Since the dawn of computing, hard drives have been bursting at the seams. Moore’s Law stipulates that computer processing power will double every two years. While storage has largely kept up in terms of capacity, it’s lagged in overall performance and meeting typical users’ needs. This problem will only worsen as we store more and more media (videos, pictures, and music files).
If you are running out of space on your hard drive, it can cause problems with your operating system or specific programs. The issues caused by your computer hard drive being too full can be many and varied. Temporary files and other data created by your OS and various programs can accumulate over time. If the amount of free space becomes too limited, you may start getting error messages and warnings from your OS and other programs, advising you to free up some space so that things can function correctly. The consequences of not doing this can include dramatically increased disk activity, slowdowns, and even crashes. All of these problems can be exacerbated by a lack of storage space, so it is vital to keep an eye on your computer’s capacity and make sure that you are maintaining adequate available space.
If you’re feeling cramped on your hard drive and don’t have room to store more photos, music, or videos, consider freeing up space by deleting or archiving some files. Here are some easy ways to free up space on your hard drive without going through the hassle of deleting files one by one.
Clear out your browser cache and cookies
When you open a web page in your browser, the browser downloads and parses the HTML document that defines the page. Along the way, it stores any files the document includes, like images or CSS files. If you revisit the same web page later, your browser will try to use any cached files from that visit rather than downloading them again. Browsers also store “cookies” – files containing information like a user id, the number of visits / last visit, the state of certain page elements, and more. Finally, browser caches can also store pages you’ve visited before. If you’re looking for a specific article on a website but can’t remember where you saw it last time, your browser may be able to help jog your memory by showing it as a visited link in search results.
All of the above takes storage space and can grow in size over time. If you’re like most people, your browser cache and cookies take up valuable space on your computer. You may not even know it, but clearing them out can free up a lot of space on your device. Here’s how:
- Open your browser and click the gear or three-dot icon, typically located at the top right corner
- In the menu that appears, click on “Settings”
- On the Settings page, scroll down to the “Privacy” section and click on “Clear browsing data”
- Confirm you want to clear all of your data if asked
- Repeat the last two steps for “Clear cookies and cache” if that is available as a separate option
Some browsers have additional settings to tailor how much cache data is stored and how long it is kept. Adjust these to suit your needs.
Delete temporary system files
Your operating system may create temporary files to hold various types of information – this is normal. Temporary system files are a common by-product of installing software, editing documents, or performing other tasks on your computer. In addition, operating systems create logs, system cache data, icons, installer files, and config files. These items can take up space on your hard drive and are not always removed automatically when they are no longer needed. The good news is that there are some simples tools for removing these items from your hard disk, some of which come with your operating system.
Windows has a built-in utility called Disk Cleanup that can help you keep your hard disk uncluttered. Search “Disk Cleanup” from the taskbar and click on its icon to run it. When it starts, select the disk you want to clean up and click “Ok.” Disk Cleanup will scan the disk and present you with a list of file types to delete and the amount of space that will be cleared. Windows users can also install a free tool such as CCleaner. Both programs help keep your computer clean by removing temporary files and other unnecessary data from your hard drive.
macOS also contains built-in tools to remove unwanted files and optimize storage space. Choose “About this Mac” from the Apple menu in the corner of your screen, then click on “Storage.” Click the “Manage” button in the dialog box to see options for optimizing your storage usage and freeing up space.
Empty the Recycle (Trash) bin
Like most people, you probably have removed many files from your computer’s hard drive over time. Old photos, videos, or documents that you no longer need or use. Over the years, a ton of digital clutter can accumulate in the trash bin – unneeded data filling up your hard drive space with useless files and folders.
When you right-click a file and select “Delete” or drag it to the Windows Recycle Bin (or the macOS Trash), it’s not actually gone. Those files are still stored on the computer, taking up space. To actually delete them and free up disk space, you need to empty the Bin. In Windows, right-click the Recycle Bin and choose “Empty Recycle Bin” from the menu. In macOS, click the Trash icon in the Dock. In the window that appears, click the Empty button in the upper-right corner.
Uninstall unnecessary applications
Take a look at the applications installed on your computer. We all have applications we use nearly every day, some that we use occasionally, and a few that we rarely or never use. Applications can take up a lot of space on your hard drive, and sometimes it makes more sense to remove an application that is rarely used, thereby reclaiming that hard disk space.
To uninstall programs in Windows, click the Settings cog on the Start menu, then click Apps. Click on the program you want to remove in the Apps window, then click the Uninstall button beneath it.
To uninstall programs in macOS, locate the app – open the Applications folder by clicking Applications in the sidebar of any Finder window, or use Spotlight to find the app, then press and hold the Command (⌘) key while double-clicking the app in Spotlight.
Delete unused email attachments and prune or delete email folders
Most of us have been using email for years, and we’ve accumulated thousands of old messages, many with attachments that we no longer need. If you use a desktop email program like Outlook, Windows Mail, or Apple Mail, you can delete older emails (or just old attachments) to free up some hard disk space. If you’ve sorted email into folders, either manually or automatically via filters, you can prune or empty those folders if they are full of unnecessary files and messages.
How to clean up your email varies by the program that you use – going through messages one by one to delete them would be a tedious and time-consuming task. Here’s a guide for how to mass delete emails by their age in Outlook. If you are an Apple user, this email covers the various ways to delete single and multiple emails in Apple Mail apps. If you had previously configured a Trash folder for your Email program, deleted messages are sent there, so you’ll need to permanently erase the items from the Trash folder to free up hard disk space.
If you want to focus on deleting messages with attachments, you’ll need to find those messages using your email program’s search tools first. Here’s how to do that with Microsoft Outlook and macOS mail programs.
Move files to an external hard drive
Moving files to an external hard drive can free up hard drive space. This is especially helpful if you have a large amount of data you want to keep but don’t need to regularly access. External hard drives are a great way to store photos, music, and other large files. There are many different types of external hard drives, including those that use USB (Windows) or Thunderbolt (Mac) ports. External hard drives are also available in various sizes and capacities. Most modern external hard drives use solid-state hard disks (SSDs), but it’s still possible to obtain units that use the older spindle-type drives (HDDs), and while those are typically slower, you can potentially get a lot more storage for your dollar vs. SSDs. There are a few things you need to keep in mind when moving files to an external hard drive:
- Choose a storage device that is big enough to hold all of the files that you’re moving. You’ll need to figure out how much space the external hard drive will require and make sure the storage device you choose has that capacity. You’ll probably want to go 30% – 50% (or perhaps double) your current storage requirements to allow for additional needs down the road;
- Keep in mind that read and write speeds for external drives will be slower than for your computer’s internal hard disk, and this is one of the reasons that external hard drives are not a good storage option for files that you use frequently.
- Ensure you have the necessary port available on your computer and the suitable cable to connect the hard drive to your computer. Different drives require different cables and connectors.
Note that “moving” files from your internal hard drive to an external one to free up space will be a three-step process: 1) copy the desired files to the external hard disk; 2) delete (move to trash) the source files from your internal hard disk; 3) empty your Trash or Recycle Bin to delete the files from your internal hard disk permanently.
Archive and compress files that you don’t access regularly
Compressing them into an archive format can be a space-saving move if you have files that you don’t access regularly. This will free up some space on your hard disk, but how much will depend on the amount of compression you can achieve, which will vary by file type and contents. File compression utilities are available on both Windows and macOS platforms. Some are built-in functions, while others are free or paid third-party utilities that you can download and install. Be aware that compression and archive programs make copies of the files compressed into the archive, leaving the original files intact. So if you are using a compression utility to save space, you’ll need to delete the originals (and empty the Trash / Recycle Bin) once the archive is created. Another drawback of this approach is that you will need to unarchive the files before using them. Depending upon how large or compressed the archive is, this can take some time (and unarchiving uses disk space), so this is not a good option for files that you need to access regularly.
Windows has a built-in zip utility that can be accessed from the context (right-click) menu, allowing you to compress and zip (archive) individual files or groups of files and folders. Here’s how to use the zip feature. Popular free third-party compression utilities for Windows include 7zip and PeaZip. Similar to Windows, macOS has a built-in zip function that can be used to compress and archive files. Popular free third-party compression utilities for macOS include Keka and iZip.
Use cloud storage
Cloud storage allows users to keep files in “the cloud” rather than on a local hard drive or disk. Files stored in the cloud are available to the user anywhere and on any device. A variety of companies offer cloud storage services, both free and paid. Among the most popular services are Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and iCloud. Many services offer a basic free storage plan and one or more paid plans that include more storage space or unlimited storage space for a monthly fee. In addition to storage space, many providers offer features such as collaboration tools and automatic file syncing.
For Windows users, Microsoft OneDrive includes the ability to share files with other users on the same account. Files can also be shared with collaborators or team members through SharePoint Online or Teams. The “OneDrive” is mounted on your PC just like any other storage or disk, and the files in OneDrive will appear on any system where that drive is mounted without taking up any space on your hard disk. You can free up hard disk space by using cloud storage services.
For Apple users, iCloud allows users to store their photographs, music, documents, and other files in the iCloud cloud. The iCloud service is available on macOS and iOS devices, and users can access their files from any device with internet access.
Upgrade to a larger hard drive
While the previous methods are all viable, upgrading to a larger hard drive may be the ultimate solution if you’re running out of storage space on your computer. A bigger hard drive can hold a lot more data, which can be helpful if you have a lot of photos, videos, or music files that you want to keep safe. Larger hard drives are also cheaper and easier to find than ever before, so it’s worth considering if you’re overwhelmed by all the data on your computer. Finally, an internal hard drive is still the fastest and most convenient way to store data. There are several tools and utilities that can be used to do your own hard drive upgrade, or you can take your computer to an authorized service center and have them do the upgrade for you.
As you can see, there are many ways to free up space on a hard drive. Using one or more of these methods can clear up space and improve your overall computing experience. There is no one best way, so pick the method(s) that is best for you and your needs, using either built-in tools or third-party software/hardware. Reducing space usage on your existing hard drive is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than replacing your hard drive.
If you need to buy a bigger hard drive, bring your old one to an e-recycler that does hard drive data destruction to protect yourself from data theft!