Adding a Custom View to an NSStatusItem

My Menubar Countdown application uses an NSStatusItem to display itself in the menu bar. I recently had to add a custom view to that status item, and thought I'd share what I learned about the process here.

A little background: a status item is one of those little thingees you see on the right side of the Mac OS X menu bar, such as the clock, the Spotlight icon, the sound volume control, and so forth. Programmatically, you create a status item by doing this:

NSStatusBar *statusBar = [NSStatusBar systemStatusBar];
NSStatusItem statusItem = [statusBar statusItemWithLength:NSVariableStatusItemLength];
[statusItem retain];

Once you've created a status item, you can do these things with it:

  • call the setTitle: method to display a string in the menu bar (or call setAttributedTitle to display an attributed string)
  • call the setMenu: method so that a menu is displayed when the status item is clicked
  • call the setHighlightMode: method with YES to cause the title to be highlighted appropriately when a menu is displayed
  • call the setTooltip: method to set a tooltip to be displayed when the mouse hovers over the status item

There are other things you can do with a status item, but the above describes the features that Menubar Countdown uses. When the timer is running, the application simply calls setTitle: once per second to display 00:25:00, 00:24:59, 00:24:58, and so on down to 00:00:00. The user can click the item to display a menu that controls the application.

While the setTitle and setImage methods give many developers all the display functionality they need, NSStatusItem also offers the ability to set a custom view that displays in the menu bar. I decided I wanted to add some animation, so I needed a view. The problem is that if you set a custom view, you are responsible for all the drawing and event handling; NSStatusItem no longer does any of that for you.

After a couple of hours of Googling and experimentation, I wound up with something that worked.

I decided I wanted a view class with two properties: statusItem, which would be a pointer to the NSStatusItem associated with the view, and title, which would be the string displayed in the menu bar. The title attribute would make it easy to update the app, as I could just change every instance of [statusItem setTitle:...] to [statusItemView setTitle:...].

Here is my class declaration:

@interface StatusItemView : NSView {
    NSStatusItem *statusItem;
    NSString *title;
    BOOL isMenuVisible;
@property (retain, nonatomic) NSStatusItem *statusItem;
@property (retain, nonatomic) NSString *title;

(The purpose of the isMenuVisible instance variable will be explained later.)

The initialization and deallocation methods are straightforward:

- (id)initWithFrame:(NSRect)frame {
    self = [super initWithFrame:frame];
    if (self) {
        statusItem = nil;
        title = @"";
        isMenuVisible = NO;
    return self;

- (void)dealloc {
    [statusItem release];
    [title release];
    [super dealloc];

The statusItem property can be simply synthesized:

@synthesize statusItem;

Next, we'll tackle menu handling. When our view is clicked, we want to display the menu, and while the menu is displayed, we want our item to be displayed in a highlighted state. NSStatusItem provides the method popUpStatusItemMenu: to display the menu in the right place under the menu bar. To deal with highlighting, we have an instance variable isMenuVisible that will be set to YES whenever the menu is being displayed, and NO when it is not. We can use the NSMenu delegate menuWillOpen: and menuDidClose methods to be notified when the menu is shown or closed.

- (void)mouseDown:(NSEvent *)event {
    [[self menu] setDelegate:self];
    [statusItem popUpStatusItemMenu:[self menu]];
    [self setNeedsDisplay:YES];

- (void)rightMouseDown:(NSEvent *)event {
    // Treat right-click just like left-click
    [self mouseDown:event];

- (void)menuWillOpen:(NSMenu *)menu {
    isMenuVisible = YES;
    [self setNeedsDisplay:YES];

- (void)menuDidClose:(NSMenu *)menu {
    isMenuVisible = NO;
    [menu setDelegate:nil];    
    [self setNeedsDisplay:YES];

The title property affects the display, so we can't just synthesize it. When the title is set, we need to determine the bounding rectangle of the text, and then set the status item's length so that it can contain the text. Setting the status item's length also updates the custom view's bounds.

After some experimentation and zooming, I figured out that when a normal NSStatusItem draws its title, there is a horizontal margin of six pixels between the side of the item's display and the text, and a margin of three pixels between the bottom of the display and the text. We need those values to calculate status item size:

#define StatusItemViewPaddingWidth  6
#define StatusItemViewPaddingHeight 3

To determine the text's bounding rectangle, we can call NSString's boundingRectWithSize:options:attributes: method, but to do that, we need to construct an attributes dictionary that describes the font and other aspects of drawing. We'll use the same attributes dictionary in our drawRect: method, so when we construct it we'll include the desired foreground drawing color in the attributes.

- (NSColor *)titleForegroundColor {
    if (isMenuVisible) {
        return [NSColor whiteColor];
    else {
        return [NSColor blackColor];

- (NSDictionary *)titleAttributes {
    // Use default menu bar font size
    NSFont *font = [NSFont menuBarFontOfSize:0];

    NSColor *foregroundColor = [self titleForegroundColor];

    return [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObjectsAndKeys:
            font,            NSFontAttributeName,
            foregroundColor, NSForegroundColorAttributeName,

- (NSRect)titleBoundingRect {
    return [title boundingRectWithSize:NSMakeSize(1e100, 1e100)
                            attributes:[self titleAttributes]];

With the titleBoundingRect method defined, we can implement the title property:

- (void)setTitle:(NSString *)newTitle {
    if (![title isEqual:newTitle]) {
        [newTitle retain];
        [title release];
        title = newTitle;

        // Update status item size (which will also update this view's bounds)
        NSRect titleBounds = [self titleBoundingRect];
        int newWidth = titleBounds.size.width + (2 * StatusItemViewPaddingWidth);
        [statusItem setLength:newWidth];

        [self setNeedsDisplay:YES];

- (NSString *)title {
    return title;

And finally, we can implement drawRect:. NSStatusItem provides a method drawStatusBarBackgroundInRect:withHighlight: that will draw the appropriate background for a status item, so we just call that and then draw the title at the correct position.

- (void)drawRect:(NSRect)rect {
    // Draw status bar background, highlighted if menu is showing
    [statusItem drawStatusBarBackgroundInRect:[self bounds]

    // Draw title string
    NSPoint origin = NSMakePoint(StatusItemViewPaddingWidth,
    [title drawAtPoint:origin
        withAttributes:[self titleAttributes]];

That's it for the view class. Here is the code in my application controller that sets it all up:

statusItem = [[NSStatusBar systemStatusBar] statusItemWithLength:NSVariableStatusItemLength];
[statusItem retain];

statusItemView = [[StatusItemView alloc] init];
[statusItemView retain];
statusItemView.statusItem = statusItem;
[statusItemView setMenu:menu];
[statusItemView setToolTip:NSLocalizedString(@"Menubar Countdown",
                                             @"Status Item Tooltip")];
[statusItem setView:statusItemView];
[statusItemView setTitle:@"00:00:00"];

(There is a minor gotcha here: You have to call the status item's setView: before calling the view's setTitle:, because the view needs to call the status item's setLength: method. I could have fixed that, but decided it wasn't worth the effort.)

Here, we are creating the view programmatically. I tried creating it in Interface Builder and setting all the connections that way, but the result was a view with funky bounds and frame properties that didn't display itself the right way. Google found some other people with the same problem, and while some had found solutions, I didn't understand them. (Maybe someone can explain it to me.)

And so, after a couple of hours of work, I had a custom status item view that makes the status item look just like it did before I had the custom view. Progress!

Of course, I didn't leave the view that way. I called setWantsLayer: on the view and started doing Core Animation stuff. Maybe I'll write about that next time.

© 2003-2023 Kristopher Johnson