Tools We Use: What’s in Our CTO's Menu Bar?

The other day, I was discussing something with BiTE CTO Brant via Slack, and he was showing me his screen for some reason; and when he got done showing me whatever it was that he was showing me, and we’d finished discussing it, and he was about to turn off his screen sharing, I said: “Wait a minute, not so fast; let’s get to the really important stuff. What the heck are all those icons in your menu bar?”

So he told me what they were. And while he was talking, it occurred to me that Brant uses some pretty cool tools, and that it might be fun to share some of them.

It’s always enjoyable, and sometimes instructive, to swap stories about software utilities you can’t live without — as in, you use someone else’s Mac for a moment and you discover that you can’t actually work on this darned machine because it’s missing some basic functionality that you’ve come to take for granted. (For me, that would be LaunchBar.)

So here’s an abridged list of some of the cool tools that show up as icons in Brant’s menu bar. Disclaimer: I don’t receive any kickback for mentioning these utilities in a public venue. But I wouldn’t turn it down either!

SimGenie

This is supposed to be a development blog, so let’s start with a development tool.

What exactly is a tool for, anyway? Sometimes, its purpose is to let you do something you might have been able to do anyway, but a lot more easily. That’s the kind of tool SimGenie is. You could probably do “by hand” everything that it helps you do. But why bother, when SimGenie does it for you, with a simple click in the menu bar?

As the name implies, SimGenie sends commands to the Xcode Simulator, along with performing some other common tasks related to Xcode iOS development. The SimGenie menu bar icon summons a menu that basically lists two kinds of thing: apps that you’ve recently built to a simulator, and the simulators themselves. From here, you can do things like this:

  • Open a built app’s bundle (useful for seeing whether resources are being copied into the bundle, and how much space they occupy).

  • Open a running app’s sandbox.

  • Send a push notification to an app.

  • Change an app’s authorization status (for Calendar, Contacts, and so on).

  • Clear an app’s UIScene restoration data, or its launch storyboard cache.

  • Launch a built app, or remove it from the simulator.

  • Sideload an app, image, or video onto a simulator.

  • Send a URL to a simulator (for testing universal links and custom schemes).

  • Toggle between light and dark mode on the simulator.

  • Tweak the contents of the simulator’s status bar.

  • Take a screenshot or video screencast of the simulator.

  • Exchange pasteboard data with the simulator.

  • Reset the simulator’s contents and settings, or its keychain.

  • Delete the DerivedData directory.

Now, as I’ve said, these are all things you could do manually, and you probably already know how to do them. Some of them involve using the xcrun simctl command-line tool. Some of them involve hunting around in the Finder. Some of them involve menu commands in the Simulator app. But that’s the point. Do you really want to grapple with a bunch of obscure Terminal commands, or go rooting around in the Finder to locate your simulator and your built app — or do you want to get work done?

Shush

In this day and age of working remotely, when we’re all talking to each other through our computers with collaborative tools like Zoom and Slack, a simple thing like muting your microphone when you’re not talking is important. It’s okay for there to be some background noise when you’re actively speaking, but otherwise, people really don’t need to hear your dog barking, your child singing, your neighbor cutting down a tree, or your toilet flushing.

A conference communication medium, after all, is the modern equivalent of an old-fashioned telephone. Telephones were analog; you held in one hand a big U-shaped object with an earpiece and a mouthpiece that you could put your other hand over when you needed to cough. Nowadays, that “mouthpiece” is a tiny dot of a microphone; not only can you not put your hand over it, but you probably don’t even know where it is.

Just as important is being able to unmute your microphone when you do want to talk. Raise your hand if you have ever started talking and then wondered why no one seems to be listening or responding — because you forgot to unmute. (Everyone not raising a hand right now — get real, I know you’re lying.)

Every communication application, of course, provides some sort of mute-and-unmute capability. The problem is: where the heck is it? When you’re in the middle of a Slack call and you’ve muted the microphone while you do some multitasking, you might have some difficulty finding the Unmute button in the Slack window. Heck, you might have some difficulty finding the Slack window!

That’s the problem that Shush solves. It gives you a single global mute-and-unmute hot key that works everywhere — regardless of the communication software you’re using, and regardless of your microphone hardware setup. You get to decide what the hot key is; it can be a single modifier key or a key combo. And here’s the really cool part: you have to hold that key down for it to operate.

You get a choice of two modes: push-to-talk and push-to-silence. In push-to-talk mode, which is what Brant prefers, the microphone is on only while you are actively holding down the hot key! So you are always conscious of, and in control of, when the microphone is on, and you know exactly how to make it be on, whether you’re using FaceTime, Slack, Zoom, or whatever. The rest of the time: relax, you’re muted.

Fantastical

What’s coming up in your complicated life? You’re probably using Apple’s Calendar app to keep track of that. But have you thought about the Mac Calendar interface lately? Month view, which gives you the most information, is just a grid of little day squares, each of them with a bunch of tiny one-line truncated event names. Not very informative. And that’s all you get, unless you want to spend your time switching between month, week, and day views.

That’s fine if you want to schedule something, perhaps. But when you’re consulting your calendar, what you really want to know is: “What’s coming up?” It’s as simple as that. And where’s the view in the Calendar app that tells you? Nowhere.

To get that view, Brant uses Fantastical, with its “mini window” that pops down from the menu bar. This window is narrow and tall, consisting of a month calendar display and, below that, a scrolling list of upcoming (and past) events, along with reminders. You can summon the window by clicking in the menu bar, or with a hot key that you get to configure. So the answer to the question “What have I got coming up?” is revealed, in an instant.

Cleverly occupying the top of the window are a pair of fields where you can type text. One of these is a search field. So if I type “presc”, I can instantly see the all-day event I’ve created earlier for when I expect my prescriptions to be ready for pickup at the drug store. The other field, shown by default, is for event creation, which you can do just by describing the event in words. As you type, a really cute animation shows whether a word is being taken as part of the title, as a date, as a location, or as a time.

The really nice thing is that you get all of that functionality for free. There’s a paid subscription version that lets you do more: it gives you collaboration on meeting times, sharing of information to other devices, autocompletion of locations, and more. But the free version is just delightful, and might well be all you need.

Downlink

It turns out that Brant’s desktop background is populated by Downlink. It’s a free app that shows absolutely gorgeous open-source satellite imagery of planet Earth on your desktop — in real time! Okay, not really in real time, but the image changes every 20 minutes or every hour, as you prefer, so you can watch the weather change as the sun shadow passes across the globe. The settings are controlled through a radar symbol in the menu bar.

Hanging Out at the Menu Bar

Those aren’t the only utilities in Brant’s menu bar, but they are the ones most likely to be of general interest — the sort of thing of which one might say, “How on earth did I ever live without this?”

Want to try out some of these? Now that Big Sur lets you reclaim some screen real estate by moving Apple’s own status items into the new Control Center, you can really go to town on third-party menu bar utilities — and even if these start to crowd the right side of the menu bar, there are always menu bar managers, such as Bartender, to help you.

The remarkable thing is how characteristic menu bar utilities turn out to be. Tell me what’s in your menu bar, and I’ll tell you who you are!

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