If you’re looking for a one-click solution to delete junk files and potentially speed up macOS, you might be tempted to buy a cleaner app. So what exactly do these apps do and are they worth your time and money?
What is a cleaning application?
Cleaner apps promise to help you free up space, speed up your Mac’s day-to-day operations, protect your privacy, and even remove malware. You should know that you can do many of these things yourself using macOS or free third-party tools, and that some cleaner apps make overblown promises.
These applications are often advertised using language like “optimization” and “boosting” to describe their effect on your system. Some are genuine apps that provide utility, others may overestimate their importance, and there are some that may even be harmful and even qualify as malware. Most of them are not free and require a paid license to access the full set of features.
Many promise to clean up “junk” files and uninstall apps, show you where your disk space is being used, and offer detection of resources or unnecessary apps. Most offer a single, all-in-one “Scan” that will “find problems” and fix everything in a few clicks.
What does Cleaner really do?
You can do a lot of what a cleaner app does yourself using the tools that already come with macOS. Almost everything else can be done with free apps, but most users don’t need to worry about many of these operations.
Recovering free space usually involves checking folders such as Downloads or Trash for files hanging around on your hard drive. Temporary files are also often targeted, both in system folders and in web browsers. Some apps will scan your Applications folder for apps that are taking up a lot of space or that you haven’t used in a while. For some, these are useful shortcuts to tedious Mac garbage collection.
They can classify this software based on usage patterns or whether or not the cleaner considers the application “suspicious”. It offers the ability to quickly uninstall an app, which usually involves a more thorough process than the usual “drag the app icon to the trash” method you’d perform in the Finder.
In addition to reclaiming space, some applications may offer “shredding” of files. This is a form of secure erasure that attempts to prevent file recovery by writing data to the same location on disk. This process may work well on older hard drives, but it doesn’t work on newer SSDs because of the way the data is written. Still handy if you store files on an external hard drive.
And then there are the performance boost claims, which can include checking what’s loaded at startup and examining the processes that are currently running (often flagging the ones using the most RAM). This usually involves specifying startup agents that aren’t necessarily easy to spot using your Mac’s settings.
Other commonly cited performance tweaks include checking your file system for problems and Spotlight indexing. These are things you generally don’t need to worry about unless you have a problem, but they won’t harm your Mac.
You may find that some of these tools offer to update your apps for you. This can be useful because not everything is available in the Mac App Store (which tracks updates) and some apps don’t have a built-in “Check for Updates” button.
You can do most of this for free
Any macOS user can empty their Downloads and Trash folders in minutes. You can even use Automator to write a script or run a shortcut that does it for you, for free.
You can also delete temporary files in Safari, Chrome or any other browser using the button in the application settings. Many browsers dump their garbage, and browsing sessions may be temporarily slower after you insert your temporary files because your local cache will disappear. Unless you’re desperate for space, there’s not much use for it.
Uninstalling apps is usually a matter of dragging the app icon to the trash or running an uninstall script provided by the app’s developer. If you want to thoroughly uninstall an app, the best free app is AppCleaner. Beware of paid copycats with very similar names!
Visualizing the free space on your Mac is a great way to see where your space is going and identify large files that you can probably get rid of. Use a free app like GrandPerspective to do this without shelling out for a paid cleaning app.
You can check which apps launch when your Mac starts up by peeking at the menu bar in the upper-right corner of the screen. Some of these can be disabled by launching the application in question and disabling the “Start at login” option, while others can be found in System Preferences (System Settings) > Users > Login items. Cleaner Apps definitely provides an easier and faster way to remove launchers and launch agents than digging through system folders.
If you’re wondering what apps are running right now and how much CPU, memory, power, or network bandwidth they’re using, open Activity Monitor. You can sort by any metric you want to find resource sources and then exit individual processes. Don’t worry too much if your system only has a few gigabytes (or less) of free RAM, unless you notice that your Mac is unusually slow.
macOS is very good at managing RAM. The system will allocate the available RAM to the applications it deems necessary. If you have a lot of RAM on your system, expect macOS to use it up and dump it (after all, you paid for it). The system will reallocate RAM to other applications when they need them.
You can check your disks for problems using Disk Utility (and repair them if necessary), but generally you don’t need to worry about it unless a problem occurs. Spotlight will index periodically, especially when you connect new external drives that the system hasn’t seen before.
While it’s a good idea to keep your apps up-to-date, it’s not difficult to stay up-to-date on your own. Sometimes waiting for an update to apply is a good idea if it’s a mission-critical application (since updates sometimes bring problems). Update everything in the Mac App Store, using the app itself or using the macOS Homebrew package manager.
Some people may benefit from cleaner apps
What cleaner apps do well is to consolidate all these processes into a single interface. It feels good to click a button and reclaim a few gigabytes of space or clean up your temp files, even if it ends up not being something you need to worry about unless you’re desperate for free space.
It’s no fun constantly managing a paltry amount of free space, so using a reliable cleaning app can keep things ticking over in just a few clicks.
RELATED: How to free up disk space on Mac
These apps offer an easier way to “spring clean” your Mac by highlighting apps and files you may have forgotten about, speeding up your Mac by disabling software that starts when you log in, and notifying you of outdated software. CleanMyMac X is one example of a reliable cleaning app we’ve looked at in the past, and we recommend it if this type of app is something you’re interested in.
RELATED: CleanMyMac X Review: One Click for a Tidy Mac
The dark side of cleaner apps
Some of these apps are less than honest in their marketing, and some are borderline malware. You may find the worst offenders advertising relentlessly using spam tactics like pop-ups and banner ads, with hooks like “39 problems found on your Mac, click here to fix them” on less reputable websites.
On the surface, these apps may seem legitimate. Some, like the infamous MacKeeper, have been repeatedly described as “invasive malware”. They can be incredibly difficult to uninstall, as this iMore guide shows. Some people even claim that these apps can “destabilize” your system, when in reality they’re more likely to just take your money and stay on your system even when you thought they were gone.
Not all cleaner apps are as bad as MacKeeper, but we recommend that you thoroughly research any apps you’re considering using before installing them. Check reviews on trusted third-party websites, app stores, or even Google — or just choose CleanMyMac, which we think is the best paid cleaning app for Macs.
You probably don’t need a cleaning app
If you’re comfortable taking out the garbage yourself and letting macOS handle the rest, you shouldn’t have to worry about cleaner apps. If you like the idea of a one-click cleaner, get a trusted app and avoid the dubious ones. You don’t need to worry about Mac antivirus apps either, but we have some recommendations if you don’t want to take the risk.
The most important part of regular maintenance you should be doing is connecting your Time Machine drive (or using an alternative backup tool) to back up your data.