When Apple was designing the Mac app iDVD, then-CEO Steve Jobs directed his development team to build a dead-simple DVD-burning application: instead of a mess of options and windows, Jobs wanted one window with one button marked “Burn,” which would be pressed once the desired video file was dragged-and-dropped into the window. Years later, when Jobs wanted Apple’s iOS devices to be even simpler, he dumped the Mac’s windows and drag-and-drop file system in favor of a grid of icons. There wasn’t even a trash can to worry about — instead, iOS would automatically discard unused files as needed.
While that’s great in theory, the reality is that iOS actually leaves bits of trash sitting around on your device, and there’s no easy way to clean everything up at once. iTunes aggregates various types of lingering files as “Other,” but doesn’t have a trash can, nor does it provide direct access to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch file system so you can purge trash on your own. Consequently, your device may be holding a large collection of junk that could be dumped to free up gigabytes of space.
Below, I’ll show you how to clean your iOS device for free using two apps, one of which you definitely already have installed…
Step 1: Understand The Difference Between Important Files And Cruft
One key thing needs to be understood up front: there may be a fine line between important files — the things you’ll want to keep on your phone, tablet, or media player — and “cruft,” or files that have continued to take up space past their prime. You’ll have to make the personal decision as to what to keep and trash, but once you think about iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch content in terms of “things I really want to be able to access from this device” and “things I don’t need to take with me any more,” the rest of this process becomes easy.
Step 2: Back Up Your Device, And Use iTunes For Cleaning Where Possible
Although iTunes can’t dispose of all the trash that’s lingering on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, there are a few things that it can and should be used for. Before you clean your device using other tools, start by doing a complete backup using the latest version of iTunes. Save yourself a later hassle by checking the “Encrypt [iPhone/iPad/iPod] backup” box and setting a password, which lets iTunes store the passwords and other sensitive files on your device. Then run the Sync process twice between your device and computer, just to make sure everything’s backed up properly. Trust me: these few steps will make the restoration process much, much easier if something goes wrong later.
iTunes should always be used first to clean unused apps, music, videos, podcasts, and voice memos from your device — except under the specific circumstances discussed below, it has the highest likelihood of freeing space without messing up settings and making your device unstable. So my suggestion is to go through the files iTunes can manage, removing whatever you don’t really need to carry every day. Next, use Photos, iPhoto, Aperture, or your other preferred photo library app of choice to import photographs, home videos, and screenshots to your computer, then delete them from your device. Although these files aren’t “trash,” strictly speaking, they can consume a ton of space, and regularly syncing them to your computer can really help.
Step 3: Download iFunBox (Or Another App With iOS File System Access)
There are many different Mac and PC apps that can access your iOS device’s file system, and having written my fair share of How-To guides, I’m sure that people will suggest alternatives to the ones I’m recommending here. The free app I personally use for cleaning my iOS devices is iFunBox (above), which isn’t pretty but does what needs to be done at no charge. However, if you want a beautiful and even more powerful alternative, I love iMazing ($30, below), which goes well beyond iFunBox’s capabilities. Both apps are offered for Macs and PCs.
I’m not going to dive into all of the ways apps like these can be used, but it suffices to say that each one has utility that goes well beyond cleaning up trash. iMazing, for instance, helped me recover important voicemails for a family member who was despondent over their disappearance. You can decide whether to use the free or paid option, depending on your needs and budget, but for purposes of cleaning your device, the one feature you need is access to the iOS device’s file system. There’s a reason Steve Jobs wanted to hide the file system away — it’s not fun to look at — but after you’ve used iTunes, this is where most of the remaining cruft on your device will be hiding.
Note that after working flawlessly with iOS 8.2, iFunBox, iMazing and other file browsing apps ran into unexpected compatibility issues with iOS 8.3. iFunBox and iMazing have recently been updated with “partial” iOS 8.3 support — a process that is still ongoing as of today, as iMazing just received its second iOS 8.3-focused patch. I’ve successfully tested iFunBox 1.6’s file system browsing and deletion features with both iOS 8.3 and iOS 8.4 devices, and they continue to work.
Step 4: Safely Clean Up Your Trash
Once you’ve followed the steps above (determining what you want to keep and delete, backing up your device in iTunes, and using iTunes to clean off everything it’s capable of handling), you’re ready to start exploring iOS’s hidden file system. As a preliminary warning: don’t just start deleting random files, since they may be part of on-device databases or otherwise contain settings the device needs. This is the reason for the backup above.
iFunBox’s left pane offers shortcuts to a handful of key folders that contain a mix of wanted and unwanted files, plus “Raw File System,” which gives you direct access to even more folders. Here’s how to handle everything.
- App File Sharing. This is where you’ll find the only app-specific data files Apple normally wants users to be able to see. They can be found in iTunes in a given device’s Apps list, at the bottom within the File Sharing section. You can use iFunbox to delete files here, but you won’t achieve anything you can’t already do in iTunes.
- User Applications. These are the apps currently stored on your device, which can and should be managed using iTunes. Don’t touch anything here.
- Shortcuts and General Storage. There shouldn’t be anything in these folders worth deleting.
- Camera1, 2, 3, 4… Multiple “Camera” folders are shown here, as iFunBox shortcuts to the Media > DCIM > 10xAPPLE digital photo folders sitting on your iOS device. It’s generally best to empty these folders by connecting your iOS device to your computer, loading iPhoto/Aperture/Photos, and hitting the Import All button. But if for whatever reason this does not work to completely empty the folders, you can use iFunbox to manually select whatever files are left inside of the folders, copy them to your computer, then manually delete them from your device (right click). Photos and videos can take up a lot of space, so purging the files (if they’ve been backed up to your Mac) is a way to free up lots of room on your iOS device.
- iBooks. This shortcut to Media > Books reveals several folders, including Managed, Purchases, and Sync. Generally, you should manage your books using iBooks (Mac) or iTunes (PC), but the Purchases folder contains both purchased (.epub folders) and synced books (such as PDFs) if you need to delete them here as a last resort. You’re unlikely to save a lot of space by deleting things here, unless you have a very large collection of iBooks Author-created or otherwise multimedia-heavy books lingering on your device.
- Voice Memos. On my iPhone, where Voice Memos is actually used, this folder is full of .M4A and .Waveform files, plus “.composition folders,” all of which could and should be synced off the device using iTunes. However, when I’ve searched this folder on my iPad, all I find are two dozen “plist” files that are of no value. If you’ve actually recorded lots of memos, they may be taking up space — not a lot, but some. The .plist files consume a trivial amount of room, and although you could tidy them up, it won’t do much to free up space on your device.
- Raw File System. This is the raw file structure of the iOS device, including access to some of the folders above and a collection of others. Folders such as AirFair, Downloads, FactoryLogs, General_Storage, PublicStaging, Radio, Safari, and Vibrations are mostly workspaces for iOS, and unlikely to have content worthy of being manually managed or deleted. You might find a download in progress or a small file that could technically be deleted without messing up your device, but unless you find something gigantic in one of these folders — which probably shouldn’t be in any of them — leave them alone.
- Books and Recordings. These are the same folders mirrored above for iBooks and Voice Memos.
- CloudAssets and LoFiCloudAssets. These are where iOS stores some iTunes in the Cloud video and iTunes Match audio content, respectively. If you’re looking to save space in a pinch, CloudAssets is a go-to folder, since you’re likely to find large .M4V video files inside. You can delete just the .M4V file while leaving the .plist file that otherwise has the same long numeric filename. On one of my devices, I found a collection of music in the LoFiCloudAssets folder that I hadn’t listened to in months; it can be emptied out if necessary.
- DCIM, PhotoData, PhotoStreamData, and Photos. There are at least four major folders related to photos. DCIM is the most noteworthy, containing both “10xIMPRT” and “10xAPPLE” folders on iPads, but only “10xAPPLE’ folders on iPhones and iPods. APPLE folders contain photos, screenshots, and videos made using the device and are mirrored as the “Camera1, 2, 3…” folders in the main iFunbox window. But the IMPRT ones are not — they contain images you imported onto the iPad directly using a Lightning to SD Card Adapter or USB Adapter. Once you’ve backed up these images to your computer, you can remove them, potentially at a great space savings. Follow the same tips as discussed above for Camera1, 2, 3, 4….
- iTunes_Control. This is yet another folder for media, this one containing a mix of music, artwork for music, and Nike+ (“Trainer”) data. It’s best not to play with it, as it’s an iTunes-managed collection.
- Purchases. This is another folder for storing media files. You’ll find a mix of iTunes Store music and videos in here, though the reasoning behind what’s inside Purchases isn’t completely clear. Music and video files I found here were basically left-over junk and could be deleted without concern.
Step 5: If Something Goes Wrong
It’s impossible to permanently damage an iOS device by selectively deleting media files using the process above, but accidentally removing the wrong preferences file or database item can create issues. If you start to notice that your iOS device is crashing when loading apps you’ve impacted by deleting files, you have a few options. Restarting the device may well clear up the problem, but if it doesn’t, go into Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings, then after the Apple logo comes up, connect your device to your computer and restore it using iTunes. You’ll be back to the way it was before, and can either experiment further or leave the file structure alone.
More Great Ways To Save Space and Improve Your Apple Experience
To make the most of your iOS device or Mac, I’ve written quite a few How-To and Best of guides, as well as reviews of worthwhile accessories. Read more of my guides and reviews for 9to5Mac here (and don’t forget to click on Older Posts at the bottom of the page to see everything)!