Mac-Forums Investigates MacKeeper

Update (July 27, 2013): Grammar/spelling errors corrected and a short section about Mac-Forums’ relationship to the product was added.


One of the persistent questions around the forum has to do with a piece of software called MacKeeper. A cursory scan of the forum will paint in the minds of new members a confusing picture. On the one hand, many of our community members argue against it, describing it as bad, harmful, problematic and, my favourite, akin to snake oil (thanks to chscag for that one). On the other, the software is a permanent fixture of the advertising on Mac-Forums, creating a context in which it appears that the forums, and by extension its members, support it.

In this article, we’re going to address this confusion by looking at the online discussion around MacKeeper as we delve into the application itself. Finally, we’re going to wrap it up with a critical discussion about MacKeeper’s reputation in relation to its marketing.

Before I begin, I’d like to thank the staff team for assistance on this one. They’ve provided feedback and assistance on the tests, some of which helped to augment the post that you’re now reading.

The Internet is a tricky place – it can turn into a rather complex bazaar of ideas in a matter of moments when something presents itself as a problem. Take for instance the controversy that existed between The Oatmeal and lawyer Charles Carreon (see here, here,). In a short period of time, the Internet (broadly defined) sided with The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman, sparking a rather one sided fight with Carreon who ended up losing the battle (see here). This rather limited example, however specific, demonstrates the ways in which the Internet has an amazing potential to coalesce around an issue if it is deemed important to the “hivemind.” So, what does this have to do with MacKeeper? The answer is quite simple – once word spreads about a particular issue, the users of the Internet tend to group together and serve a common cause. MacKeeper’s reputation is no different, a reputation that has taken a beating despite few empirical studies to suggest that it is worthy of its reputation as worthless (or even fraudulent).

In this way, the Internet can be a cruel place. In general, it’s not commonly known for it’s affection and instead, it generally facilitates unrestrained candor. A complementary trait is the rather unrelenting “recycling” of news, a cycle in which a news story gains traction and gets copied around the web. MacKeeper’s reputation is subject to both of these characteristics, existing at the mercy of the web’s citizens while being subject to the perpetual circulation of opinions. It is for this reason that the virulent realm of opinion around MacKeeper exists and is widespread.

The vitriol around MacKeeper is no surprise. Users on forums frequently make the claim that it is dangerous and toxic software. A MacWorld thread has users advising others to “destroy” (source) their installs. This however doesn’t say much about the software and does little but recycle the rather persistent and empty rhetoric around MacKeeper. One is left asking the rather obvious question: “what does the evidence suggest?”

In a study of the software, Markus Tenghamn wrote a rather short review, one that is exclusively negative. In it, Tenghamn explains that the software was largely destructive, provide no tangible benefits that might offset any problems. To give you a better sense of this, I want to quote (at length) his conclusions:

I ran a system scan and found some issues, most seemed to be uncleared caches for programs and it seemed fine to let MacKeeper get rid of the almost 1 GB I had stored up over time. Right after that is when the problems started. All my fonts, about 500 or so, were gone and all my bookmarks, saved passwords and sessions were also missing. This got me pretty mad but I contacted support and asked them nicely if they could help me with the issue. They told me to restart my computer and that that would fix the issues. I didn’t see how it would help but I did and nothing changed. I got back with the same support guy and he would not respond now when I asked for more suggestions, a few other support guys seemed to join the session and finally someone gave me a 10 step guide on how I should duplicate the problem and record it with screenshots as well. They also needed a bunch of my log files and system info which I did not feel like sending this company. I checked the log files myself but they didn’t tell me much more than that my cache had been cleared for a bunch of programs.

Tenghamn, rightly so, was dismayed at the results of his test, suggesting that the issue wasn’t fixed sufficiently despite all his best efforts.

Tenghamn’s review was quite harsh and indeed, it is not one that serves as the model for all others. This is certainly not a universally held opinion however. In their review, Lure of Mac presents a much more complete appraisal, concluding that in the face of competition and a reputation nightmare, MacKeeper was not worth the little that it could offer as a package. Lure of Mac though is certainly in the minority when it comes to critique, presenting itself as a much more restrained look at MacKeeper. Comparing their review to others, Lure of Mac refrains from calling it malware or a scam (something it notes as a problem), a descriptor that seems to circulate with relative and uncritical ease (see here for instance).

Not all the reviews elicit negative reactions. TheMacFeed concludes by simply stating that, “all-in-all, this is an excellent application, and well worth the low cost of $40.  It is packed with great features, and has a simple, intuitive interface.” Expectedly, this review elicited critique, which was addressed by the author in a follow up post. In this follow up, the author does address some of the concerns that were made in response to the original post, presenting a much more ambivalent viewpoint about the application and the reputation that it carries with it. This seems to mirror the Mac Expert Guide review which both lauds and critiques the app, presenting a rather complicated picture. One wonders if this was an attempt to placate the masses while retaining some semblance of a review that lauds the software.

In short, reviews seem to span the rhetorical spectrum, ranging from polemical to rather positive. That said, one common fixture of the reviews is the conflation of the app itself and the marketing/advertising techniques of ZeoBIT (MacKeeper’s developer). Many reviewers are unable to differentiate the two and although the two should not be separated when doing a review, the marketing practices frequently come to be used as a tool to critique the application itself. Thus, most reviews seem to suggest that the application is bad because the marketing is, a proposition that doesn’t make much sense logically. Indeed, this is probably a nice example of a fallacy of relevance (for the philosophically inclined out there).

What follows are the results and a discussion about my experiences with MacKeeper. While it would be easy to simply do a review of the reviews, I wanted to offer an up to date and more detailed analysis that separates the marketing practices from a review of the app itself. The problems of conflation (marketing/product) obscure the quality of the software in the reviews, making it hard to know what the software does or doesn’t do.

MacKeeper was installed on a clean OS X 10.8.3 install (inside of a Parallels virtual machine) with updates as of May 5th, 2013. Absolutely nothing was changed on the install except for the installation of the Parallels Tools and perhaps a few caches files created by opening Safari, navigating to the website and downloading MacKeeper. The virtual machine was setup with 1 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 64MB of VRAM. The host machine is my MacBook Pro (2.5Ghz i5, 8GB of RAM and 512 MB of VRAM).

Shown above is the window that you’re greeted with when you first open MacKeeper. Rather uneventful, it’s organized in a clear fashion and it’s quite obvious from here how to use some of MacKeeper’s functionality. Since we have quite a few options, let’s begin with what I thought might be the most problematic function: “fast cleanup.”

Upon running it for the first time, I was told that MacKeeper could clean up nearly 500MB of data from my machine:

For a clean install, this would seem troublesome but upon closer inspection, the software doesn’t seem to be all that exceptional. The bulk of the data that’s slated for cleanup is extra languages, something that other software has built their reputation on (see Monolingual). What software packages such as Monolingual do that MacKeeper doesn’t (see here) do however is warn you of the negative consequences of doing this. While the review will not be testing the long term consequences of this (primarily because I don’t have Office installed in the VM or any affected Adobe software), the removal of language packs and its potential side effects are something worth considering.

The software also claimed to find duplicates which, upon testing, lived up to its claims. When I say “lived up”, I really mean that it didn’t find anything on a clean install. While this may not say much, it does suggest that it doesn’t pick up system files as duplicates of each other. In this way, the software doesn’t pick up system files as particularly damaging, something the hyperbole might imply is a problem.

The next piece of rather uneventful functionality was the disk usage functionality. MacKeeper reported “mostly” accurate folder sizes. For instance, it made the suggestion that my Library folder was 109.4 MB whereas OS X reported 114.5 MB. Small differences weren’t specific to that folder either – MacKeeper reported that my Downloads folder was 9.9 MB whereas OS X said that it was 10.2 MB. The small differences here are hardly significant and indeed, I’d suggest that they’re nothing more that minor differences in calculation methods. However, it would be interesting to see how much this differs on larger folders. It seems that MacKeeper reports sizes that are about 96-97% of what OS X reports. If that’s the case, the difference could be significant for larger folders. For example, my iTunes music folder is 29.44 GB. Assuming the math was consistent, MacKeeper would likely report it as being between 28.26 and 28.56 GB (this was not tested so please keep this in mind).

One piece of helpful functionality is what they’re calling “Smart Uninstaller” which is a utility designed to help remove any extraneous files that might have been created since an application was installed. I compared this to AppCleaner on my “regular” Mac install. While I don’t make the claim that AppCleaner is the metric against which all un-installers should be measured, I did want to compare MacKeeper’s Smart Uninstaller to something. For this test, I installed Tomahawk Music Player simply because it is something that has never been installed on my MBP or in the VM (the idea being that nothing would have influenced the results since it was new to both installs). As is the trend thus far, the results were rather unexceptional comparatively speaking. MacKeeper reported the following:

The only differences between the two are the last three entries in AppCleaner which listed the disk image itself, a log file and a saved state. On the whole then, MacKeeper was adequate in its attempts comparatively speaking but by itself, it did a sufficient job in seeking files associated with the application.

At this point in the testing, I noticed that MacKeeper’s Fast Cleanup tool reported 97.5 MB of data that could be cleaned up. I was intrigued since I hadn’t done much so I looked at the list:

The helpd cache is an interesting listing. This daemon, responsible for Apple’s help system, seems to be generating a large cache. Why it was growing so quickly isn’t of direct interest but what is interesting is MacKeeper’s overzealous desire to clean. There’s little reason to clean what it suggests but this doesn’t appear to be harmful. At worst, deleting a cache may slow down your system while it gets regenerated but this shouldn’t detract from or impair normal system function.

One of the tools that might be of legitimate use is the file recovery functionality built into MacKeeper. During testing, I had deleted a variety of files including screenshots and installers. I ran the file recovery tool to see if it was able to find any of these files. Here is what MacKeeper listed as recoverable files:

Most of what MacKeeper listed a recoverable files remains a mystery to me. A random collection of plist and xml files with no context would be utterly confusing to a new user and baffling at best for more advanced users. Given that the files are simply numbered and not described in any way, the file recovery functionality offers no useful functionality. While it might be able to recover these files, the total absence of anything useful renders the value of this tool questionable.

Beyond the collection of tools discussed here, most of the functionality provided duplicates features and services offered elsewhere (and for free). The internet security services, a fancy name for anti-virus, is included but likely of little use. While the role of anti-virus on a Mac can be argued for days on end, little suggests that this is any better than a free product or, simply, common sense. The anti-theft service duplicates Apple’s elegant Find My Mac feature which is not only built into OS X but is free. MacKeeper also comes with encryption functionality which appears to do nothing that an encrypted disk image or FileVault can’t. The shredder, a tool designed to permanently and securely erase files, is something Apple has built into OS X (think of the secure erase functionality). The backup tool is yet another feature that duplicates built in tools (Time Machine) or well respected third party solutions (Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper). ZeoDisk, MacKeeper’s sync service, replicates functionality that can be found in a plethora of free tools including, but not limited to, iCloud, Google’s varied services, Dropbox and so on. Beyond being free, those tools, like the aforementioned backup solutions, are well tested and respected in the Mac community. It’s also worth noting that ZeoDisk is not yet available, which puts it behind other tools that have already built up a reputation and user base. Next, the update tracker does what AppFresh has done for years. While AppFresh is $15 on its own and thus expensive in relation (compared to MacKeeper’s $40 price tag for a collection of tools), AppFresh exists as only one tool focused on one task (something many people like) and serves as a complement to the Mac App Store, itself free and quite efficient at maintaining/upgrading the apps on your machine. Perhaps the most useless tools though are the login items and default apps tools, both of which not only replicate functionality in OS X but offer nothing beyond what the built in tools do (is it really possible to make default file associations more efficient or interesting?).

Although not normally an area worthy of inquiry, a fair number of complaints levied against MacKeeper focus on the ways in which it burrows into the system and refuses to go away. Before beginning, I decided to see if there were official uninstallation instructions (the app doesn’t come with an uninstaller). A quick search in Google lead me to these which I decided to follow. According to the instructions, removal of MacKeeper follows the familiar template – drag it to the Trash and voila. Upon doing so, I was greeted with the following:

Interestingly, the application seems to be aware of its placement in the trash, something I had never seen before. This was a nice change from other applications that scatter files across the filesystem since it seemed to suggest that it would remove all relevant files. I clicked the “Uninstall MacKeeper” button and was subsequently informed that it was done. With some anticipation, I opened the trash expecting to find the main MacKeeper application package and an assortment of other related files. However, I noticed that only the main application bundle was in the trash. What then was this uninstallation screen for? Your guess is as good as mine.

MacKeeper is an interesting application but not because of its functionality. Instead, much of the hype and dislike appears to be based on a reputation that lingers in a Mac using community that prides itself on effective and functional design. The reputation that MacKeeper carries with it is one that suggests that not only is it not effective or functional but that it is also parasitic in nature. Contrary to the latter, I didn’t find it to be obtrusive or overly dominating. However, in relation to the functionality and effectiveness, MacKeeper is utterly useless amidst a whole collection of free and reputable tools that do the job just as well if not better. For $40, one would expect an application to excel if it has to compete with the ever lucrative price of nothing. MacKeeper fails in this regard, bringing nothing to the table that can’t be had by using other products. The Lure of Mac review echoes this conclusion, noting that, “some of the modules seem to be superfluous or redundant.” On top of that, some of the functionality is fundamentally flawed. The recovery tool is a joke and the Fast Cleanup feature is confusing. Complementing this is a collection of tools that unabashedly replicate built in functionality while offering nothing new in return for the $40 price tag.

Suffice it to say, I’ve come to a very different set of conclusions relative to those that come to dominate discussions of the tool. Unlike many others, I didn’t have any problems with the installation or performance of the app itself. In fact, in that regard, it doesn’t behave differently than most other applications. However, in no way can a price tag of $40 be justified for a product whose functionality is either questionable or available for free elsewhere. I understand that there is a particular allure to having all the tools in one convenient spot but when none of them are all that good or better than competitors, the value of one cohesive product loses its lustre.

This blog post, in part, was driven by a continued sense of ambivalence amongst many members of the Mac-Forums community with regards to MacKeeper. The software has a fairly contentious reputation amongst many of the established members in the community who frequently discuss this problem with new (and often confused) members. While I may disagree with some of these critiques in relation to the functionality, the overtly negative view of ZeoBIT’s marketing and advertising does mean that they are valid subjects of censure.

While I may have bracketed off the marketing practices earlier to privilege the application, one cannot reasonably separate the two. ZeoBIT has earned a particular reputation in the Mac community and as many of us know, marketing is inherently about building a particular reputation. Whether or not ZeoBIT has questionable marketing practices, the circulation of an opinion about said practices is what matters most (however separate this might be from the application itself). While this may be the case, contentious marketing practices do serve as a reflection of the company itself…if warranted. That sense of hesitation is one that comes with experience – questions around MacKeeper’s marketing practices fail to provide any proof of said practices. While some people may suggest that MacKeeper’s advertisements are intrusive, one has to remember two things. First, most ads online are delivered by third parties, not the company itself. Second, intrusion is a huge part of web browsing these days. Install Ghostery in your browser of choice (Firefox and Chrome at least) and watch it report back every embedded connection on a page.

Does any of this justify ZeoBIT’s practices? No but is what they do all that different than, let’s say, Facebook? Facebook, for example, gets loaded on just about every page on the Internet these days and yet, there’s little push back. Google, in some form, gets loaded on just about every page (Google Analytics alone is worthy of mention) and yet, they escape critique rather unscathed. While the problems are of a different nature, one has to ask, “why do certain people/companies escape censure while others get the brunt of a large and vocal community’s critique?” This is not to justify ZeoBIT’s past or present practices but rather, this serves to contextualize it.

While this might appear to be a defence of ZeoBIT, I think it’s worth acknowledging the valid critiques (here). Some people have made particular (and technical) arguments about the practices of the company, ones that don’t magically disappear with time. If history teaches us anything, it’s that history lives on in the present. Even if ZeoBIT reforms its practices, it still engaged in them at some point, a practice that left (and continues to leave) a sour taste in the mouths of those in the Mac community.

If it sounds like I’m ambivalent about the situation, you’ve come to learn of my struggle in writing this section. ZeoBIT’s presence on the web is enigmatic, existing in relation to a Mac community that frequently yells out “heathen!” Trying to glean from this a clear picture is difficult and because of this, I think it’s worth further investigation before I make any sort of definitive claim.

I have one final comment, one that is specific to this community. As many of you have noticed, MacKeeper ads appear on Mac-Forums (see here, here for discussions about this topic). Mentioned above was the existence of third party advertising companies who are responsible for much of the advertising online. These third parties are ultimately the groups responsible for advertising on Mac-Forums. Consequently, Mac-Forums does not have a direct relationship with MacKeeper. At best, it’s indirect and in a more (perhaps) accurate sense, it doesn’t exist at all. Think of it this way – MacKeeper advertisements appearing on Mac-Forums is akin to abrasive or offensive ads appearing in a city. One does not suggest that the city condones or supports the content of the ads, much like many of us don’t support MacKeeper. Secondly, given that ZeoBIT has managed, successfully, to build up clout within the Mac community (the quality of such reputation aside), it is almost impossible for these ads not to appear. Like much in life, the best way to approach things is not to ignore it but to contest it. Don’t like MacKeeper? Critique it and, if need be, feel free to defer to this blog post.

It’s hard to find another piece of software that generates so much confusion and anger. Many of the comments made about the software play on the marketing practices of the company ZeoBIT, a set of critiques that are not only justifiable but warranted in a community that more and more is defined not by its veterans but by people new to the Apple ecosystem. Beyond the dubious veneer that is the advertising however, the product itself manages to hold its own. While the application has faults and is not really worth the price tag, it hardly exists as that digital parasite that persistent efforts of demonization have made it out to be. Is it worth the $40? Absolutely not. Does it offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere? Not even close. Is it a scourge that need to be banished from the web? Hardly. And herein lies the essence of the application itself – it might be questionable in terms of efficacy but it’s not intrinsically evil.

Despite presenting some sort of defence of the application, this conclusion, one that suggests that the app “just isn’t worth it,” does not shield it from the practices of the company. While I worked to separate the company from the product (to give the product a fair trial), it is ultimately tied back to a company that has a questionable reputation. Does this justify a criticism of the app itself? No. Does this justify a set of critiques against MacKeeper in relation to its developers? Perhaps. Consequently, while I want to conclude that the app itself isn’t overly terrible, its indelible connection to a questionable company and its inflated price tag makes it not only an unattractive package but one that should indeed be avoided.