The Apps You Need to Keep Your Mac’s Hard Drive Clean

Back when I first made the switch to a Mac, part of the appeal of both the OS and the hardware was the minimalist approach that Apple takes. I always hated having to delete the trial software that Microsoft lets other companies dump into their systems. Apple lets you start with a clean slate and enjoy your new machine from the second you turn it on. Unfortunately, though, Macs are just as prone to getting cluttered as anything else over time.

Even if you aren’t a digital neat-freak like me, chances are the available space on your drive shrinks a little bit more every day. If you aren’t proactive, you’re going to run out of space. If you’ve gotten a newer Mac with an SSD or replaced your Mac’s hard drive with an SSD, chances are you’re dealing with less storage on your Mac than you would have expected in the past. While SSD prices are falling, the price-to-capacity ratio still means that space is at a premium, and you’ll need to start keeping better tabs on what is eating up space. Luckily, there are a number of options for cleaning up the clutter, and we are going to take a look at a few that I’ve used in my battle to keep my laptop lean.

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Diagnose the Problems

Before we get cleaning, it’s nice to get a sense of what exactly is on your drive. When I was considering cutting my laptop space in half (swapping the 500 GB drive for a 256 GB SSD), I started by seeing what I could get rid of. I tried DaisyDisk first.

Getting started with DaisyDisk is extremely simple.

DaisyDisk is a diagnostic tool that merges clean aesthetics with powerful analysis. After selecting the drive you want to investigate (either your internal drive or an attached one), DaisyDisk will scan all of your files and give you a visual approximation of what is taking up space. The different colors represent file types, such as music, movies, documents, and more. Rolling your cursor over each area gives you some information about that file type. DaisyDisk also moves beyond merely diagnosing problem areas, by allowing you to drag and drop files to be cleaned up.

DaisyDisk gives detailed information in a beautiful way.

Great care was taken by DaisyDisk’s developers to make the app beautiful, but you may consider the $10 price tag to be a silly amount of money to spend on a simple utility. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, you may want to consider Disk Inventory X.

Disk Inventory X isn’t as visually-appealing, but has much the same functionality as DaisyDisk.

Disk Inventory X’s reports aren’t nearly as visually-appealing, but they are as revealing about what’s on your drive. And for the low price of free, it’s tough to complain about that. Personally, until DaisyDisk gets its price slashed, I recommend trying out Disk Inventory X before dropping $10 here.

Sweep it Under the Rug, or Throw it Out?

I’ve tried a ton of different apps that all claim to save you space on your hard drive. Now, it is important to understand that this is a broad goal, and there are a number of ways to accomplish it. You can either compress files so that they remain on our computer but take up less space, or you can just eliminate them altogether. I’m not a huge fan of compression, because if there is a file that I might need later but don’t want taking up space, I’ll just throw it onto an external drive and worry about it later. But if you have large files that you want to compress and leave on your internal drive, I can recommend Clusters.

Clusters lets you keep your files but will compress them to save space.

With Clusters, you simply let it know which folders to watch, and when anything new gets placed into those folders, it automatically compresses them. It exists as a preference pane, and from there you can control the whole program. I’ve used Clusters for a while now, but wouldn’t recommend using it on too much of your system. In my experience, it can hamper your processor if it has too many folders that it has to work on.

Let’s Get Cleaning

If you choose to eschew compression for straight up file cleaning, you have a lot of options. Let’s start with Disk Doctor. I reviewed Disk Doctor a few months ago, and found it to be generally well-suited for quick cleaning sessions. However, it isn’t particularly robust, and doesn’t exactly get into the darker corners of your drive.

After doing a quick scan, Disk Doctor lets you choose what you want to clean. The available categories are caches, application logs, extra languages, the trash can, downloads, and mail downloads. While some of those options are self-explanatory (e.g. downloads), others may be new terms for Mac neophytes (e.g. caches). Disk Doctor gives a quick explanation about what each of these means, in case you are hesitant to check the box.

Disk Doctor makes it clear what you are about to delete, and gives you a decent amount of information about your current disk usage.

Frankly, even for the least tech-savvy users out there, it seems silly for any app to sell the ability to empty the trash can as being a feature. The true value here is the ability to clean harder to reach files, such as application caches and extra languages. Now, whether it is really necessary to delete caches is debatable. Caches help commonly used apps run faster, and deleting these files may only give you the illusion of saving space, as those apps will likely just recreate those files the next time you use them. Extra language files, though, are probably more valuable areas for cleaning. I personally only need English and Spanish on my system, so I have no problem dumping the dozens of other languages that OS X comes with.

If you are just looking to trash the extraneous language files on your system, check out a free option called Monolingual.

Disk Doctor’s scan found 989 MB that it could free up. Rather than hit clean, let’s see what how some competitors match up. First, I ran Disk Diet, from Tunabelly software. It gives you pretty much the same interface, and just about the same available categories to clean up.

Disk Diet looks for pretty much the same stuff as Disk Doctor, but has a slightly less appealing design.

The gauge across the top of the window that gives you an idea of how much of your drive is full isn’t quite as clean, and lacks basic information that Disk Doctor gives, (specifically, what you are using and what your total capacity is). In addition to Disk Doctor’s categories, Disk Diet also lets you clean up legacy code. As OS X evolves, fewer developers are including legacy code in their programs, and fewer users have antiquated programs on their computers. In my case, Disk Diet found a negligible amount of 16 MB. All in all, Disk Diet found 849 MB of files to clean up, which is a tad less than Disk Doctor, but still pretty good.

DriveSlim’s search is more comprehensive, and is mixes features found in some of the previously mentioned apps.

Next, I ran DriveSlim, part of Prosoft’s Drive Genius collection. DriveSlim can do what the previous two apps can, but with some additional functionality. It searches for caches and expendable files, as well as duplicates and large files. After scanning for all of these, you can compress large files, and delete duplicates and caches. DriveSlim found an impressive 3.16 GB worth of space to save, more than triple what the others found.

If you want an app that can scan your system for duplicates, take a look at Gemini from MacPaw.

Despite the increased space found, there is a significant downside to DriveSlim. It isn’t quite as quick and easy of a process as Disk Doctor and Disk Diet, due to the scope of its search. Each of those took me about 3 minutes from scanning to cleaning. But since DriveSlim finds so much, you probably will want to go through everything and check what you want it to work on rather than give it free reign.

The top search result is from a shared Dropbox account, and that is not something you would want to alter.

For instance, it found files that are in shared folders of my Dropbox account – I wouldn’t want to alter those in any way, as other users need access to them. Ultimately, despite finding a large number of candidates, I erred on the side of caution and left many files alone. And when it comes to compressing your files, DriveSlim doesn’t behave quite the same way as Clusters. Rather than compress the files in place, DriveSlim moves them into a separate disk image. This isn’t as convenient, but may be appealing to those who want to stick their bulky, unused files in a different place (like moving Christmas decorations to the attic).

CleanMyMac doesn’t find as much, but has a few key features that make it one of my favorite utilities.

Lastly, I ran CleanMyMac, which I’ve used for about as long as I’ve owned a Mac. It does pretty much the same thing as Disk Diet and Disk Doctor, but with a few added benefits. You can do secure erases, in case you have sensitive data that needs to be permanently wiped. You can have it monitor the trash can and it will popup and run automatically when it reaches a level that you define. Perhaps most interestingly, it can do full uninstalls of apps that you wish to get rid of. Typically, uninstalling an app on OS X just means moving it to the trash can, which makes the whole process much more straightforward than I ever found it to be on Windows. However, some apps may create files elsewhere in your system, such as in Application Support in your Library folder. CleanMyMac makes sure that the application you are uninstalling is deleted fully. After scanning, CleanMyMac found 584 MB to delete, which is significantly less than the previously mentioned apps.

Mac OS X has the ability to do secure erases built-in. Click on the trash can, then from the menubar, select Finder > Secure Erase Trash…

Which One Wins?

So now that we’ve taken a look at a few of the apps I’ve tried that help clean up your drives, it would be a natural question to ask is which one is the best. Unfortunately, that is tough to answer. No two are the exact same, and the prices vary. Personally, I use Clusters to compress a few folders, CleanMyMac to uninstall software, and DriveSlim to find duplicates. However, I only use DriveSlim because it is part of a larger collection of apps that I use to monitor my drives called Drive Genius 3, which goes for the tough-to-justify price of $99 (I got it from my job).

Drive Genius 3 has a ton of great features, including hard drive health monitoring, but it is expensive.

If I was looking for an app that just found duplicates, I would stick with Gemini. If I was just looking for an app to clean up my caches, I would stick with Disk Doctor. If I just needed to see where my space is being used, I would stick with Disk Inventory X. What complicates your decision is the fact that for each of these apps, there is a clear jump in price that is commensurate with the added features that each brings over the competition. So, making a recommendation here is tough, because it all depends on your needs. An ideal program would do all of the functions I’ve discussed, but none are perfect.

The best thing you can do is to be vigilant in your daily use of your computer. Don’t save files that you will never need again. Don’t go around installing apps that you won’t ever use. And my best advice is to stick to a consistent, easy to understand naming scheme for your documents. That way, when you do get around to cleaning up, you won’t have to guess what that file called “My New Document 6” is.