Welcome to our complete guide to the menu bar in Mac OS X. Since publishing this article we've come up with an updated article which covers all the features in macOS Sierra and more recent versions of Mac OS X; for more up-to-date coverage of the Mac menu bar, jump to How to use Mac menu bar in macOS Sierra.

The OS X menu bar is fixed to the top of the screen and spans its entire width. It provides access to system functions via the Apple menu at the top-left, then application-specific menus for the currently active app. The right-hand side of the menu bar is reserved for menu extras, which are typically faceless utilities and applications that act as shortcuts for commonly performed commands and functions. (Faceless apps do not appear in the Dock or app switcher, and so those that have menu extras must be accessed via the menu bar.) On smaller displays, application menus take priority, and so if you use an app with many menus and also have many menu extras running, some menu extras may be automatically hidden while using the app.

The Apple Menu

Click the Apple logo at the top-left of the screen to access its drop-down menu. The top section provides access to information about your Mac, along with links to software updates and the App Store (both via the Mac App Store app). Hold Opt and About This Mac becomes System Information, which when selected enables you to skip immediately to a detailed overview of your Mac’s hardware, network and software.

Other options within this menu enable you to launch System Preferences, adjust the Dock’s magnification and position, access recent items, open the Force Quit window, and sleep, restart, shut down or log out of your Mac. Again, the Opt modifier amends some commands: sleep/restart/shut down/log out will occur immediately, without any warning dialogs. Hold Shift to access another 'hidden' command, appending the frontmost app’s name to Force Quit; selecting that option with Shift held will force-quit the app immediately rather than sending you to the Force Quit window.

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The visual appearance of the menu bar can be adjusted in the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences pane — unchecking ‘Translucent menu bar’ gives it a solid background, making the text and icons clearer.

Application Menus

Each application has its own set of menus and there’s no guaranteed consistency across the system regarding provided options. However, the majority of OS X apps include a menu with the app’s name, followed by File, Edit, View, Window and Help. Others may be mixed in, and any of these may be omitted.

Click the application’s name and you’ll usually find options for accessing the product’s ‘about’ dialog, preferences, services, hide/show commands, and the means to quit the app. To the side of some options will be a keyboard shortcut, which can be used to activate a command without accessing the menu. Learn common ones to be more efficient on your Mac; for example, Cmd+, is almost always used to access preferences; Cmd+Q is used to quit an app. Again, holding modifiers (Opt/Shift) may show additional options.

Of the other common menus:

  • File typically houses commands for opening, renaming, duplicating and saving documents, closing windows, and printing.
  • Edit enables you to: undo/redo commands; cut, copy and paste; select all; and perform find and spellcheck actions.
  • View deals with an app’s appearance, such as showing and hiding components and panels, moving focus, sorting lists, and (sometimes) entering full-screen mode.
  • Window often contains minimise and zoom options, ‘Bring All To Front’ (for bringing all of the app’s windows above anything else on the screen), and a selectable list of currently open documents.
  • Help is where you’ll find any built-in documentation, and there’s also a search field that provides a dynamic results list for menu commands and help topics. Hover over an item and its menu will open, its position clearly indicated.

You can assign keyboard shortcuts to any item within a menu via the Shortcuts tab within the Keyboard System Preferences pane. Additionally, assuming the options within the Keyboard category are active, you can use the keyboard to access and navigate menus. Tap (not hold) Ctrl+F2 to move focus to the Apple menu, and you can then use the cursor keys to move up, down, left and right (including to enter and leave sub-menus). Return selects an item. (Note: if your keyboard uses media keys by default, you’ll need to hold Fn when pressing Ctrl+F2.) You can also start typing to snap to a command in a long menu. For example, 'SH' typed quickly would immediately move the selection to 'Show Deleted Messages' in Mail's View menu.

Menu Extras

The right-hand side of the menu bar is where menu extras are stored. At the very least, you'll see Notification Center and Spotlight here, and other menus can be added in System Preferences or by installing third-party menu extras.

Examples of native OS X menu extras include: display mirroring, keyboard preferences, sound, Bluetooth, the user menu, Wi-Fi status, Time Machine and the Date & Time clock. Each menu can be activated via the relevant System Preferences pane. The position of menus (with the exception of Spotlight and Notification Center) can be adjusted by Cmd-dragging them. Cmd-drag any menu extra off of the menu bar and it's removed, and must be reactivated from the System Preferences pane.

In some cases, menu extras have hidden options that are only accessible when holding the Opt modifier. For example, Sound when clicked shows a volume slider. But hold Opt and you get access to Input and Output settings, meaning you don’t have to head to System Preferences to adjust such things. In the same vein, hold Opt when clicking the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth menu extra and you’ll get additional network settings information.

Third-party apps sometimes install as menu extras, have controls that exist in the menu bar, or can be relaunched as faceless apps despite not initially being so. Although identical in appearance to native OS X menu extras, these third-party extras differ through you not being able to reorder them via Cmd-dragging. Additionally, they either need to be quit via an option within the menu itself or the app’s preferences, assuming such an option exists. (If not, you must quit the relevant process using Activity Monitor.)

A number of example menu extras are outlined at super OS X menubar items and Mac Menu Bars. Especially useful apps of this type include: calendar app Fantastical; sleep-disabler Caffeine; iTunes track rater I Love Stars; resolution-switcher ResolutionTab; and virtual keyboard utility 1Keyboard.

If you end up with a lot of menu extras, Bartender provides the means to choose which apps are placed within a second collapsible bar that’s activated via an icon click or system-wide hot-key.

Full-screen mode

The one time the menu bar isn't fixed to the top of the screen is when an app is in full-screen mode. However, the menu bar remains accessible by moving the cursor to the top of the screen or by using the Ctrl+F2 shortcut mentioned earlier. When in full-screen mode, an additional menu extra will appear at the far-right of the menu bar; when clicked, you exit full-screen mode.