Retro Menu

Mac OS X has been firmly established as “the” Mac OS for a few years now—in fact, it’s been three and a half years since Steve Jobs declared Mac OS 9 dead at the 2002 WWDC. Still, even today, one of the most frequent requests Mac writers hear is, “How can I get back the Mac OS 9 Application Menu?” The questioner is referring, of course, to the menu that resided on the right-hand side of the menu bar in Mac OS 9, displaying the name and icon of the frontmost (“active”) application and allowing you, via its menu, to switch to any other running application.

If the number of utilities out there for Mac OS X that provide such functionality is any indication, there’s still quite a bit of demand for OS 9’s Application Menu (although that demand seems to be waning, at least if my email Inbox is any indication). And so today I present to you two of my favorite utilities for bringing back the classic Application Menu: Frank Vercruesse’s $15 ASM 2.1.4 (   ) and Peter Li’s free X-Assist 0.7 (   , July 2002 ). Both of these utilities give you an approximation of Mac OS 9’s Application Menu; however, how they do it, and what other features they provide, differs.

ASM operates as a Mac OS X System Preference pane, which means its options are set using the System Preferences utility. You can choose to display the menu title as the current application’s name and icon—as in OS 9—or as just the name or just the icon. (You can also opt to name the menu yourself; for example, Apps .) Because it uses Mac OS X's own Menu Extra system, you can command-drag the ASM menu, just like Mac OS X’s own menu bar items, to place it exactly where you want it along the Menu Extra area—on the left, on the right, or somewhere in between. (The one restriction being that Tiger’s Spotlight menu cannot be moved; it’s always going to call dibs on the right-most seat.)

Like OS 9’s menu, clicking on the ASM menu item shows a list of all currently-running applications. (You can choose how applications are displayed—name, icon, or both; how they are sorted; icon size; and more.) Choosing an item from the list switches to that application. But what I really like about ASM is that each application in the menu includes a submenu that provides quick access to that application’s Dock menu. For example, if you Control/right-click the iTunes icon in the Dock, it provides a menu containing common iTunes commands (Play, Next/Previous Song, and so on); ASM provides the same menu for quick access.

ASM menu

X-Assist provides a menu that’s more like the original Application Menu in that it doesn’t provide ASM’s useful Dock-menu submenus. However, it adds a few useful features of its own. Via X-Assist’s Shortcuts submenu, you get quick access to System Preferences panes (via the OS-9-named Control Panels item); Recent Applications, Documents, and Servers; and the contents of any folders (or aliases to folders) you place in the X-Assist Items folder in ~/Library/Favorites—which makes X-Assist’s Shortcuts menu very much like OS 9’s flexible Apple Menu.

X-Assist menu

Unfortunately, X-Assist doesn’t allow you to move its menu once its been launched. The only way to get some semblance of control over its placement is to fiddle with the order of your Login Items in the Accounts pane of System Preferences.

Both ASM and X-Assist bring back one of the few OS 9 features I still personally prefer over OS X’s own behavior: “classic” windowing. With this feature enabled, clicking on a window for an application brings all windows for that application to the front. (Under OS X, only the window you actually click is brought to the front; other windows in that same application stay wherever they happen to be—often behind other windows in other applications.) You also get the familiar-to-OS-9 Hide, Hide Others, and Show All options. Both utilities also allow you to display a separator next to the menu; by clicking on this separator, you can quickly shrink the menu title down to just the current application’s icon—useful when your menu bar is getting crowded. (Another click expands the name back to the original configuration.)

So which is better? Overall, X-Assist offers slightly better performance—there’s less delay when you click on the menu—is free, and provides quick access to files and System Preferences panes via its special menus. ASM, on the other hand, gives you a few more appearance options and the useful Dock-menu feature. If you’re looking for a “Mac OS 9 Application Menu,” either is a worthy choice—pick the one that fits you best.

ASM works with Mac OS X 10.3 and later. X-Assist is compatible with Mac OS X 10.1 and later.

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