode, the menu bar is temporarily hidden. You can still access the menu bar in full screen mode by moving the cursor to the top of the screen.

If you want to hide the menu bar permanently, you can do so through the settings:

  1. Open that System settings App – e.g. via the Apple menu.

  2. Click on that Dock & menu bar Symbol.

  3. In the main window, scroll down to the Menu bar Section and use the Show and hide menu bar automatically Check boxes to toggle hide on and off.

It appears and disappears automatically when you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen. It will also appear when you use the keyboard shortcut to focus on it.

Your Mac colors the menu bar to match the desktop background below. This goes hand in hand with the transparency of the operating system. The menu bar now takes on the appearance of a mostly solid color with subtle blending to reflect the colors behind it.

This means that you can specify the color of the menu bar by choosing a specific image for the background image. You can even go a step further and manipulate the top 24 pixels of a desktop background image to directly affect the menu bar.

If you don't like the transparency effect at all, you can turn it off in Accessibility Settings by activating Display> Reduce Transparency. This will render the menu bar with a light gray background and black text and icons.

The macOS menu bar offers a system menu, a permanent app menu, and a number of status icons. Since it's ubiquitous and always in one place, it's easy to get used to. You can customize status menus and the behavior of notifications to suit your own needs. Control Center also gives you quick access to the most common settings.

Keep in mind that other companies besides Apple also offer menu bar apps. There are a number of small utilities in the menu bar that are ready to use when needed.

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About the author

Bobby Jack
(53 articles published)

Bobby is a technology enthusiast who has worked as a software developer for nearly two decades. Passionate about games, he works as a review editor at Switch Player Magazine, and delves into all aspects of online publishing and web development.

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