Looking at the menu bar on my Mac, you might think I've started working in hieroglyphics instead of English. Starting at the right side...

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Looking at the menu bar on my Mac, you might think I’ve started working in hieroglyphics instead of English.

Starting at the right side and extending to the middle of my PowerBook’s display, a collection of icons represents some of the best methods of accessing key areas of Mac OS X. The operating system itself is filled with features controlled by these menu-bar icons, though most of them are hidden. It’s also the place where a few clever programs hang out, unobtrusive until I need them.

Here are a few I find invaluable. (To find more, launch Apple’s Help Viewer and search for menu bar icon.)

Mac OS X icons:
The menu-bar icons are shortcuts for many features built into Mac OS X. For example, when I’m traveling, I make a point of turning on the modem icon, which lets me dial my Internet service provider without launching the Internet Connect application each time. It also makes it easy to see if the connection is still active. To turn it on, launch Internet Connect, click the Internal Modem button and enable the “Show modem status in menu bar” option.

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The Internet Connect application is also where you can enable the AirPort status icon (click the AirPort button and enable “Show AirPort status in menu bar”). In addition to displaying the strength of your current wireless-network signal, the AirPort status icon lists other Wi-Fi networks within range when you click it.

I use the iChat icon frequently, as it allows me to set my iChat status even when the program is hidden behind other applications. A quick trip to the menu bar lets me switch from Available to Away (or any custom messages that I set up within iChat, such as “Getting Coffee”), and lists which of my buddies is online. If it’s not already present, turn the iChat icon on by going to iChat’s preferences and enabling “Show status in menu bar” in the General pane.

One menu bar icon that isn’t usually turned on is Keychain Access, which displays a padlock icon to indicate whether your Mac OS X keychain is locked or not.

Because the keychain is the gateway to all sorts of private information, such as Web site logins and AirPort network passwords, I’ve set up Keychain Access to automatically lock itself after 10 minutes of inactivity. The application’s menu-bar icon is a quick way to lock or unlock the keychain, and access multiple keychains easily. In the Keychain Access application, choose “Show status in menu bar” from the View menu.

Other menu-bar utilities:
Apple isn’t the only company taking advantage of the menu-bar space. Objectpark Software’s MenuCalendarClock for iCal (www.objectpark.net/mcc.html) brings your schedule to the menu without having to launch the full iCal application. It’s $19 shareware.

The aptly named Butler (www.petermaurer.de/nasi.php?thema=butler&sprache=english&kopf=labor), by Peter Maurer, can launch applications, manage Web bookmarks, control iTunes, and perform Internet searches, all within roughly the same menu-bar space as the built-in clock. Butler is $18 shareware.

Finally, Paul Haddad’s PHTPasteboard (www.pth.com/PTHPasteboard/) is simple and effective, storing the last 20 items you copied or cut to the Mac’s clipboard. Simply click the menu bar icon to view a list of the most recent items, and then click the one you want to copy it for pasting in the program of your choice. PHTPasteboard is free.

Tiger pounces April 29:
Apple pinned the tail on Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger this week, announcing that the new version of the operating system will go on sale April 29.

Glenn Fleishman and I will be looking at Tiger in more detail once we get our own copies, but in the meantime I’m excited about three new features: Spotlight, a systemwide, speedy search feature; iChat AV 3.0, which lets you chat via audio with up to nine other people and video with up to three others; and QuickTime 7, featuring the H.264 video codec. (See www.apple.com/macosx/.)

The latter sounds like a geeky choice, but I believe it will have long-term significance for Apple. It provides very high quality video and audio that can be easily scaled while maintaining relatively small file sizes, and is due to be the basis for the next generation of high-definition DVDs.

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, consider that a scalable, small-size format could be used for distributing movies or other video content with the ease that the iTunes Music Store delivers music. Apple, of course, is mum on all future product plans, but pieces are falling into place to suggest that Apple isn’t going to be satisfied with its dominance in the music market.

Tiger sells for $129 for a single user copy, or $199 for a five-license Family Pack, but Amazon.com is selling Tiger for $95 (with rebate). There will undoubtedly be some kick-off events at the local Apple Stores (www.apple.com/retail/) and Mac Stores (www.themacstore.com), so check their Web sites for details as April 29 approaches.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.