What are plist files on Mac and can I delete and convert them?

plist files on the Mac

The abbreviation “plist” stands for “Property List” and describes a file type that is used under macOS to save information from apps. On the Apple support page for developers you can find the following explanation (translated via DeepL):

About Information Property List files: A Property List File is a structured text file that contains essential configuration information for a bundled executable file. The file itself is usually encoded with the Unicode encoding UTF-8 and the content is structured with XML. The root XML node is a dictionary, the content of which is a series of keys and values ​​that describe various aspects of the bundle. The system uses these keys and values ​​to obtain information about your app and its configuration. Therefore, all bundled executables (plug-ins, frameworks, and apps) are expected to have an informational properties file.

Change from XML to XML plist format

The files that the Mac creates to store program information used to be pure XML files that humans could see and understand. Unfortunately, this had a major disadvantage, because the readability of the files made them very inefficient in terms of memory requirements.

For this reason, Apple introduced the XML-plist format with Mac OS X Jaguar (10.2), which is now significantly less memory-consuming.

Under macOS, plist files are used by apps to save information such as the app settings of a file.
Under macOS, plist files are used by apps to save information such as the app settings of a file.

plutil command offers conversion to XML and JSON

With Mac OS X Lion (10.7), Apple has supplied a terminal command called “plutil” that can be used to plist files to other formats such as "readable" XML and JSON.

You can see how that works in the blog post from ScriptingOSX.com ...

Here is a sample command to convert a .plist file to readable XML:

$ plutil -convert xml1 /path/to/propertylist.plist

There are a few other formats that plutil offers as targets, but these can be viewed with the “plutil -help” command.

With the command "plutil -help" in the terminal you get a list of the options with which you can use this command.
With the command "plutil -help" in the terminal you get a list of options with which you can use this command.

Where can I find the plist files?

There are several places where you can find plist files. Some apps have plist files in the /Contents/ folder. You can see this by right-clicking on an app and then selecting "Show Package Contents".

Otherwise you can also look in the following folders and their sub-folders:

  • / Library / Application Support /
  • / Library / Logs /
  • / Library / LaunchDaemons /
  • / Library / Preferences /
  • / Library / Preferences / SystemConfiguration /
  • / User Folder / Library / Containers /
Here you can see a list of plist files that are related to macOS. They are saved in the Preferences> SystemConfiguration folder.
Here you can see a list of plist files that are related to macOS. They are saved in the Preferences> SystemConfiguration folder.

Can I delete the plist files?

Generally, yes. As far as I know, they are deleted and recreated with every Safe Mode boot when you use an app for the first time and then close it again. My reader Beatrix (developer of the software Mail Archiver X) but just wrote me that deleting does not work because the data is being held in the cache. This means that in order for the deletion to actually have an effect, you have to log out and log in again or restart the Mac immediately.

This means that the plist file usually does not contain any important information, but rather, for example, settings such as window positions, window sizes, the files last opened or the like.

There are also some posts on my blog that fix issues by deleting plist files, among other things:

Change or delete values ​​in plist files

Beatrix gave me the following app tip: With the “Pref's Editor” by Thomas Tempelmann, plist files from macOS or other apps can be changed and deleted in an easy-to-read table view. So if you need to lend a hand with a certain thing yourself, you should have found a very comfortable solution with this tool (which is a GUI for the “defaults” command).

If you have opened a plist file, the view looks like the one in this screenshot.
If you have opened a plist file, the view looks like the one in this screenshot.

edit plist files with vi editor

I stumbled across an interesting post on Stackexchange, which is about someone using the vi editor in the Port wanted to edit an app's plist file. However, this was acknowledged by macOS with an error message:

The file "Info.plist" could not be unlocked.

Simply translated: The file could not be opened for editing. The user therefore lacks the appropriate access rights.

After changing the access rights and the owner, via the information window in the Finder it worked. You can see exactly how it works here in the thread.

My tips & tricks about technology & Apple

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2 Responses to “What are plist files on Mac and can I delete and convert them?”

  1. The files can also be easily edited with BBEdit or a plug-in in VisualStudioCode.
    When deleting, I already had programs that wanted the license information again when I started again.

    1. Thanks to you for the info! That can of course happen with the license data if it is saved there. With Adobe Creative Cloud and some other programs, however, it should not be saved in the plist files.

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