Uninstallers – Three for your consideration


I’ve never been great at reviewing software. I could argue that it’s because I’m highly focused and just use the features I need. Alternatively I could just admit that I lack the mental discipline to methodically check every feature to see how it stacks up. In any case, I made a bit more of an effort when it came to looking at uninstallers, primarily because I like trying out software on the Mac and with a good 75-80% of things I try getting trashed for whatever reason, I needed something that would do a thorough job.

AppZapper

AppZapper

So I plumped for three candidates. AppZapper was one of the first applications I bought for the Mac and has been a long time favourite. However, CleanApp caught my eye one day as being a bit more feature rich and I decided to give it a go with interesting results. Finally I thought I’d add AppCleaner to the mix, mainly because it’s a free alternative to the other two.

All three go about letting you choose apps to uninstall in a similar way. Either you drop your victim on to the application’s “pad” or you choose it from a list of apps the uninstaller knows about. This is where the first differences appear in that when you launch CleanApp it quickly builds a list of apps and presents it to you by default, while the other two open in ‘drag n drop’ mode and need to be asked to show a list of known apps. What is also interesting is that on my system, both CleanApp and AppCleaner built their lists in seconds, while hitting the ‘Genie’ button in AppZapper resulted in some furious disk activity for around ten minutes before I was shown the results. Now as you’d expect, each program gave a different figure for the total number of apps it thought I had installed, and this may be (in part) down to how each categorizes what it finds, but the program giving me the highest total of removeable items was CleanApp (269), then AppCleaner (236) and finally AppZapper (231).

Now I briefly mentioned categories and by that I mean the types of things you can install on your Mac. Obviously there’s the traditional apps that go in your

AppCleaner

AppCleaner

Applications folder (or wherever you choose), but there’s also Preference Panes, Screensavers, Plug-ins, Widgets, etc., and each uninstaller will let you get at these to varying degrees. AppCleaner shows me everything in the Applications folder (including subfolders like Utilities) under the heading of Applications. It also has a separate button for Widgets and finally a button labelled Other for everything else which listed plug-ins, contextual menu items and the like. CleanApp on the other hand considers everything as either an Application or a Preference Pane. In the case of applications it’s anything with the extension .app wherever it happens to reside on your system (although you can chose to exclude folders from the search). Under Preference Panes, CleanApp listed 3rd party preference panes as well as 3rd party widgets, 3rd party screensavers and 3rd party plug-ins like the Evernote web clipper, Flip4Mac etc. The fact that only 3rd party items are listed here is interesting because you’d think it means that standard Apple items are safe, however I found that Apple applications like iTunes, iPhoto and even Disk Utility are also listed as uninstallable applications by CleanApp. Whether or not that’s a good thing I’m not sure, but both AppZapper and AppCleaner offer some sanity checking by not displaying standard Apple applications by default (although you can change that setting in AppZapper), plus they both let you specify other (3rd party) applications to protect via their preferences settings.

CleanApp

CleanApp

Now it’s about time we got down to the main purpose of these three programs and that’s removing unwanted apps and extras from your system. My first test was to uninstall Thunderbird which I’d been trying out for a week. Both AppZapper and AppCleaner said they would delete two files – however CleanApp found a third Library file relating to Thunderbird that the other two didn’t spot. Ok, how about a bigger program like Aperture? CleanApp announced it had found 18 files and 3 folders that needed removing. AppCleaner found 6 files and 2 folders, while AppZapper flagged 6 files and 1 folder for removal. You’d think that for sheer thouroughness, CleanApp is the clear winner here. However, examining the list of items to delete revealed some very interesting results. I use Aperture in conjunction with iPhoto, so even though Aperture has it’s own separate library for storing photos, I can directly access my iPhoto library from within Aperture. What this means is that CleanApp listed my iPhoto library (all 14.1Gb of it!) as one of the files it could remove when uninstalling Aperture, which would of course have been disastrous! This happens because of a feature of CleanApp which is a background process tht watches how applications work – i.e. what files they interact with. So it correctly spotted that Aperture was indeed accessing my iPhoto library and thus offered it up as a candidate for removal. This is where a utility like CleanApp needs caution because in the right hands it’ll seek out the stuff that the other two miss, but in the wrong hands it can and will take away files you’d really rather keep and that may even be necessary for your system to run properly so care is needed.

What would be nice is if CleanApp had a ‘Protect this application’ feature (like the other two do). That way I could tell CleanApp that I want to protect iPhoto, then if I go to uninstall Aperture, CleanApp would alert me to the fact that certain files used by Aperture are also used by iPhoto to help prevent me from mistakenly removing files that iPhoto needs. Sure you can un-check what files to delete once CleanApp has done its assessment, but often files can have obscure names you might not spot as needed by other apps and a helping hand to prevent human error wouldn’t go amiss. CleanApp does go some way to mitigate the problem by offering an Archive facility, so rather than deleting files (which can be done via the Trash to offer a small degree of protection) for apps you want to uninstall, it can archive them to a bespoke CleanApp archive file (with the .caa extension). The selected files are then taken out of service so to speak, but can then be reinstated later via the Archive function. It’s not ideal because it still leaves you to find out the hard way if you’ve removed something needed by another app, but it is better than nothing. I tried this out by going to uninstall Plex (which doesn’t share files from any other application from what I can tell) and then using the Archive option rather than the delete option. A day later and after powering off my Mac over night for good measure, I fired up CleanApp and recovered Plex from its Archive (CleanApp recovers the files to their original locations). I then launched Plex and while I didn’t test every single aspect of the program, what features I did try worked just fine.

A trio of uninstallers

A trio of uninstallers

There are other differences too. I installed six 3rd party screensavers and then had a look to see what my uninstallers made of them. CleanApp only found two of them, because by default it only looked in my Users/<username>/Library/Screen Savers/ folder, whereas four of the screensavers just happened to have installed themselves into the system /Library/Screen Savers/ folder where any user could use them. Yes you can change this behaviour in the CleanApp preferences by adding the relevant paths to search under the Paths tab, but it again emphasizes the fact that you need a bit of knowledge to get the best out of this utility. Both AppZapper and CleanApp found all six by default, and that’s pretty much the theme for uninstalling things using these three tools – AppZapper and AppCleaner will do a lot by default while CleanApp gives you more power but you need to exercise more control.

The final thing is logging or history, and all three will keep a history of what you’ve removed whether you access the logs via a menu item or directly within the application itself. Unfortunately neither AppZapper nor AppCleaner offers an undo facility, although CleanApp does provide this by way of its Archive facility as I mentioned earlier. There’s another app out there that will ‘archive’ applications for you and let you reinstate them later on, although the name of it escapes me at the moment.

As far as features go, that’s about where it ends for AppZapper and AppCleaner, but CleanApp offers a few more things, namely – Old Files, Archives, Languages and Cache Files. Old Files will list files under your home folder (Users/<username>/) that haven’t been accessed for over a month and is a handy way to see what junk you may have forgotten about that you can then delete directly from the list. The list is helpful in that it tells you where the file is, when you last accessed it and how much space it’s taking up.

As I mentioned above, Archives lets you reinstate uninstalled apps that you chose to archive rather than delete. You can also permanently delete archive files from here if you’re sure you no longer want the app and your system is running fine, or you can burn the archives to CD/DVD from within CleanApp itself. I’m not sure if there’s an option to re-import CleanApp archives into the program, but if there is then it’s escaped me for now. Languages looks like it lets you search for language localization files, e.g. for languages you’ll never use so that you can delete them and recover space, but it’s not something I’ve needed to do. Finally the CacheFiles feature lists everything in your Users/<username>/Library/Caches folder giving you a handy way to look for cache files to clear out, for example from apps you uninstalled before you had CleanApp.

There you have it, my potted view of three application uninstallers. So the first question is – are they really necessary? Well that all depends on your point of view and how you use your Mac. If like me you are constantly experimenting with new bits of software, then these are a great way to keep your Mac free of junk files that would otherwise take up space and potentially slow your Mac down. If however you are like some people I know who have only ever installed iWork or Microsoft Office (oh and of course World of Goo!) since getting their Mac, then I guess you probably don’t have the need. That then leads me on to – which one is best?

Well if you’re reasonably non-technical and want to just keep things a little tidier then there’s not much to separate AppZapper and AppCleaner other than the price. AppCleaner is free and will do a reasonably good job so I guess that edges it over AppZapper, but then there’s nothing like the “ZAP!” sound-effect you get when you use AppZapper to purge that useless app with attitude. However for the power user I’d say CleanApp wins for it’s range of features and more ‘thorough’ cleaning, although as I’ve mentioned it can be a double-edged sword and you really need to exercise some caution when using it. Also, I have seen mention of some users complaining that the background scanning process in AppCleaner can slow your Mac down and/or prevent it from sleeping. This isn’t something I’ve noticed, but then it’s only fair to mention it.

Which one shall I keep on my system? Well I’ve paid for both CleanApp and AppZapper so I’ll keep both for now and will compare results when I next come to uninstall apps over the coming months. If it wasn’t for AppZapper there would be a space for AppCleaner on my system too, but if you’re after a free and capable uninstaller then AppCleaner is vastly superior to just dragging your app to the Trash bin. The other thing is that these aren’t the only Mac uninstallers out there. Hazel springs to mind as a program that not only helps you organize files, but also includes an app uninstall feature. There are more and if you have a favourite then mention it in the comments. It’ll keep us all busy until Apple decides to include an uninstaller in a future version of OS X, and even if that happens (you can’t predict anything with Apple), there will be companies offering alternatives.

Finally I would add that although AppCleaner is a handy little app that’s free to download and use, you can make a donation to the author and if you do decide to keep and use it, then I’m sure he’d love it if you sent a few dollars his way!

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2 Responses

  1. Hey Robin.

    Slight derailment, but certainly not too-far off base 🙂 as i’m picking out ‘bitz’ from this article. You have a screenshot that shows a side-by-side comparison of the apps… well being intrigued, I started looking around the rest of the screenshot. I’m always curious of cool, productive, fun, etc apps — especially for the new OS that I’ve finally come into 🙂

    How possible/sane would it be to get a list of the programs running in your dock — say, from left to right, with a snippit of what it is? I recognize several, but there are more that I do not recognize, that … if anyone would be willing to share, … certainly it would be you.

    🙂

    Thanks.

    — Matt

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