The mysterious methods to uninstalling Mac apps

Kirk McElhearn
1 August, 2016
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A reader wrote in with a suggestion for a topic for this column:

Coming from a Windows environment I find that uninstalling a Mac OS application to be very difficult. My understanding is that in some cases you can simply remove the app from the Applications folder, but that is not always the case. There are other cases where the software vendor will provide an uninstall application. How can I easily uninstall apps on my Mac?

Uninstalling Mac apps has never been easy. You can sometimes just delete the app from your Applications folder, but that rarely deletes all the files that app has created. Or you can delete apps installed by the Mac App Store from Mission Control: click and hold on an app’s icon. When all the icons wiggle, you can delete any app with an X at its top left corner by clicking the X.

uninstall

There are three different ways apps can be installed:

  • Using an installer – either the OS X Installer app or, less commonly, installers created by developers. This is necessary when the app needs to install support files in locations that require an administrator’s approval. You’ll see a request for an administrator’s password for these installations, which may install files in the top-level System or Library folders.
  • Via the Mac App Store – in this case, the Mac App Store app installs apps in the Applications folder. Apps installed from the Mac App Store – other than those from Apple – cannot install files in system folders.
  • Manually – third party apps may be delivered as zip archives or in disk images. You either decompress the zip archive and move the app to the Applications folder or mount the disk image, then move the app it contains.

Some apps may install additional software or support files later, either the first time you launch them or if you download additional files in the app. GarageBand is an example of the latter; you can choose GarageBand > Sound Library to download sounds and loops to use when creating music.

Apps also create support files, such as preferences, and store data as caches, downloads, logs and more. So deleting an app from the Applications folder won’t delete all the files that app has written or saved. In most cases, these files don’t take up much space, but some apps – again, GarageBand is a good example – can store several gigabytes of files.

It is more problematic when an app installs software in the System folder or the top-level Library folder. This may be a helper app or extension that continues to run in the background, even when its app is no longer present, and could potentially cause problems with OS X or other apps.

When apps are installed using the OS X Installer app, they write files called receipts. Theoretically, one should be able to use these receipts to uninstall apps; they contain a list of the files that an app installs. You should be able to, for example, open the Installer app, then select an application and have Installer remove it and all its files.

Some third-party developers offer uninstallers, but these aren’t the rule. In many cases, these uninstallers aren’t installed with the original apps, and you need to search a vendor’s website to find one. Or you may need to launch an original installer to use its uninstall option.

In most cases, it doesn’t matter much if deleting an app leaves some files behind: most of these files don’t take up a lot of space. But sometimes apps can leave a lot behind: caches, additional software and more, which can use a lot of storage and potentially cause problems with your Mac. It shouldn’t be too hard for Apple to design an uninstaller, even for apps that you simply drag to the Applications folder. It would make things a lot easier for Mac users who want to clean out apps they no longer user and sweep away space taken up by unneeded files.

3 Comments

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  1. Rod Sprague says:

    I have a couple of issues with this article;
    If the author is implying that it is more difficult to remove an App from Mac OS than a Windows PC he should have a look at the steps involved for Windows:
    Uninstall Using Control Panel
    Delete Remaining Files and Folders of the Program
    Remove Software Keys from Windows Registry
    Empty Temp Folder
    These are just the headings, each require several steps.
    The Mac OSX Installer app referred to does not exist. If the author is referring to the App Store application that is a different matter.
    Only third party apps purchased from sources other than Apple come with installers with the exception of the OS System Installer which Upgrades your operating System from say Mavericks to El Capitan and that disappears after the Upgrade is complete.
    Apps downloaded from the App Store can be removed either from the Purchases page of the App Store or by using the same method as an iPhone or iPad. In Launchpad hold an app (Left mouse key) until they all “wiggle” then click the X in the top left corner.
    The addition of a free utility called App Trap will ensure all associated files are removed (If you wish). The same occurs if you just drag the app to the Trash.
    This in my mind requires a lot less work than the same process in Windows. If anybody has tried uninstalling Microsoft Office you will know what I mean, even with their uninstaller there are at least 8 other elements that must be removed manually.
    If one is still in doubt other free apps are available to search (apart from Spotlight) the HD (including hidden files) for remains such as Find Any File.
    As for Apple pruducing a universal uninstaller for third party apps, well it hasn’t happened in Windows and I don’t see it happening in OSX for the simple reason that neither Apple nor Microsoft know what a third part app will instal or where.

  2. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    I agree that the Windows process can be more difficult but it is far more consistent in my experience (crappy, but consistent). Mac apps… some are simple drag and drop from Applications to trash, others have an uninstaller that comes with the application, others have an uninstaller that you download separately, and others have no easy way other than to scan through preferences, and the Library and System folders to completely eradicate then.

  3. Jamie says:

    Actually it is rather easy to uninstall Microsoft Office from Windows, Microsoft provide a tool that will completely uninstall it and in my experience it works very well.

    And as far as uninstaller tools go there are a number of options for either operating system which will (in general) remove all traces of an application.

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