Five tips for freeing up PC hard disk space

You can degunk your PC and reclaim a surprising amount of disk space. Here are a few things worth trying.

Even though many PCs today come equipped with multi-terabyte hard drives, I am often amazed by how often I get calls from friends and family because they are running out of hard disk space. That being the case, I wanted to share some tips for freeing up some of that space. NOTE: Before you attempt to use any of these techniques, you should perform a full system backup.

1: Clear application caches

If you want to free up hard disk space, you should start out by clearing any application caches that might exist. Application caches can contain a lot of data. For example, some older versions of Internet Explorer are designed to consume up to 10% of your total hard disk space with temporary files. Newer versions use a default cache size of 50 MB.

A better example is a video editing application I frequently use. This application caches all source video files. The last time that I cleaned out the cache, I managed to recover almost 200 GB of disk space.

2: Look for signs of disk corruption and system upgrades

Hard disk corruption and operating system upgrades can both cause disk space to be wasted. I recommend opening a command prompt window and executing CHKDSK with the /F switch. This will cause Windows to scan the hard disk for corruption and repair any problems that it might find. (Be sure to make a backup first.) In certain situations, this can free up quite a bit of disk space.

Even if no corruption is detected, that doesn't mean that no corruption has occurred in the past. When CHKDSK encounters files that can't be repaired, it stores the file fragments in .CHK files. Unless you are attempting to recover lost data, you can safely delete any .CHK files you find on the system. While you're at it, you might also look for temporary files (.TMP files) and log files (.LOG files), both of which can usually be safely deleted.

Another thing to check for is an old Windows installation. If Windows is reinstalled (or if a new version of Windows is installed) from outside the Windows operating system, Setup will attempt to preserve the previous operating system by creating a folder named Windows.old. As long as you don't need anything from the previous Windows installation, you can safely delete the Windows.old folder.

3: Run Disk Cleanup

Desktop versions of Windows come equipped with a tool called the Disk Cleanup Wizard. It searches the system for unneeded files that are safe to delete (such as memory dump files). You can run the Disk Cleanup Wizard by opening My Computer, right-clicking on the drive you want to clean, and choosing the Properties command from the shortcut menu. When the drive's properties sheet opens, click the Disk Cleanup button on the General tab.

4: Look for unneeded applications

Almost every new PC includes a ton of trial applications and nagware that are installed by default. I always recommend blanking the hard drive on a new PC and starting with a clean Windows installation, but often times I encounter PCs that are still running the factory configuration.

In these situations, you can go through the Control Panel and remove any of the trial applications that are not being used (as well as the nagware). While you're at it, check for any other applications that might have been installed by the system's owner but that are no longer used.

If the system contained a Windows.old folder, there's a good chance that there are also application remnants in the Program Files folder. These remnants won't appear in the Control Panel because the applications were installed on the old operating system. The only way to get rid of them is to manually delete them from the Program Files folder.

5: Remove manufacturer partitions

In addition to all the trial applications and nagware that manufacturers install on PC hard drives, PCs usually contain a recovery partition. This partition exists so that the PC can be reset to factory defaults in the event of a problem. In some cases, it may be possible to delete the recovery partition and then merge the empty space with another volume on the system. I prefer to just back up the system, delete all the partitions, create one big partition, and then restore the backup.

Of course, if you get rid of the recovery partition, you can't use it to rebuild the system. As long as you have a Windows installation DVD, that shouldn't be a problem (unless you actually want some of the applications that are loaded on the system by default). The recovery partition is often outdated anyway. For example, if a system shipped with Windows Vista but has been upgraded to Windows 7, the recovery partition will contain an outdated operating system (Vista).

Don't forget to defrag

All of these techniques have the potential to recover quite a bit of lost hard disk space. Any time you manage to recover a significant amount of disk space, it is a good idea to defragment the system afterward.

Additional resources


Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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