How To + Recommended

How to Use the Menu Bar in macOS Sierra

Posted on December 21st, 2016 by

How to Use the Menu Bar in macOS Sierra

The menu bar is one of the most ubiquitous elements you use to control your Mac. Yet, do you really know all of the many features it offers? You can access menus and their commands, of course, but you can also use menu extras (those icons at the right side of the menu bar), search for menu commands, get help, and much more. And you can access the menu bar from the keyboard, and change the way it displays.

In this article, I'm going to explain some of the lesser known features that make the menu bar a powerful tool for using your Mac.

The Simplicity of the Mac Menu Bar

The menu bar is pretty simple to use. You click on a menu name, then you choose a menu item in a menu. For example, you can click File, then move your mouse, or glide your finger or your trackpad, select Save, and then click the mouse or trackpad to activate that command. (In this article, I'll abbreviate actions like that by saying "Choose File > Save.")

Similarly, you can also control the menu bar with your keyboard. If you click a menu name, and a menu displays, you can navigate that menu using the arrow keys on your keyboard. You can even activate the menu bar from the keyboard if you turn on a setting. Here's how:

In System Preferences, on the Keyboard tab, click Shortcuts, then Keyboard. Check Move Focus to the Menu Bar, and you'll see there's a shortcut there: ^F2. (That's the ctrl key and the F2 key at the same time.) You can change this shortcut if you like, but bear in mind that, on some Mac keyboards, you'll also need to press the fn key at the bottom left of the keyboard.

When you activate this keyboard shortcut, the  menu highlights. You can then use the arrow keys to navigate the menus and their commands: the right arrow key moves across the menu bar, and the up and down arrow keys navigate each menu. Just press Enter when you've found the command you want to use.

Save Time with Keyboard Shortcuts

You'll notice that many of the menus on your Mac display keyboard shortcuts. For example, in the Edit menu, you'll see that Cut, Copy, and Paste respectively have the shortcuts ⌘X, ⌘C, and ⌘V. Learn these shortcuts to save time. Instead of selecting text, then choosing File > Copy, just press Command-C. As you peruse the menus, try to commit to memory the shortcuts you use often. But don't worry if you forget; you can always see them in any menu, or sub-menu, as a reminder.

Minimize Distractions: Hide the Menu Bar

You might find the menu bar to be a distraction. If so, you can hide it when you're not using it. In the General pane of System Preferences, check Automatically Hide and Show the Menu Bar. When you do this, the menu bar slides up off your screen, and only comes back again when you move your cursor to the top of your display, or if you activate the keyboard shortcut I mentioned above that highlights the menu bar.

If you use any apps in full screen mode, the menu bar hides by default, even if you don't turn this option on. You display it in the same manner, by moving your cursor to the top of the screen.

Hide and show the menu bar

There are two options in the General preference pane that changes the way the menu bar displays.

Paint it Black

Some people like the menu bar to be black, with white text, instead of the default color. You can choose this in the General preferences. Just check Use Dark Menu Bar and Dock. As the option says, this also changes the color of the Dock. You may find that the dark menu bar is less distracting.

Get Help

You've certainly noticed the Help menu in the menu bar. If you click this menu, you'll see a number of options (depending on the app), such as help for that app, information about an app, support contacts, and more. But there's also a search field that displays when you click this menu, and it's really useful.

When you type a search term in the search field, macOS searches in the menus of the current application for that term, as well as searching in any help files. So, if you're in iTunes, for example, and you've forgotten where the Organize Library command is, start typing Organize in the Search field. The Menu Items section of the Help menu shows any menu items that contain your search term. Move your cursor over that menu item, and you'll see exactly where it is so you can choose it.


Use the Search feature in the Help menu to find hidden menu items.

Menu Extras

At the right side of the menu bar are a number of icons, called menu extras. Some display information—such as the date and time—and they all display menus, when clicked, that have a number of commands.

For example, the Wi-Fi menu extra lets you turn Wi-Fi on or off, or choose a different network. The Bluetooth menu extra lets you see which Bluetooth devices are connected to your Mac, and how much charge they have left. Some menu extras, such as Spotlight and Siri, merely activate a feature: the former displays a search field in the middle of your screen, and the latter wakes up Siri so you can ask for something.

You may want to re-organize some of these menu extras, so they display in a way that is more efficient for you. To do this, press and hold the Command key, then click one of the menu extras and drag it. Many third party apps also display menu extras, and since the release of macOS Sierra, you can also reposition those as desired. And if you want to remove any of the menu extras, just press and hold Command, and drag one of the icons from the menu bar. (You can replace them from the corresponding app or preference pane, where you'll find an option to display an icon in the menu bar.)

As you can see, there is a lot you can do with your Mac's menu bar. These tips can help you use this interface element more efficiently. So take advantage of the many hidden powers of the menu bar, and you'll be able to do more on your Mac with less hassle.

Are you new to Mac?

Want to get the most out of your new MacBook, iMac or other Apple computer? Whether this is your first laptop or you’ve just switched from Windows, there are a few things you should know about your new Mac, like basic keyboard shortcuts or how to use the various features macOS has to offer. Learn more about what your Mac computer can do for you at the Intego New Mac User Center: Get started now!


About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn is a Senior Contributor to Macworld, where he is The iTunes Guy. He writes about Macs, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of The Committed: A Weekly Tech Podcast, and a regular contributor to TidBITS as well as several other web sites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →
  • batrico

    I realize this is ostensibly a novice lesson, but if you’re going to go so far as to offer up Ctrl-F2, and advise memorizing shortcuts, it might also be a helpful surprise to people to know they they can also press the Option key (and other modifiers, depending on the app) while viewing many menus to reveal hidden options & variations of functions and shortcuts; true for both menus and extras. The article might be better titled a beginners guide, and mention at the bottom that there remains many more tips and tricks not covered here.

    Love your writing and always helpful articles. I’m a four decades power user, but I still learn from you. Thanks and Happy Merries. — F

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