September 16, 2017

Do you need a house-cleaning utility for your Mac?

Are you looking at your Mac and thinking “My Mac has gotten pretty slow. If this app can do a good cleanup and bring some oomph back to it then good!” or “better safe than sorry, right? If it can keep my Mac running smoothly, then it’s worth it!

True. If that was the case. Read on to find out why it probably isn’t, and be sure to check out my top tips for keeping your Mac running at its best at the end of the article.
I’ll explain using CleanMyMac (CMM) as example. There are other similar offerings, but CMM is the one I have seen installed most often on my clients’ Macs. I’m not trying to throw CMM under the bus: As far as I know they are a decent company and there is nothing really shady about CMM. It’s just that in my opinion these kinds of utilities bring little added value to a Mac with a reasonably new version of MacOS, under most circumstances.

Before we dig in, let me just warn you about an actual nefarious piece of software called MacKeeper. Suffice it to say you should never ever install it, it has a very bad reputation and it doesn’t do what it says on the box. If you have it installed already, get rid of it! Now.

So house-cleaning utilities, what do they do, according to their marketing? Many things: They free up space by getting rid of unwanted files, such as unnecessary files that come with installed software. They get rid of broken ‘junk’ files in the system. They clean and optimise your hard drive. They monitor the health of your Mac in a number of ways, such as checking your memory usage, your internal component’s health etc. Plus a ton of other stuff.

Again, I will use CMM as an example. They include this helpful graphic on their website, as an overview of functions it will perform:

CleanMyMac’s many abilities

 

That looks impressive. And CMM claims to be able to do this either automatically or at the press of a button. Cool!

But, and you knew there was going to be a but, there are three very general observations here, that put these claims in perspective:

  1. Your Mac does not run slower the more files it has on its hard drive
  2. Your Mac already performs a lot of cleaning up, all by itself, automatically
  3. These kinds of utilities interact with your Mac in a way that itself can cause potential problems

To me, the sum of these considerations tilt the balance into the net negative for such utilities. Lets’ do a little explainin’:

Oodles of files doth not a slow Mac make

There are lots of different files on your Mac, and the majority are not of your making: there are system files, files to support system files, files to make system files faster to access, files to make your Mac wake up fast, files to tell the Mac how to read other files, files to make accessing applications faster, language files for umpteen different languages inside each app, and so on and so forth. There are a lot of files on your Mac.

CMM and its ilk will clean up some of these, and that will potentially free up some GB of space on your hard drive. However, that means nothing for the speed of your Mac! Squat. It just doesn’t work like that. As an example, language files in an app does make the app file larger, but the language files that are not used are just sitting on disk. They are precisely not used. They are not run or opened or loaded when you open the app. So they don’t slow down opening the app. The same goes for most other files that CMM cleans. They just sit there, on the disk, waiting ad infinitum for some action they never see.

This also means that the uninstaller function has little value. Sure enough, it is true that if you just throw an application from the Application folder in the trash, it might leave behind support files of various kinds. But so what? Those files will just sit there, inactive. No issue.

Of course, if your disk is actually running out of space, then cleaning out unneeded files is important. You should aim to have about 20GB free on your disk as a minimum, to give MacOS room to juggle around with stuff behind the scene. But what is most probably filling up your space are your own files, such as your photo and music library, or movies. These you can usually easily clean out yourself, manually (see below for some tips on that).

Your Mac does its own housecleaning, thank-you-very-much

There was a time cleanup utilities had a place. And their continued popularity might be due to bad memories of days gone by, where crashes and inexplicable behaviour actually could be fixed and prevented by some of them. But the fact is that the Mac, i.e. MacOS, in its recent incarnations like Yosemite, El Capitan and Sierra (and soon High Sierra), has become increasingly good at doing such house cleaning. Cleaning caches regularly? Yep, doing it. Defragmenting files? Yup, on-the-fly. Checking and repairing (if necessary) the startup disk? Sure, when booting. These are all tasks which CMM and other utilities will also do, but which really are unnecessary as such, because they are already being done by MacOS automatically.

Other tasks, like the Privacy and Shredder functionality, are also present as options in MacOS already. For instance, to securely erase files, all you really have to do is to enable FileVault, which encrypts your whole disk and makes sure no file, erased or not, can be retrieved from your disk without the login password.

Health, risk and fatigue

So what about the the ability to monitor your Mac’s health in a number of different ways? And alerting you if you run out of memory? If your disk gets too hot? If your drive is about to fail?

These are all good in theory. It’s just that these occurrences are either pretty common and not indicative of failure, such as running low on memory (RAM), or they are very rare indeed, such as your SSD approaching end of life. Yes, it can be very helpful to get an alert if your hard drive is failing, and that can actually give you time to take that all important backup. But will you see, understand and react to that notification if you have seen a constant stream of notifications from CCM about your RAM running low? The risk of notification fatigue is real. The reason such utilities are notification trigger happy is a need, a marketing pressure, to show their usefulness, to keep them in your mind.

So yes, there might be edge cases and rare occurrences where such a utility can save you or help you. But you can do just as well or better with the tips below, and without burdening your Mac with yet another always running application like CMM. Yes, it can be a burden. Not only because of notification fatigue, but simply because one of the ways to keep your Mac healthy is to keep the number of always running add-ons/processes/extensions low. While I again think that CMM is well programmed and benign, like all applications there will be bugs. In working with other applications, with new versions of MacOS or other software you install. There is no telling how that will manifest, but there is one sure way to never having to find out the hard way: not installing the software.

How to keep your Mac happy

Of course, in an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to think about housecleaning like this: your Mac should take care of that stuff automatically by itself. And by and large, that is exactly what happens, as explained above. However, your Mac, being your humble servant, gives you the freedom to work on it exactly as you see fit, and that also includes the freedom to clog it up in a few different ways. My list of things to keep in mind, to keep your Mac happy, is short and sweet:

  • Don’t fill your hard drive to the brim!

If you need help finding out what is taking space on your hard drive, I recommend the excellent little free app Grand Perspective. It will map it in a nice graphical way, allowing you to quickly select any large file you want, and trash it. To keep an eye on how much hard drive space you have free, use the View menu in Finder and select “Show Status Bar”. That will display the amount of free space on the disk you are currently browsing in any Finder window. As mentioned, try to avoid having less than 20GB free on your startup disk.

  • Don’t install programs that run in the background unless you know you need them!

House cleaning utilities. Anti Virus (you think you need that?). Notification managers. Cloud syncing utilities. Drop box, Google drive, Team Viewer, Adobe/Macupdate/HP/Office/ updater. There are lots and lots of things you install on your Mac that wants to run some thing or the other in the background, all the time. The fewer of these you install, the better. They can hog resources, introduce bugs and even open your Mac up to nastiness attacks!

The application Activity Monitor in the Utilities folder gives you a quick way to monitor your memory usage

 

If you want to check how your Mac is doing yourself, have a quick look in Activity Monitor, which you will find in your Utilities folder. It might look a bit overwhelming when you open it, and it does contain a lot of information, but for this article I will just suggest you click on the second tab, ‘Memory’. It will show you a simple graph called ‘Memory Pressure’, seen in the snapshot above. As long as the filled in part at the bottom of the graph does not approach the top of the graph, you are good as far as memory (RAM) goes. And if it does, consistently, a utility will not help. Then you need more RAM.

  • Backup. Regularly!

This point goes on any list to do with owning a Mac. With the ease of backup with Time Machine, literally all you have to do is plug in an external hard drive and say yes when the Mac asks you if you want to use it for backup. Then your Mac will backup each and every time you put that hard drive in your Mac, silently in the background.

Remember how CMM can alert you if there is a problem with your hard drive? Doing regular backups is better. It will not only allow you to recover from a hard drive failure, but has the added benefit of keeping your files safe in case of theft or loss of Mac.

If you adhere to these three simple points you will have a good chance of keeping your Mac happy for a long long time. And if you think we have written this article to get customers to come to us instead of getting rid of Mac problems by installing a house cleaning utility, all we can say is that customers come to us despite having done so. And the problems we deal with on Macs, whether they have these utilities installed or not, are usually problems that could not have been alleviated by any such utility. Take it from us, sometimes you simply need a good Mac guy!

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