If you’re looking for a one-click solution to delete harmless files and potentially speed up macOS, you might be tempted to buy a cleaner program. But what exactly do these apps do and are they worth your time and money?
What is Clean App?
Clean 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 be aware that you can do most of this yourself using macOS or free third-party tools, and some of the cleaner programs make inflated promises.
These programs are often advertised using language like “optimize” and “boost” to describe their effect on your system. Some are genuine programs that provide utilities, others can overstate their importance, and there are even some that can be harmful and even classified as malware. Most are not free, but require a paid license to access the full set of features.
Many promise to clean up “junk” files and remove programs, show you where disk space is being used, and offer to detect resource hogs or unnecessary programs. Most offer a single, all-in-one Scan that “detects problems” and fixes everything with just a few clicks.
What Does Clean App Really Do?
You can do much of what a cleaner app does yourself using the tools that already come with macOS. Almost everything else can be done with free software, but most users don’t need to worry about many of these operations.
Reclaiming free space usually involves checking folders such as Downloads or Trash for files hanging on your hard drive. Temporary files are also often targeted in both 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 trash collection.
They can categorize this app based on usage patterns or whether the cleaner considers the app “suspicious”. The ability to quickly uninstall an app is offered, which involves a more detailed process than the usual “drag the app icon to the Trash” method you’d normally perform in the Finder.
In addition to recovering space, some programs may offer to “shred” files. This is a form of secure deletion that tries to prevent the file from being recovered by overwriting the data to the same location on the drive. 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. This is still useful if you store files on an external hard drive.
And then there are the performance boost claims, which can be related to checking what’s loaded at startup and checking currently running processes (often flagging the ones using the most RAM). This usually contains a list of startup agents that are not easy to detect using your Mac preferences.
Other frequently cited performance tweaks include checking your file system for problems and Spotlight indexing. These are generally things you shouldn’t 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 (tracks for 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 their Downloads and Trash folders in minutes. You can even use Automator to write a script for free or run a Shortcut that does it for you.
You can also delete temporary files in Safari, Chrome or any other browser using the button in the program’s options. Many browsers empty their trash, and after deleting your temporary files, browsing sessions may temporarily slow down because your local cache will be gone. Unless you’re desperate for space, there’s not much to gain by doing this.
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 uninstall the app thoroughly, the excellent free AppCleaner is the best choice for you. 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 could probably get rid of. To do this without resorting to paid cleaning software, use a free program like GrandPerspective.
You can check which programs start when your Mac starts by looking at the menu bar in the upper-right corner of the screen. Some of these can be found by running the app in question and disabling the “Start at login” option, while others can be found under System Preferences (System Settings) > Users > Login Items. Clean programs definitely provide a simpler and faster way to remove startup daemons and startup agents than digging through system folders.
If you’re wondering what apps work now and how much CPU, memory, power, or network bandwidth they have, open Activity Monitor. You can sort by any metric you want to find resource hogs, then exit individual processes. If you don’t notice that your Mac is unusually slow, don’t worry too much if your system only has a few gigabytes (or less) of free RAM.
macOS manages RAM very well. The system will allocate the available RAM to the programs it deems necessary. If you have a lot of RAM on your system, expect macOS to use it and use it (you paid for it, after all). The system will redistribute RAM to other programs when they need them.
You can check your drives for problems (and repair them if necessary) using Disk Utility, but you don’t need to worry about them until the problem shows up. Spotlight will index itself periodically, especially when connecting new external drives that the system has not seen before.
While it’s a good idea to keep apps up to date, it’s not difficult to stay on top of it yourself. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to wait for an update if it’s a mission-critical application (because updates sometimes cause problems). Update everything from the app itself or in the Mac App Store with Homebrew, the MacOS package manager.
Some people may find cleaner programs useful
What cleaner apps do well is unify all these processes in a single interface. It feels good to hit a button and get a few gigabytes of free space or clean up your temp files, but it’s not worth worrying about unless you’re desperate for space.
It’s not fun to constantly manage a small amount of free space, so using a reliable cleanup program can keep things ticking over with just a few clicks.
RELATED: How to free up disk space on Mac
These apps offer a simpler way to “spring clean” your Mac by highlighting programs and files you’ve forgotten, speeding up your Mac startup by disabling software that starts when you log on, and notifying you of outdated software. CleanMyMac X is an example of a reliable cleaning app we’ve reviewed in the past, and we recommend it if you’re interested in such apps.
RELATED: CleanMyMac X Review: One Click for a Tidy Mac
The dark side of clean apps
Some of these programs are dishonest in terms of marketing, and some are borderline malware. You’ll find the worst offenders advertising tirelessly using spam tactics like pop-ups and banner ads on less reputable websites with hooks like “39 problems found on your Mac, click here to fix.”
On the surface, these programs may appear legitimate. Some, like the infamous MacKeeper, have been described several times as “invasive malware”. As this guide on iMore shows, they can be quite difficult to remove. Some people even claim that these programs can “stabilize” your system, when in reality, even when you think they’re gone, they’re more likely to just take your money and hang around in your system.
Not all cleanup programs are as bad as MacKeeper, but we recommend thoroughly researching any programs you consider using before installing them. Check reviews on trusted third-party websites, app stores, or even Google, or simply choose CleanMyMac, which we think is the best paid cleaning app for Mac.
You probably don’t need a cleaner program
Don’t worry about cleaner apps if you let macOS take care of the rest of the work by emptying the Trash yourself. If you like the idea of a one-click cleanup tool, get a reliable program and avoid dangerous ones. You don’t need to worry about Mac antivirus programs either, but if you want to avoid the risk, we have some recommendations.
The most important part of regular maintenance you should do is connect your Time Machine drive to back up your data (or use an alternative backup tool).