Dojo (HowTo)







  Easter Eggs




  Martial Arts

Menu Space
How much screen real-estate do windows use?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Menus are important, but they are almost always visible, and screen real-estate is a very valuable commodity. The more screen real-estate is wasted, then the less real information you get to see.

Mac - The Mac uses a global menubar, that changes context based on the foreground app. This means that the amount of space wasted is only one "line" of text, no matter how many Apps are open. Also the amount of wasted space is "fixed" (not changing based on how many Apps you have open). -- SCORE: 4

Windows has no global menu bar, instead opting to put a menu bar on each window (actually sometimes only on each parent window, and sometimes on all windows -- which adds to confusion about the differences between a parent and a child window, but that is a separate debate). The trouble is that each application or window, has it's own menu-bar (wasting real-estate) -- if you open 5 Applications, then you functionally have 5 menu-bars. Unless you are in the explorer, then each Window has its own menubar (but there is is no parent window with its own menubar).

This menuing system is not space efficient. However, most of inefficiency is hidden by two other phenomenon;

  1. Windows overlap (so menu-bars can overlap and hide other menu-bars).
  2. Windows are often used in their "zoomed" state so that one window is obstructing the entire screen (and all other menu bars).

These issues mean that far more real-estate is wasted by the windowing mechanism than by the menu-bars, and the inefficiency of windowing, hides the inefficiency of the menus themselves. SCORE: 3

NeXT - NeXT used a Global Menu system (like the Mac). However, due to patents and copyrights, they were forced to take a different approach. Instead of using a menu-bar, they used a menu-pallette. Instead of running horizontally (across the top), it ran vertically, along the left side (though it could be moved). The area that the menu takes itself is not much worse than Apple, but the shape (a rectangle) is such that it forces there to be a LOT more dead-space (since menus are wider than they are tall, by doing them vertically, you can't place anything along that whole wide left-column, for fear of it being obstructed). To make matters worse, NeXT menus also stay out when selected (some cases) so you have a second or third layer of pop-out menus obstructing part of the screen. So the menus grow from left to right (as well as fill from top-down). To make matters just a little bit worse (real-estate wise), all menus can be torn off, and behave like palettes.

However, NeXT power users often use the ability to pop up the global menu palette underneath the cursor to mitigate these issues. You can even turn off the global menu, and only use the pop-up menu -- recovering screen real-estate, but then losing visual queues. This also forces using a second mouse button. SCORE: 2

Note: I really do like the NeXT's menus for many reasons (far better than Windows or Be's implementation). They are easy to understand, and because of the space wasted, there is a lot of visual feedback. Because you can tear off menus and place them anywhere, you can customize the interface, and select the commands you use most often very quickly. It is powerful, and intuitive -- but the trade-off is the screen real-estate.

BeOS - BeOS pretty much modeled its Menus after Windows -- but Windows uses something called MDI (Multiple Document Interface) -- where they bury child Windows into a Parent Window -- and only a parent Window has a menu. This is a horrible interface, and terribly annoying overall -- but it does mean that not EVERY Window will have a menu. BeOS, decided to be far more consistent, and not use the annoying Parent-Child Windowing that Windows does -- and they put a menu in every Window (though some Apps don't use them). This is a little less space efficient than Windows (for menuing) -- but far more consistent (and predictable) and the Windowing System is far more real-estate efficient than the MDI stuff (overall). SCORE: 2.5

Others - There are OS's that are more efficient in menu real-estate than any of the OS's discussed here. They do so by having "pop-up" menus, or menus that only appear (and always appear) when you select one of the mouse buttons. It is also not as efficient as you would think -- since sometims you want to bring down the whole menu, but you are over a "context" area, so you have to move somewhere else before you can do so. But it is very space efficient, it does not offer the visual feedback of context and visual queues, it adds to the complexity of a mouse (with an extra button), and new users are not "offered" choices and the ability to explore (unless they already know how to bring up menus) -- so while I would give these systems a "5" in space efficiency, I do not personally think that it is worth the trade-offs in other areas. SCORE: 5

[return to Menus]

Created: 12/21/97
Updated: 11/09/02

Top of page

Top of Section