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 Cleaner App?
Cleaner apps promise to help you create free space, speed up the day-to-day operation of your Mac, 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 inflated promises.
These apps are often advertised using language like “optimize” and “boost” to describe their effect on your system. Some are genuine apps that provide utility, others may overstate their importance, and there are those that may even be harmful and even qualify as malware. Most are not free, requiring a paid license to access the full suite of features.
Many promise to clean out “junk” files and uninstall applications, show you where your drive space is being used, and offer to detect resource hogs or unnecessary applications. Most offer a single, all-in-one “Scan” that will “detect problems” and fix everything in a few clicks.
What Does a Cleaner App Really Do?
You can do much of what a cleaner app does yourself using tools that already come with macOS. Just about everything else can be done with free apps, but most users don’t need to worry about a lot of these operations.
Free space recovery normally involves checking folders like Downloads or Trash for files that are hanging around on your hard drive. Temporary files are also often targeted, both in system folders and web browsers. Some apps will scan your Applications folder for apps that take 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 may classify this software based on usage patterns or whether or not the cleaner considers an app “suspicious” or not. The ability to quickly uninstall an app is offered, usually involving a more thorough process than the usual “drag the app icon to the Trash” method you’d perform in Finder.
On top of regaining space, some apps may offer to “shred” files. This is a form of secure delete that attempts to prevent a file from being recovered by writing data to the same location on the drive. This process may work fine on older hard drives but doesn’t work on newer SSDs due to the way data is written. It’s still handy if you’re storing files on an external hard drive though.
And then there are claims of boosting performance, which may involve checking what’s loading on startup and examining the processes that are currently running (often flagging the ones that are using the most RAM). This usually includes listing launch agents which aren’t necessarily easy to spot using your Mac’s preferences.
Other performance tweaks often cited include checking your file system for problems and indexing Spotlight. These are things you generally don’t need to worry about unless you have a problem, but they aren’t going to harm your Mac.
You may find that some of these tools offer to update your apps for you. This can be useful since not everything is available in the Mac App Store (which keeps track of updates), and some apps don’t have a built-in “Check for Updates” button.
You Can Do Most of This for Free
Every macOS user can empty the Downloads and Trash folders in a matter of minutes. You can even use Automator to write a script or trigger a Shortcut that does it for you, for free.
You can also erase temporary files in Safari, Chrome, or any other browser using a button in the app’s preferences. Many browsers take their own trash out, and browsing sessions may be temporarily slower after you’ve nuked your temporary files since your local cache will be gone. If you aren’t desperate for space, there isn’t much benefit to be gained by doing this.
Uninstalling applications is usually a matter of dragging the app icon to the trash or running an uninstallation script provided by the app’s developer. If you want to thoroughly uninstall an app, the excellent free app AppCleaner is your best bet. Beware of paid copycats with very similar names!
Visualizing your Mac’s free space 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 forking out for a paid cleaner app.
You can check which apps start up when your Mac starts by peeking at the menu bar in the top-right corner of the screen. Some of these can be disabled by launching the app in question and disabling the “Start at login” option, while others can be found under System Preferences (System Settings) > Users > Login Items. Cleaner apps definitely provide a simpler and faster way of removing launch daemons and launch agents than digging around in system folders.
If you’re wondering which apps are running right now and how much CPU, memory, energy, or network bandwidth they’re using, open Activity Monitor. You can sort by any metric you like to find resource hogs, then quit individual processes. Don’t worry too much if your system only has a few gigabytes (or less) of free RAM, unless you’re noticing that your Mac is unusually slow.
macOS is very good at managing RAM. The system will allocate available RAM to apps it deems necessary. If you have a lot of RAM in your system, expect macOS to make use of it and dish it out (you’ve paid for it, after all). The system will redistribute RAM to other applications, as and when they need them.
You can check your disks for problems using Disk Utility (and repair them if necessary), but you generally don’t need to worry about this unless a problem presents itself. Spotlight will index itself periodically, especially when connecting new external drives that the system hasn’t seen before.
While it’s a good idea to keep apps up to date, it’s not difficult to stay on top of this yourself. Sometimes, waiting to apply an update is a good idea if it’s a mission-critical app (since updates sometimes introduce problems). Update everything in the Mac App Store, using the app itself, or with macOS package manager Homebrew.
Some People May Find Cleaner Apps Useful
What cleaner apps do well is consolidate all of these processes into a single interface. It feels good to click a button and get a few gigabytes of space back or clean out your temporary files, even if it ultimately this isn’t something you need to worry about unless you’re desperate for free space.
It isn’t fun to constantly manage a paltry amount of free space, so using a trusted cleaner app can keep things ticking over in just a few clicks.
These apps offer a simpler way of “spring cleaning” your Mac by highlighting apps and files you may have forgotten about, speeding up your Mac’s startup by disabling software that starts up when you login, and notifying you about outdated software. CleanMyMac X is one example of a trustworthy cleaner app that we’ve looked at in the past, and we recommend it if this kind of application is something you’re interested in.
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 tirelessly advertised using spammy tactics like pop-up windows and banner adverts, with hooks like “39 problems found with your Mac, click here to fix” on less-than-reputable websites.
On the surface, these apps may appear legitimate. Some, like the infamous MacKeeper, have been described as “invasive malware” on more than one occasion. They can be incredibly hard to uninstall, as this guide on iMore demonstrates. Some people even claim that these apps can “destabilize” your system though, in reality, they’re more likely to just take your money and hang around on your system even when you thought they were gone.
Not all cleaner apps are as bad as MacKeeper, but we recommend thoroughly researching any apps you’re considering using before you install them. Check out reviews on trusted third-party websites, app stores, or even Google—or just pick CleanMyMac, which we think is the best paid cleaner app for Macs.
You Probably Don’t Need a Cleaner App
If you’re comfortable taking out the trash yourself and letting macOS handle the rest, you shouldn’t worry about cleaner apps. If you like the idea of a one-click clean-up tool, get a trusted app and avoid the dodgy ones. You don’t need to worry about Mac antivirus apps either, but we’ve got some recommendations if you’d rather not take any risks.
The most important bit of regular maintenance you should be performing is connecting your Time Machine drive (or using an alternative backup tool) to back up your data.