Hard drive space is cheaper than ever, but as Parkinson's Law dictates, your data (and, let's face it, BitTorrent addiction) somehow expands to fill your space available for storage. Here's a few simple but effective ways to clean out your hard drive.
Photo by gary j wood.
Whether you're looking to free up gigabytes worth of hard drive space or you just want to clear out the extra cruft because you're serious about a clean hard drive, we'll highlight how to find and remove the biggest space hogging files on your drive, remove unnecessary files hiding deep in your filesystem, and offer a few tips for keeping things clean. The main focus of this guide is on Windows, but I'll offer up Mac alternatives where available. (Mac users, you may also want to check out our previous guide to cleaning up and reviving your bloated, sluggish Mac.)
Hunt Down and Remove Large Files
We've featured tons of free hard drive analysers over the years, but my current favourite is the recently mentioned Disk Space Fan, so that's what I'll use first here. Then I'll move onto the classic WinDirStat. (Mac users, check out Disk Inventory X or GrandPerspective.)
Analyse Your Drive with Disk Space Fan: To get started, download Disk Space Fan and let's get started. When you first launch Disk Space Fan, the app simply displays drives on your system; click on a disk in the sidebar and you'll see what kind of space is available in pie-chart form.
We want a lot more from the app than that, so pick the drive you want to clean up and click the Scan for Details button. The app will quickly analyse your hard drive, and when it's done, you'll be presented with a cool visualisation like this:
What you're looking at is a pretty cool graphical representation of your hard drive usage by folders. At the centre of the graphic is your hard drive; each concentric circle moving out from the centre represents a folder. (For example, when Disk Space Fan completes its first scan, the centre may represent your C: drive. One of the larger arcs directly outside the centre may represent C:Windows. The further you go from the centre circle, the further you've drilled down into the file system. If you go several levels out, you'll end up looking at something further into the file system at something like C:WindowsSystem32DriverStore.
All you have to do to determine what an arc represents on your hard drive is hover over it with your mouse and you'll see not only what file and folder it represents, but also how much space it's eating on your hard drive. You can drill down into any folder by simply clicking on any arc. When you do, you'll get a new graphical representation, this time with the folder you just clicked on at the centre and its sub-folders and files surrounding it.
So how do you go from this fancy graphic to cleaning up your hard drive? It's actually pretty simple. The larger an arc, the more disk space it takes up. Drill down on the big arcs and you'll find the big files. Right click file or folder from the app to view it, browse to it, see its properties or delete it altogether.
Find Hard Drive Hogs with WinDirStat: Disk Space Fan may win out on eye candy, but we'll always have a special place in our hearts for the classic, open source WinDirStat. If you've drilled through Disk Space Fan but want to take a second pass through your drive with a different lens, download WinDirStat, point it at the drive you want analysed, and click OK. Once it's finished chomping through your drive, you'll see something like this:
Again, it's a graphical representation of the files and folders on your drive, but with a different spin from Disk Space Fan. WinDirStat displays every file and folder on your drive represented by size, so you can quickly examine the largest rectangles (the larger the rectangle, the larger the file on your drive), click it to see what it is, or right-click and select Explorer Here if you want to see the file in Explorer and delete it. WinDirStat colour-codes your popular file type so you can quickly identify videos or MP3s, for example, and clicking on a file type in the file type panel will highlight those file types in the graphical representation no matter where they are on your drive. (See below.)
Awfully handy, huh?
Clean Out the Unneeded Crap
The above methods will help you hunt down those common files, large and small, eating up your precious hard drive space, but when it comes to the little stuff that fills up your computer with crap a little at a time, you can't go wrong with the beloved CCleaner (the first "C" is for Crap). CCleaner runs through common Windows spots where unnecessary files build up (IE, Windows Explorer, temporary files, etc), as well as common applications (think Firefox, Chrome, etc), finds the stuff that isn't necessary to run and that you may want to get rid of, and cleans it out.
So download it, install it if you don't already have it (make sure to untick the checkbox asking to install the Yahoo Toolbar), and fire it up. Before you run it the first time, you may want to look at everything CCleaner wants to clean up, and if you see anything you're not so sure you want cleaned, untick its corresponding checkbox. Once you're ready to give it a first run, click the analyse button.
CCleaner will analyse the files your current settings will remove and tell you how much space you'll clean out along with more specific numbers from each place it cleans. If you're happy with the way things are looking, click the Run Cleaner button and let CCleaner vacuum up and remove those files you just analysed. (As CCleaner notes when you click Run, it will permanently delete these files, so make sure it's not cleaning anything you don't want it to.)
The only setback with CCleaner is that it doesn't have any scheduling feature to allow you to run it regularly without manually running through this process every time, but luckily our crafty friend the How-To Geek has detailed how to set up CCleaner to run on a schedule, so if you'd prefer setting it and forgetting it, check out his instructions.
Automatically Clean Out Your Downloads Folder
If there's one folder on my hard drive that quickly fills up with junk that I only need temporarily, and for a relatively short time, it's my Downloads folder. If I downloaded something from the internet that I wanted to use, I've either installed it or moved it into more useful folders. Whatever's left in my Downloads folder for a couple of weeks is more likely than not junk.
Earlier this week I showed you how to automatically clean and organise your Downloads folder along with other folders on your desktop using Belvedere for Windows and Hazel for Macs. If you're serious about automation and desktop organisation, you can do all sorts of cool stuff with those tools, but if keeping your hard drive clean and freeing up space is your concern, let's focus on your Downloads folder. Check out the step-by-step post for details, but creating a Belvedere rule to send files in your Downloads folder to your Recycle Bin after they're X weeks old is a great way to keep that folder clean and free up a little extra space on your hard drive.
If you don't want to constantly run yet another system tray application, you can run Belvedere as a scheduled task — similar to how you scheduled CCleaner above — with the -r <integer> command line switch. This defines how many times you want Belvedere to run before the app silently exits. If you wanted Belvedere to silently run through its rules one time, for example, you'd schedule a command like:
%programfiles%BelvedereBelvedere.exe -r 1
...as a Windows Scheduled Task. If you'd set up a rule like the one above, Belvedere would run once when you scheduled it to, send old downloads to your Recycle Bin, then quit.
Install a New Hard Drive
Let's face it: We could go on all day finding system files that are safe to delete, and we could get ruthless about what gets to stay on your hard drive, but if you find yourself constantly bumping up against the limits of your hard drive despite following some of the strategies above, you may just need more hard drive space.
Sure it's a bit of a cop out, but hard drive space really is cheap, and rather than spend too much time obsessing over every little file on your computer, you may want to evaluate your situation and determine whether or not you're better off with a new drive altogether.
How About You?
I've highlighted my favourite disk cleaning methods above (namely the ones I consider most effective for the time spent), but that doesn't mean you don't have your own brilliant methods of cleaning out your hard drive. Got a favourite of your own, whether we mentioned it or not? Share it in the comments.