Windows

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

About

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.

14 comments
aimarzhang
aimarzhang

I used this tool for years, it is really helpful on cleaning up my disk space. As I am using SSH hard drive, disk space is really important for me....

gdburton
gdburton

I would agree. In a commercial sense, spending time cleaning up is not normally cost effective. However I would say that as advice to reasonably competent users this is info worth keeping. To them, the costs of replacing a hard drive are way beyond the drive costs. (They have to keep me in n business for a start!)

gep2
gep2

The salient point being that with a 1.5Tb hard drive costing about $65, the amount of space you can recover in most cases TRULY isn't worth the value of the time you invest in trying to clean up the drive. Eliminating an entire gigabyte (!) worth of unnecessary cached files saves you only between four and five cents... (!!) What is your time worth? Scrounging around and reclaiming 20Gb worth of disk space still saves you less than a dollar.

pgit
pgit

Is there any way to identify/remove this type of data without having to run the application that creates the cache? I've often wondered about this. Seems it should be possible to identify a pointer in the file system unique to one of various of your more common applications in order to delete anything in the file system beneath that point. For instance say photoshop has a large cache. Wouldn't the data structure of that cache sit beneath a unique marker, something that only photoshop would write, like a mini allocation table? I can search for *.qbw and back up everything the search yields. Why can't we search a raw file system for some marker mapping an application's cache?

www.indigotea.com
www.indigotea.com

Try CCleaner (www.piriform.com/ccleaner) - it's great for cleaning up cache, system restore points, demoware you forgot you loaded on, and loads of other helpful features. I use it once every month or two, and it makes a huge difference.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Any thought about temp folders in the user's profile and in \windows\temp ? Or the windows update backups or service pack backups?

StormForge
StormForge

I've seen a few years worth of these on some computers taking up 3/4 or more of the hard drive. The hard drives were so full that it was not possible to defrag. Removing most of these that were safe to and defragmenting pretty much restored performance and returned storage space.

JTONLY
JTONLY

Should be noted, never defrag an SSD. Regards.

jck
jck

1. Delete Windows 2. Install Linux and use Wine :^0

a.portman
a.portman

1. Log files. Windows loves log files. Do you really need to know all of that? Me either. 2. http://www.mydefrag.com/ works WAY better than that thing windows has been sending out for years. 3. Delete the stuff that came with the computer. Like the 30 copy of McAfee and the entire online services folder. I like http://www.revouninstaller.com/. What do you know, another windows tool that works way better than the factory option. 4. Demoware. If you can read this, you probably have downloaded something and didn't like it. Delete it and it's installer. 5. Downloaded installers. Burn them to a DVD and put on the shelf. If you did a reinstall, you were going to download the latest version anyway.

pgit
pgit

If you get a larger drive you'll spend as much time transferring (and resizing) the image onto it, another labor to consider. I have more often than not found that people only need to get rid of a couple GB of crud that's built up that's started giving them disk full errors, slowing swap paging to a crawl and related bad behaviors. They don't need more storage as often as they just need what they have to work the way it had been for the last 5 years. Same amount of labor as transferring to a bigger drive, and no hardware cost. In a lot of instances cleaning up a few crumbs is all the user wants. (and needs) This could depend a lot on the makeup of your client??le I suppose. Even before the 'recession' most of mine were telling me they had zero budgeted for any computer problems. (apparently implying "so act accordingly")

mike2k
mike2k

Because hard disks never fill up when you use Linux. *sarcasm off*

pgit
pgit

In my experience Linux systems run out of disk space at a rate of what must be 40 to 1 compared with windows. I can't say there's a single reason for that, but in many cases it is a bug, logrotate stops working, or something in /tmp goes read-only on you and the system gives up on cleaning it without telling you. When windows has run out of space it's always been the user stuffing it up. Quite often the fix is to start with a clean install on a larger capacity disk.

jck
jck

unless you're still using your parents P5-120 w the 16 GB HD and 32MB of RAM :p Just seeing "...tips for freeing up PC hard disk space" made me think of the last time I did a dual-boot PC and the Windows space was 300GB and the Linux space was 80GB. Of course, I do play fewer games on my Linux install.

Editor's Picks