Mac or Myth – Uninstalling Software

Since switching to a Mac around February this year, I have started to learn what’s myth and what’s just how the Mac works. It’s interesting because a lot of the Mac mindset is about letting you get on with using your computer rather than having to worry how it all hangs together – and that’s a good thing. However, for some of us it’s nice to try and make sense of what’s going on under the hood so that we can be better prepared.

Uninstalling software – Under Windows, installing a program can typically make changes in four places; your Program Files folder, your Windows folder, the Documents and Settings folder and finally the registry. On a Mac people will tell you to simply drag the unwanted application to the trash, because there is no registry or system folder to affect. That’s partly true but it’s oversimplifying things somewhat. Truth is, on the Mac software tends to only affect two locations and that’s your Applications folder and your /Users/username/Library/ folder. Just dragging an application to the trash is like just deleting the applications folder under Program Files in Windows – it gets the job done but leaves bits behind, usually in your Library folder.

AppZapperSo to uninstall a Mac application completely you need to delete the application and to delete any subfolders it created underneath the /Users/username/Library/ folder. These folders are likely to have a name similar to the application itself, so if you’re uninstalling an application called ‘WinTheLottery’, then look for a folder called ‘/Users/username/Library/WinTheLottery’ to delete as well. If you’re unsure about wandering around your hard drive looking for stuff to delete then try out the excellent AppZapper program ($12.95). You just drag the unwanted application’s icon from the Applications folder on to the AppZapper ‘pad’, check the list of files it finds then click on the Zap button to uninstall them. Make sure to check the list carefully though, particularly if the program you’re removing is a utility that is associated with a certain type of file, as AppZapper might want to delete all instances of those files too.

A free alternative to AppZapper is AppCleaner which works in much the same way. AppCleaner(Although AppCleaner is free, you can make donations to the author via his website).

Some of the larger application suites like Office and Adobe Photoshop, or system utilities like DriveGenius may come with their own uninstaller. You might find it as a menu or preferences item in the application itself, or it may have installed the uninstaller in a special folder in your Applications folder. For one program I tried, the uninstaller came as a separate program inside the original .dmg package. In any case, if your program does have an uninstaller then don’t be tempted to use the trash can method above as you’ll leave all sorts of unwanted files lying around, use the uninstaller provided. This is because the suite may have created commands that cause certain things to happen when your Mac is booted up, and the uninstall routine provided should deal with these as well as removing all the necessary files.

In case you were wondering how come Mac applications typically seem to be a single file  whereas Windows applications create a folder full of assorted files… well it’s a bit of smoke and mirrors. You see under OS X Leopard any application that appears as a single .app file is in reality a folder with a .app name extension, concealing all the various files needed to make the application run. The difference is that OS X treats the .app folder name extension in a special way and does three things:

  • It hides the contents of the folder from you in Finder, and
  • It displays the icon for the application rather than the generic folder icon, and
  • When you double-click on it, it runs the application by default rather than just opening the folder.

.app extensionDon’t believe me? Well try this little trick. Create a regular folder, somewhere in your Documents folder perhaps, and call it MyFolder. Now pull up the Finder properties for your newly created folder (for two-button mouse users that’s a right-click on the folder and choose ‘Get Info’). In the Name & Extension field, rename your folder by adding .app to the end of the name, so in this case our example becomes Notice how the folder icon suddenly changes to the default application icon, and see what happens when you double-click on this new icon (don’t worry, OS X will just be puzzled that you’re trying to ‘run’ an empty folder).



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