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How to uninstall software

Published April 7th, 2014 at 11:06 AM EDT , modified April 7th, 2014 at 11:06 AM EDT

Okay, I’ll admit that Windows has a leg up on Mac OS X in one area: uninstalling software. On Windows this is easy (in theory) for anyone to do through the control panel. Mac OS X, however, does not provide any systemwide features for software removal. As a result, there are many myths and uncertainties as to how software should be removed from a Mac.

First, let’s take a look at some of the myths. One thing that people commonly do is simply drag an application to the trash. Fortunately, that actually works in a lot of cases. However, in other cases, this is an abysmal failure, leaving sometimes dozens of other components of the software actively running. Worse, in some cases, the removal of the application can confuse all those other processes, causing instability and performance problems.

Another myth involves the use of generic “uninstall” apps, such as AppZapper, AppCleaner, AppDelete and CleanMyMac (just to name a few). These are often recommended by “experts” on forums, seeming to lend them some credibility. However, these apps cannot reliably uninstall anything. They may be able to clean up a few unimportant leftovers – such as preference files – but they generally cannot properly remove more complex software. In fact, not only do they usually fail to remove enough, in some cases they can actually remove too much, damaging the basic functionality of other apps or even the system.

The same “experts” will often also tell people to look through various folders on their systems, recommending that they delete anything from those folders that belongs to the software being removed. Although this can be sound practice for a knowledgeable person, who knows where to look and what to look for, this is quite dangerous advice for the novice. Rooting around in the system and deleting things is never a good thing for a computer novice to be doing without very specific instructions and warnings.

There are also numerous sites out there with uninstall directions for just about every popular piece of software. Unfortunately, these sites are often scam sites… the instructions may very well be good, and the site is simply trying to make advertising dollars by showing you with ads, but some sites will actively try to scam you, infect you with malware or try to get you to download “removal tools” that are malicious or install adware. Be wary of such sites. It’s generally better to ask the developer of the software in question directly.

So, now that we’ve covered some things you shouldn’t be doing, what should you do? The answer is, unfortunately, not easy, especially for novices. The first thing you need to know is how the software was installed, and for a novice who may have installed the software a long time ago, that may no longer be known. If you don’t know how the software you’re trying to remove was installed, find the official website for that software and see how it is provided.

If the software to be removed was an app downloaded from Apple’s Mac App Store (ie, the App Store app found in the Applications folder in Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later), you’re in luck! Uninstalling it is simple: open the LaunchPad, then click and hold on any of the apps there. When you hold the mouse button down long enough (about 2 seconds), all the icons start “wiggling,” and any apps downloaded from the App Store will have an ‘X’ in the upper left corner. Click that ‘X’ to remove the app. If the app you want to remove does not have an ‘X’, that means that it was not downloaded from the App Store, and you will need to use another method.

If the software required an installer, you can be sure that it has scattered anywhere between a few and a large number of other files in a variety of different places on the hard drive. Such software should only be removed using an uninstaller provided by the developer who created that software. Such installers may be installed in the Applications folder along with the app being installed, or they may be on the downloaded disk image containing the installer, or they may even be a part of the installer itself. (Some installers will ask if you want to uninstall if you run them and the software is already detected as being installed.)

Sometimes, there will be no obvious uninstaller, in which case you will need to first consult the documentation for the software. If the documentation does not include any information about removing it, or if there is no documentation that you can find, contact the developer of that software. They may have a “knowledgebase” on their website that can be searched for answers to questions like this one, or you may need to actually talk to a support representative.

Removing Adware

If you are trying to remove adware from your machine, try the removal instructions in my own Adware Removal Guide.

In some rare cases, there may not be an uninstaller at all, or the uninstaller may not work properly. This is generally only the case with incompetent or dishonest developers, whose software you probably shouldn’t have installed in the first place. One good example of this is Genieo, aka InstallMac. This adware provides an uninstaller that leaves a lot of actively-running junk behind. In the case of adware or other unethical software (such as software designed to facilitate the download of illegal materials or software that claims to speed up your Mac by “cleaning” it), you may need to seek out manual removal instructions, rather than relying on the uninstaller provided by the developer.

The most difficult case involves apps that were downloaded from somewhere other than the App Store, but that did not require an installer. Such apps are installed simply by dragging them to the Applications folder. In many cases, removing these apps is as simple as dragging them to the trash. However, these apps may also install components elsewhere the first time they are opened.

These apps may include some kind of uninstaller as part of the original download, or they may have an uninstall command in the app’s interface somewhere. Again, you will need to seek help from the program documentation or the developer in these cases.

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  • Switchy Switcher says:

    Another reason to switch to Linux … which runs perfectly on my MacBook 😉

    • Thomas says:

      Okay… I suppose if you’re okay with not having most major commercial software available to you, that’s an option. It’s not one most people can choose, and not one that most people would want to choose.

  • Zak says:

    You say dishonest or incompetent developers don’t have uninstallers but honestly I only have 2 applications (out of 132) with uninstallers. App store uninstalls (the method you use) still leaves tons of junk behind, sometimes a gigabyte worth. Realistically I have to say windows is only slightly better since many of its installers do maybe half of what they should do and can corrupt the registry if they go wrong. Computers as a whole need better uninstallers, no matter the OS.

  • Jimbo says:

    Most apps you can drag an drop into the trash. All they would leave behind are possibly a plist file in ~/Library/Preferences or a folder in ~/Library/Application Support.

    Apps that require a Kernel Extension to run generally have an uninstaller bundle inside their installer dmg.

    Some apps are annoying as they offer no uninstaller and have indeed setup launchd processes with require a bit more digging to remove.

    I have seen folk who have trashed an app but the launchd process remains causing an issue each time the mac boots.

  • in a small town... says:

    So here we are looking at ‘how to uninstall software’
    yet I seem to have missed exactly how to uninstall
    mackeeper, cleanmymac, & these kinds of badware.

    Where do I look among Guides to find exacting details?

    PS: Thank you Thomas, for your good work!

  • Joachim says:

    Do you have a guide on how to uninstall advertising support highjacker program??


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