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The Macintosh is one of the very few desktop operating systems that shares a central, common, menubar across all applications. Even NextStep and Be operating systems, which were founded by former Apple execs, avoided the MacOS style menubar.

Is there a reason for this? Do users find the per-application menubar more preferable? I've never heard any complaints about the MacOS menubar.

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Unity also uses a common menubar across all applications. –  dnbrv Jul 3 '12 at 21:43
    
Isn't that also what Microsoft is trying to do with the Charm bar in Windows 8? –  Pierre-Alain Vigeant Jul 5 '12 at 18:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The Macintosh menu bar is certainly preferable to me, and there are some good arguments for (and against) its use.

The main argument for a persistent menu bar across the top of the screen is that it becomes an infinitely-large target along the top edge, which according to Fitts' law makes it much faster to target with the mouse. It's also notable that in Windows (which, as you probably know, still uses per-window menu bars), many core applications are losing their menu bars entirely behind drop-down menus and disclosure arrows (see Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, etc.), which makes finding things like the Edit menu (for copy and paste) much harder for users who haven't memorised the keyboard shortcuts than it once was.

The main argument against a persistent menubar is that it makes the interface inherently modal. While I have a specific application focused, I'm in that application's "mode", and I am forced to actively change application focus before I can interact with the menus for another application. If I have a word-processing document open and a web page open in a web browser, it's not always immediately obvious which has focus (which can make choosing things like "Window > Minimize" have unintended consequences). It's worth noting that even without a persistent menu bar, desktop window managers tend to be somewhat modal since keyboard shortcuts (e.g. for copy and paste) only apply while a given application (or document) window has focus. Since that limitation seems unsurmountable, perhaps making the interface seem more modal is a good thing (and could explain why Windows users tend to run their applications fully maximised much more often than Mac users do).

It may also be that on today's 20-inch-and-larger displays the distance between the window you're interacting with and its menus is too great (the original Mac had a 9-inch screen with a resolution of 512×342 pixels). Compare a modern Mac's resolution (the one I'm typing on is 1920×1200) with the one below from Computerhovel.com — the distance of the window from the menu bar could never really exceed 100 or so pixels.

Low-res Macintosh screenshot

Here's a great blog entry by StackExchange's own Jeff Atwood about the relative pros and cons of the Mac menu bar that touches on a few of my points and adds a few more.

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Great point about Modality; Mac's desktop paradigm is very different from Windows', which is a big part of why you can't just tape an OSX menubar on Windows –  Ben Brocka Jul 4 '12 at 16:11
    
Thanks. After all these years, I still get the warm and fuzzies when I see the Classic OS screen. I remember the silence at MacWorld Expo when Jobs showed off the Aqua interface. Anyone who complained was told to embrace the horror. While most took that to mean accept OS X, I and others took that to mean accept Windows. Sadly, it was Apple that closed the gap between Windows and the Macintosh. –  Joel Rodgers Jul 5 '12 at 1:08
    
@JoelRodgers: As a Mac user since System 6, I can certainly empathise. The OS X Finder still isn't properly spatial, which I miss from the "good old days". –  Kit Grose Jul 5 '12 at 1:29

A few advantages and disadvantage I have found with the master menu bar in Macintosh:

  • Pro - Can save desktop real-estate (if menu apps need menus and are in view)
  • Con - Can waste desktop real-estate (if full screen app doesn't need it)
  • Pro - Saves desktop real-estate by uniting system bar with app menu (e.g. clock and file menu)
  • Con - Less menu space available for app, app may be forced to add another menu
  • Con - Menu is visually disconnected from its context (the current app)
  • Pro - Common menu style for all apps
  • Con - App can not override menu style (menu style might not be suitable for app's UX)

You could compare Macintosh's menu bar with browsers' menu bars...

  • In browsers instead of apps their are tabs. Tabs always reach the top, so the menu is always close to them (even if there are toolbars in between).

  • In some browsers menu bar can have menus added to it by current tab (e.g. useful for document editing sites)

  • Some browsers do not offer menu bars (e.g. Chrome) and in others it is now optional (e.g. Firefox)

  • Sites usually have their own menu at the top which is themed along with the rest of the site and is usually more graphical than the menu bar. Menu can be glued to the top of the display during scroll if the site uses a frame for it


Personally, I don't like it.

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The Macintosh menu bar breaks down when there are multiple monitors. The more screen real estate is available the less useful it becomes.

The way windows handles app menus is better suited to higher resolutions where the user's focus is on a particular part of the screen

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