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The OS X Menu Bar is Outdated

The original Apple Macintosh, introduced on January 24, 1984, had a 9-inch screen and a stationary menu bar at the very top of the screen. It made a lot of sense. But does it still make sense today?

The stationary menu bar is helpful for new computer users because it is predictable. No matter which application you use, you always know where its menu items will appear. In addition, having the menu at the top of the screen makes it an easy target to hit, even if you have low mouse dexterity. Just push the cursor up until it stops and you are guaranteed to be somewhere on the menu bar.

However, 28 years ago, the size of the Macintosh Desktop was only 512 pixels wide and 342 pixels high (able to fit, full size, within the column of this blog post). It was not very far to move the cursor from, say, the Trash to the menu bar. Also, with so little screen real estate, the general use case was to have one application dominate the screen.

Apple Macintosh Desktop

Apple Macintosh Desktop, 512 x 342 pixels, circa 1984 (Wikipedia)

Over time, screens became larger and the dimensions of the desktop grew accordingly. For example, a 13-inch MacBook Pro laptop has a desktop that is 1280 pixels wide and 800 pixels high. Although this provides more screen real estate than the original Macintosh — over four times more area — and enables more effective use of multiple application windows, it also introduces a growing usability problem with the stationary menu bar.

It is no longer uncommon to have one or more application windows near the bottom or bottom-right area of the screen. I tend to keep chat windows, for example, down there. At this location, getting to the menu bar requires quite a bit of traveling with the mouse cursor on a 24-inch display at a resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels. On a 27-inch Thunderbolt monitor, distances become even greater over its 2560 by 1440 resolution screen.

The sheer size of the desktop now makes the stationary menu bar a chore to use. In addition, the spatial relationship between an application’s window and its menus is lost since most of the time, they are not within close proximity to one another.

If you use a laptop and have an external monitor, things become even more interesting. I have a 24-inch monitor connected to my 13-inch MacBook Pro, as illustrated by the Display Arrangement dialog below. The laptop’s desktop region is the blue rectangle on the left with the menu bar (indicated by the narrow white strip at the top of the blue rectangle) and the external monitor is on the right.

Dual Monitor Desktop

Dual Monitor Desktop (click for full size image)

In this arrangement, many application windows reside on the large monitor and most of them are far, far away from the menu. You can actually drag the menu bar in this dialog and put it on the external monitor. This helps the situation somewhat, but then windows on the laptop screen require a trek to the menu bar on the large screen.

On OS X, there is a handy tool called SecondBar that, as its name implies, displays a copy of the menu bar on a secondary display. With SecondBar, at least you no longer have to navigate across screens to get to the menu.

SecondBar

SecondBar duplicates the menu bar on a secondary display (click for full size image)

However, this whole situation begs the question, “Is the OS X menu bar outdated?” It made sense on a single, small, low- to medium-resolution screen. For today’s desktop environments, though, window managers that support menus directly in an application’s window, such as the X Windows System and Microsoft Windows (not the Metro interface), have better usability because they require less navigation and maintain the spatial relationship between an application and its menus.

It remains to be seen, though, what will happen to menus, in general. With the growing prevalence of mobile devices and their interface’s shedding of traditional menus, the desktop may become more tablet-like, ala iPad and Windows Metro.

Is the menu bar dead? What would be your ideal desktop interface?

Feature image by Blog del Fotógrapho (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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