These days, it seems like every Windows user has heard about CCleaner. It’s widely recommended, online and offline—but this week, it acted as a piggyback for malware. The real question we should be asking is: do you really need CCleaner in the first place?
CCleaner has two main uses. One, it scans for and deletes useless files, freeing up space. Two, it erases private data like your browsing history and list of most recently opened files in various programs.
In a way, it’s kind of like Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup tool, which frees up space on your hard drive by deleting useless files—old temporary files created by programs, temporary Internet files for Internet Explorer, Windows error report logs, and more. You can run this tool at any time to free up disk space.
CCleaner does do these things and more. It takes the Disk Cleanup concept and runs with it, extending it to more data in Windows and third-party programs that the Windows Disk Cleanup tool won’t touch. For example, it will erase cache files for other browsers like Chrome and Firefox, or delete the useless setup folders NVIDIA’s graphics driver installers create when you update your graphics drivers, which can consume hundreds of megabytes each.
Just select the types of data you want to delete, click the Analyze button, and look over the data CCleaner will delete. If you’re happy, click the Run Cleaner button to actually delete the selected files. CCleaner will remember your choices for next time, so you can just open it and click the Run Cleaner button in the future.
CCleaner has another purpose: it will also delete private usage data. For example, CCleaner will erase your browser history, cookies, and cache files for any browsers you have installed — Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, even Opera. It will go beyond that, erasing the cookie data stored by the Flash Player. It will even wipe out other potentially privacy-risking data, such as the list of recently opened file names in Microsoft Word, Adobe Reader, Windows Media Player, VLC media player, and other common Windows applications.
All of this is customizable, but CCleaner is set up to wipe out this data by default. Not only does CCleaner quickly wipe away useless temporary files, it’s like a sort of computer-wide “Delete my history” feature that deletes more than just your browsing data. Of course, CCleaner doesn’t know about every program you might use, so this will never be perfect.
CCleaner can be mildly useful, and we’ve recommended it in the past—but for the most part, it’s not something you need. There are a few reasons for this.
You could use CCleaner constantly, running it every day with the default settings. However, this would actually slow your computer down in real use. This is because CCleaner is set up to delete your browser’s cache files by default.
Cache files are bits of web pages—images, scripts, stylesheets, HTML files, and more—that your browser holds onto. For example, when you visit How-To Geek, your browser downloads the How-To Geek logo that we display at the top of the page. It then saves this logo in its cache. When you navigate to a different page on our website, your browser doesn’t have to download the logo image all over again—it just loads the image from the browser’s local cache. Your web browser is constantly doing this with bits of different web pages, and it speeds up web page loading because your browser doesn’t have to download the same files over and over.
However, if you were to constantly clear your browser’s cache, it would have to re-download the same files over and over. That means that clearing your browser’s cache constantly is a bad idea for performance reasons—constantly emptying the cache means you lose the benefits of having one.
Of course, the cache can also be a privacy concern. Someone with access to your computer could inspect your browser’s cache files to see what websites you’ve been visiting, just as they could look at your browser history. This is why browsers don’t save cache files when you browse in private browsing mode. But in general, if someone has access to your computer, you have far worse problems than them looking at your cache files.
Once upon a time, when hard drives were small and computers were slow, clearing out your hard drive might have made more of a difference in your computer’s speed. But these days, you don’t need that much free space on your computer—just enough that your computer can create new files as it needs them.
While CCleaner may occasionally find some large files that free up significant amounts space (like NVIDIA’s installation files, for example), much of what it cleans up are cache files, like the ones above, that will already be deleted automatically by the system anyway—and re-created as you build up the cache again.
As a result, using CCleaner to free up space isn’t really a long-term solution—if you’re so low on space that you’re looking for solutions like CCleaner, you either need to upgrade your hard drive or delete personal files, like music, videos, or games.
Apart from its disk cleaner, CCleaner contains some other tools as well. Some, like its ability to create a list of installed programs, are useful, but can also be done with a simple command, without CCleaner. Others, like its built-in registry cleaner, are snake oil at best—and, in theory, could actually cause problems in certain situations.
It also contains an uninstaller (which doesn’t do anything Windows’ built-in uninstaller doesn’t), a startup manager (which is already built in to Windows’ Task Manager), and an interface for System Restore (again, already built in to Windows).
It does have a few useful tools, but all of them are better served by other third-party tools anyway—like finding duplicate files, analyzing your hard drive space, and securely erasing your drive. On the rare occasion you need to do these things, other programs will probably do the job better, and aren’t a great reason to install CCleaner. But they’ll do the trick in a pinch, we suppose, if you already have it installed.
We’re not saying CCleaner is necessarily bad to use—it has its place, and its useful situations. But these days, you probably don’t need to run it all that regularly. We know, though, that some may want to keep it around for the occasional cleanup, so if you’re going to use it, keep the above things in mind.
Instead of just running the cleaner on its default settings, take some time to go through and select the types of data you actually want to remove. The Windows section contains options for cleaning data included with Windows, while the Applications section contains cleaning options for third-party applications you have installed. Be sure to check the Applications section — if you don’t want CCleaner constantly wiping your browser’s cache, you’ll need to disable that option there. CCleaner will also wipe out all your website logins if you have it clear your browser’s cookies, which will force you to log into websites you use over and over. That’s not very useful.
Similarly, we recommend staying away from the registry cleaner—we haven’t heard of this specific registry cleaner solving problems, but in general, we don’t recommend using them. The other tools are probably fine—but again, there are other tools out there that’ll probably do a better job, if you’re willing to try them out.