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What's the best thing to do when my hard drive fills up?


My son’s computer is full – there’s hardly any room on the drive. So what’s the best thing to do? I have heard that buying another hard drive would cure the problem (an external one).

I can’t tell you what the right solution is for you, because this really, really, REALLY depends on your computer and how you use it.

That being said, in many cases a full hard disk can be addressed in several ways, many of which do not involve getting an additional one.

I have to start with a caveat: some of the ideas below will involve deleting files. While I’m certainly not going to intentionally tell you to delete something important, accidents can happen. I strongly suggest that you start this process by taking a full backup of your machine.

Just in case.

Whenever I run out of space on my hard disk (yep, it happens to me too!), I start by trying to understand exactly what’s taking up so much room. I’ve written about how to do that in prior articles, so I’ll just point you to:

“Whenever I run out of space … I start by trying to understand exactly what’s taking up so much room.”

What most people find is that there’s something that they’d forgotten about, and that they no longer use that’s taking up a bunch of extra space.

Once you determine what’s taking up space, you can determine what to do about it:

  • Leave it alone: it could well be something that you need or want to keep, and in fact might be something that’s important to have on your machine at all times for whatever it is you do. Something you’re not sure of might also fall into this category.
  • Archive it: it might be something that you no longer need, but certainly don’t need to have on your machine. Burning to CD or DVD (or an external hard disk, but more on that below) for archival and then removing it from your hard drive might be an approach.
  • Remove it: if it’s something you know you’ll never, ever need again.

The reason we use a disk space analysis tool is simply to focus our efforts. There’s a tendency to want to go about this cleanup process manually – deleting or archiving things that we know about. The problem is if those are all tiny, and there’s a 20 gigabyte movie that we’ve forgotten about, then that time’s actually wasted. You’ve cleared up nothing appreciable, when a single delete of a single file might have done the trick.

So start with a disk space usage tool and find out what’s taking up all that space. Then act accordingly.

(Side note: even though I’m not running out of space, I ran the tool in preparation for this article and discovered a bunch of things that I’d forgotten about. Since I do regular full backups, removing those things I don’t need will also reduce the size of, and speed up, those backups.

The next step I take actually involves double checking a couple of system settings, if I haven’t done so already.

Clearing your browser cache frees up space immediately. The problem is that as you return to using the browser the cache once again fills up and uses up that disk space once again.

You can control the size of the browser cache. In Internet Explorer, for example, on the Tools menu click on Internet Options, the General tab, and then the Settings button in Browsing History. There you’ll find a “Disk space to use” setting that will allow you to control the maximum amount of space used. Smaller might mean a slightly slower internet browsing experience, but it will free up some disk space. (If you use a different browser, you’ll need to make the equivalent change in that browser.)

If you never run out of virtual memory, it’s possible that you may be able to reduce the size of the paging file on the drive in question.This isn’t something I typically recommend, but it saved me a couple of gigabytes when I turned mine off completely. See Virtual Memory: How do I adjust Virtual Memory settings?

Similarly, if you never use hibernation – particularly on a laptop where it’s often enabled by default – then turning that feature off and deleting “hiberfil.sys” (it might be hidden) in the root of your C: drive. That file is, by default, the same size as the amount of memory you have in your machine. In my case, for example, turning off that feature and removing the file freed up 4gigabytes of disk space.

So you’ve exhausted all your other options, and it’s time to get an additional disk. I’m going to look at three scenarios:

  • External disk for archiving: I alluded to this above when I talked about archiving files. Sometimes archiving files to CD or DVD just isn’t practical because they’re so big. The prices of external USB drives have come down so dramatically in recent years, along with an increase in capacity, to the point where they’re now a reasonable approach for archiving as well. Simply get an external drive and copy the files you want to archive to it. Now you can disconnect the drive and store it somewhere for safety, and delete the files you copied from your internal hard disk.

    One caveat with all archiving: always archive two copies of anything important. That way if something goes wrong (and it does, I’ve had two external drive failures myself), you have a second copy to recover from.

  • External disk for use: you certainly can move data and other files to an external drive, freeing up space on your primary drive, as well as adding all that space for those files. There are two issues here:
    • External disks are slower than internal. They’re certainly “fast”, but depending on what you’re doing, or how you use them, the difference may impact you.
    • You have to remember to use them. When you save and work on files you have to remember to change the default folder you’re working with to be on that external drive. (You can also consider moving “My Documents” to the external drive, but that’s slightly risky for performance reasons, and is likely to confuse Windows should the drive ever be disconnected.)

    Simply “using” the external drive as just another disk can be a reasonable approach if your needs aren’t severe.

  • Internal Disks: when I started to run low on disk space on my primary machine I opted for an additional internal hard drive. Why? I plan to do some video editing which can be not only processor intensive, but fairly disk intensive as well since video files tend to be very large. An internal drive is a strong option if you plan to use it heavily. Moving “My Documents”, as mentioned above also becomes less risky, since the drive’s never removed.

To come full circle, a final warning: once you add all this disk space to your system, remember to consider it in your backup strategy. If your important data is stored in only one place you run a very real risk of losing it.

And with additional hard disk space, I’m guessing you’ll accumulate that much more data to lose.

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17 comments on “What's the best thing to do when my hard drive fills up?”

  1. I would like to “add” that this is probably a good time to figure out what files are residing on your harddrive. Not just the ones that take up large amounts of space.
    It’s easy to just keep on storing stuff on a HD (especially today’s hugeass ones), but ask yourself this: do you know everything that’s on yer HD? Probably not.

    It’s like a filing cabinet and personally I like to know what’s in it and how to quickly find it (and yes there is windows search, but that’s just an excuse for leaving your mess the way it is ;-)

    Take the time to properly organize it and not alone will you save space, you might also find some hidden treasures (ok, maybe not ;-)

    In any case, just buying an extra HD to store more stuff on (like many people do) is, in my opinion, not the best way to start…

  2. Sometimes your temp files and recycle bin hold a lot of leftover files running CCleaner (freeware) in some cases will free up a couple of GB. If he plays games some games take up a lot of space. Consider uninstalling some games he hasn’t played in a while. He can always reinstall them later. Ang an external HD is always a good idea for backups and you can move music, videos and photos etc.

  3. Hello, I cannot receive any emails larger than 1MB but am able to receive emails less than 1MB. The email delivery statement reads that my mail box is full and cannot receive any emails. I just got done deleting all of my old emails. So my inbox should be almost empty. Could you please help me and let me know what I can d in order to fix this problem.

    Mark Orr

  4. Sorry for the confusion, I meant to say that I could not receive any emails over 10MB. Is there a size limit on incoming emails. Please let me know.

    Mark Orr

  5. My understanding is that the Internet Service Provider (ISP, e.g.: Earthlink, ATT, Roadrunner) determines the size of the e-mails allowed. 10MB is a VERY large attachment. I’d question why you need to do this.

    I agree with Vincent that the first step in the process is to determine what is taking up so much space. To fill up a newer computer’s disk space (e.g. over 40GB) says to me that you should do some housekeeping.

  6. The one possible solution that I was hoping to see was not considered. My wife’s computer is old but adequate. The problem is the 19GB HD has been filled up with pictures and other things important to her. I have Ccleaner and do regular maintenance on it. I DO have a 350GB external drive connected to it and have an image back-up program doing daily incremental back-ups. That has tons of space BUT…to keep things simple for her, I’d like to replace the internal 19GB drive with a new, larger drive. I’m hoping that doing it is simply just changing the internal drive and doing an image restore, but these things are not clear to me in the back-up software documentation. I use Acronis.

  7. I just wanted to make a couple of suggestions since I run into this problem often with my customers’ pc’s. Treesize Free is a great freeware program for finding out what’s taking up space on your hard drive. Also, most people are familiar with Windows Disk Cleanup, but don’t notice the ‘More Options’ tab. After you initially run Disk Cleanup, click on this tab and click on ‘System Restore’ at the bottom to delete all but the last restore point. The problem here is: MAKE SURE your pc is running just the way you want it because you won’t have ‘Restore my pc to an earlier time’ option anymore, until more restore points are made. This usually clears up 5 to 11 gigabytes on my computer every time. Good Luck!

  8. Could you discuss freeware and shareware that seeks and deletes duplicate files on the Hard Drives? I have multiple copies of photographs mostly created by trying different photo editing programs that automatically created duplicates. The programs sound good, but I read some “horror stories” on forums saying running these programs could be dangerous.

    I would never, ever let a program delete duplicate files. This article explains why: Is it safe to delete duplicate files?. At best, I might allow such a program to identify the files and the manually delete only the ones I knew were safe to delete – such as your duplicate pictures.

    – Leo

  9. Ok, Leo, there is one other way to free up drive space that you didn’t mention. First, stop the restore function and second set it to half of the settings it is currenty set too. THEN, DO A SET RESTORE POINT. I only have 500 MB of storage and that gives me a few days of restore which has been plenty, If I need to restore it. That will free up gigs of drive space.

    Charlie Pelot

  10. A good freeware program to visually see what files are taking up space is WinDirStat. Each file shows up as a rectangle, and its size depends on the size of the file, so you can easily pick out those huge files that are taking up all the space.

  11. When deciding whether to spend money on an external drive, should not the age of the computer be taken into account? After how many years should you think that perhaps you should be buying a new machine instead of an external drive (or whatever)?

    There’s no single answer to this. It depends on the machine, how it’s being used, what shape it’s in and so on. I just added an external drive to one my 10 year old Dell – for how its used, and the shape its in, it’s a fine place to hang some external storage. Your situation might be completely different. The good news is that even if you change your mind, an external hard drive can easily be moved to your next machine.

    – Leo

  12. Might be worth considering a rapid search program if you think you`ve lost something which might be actually taking up space (assuming you know what the file or folder is called). I’ve been using “Everything” from:
    for some time and it works extremely well. Indexes literally everything, including system files and is lightning fast. Duplicates can be easily seen. All usual manipulations, (delete, move, re-name, etc) can be done from within the program and it does rather make Windows Explorer look rather pedestrian in comparison. I actually ditched Google Desktop Search and made “Everything” my preference.

  13. I have found that Vista makes restore points that contain shadow copies, and there is no way to stop it. Left untouched, this would eat up TONS of hard-drive space. So, every week during computer maintenance, I run disc clean-up, and under “More Options”, I clean out everything but the last restore point. Sometimes it’s like 15-20GB that’s freed up!

  14. Regarding your comment, Leo: “(Side note: even though I’m not running out of space, I ran the tool in preparation for this article and discovered a bunch of things that I’d forgotten about. Since I do regular full backups, removing those things I don’t need will also reduce the size of, and speed up, those backups.”

    I would like to ask: Is there a method(manual or software driven) to effectively have a daily backup which notes: additions(newly created files), changes/revisions(edits renamed as CHANGED[date]) and deletions(simply noted as DELETED [date]?
    The reason I’m interested in this is to have a way to note my changes and track when they were made in so that in the event of disaster I could retrieve any or all of the desired essentials. Having large storage space — insofar as hard drive capacity(flash drives and the magnetic drives) — more affordable, I would be able to keep such meticulous record-keeping.

    Moreover, I prefer hard drives as I have had too many bad experiences writing to optical media(CD’s and DVD’s) and don’t desire to shell out the dough for a blu-ray burner to have more of the same.

    I’m not aware of the specifics, but what you’ve described is an incremental backup – so any backup utility that can do an incremental backup could presumably provide a log of what it backed up.

    – Leo
  15. 1st question I’d ask is “how big is the drive”. Apparently it is 19gb. That indicates that the drive, and laptop, is probably 3-4 years or more old. Running XP or maybe Win 2K. A 19gb drive should be more than adequate for those OS’s, a little small for Vista (hopefully you didn’t make the mistake of upgrading to it on this older laptop) You say the performance is still adequate so installing a larger HD is not a big deal. And you may get side benefit of a slight performance bump because the new HD has a faster file read/write specs due primarily to faster disk rotation speed. A low end older laptop may have disk rotation of 5400, 4200 or lower, while new drive could be 7200 or even 10,000 if you go for high end drive. As well, newer drive will have significantly more “cache” space to use as temporary staging area for read/writes.

    There are a couple of things to be aware of. Make sure that the drive you buy can fit in the laptop, some of them have very proprietary configurations so you can’t just drop any drive into it. And the “cheap” off the shelf laptop drives you can buy in discount shops may not be technologically compatible with your older laptop.

    Transferring a backup/image copy from a smaller to larger drive should not be a problem. (Is only an issue when going from larger to smaller drive/partition.) Acrontis should be able to handle it. RTFM, read the acrontis manual it should tell you specifically how to do it. If you are comfortable installing new drive, following the instruction should be no problem. The process will include making a bootable backup to use to do the restore to the new drive.

    Technologically, the simplest fix is teaching your wife to use the external drive. Granted from a people point of view it may not be easier.

    As other people have pointed out, before moving everything to the new drive you should go through a cleanup process:

    MAKE AN IMAGE / FULL BACKUP! just in case something (probably) goes wrong during cleanup

    – run several disk drive cleanup tools, like the built-in disk cleanup tool, I like CCleaner. Set them to do fairly aggressive cleanup, “everything but the kitchen sink”. Review the lists of files before committing to the cleanup. I suggest using more than one cleanup tool because they are designed to look in slightly different sets of places.

    – use one or more duplicate file finder tools. There are a couple of types, some look just at file statistics (name, date, size etc). Others, specifically ones doing image compares, look at the contents of the file. In either case, do NOT run them on fully autopilot. Run them to locate potential duplicate files, then you should review them manually. Generally they find many “false positives” that you have to determine. Some of the false positives will include similar files in different application installations, you don’t want to delete them.

    – Use one or more of the space allocation utilities that have been mentioned. I like the graphical ones like WinDirStat. Find the largest files and decide if you can delete any of them. Zapping just a few unneeded “monster sized” files can free up a lot of space, fast.

    – as others have mentioned, investigate how much space is allocated to system things like “recycle bin” and restore points. The defaults tend to be overly “generous” in these days of 100’s of GB disk size. They are left overs from days of disk sizes measured in MB

    – take a look in the installed applications (CCleaner has a tool for this) or Control Panel / Add/Remove Programs (? can’t remember the specific name for older OS). You may find apps that you no longer remember installing and that you don’t use. Uninstalling them will free up chunks of space

    – after doing all the other cleanup, do a defrag. You may want to google and download a freeware defragger. I’m currently using defraggler and I’ve used free version of Diskeeper
    in the past. Actually, the bundled defrag tool is based on stripped down Diskeeper. Using more than one defrag tool will NOT help. They have different design philosophies and you’d just end up moving files from one spot to another with no significant benefit. All you do is make your hd tired (grin).

    – make another full backup per the instructions of your backup utility for transferring image to new drive.

    – you are ready to install new drive

    PS: some laptops support 2 internal HD’s. Is your wife technologically “smart” enough to be able to use an internal D: (or whatever) drive? You can point “My documents” and program defaults to look to new second drive.

  16. They make rewritable dvd’s 4.7 gb burn the whole drive on disk. then look at and get a bigger drive. i have a 500gb main drive and a terabyte for the second drive. it’s like dropping a bb in a boxcar and smacking it with a golf club there is a lot of room in there to bounce around.

    cheers Charles

  17. “So start with a disk space usage tool…” Guess, Leo, you could mention some such an utilities. The FilderSize, WinDirStat and TreeSize are those among more frequently indicated one’s.

    And my interest to you article is that I am author of tiny (only about 20KB), vivid and colorful utility – Dirlot. It’s here . It helps user to determine how disk space is distributed by visualizing sizes of files and folders in colorful columnar diagram – just look at the images at the page.

    And there is still one method to preserve disk space – it’s to use compression (maybe even Windows built-in) or archiving (creating archive file through say 7-Zip or something like that). It may help if one have a lot of small files especially if these files allows to achive a good compression ratio. Not a panacea of course but perhaps that could help at times.


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