capsule review

Return of Control Strip

They say the holidays—with their family get-togethers and office celebrations—often bring about feelings of nostalgia. Evidently that holds true in technology, as well, because I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic about the “classic” Mac OS as of late. (Granted, in response to reader requests.) A couple weeks ago, I wrote about ways to bring back Mac OS 9’s Application Menu, and today I’m writing about the return of Mac OS 9’s popular Control Strip.

For those who don’t remember, the classic Mac OS had, from System 7.5.5 until its death, a modular Control Strip that provided quick access to a number of system settings. The Control Strip floated above other applications but could be collapsed to a small nub at the edge of the screen. It could also be extended via third-party modules that offered additional functionality.

Image
(Image courtesy academics.georgiasouthern.edu.)

If you miss Control Strip—or if you’re an OS X-only Mac user who thinks this functionality sounds useful—check out MacPowerUser Software’s $25 MenuStrip 3.0.5 (   ). MenuStrip provides many of the same features of OS 9’s Control Strip, including a plug-in architecture that lets you expand its functionality. And it also includes some useful features of its own, the most obvious being its ability to be placed either at any location along the left or right edges of your screen (like Control Strip) or embedded in your menu bar (assuming you’ve got enough space). The Control-Strip-like option is better for those with small screens, as in menu mode, MenuStrip’s items will be hidden to make room for applications’ menus.

MenuStrip in the menu bar
MenuStrip in the menu bar.

MenuStrip on the screen
MenuStrip positioned along the side of the screen.

When placed on your screen—out of the menu bar—MenuStrip even includes a little nub at the end to collapse it, just like the old Control Strip.

MenuStrip collapsed
MenuStrip collapsed.

Wherever you place it, MenuStrip offers a number of built-in modules:

  • a clock with a built-in pop-up calendar display and alarm clock
  • a Quick Launcher for launching applications and opening documents by typing their names (similar to, though much more basic than, LaunchBar )
  • a hierarchical folder/file menu for quick access to files
  • a menu for changing your Mac’s volume
  • an Application Switcher module that can take the place of those utilities I mentioned in my column a couple weeks ago
  • an item for toggling single-application mode, which hides all but the current application
  • Action Buttons, which can be configured to hide, show, launch, quit, or switch to applications; or to open particular files or launch particular AppleScripts. Three are configured by default: quit the current application, hide all applications, and show all applications. But you can create your own—even ones that perform multiple actions with a single click.

You can activate as many of each MenuStrip item as you need—for example, you can have multiple file/folder menus—and each is configured using the preferences dialog. Separators are also available to organize your MenuStrip display.

MenuStrip settings

In addition to the built-in items, MenuStrip supports plug-ins, both from MacPowerUser and from third-party developers. There are currently four items available for download: one for controlling iTunes, one for quickly accessing your Address Book contacts, one that lists the sites most recently and most frequently visited in Safari, and one that replaces Apple’s Eject menu extra.

(It’s true that the functionality of some of the available MenuStrip items is already provided by OS X; for example, the volume item, eject item, and clock are similar to OS X menu extras. But OS X’s clock menu item doesn’t provide a drop-down calendar or an alarm. And I like that if your menu bar is getting crowded, as mine is, MenuStrip lets you move these items out of the menu bar while still leaving them accessible.)

Finally, you can also drag applications, files, and folders directly into MenuStrip’s settings dialog to add those items to the strip; adding a folder even gives you a hierarchical menu of the folder’s contents. And if you drag a group of applications into the settings dialog, you create an “Application Workgroup”; clicking this item in MenuStrip launches all of the included applications simultaneously.

So what don’t I like about MenuStrip? For one thing, I did experience a bug: MenuStrip would crash on launch whenever the current Contacts plug-in was installed. (MacPowerUser told me this is a rare issue with some users’ Address Books that’s fixed in an upcoming version of the Contacts plug-in. Sure enough, when I installed the upcoming new version of the Contacts plug-in—which should be released soon—the problem went away.) I also wish that MenuStrip items provided “tooltip” information boxes that would explain what each item does; the various “action” items that you can create often look similar, so it would be helpful if you could figure out what each button does by holding the mouse pointer over it. Finally, I wish the collapse/expand animations were faster; when I want to quickly access an item in MenuStrip, I don’t want to wait even a second for it to expand.

One other thing to consider: Although MenuStrip’s $25 price tag may be a bargain if you consider how much it would cost to get similar functionality from a combination of other products, if you only need a few of the items provided by MenuStrip, you may be able to obtain such functionality via freeware. Give the free demo a try yourself and see what you think.

MenuStrip is compatible with Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) and later.

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