Why you shouldn’t use cleaning or housekeeping apps

I don’t often get unsolicited emails asking me to recommend Mac products in my articles, either here or those which I write for MacFormat. But I was surprised yesterday morning to see just that: encouraging me to praise a free ‘cleaning’ or ‘housekeeping’ tool.

Anyone who ever read my sections in MacUser will remember that such requests, even if accompanied by lavish gifts and promises of eternal good fortune, are futile. One of my several foibles is that I hate cleaning and housekeeping tools with a vengeance. Over the many years of trying to help users troubleshoot their Mac problems, I have never seen any of those tools do any good, and I have all too often seen the devastation which they can wreak.

Occasionally, perhaps when they thought the Reviews section had been getting boringly complimentary, editors would invite me to review a cleaning or similar tool. The last one that I wrote, almost three years ago, ended:
Thus XXXXXXXX is one of the better housekeeping tools, polished and thorough. If you are incapable of doing your own dirty work then you may find it of use. However its claim to make your Mac faster is contentious, and it does run the risk of causing havoc. You may prefer to stick to your own skills and make your own mistakes.
Names have been redacted to protect what would have been quite a good product, if only it did something more sensible.

When I have a sudden urge to clean my Mac up, and do some routine housekeeping, I do it my way. I don’t trash allegedly duplicate files unless I am convinced that I do not need two (or more) copies. I don’t go round stripping bits of OS X away, like removing language localisations, unless I have very good reason to. And when I remove potentially sensitive or important files, particularly those from OS X and apps, I don’t put them into the Trash, but tuck them away in isolation in a folder named oldCruft in my Documents folder. Only when I am confident that they are never to be needed again do they go in the Trash.

The product which I was being asked to promote broke all my rules. It stripped out those things which it deemed might be a waste of space. But it did not discuss with me first exactly what it was going to remove, nor does its documentation tell me that. It would be a bit like leaving one of our grandchildren to play with my Mac unsupervised for a day or two.

It also claimed to remove malware. That hardened my concerns considerably. What malware was it able to detect reliably, and what were its rules for their removal? Again, these are undocumented. Tools to detect and remove malware are highly specialist, and there aren’t many developers that I trust to do that. One of the few is Patrick Wardle at Objective-See: he knows what he is talking about. This vendor has no established reputation in OS X security, and the chances are that their claims are bogus.

One of the golden rules for any housekeeping or other cleaning session is that if you discover that something done during that causes problems, you must be able to reverse all changes made. If there isn’t a top-level undo, you will be stuck with a sick Mac, trying to re-install OS X and various broken apps, in the hope that might fix it. That happens not uncommonly when you use such cleaning tools.

So before I will even look at any cleaning or housekeeping tool:

  • its documentation must detail exhaustively what each of its functions does, in terms of what it moves or removes;
  • all its functions must be capable of being reversed easily, in the event that what they do causes a problem;
  • any claims made about security features must be supported by a good track record of security products for OS X;
  • the product must be updated immediately that there is any OS X or similar update, to ensure that it remains wholly compatible with the new software;
  • I must be confident that the product is not adware, scareware, or otherwise not totally honest with me.

In this particular case, I was also extremely dubious as to why the developer was offering this product at no cost. Even simple OS X apps are quite costly to produce. As its developer is outside Europe and the US, I suspect that the product was either adware, or possibly an attempt to exploit my Mac. Prove me wrong.