Ask LH: Can I Survive On A Really Small SSD?

Dear Lifehacker, I'm putting together a computer and really want to get an SSD like you guys keep telling me to, but they're just so expensive. I can probably afford a 60GB SSD or smaller, but that seems too small to fit anything on — even without my user folder, my current C: drive takes up nearly 70GB. Is it even possible to make use of an SSD this small? Sincerely, Starved for Space

Dear Starved for Space,

You're right, SSDs are still pretty darn expensive and can seriously raise the cost of your computer — especially if you're trying to build or buy a cheaper machine, an SSD can seem like it raises the price by a third. Luckily, you do have a few options — though they will take a bit more diligence than maintaining a regular SSD. Here are some ideas.

Move Some Programs to Your Regular Hard Drive

If you aren't already, you should move your user folder and personal files to a regular hard drive and only store your OS and programs on the SSD. We've detailed how to do this on both Windows and a Mac, and it'll save you a lot of space while still reaping all the speed benefits. However, if that doesn't save you enough space, you might consider installing only your most pertinent programs on the SSD, like your browser, music player and email client, while your other programs go on the hard drive.

This is especially important for big programs, like games or Photoshop. You may be tempted to keep this slower programs on your SSD to speed them up, but they're also the largest, so if you're starved for space, you're going to have to compromise somewhere. When you install them, just make sure you choose "Advanced" installation and put them in a new "Program Files" folder on your hard drive instead of the one on your C: drive (which should be your SSD).

Clean Up Your Temp Files and Turn Off Space-Eating Settings

You'd actually be surprised how much you can fit on a small SSD. I'm using an 80GB SSD in my machine, and it's housing Windows plus all my programs (minus games) without a problem. That said, I do have to clean up the drive from time to time, since Windows can often put some pretty big files on the C: drive for no reason, so you may just need to keep a closer eye on what's going into your C: drive.

You can start by running Windows' Disk Cleanup regularly, which may or may not find some large temp files that you don't need (Heck, I just found 6GB worth of deletable temp files today). I'd also just poke around C: manually (carefully, of course) and see if there are any other temp files from other programs. Nvidia, for example, stores a ton of files in C:\NVIDIA whenever you install a new driver, and that can eat up space really quickly — mine's currently taking up 1.25GB, and that's a folder you can definitely delete. I also ran into problems when customising my Windows installation with RT Se7en Lite, because it had C:\Temp listed as my temporary directory. After changing it to something on my traditional hard drive, I was able to delete those temp files and get all that space back.

Lastly, if you have hibernate enabled, you should disable it. When you hibernate your computer, Windows saves its state to your hard drive, which can take up a lot of space. By disabling hibernate as described here, you will automatically remove that big file and free up tons of space. You should also move the pagefile to your non-SSD drive, which will save you gigs of space instantaneously.

Use Your SSD as a Speed-Boosting Cache

If you're building a new computer, you might want to take a look at Intel's new Smart Response Technology (SRT), which uses your SSD as a cache rather than an actual installation drive. Instead of storing all your files on the SSD, it'll learn which files you access the most and cache them on the SSD so you get the best speed benefits possible from your tiny drive. This is especially good if you can only afford, say, a 20GB or 30GB SSD, since you won't be able to fit Windows on it but can still get a lot of the speed benefits.

It's not as great as having your entire Windows installation on a bigger SSD, but it's a lot simpler to set up, and it's definitely the best way to take advantage of a small SSD — as long as you're using a new enough computer. Intel SRT is quite new, so you'll need to have a new computer that uses a Z68-based motherboard. That means, if you're building a computer, get a Z68 motherboard and try this out — but if you're upgrading the drive in your laptop, this isn't a valid option. For more info on SRT and how it works, check out NCIX Tech Tips' video guide above.

Compromise On the Other Components of Your System

If none of the above work for you, there isn't a lot else you can do. Our best advice is to reassess the computer you're buying (or building) and see if there's somewhere else you can skimp on cost to make room for an SSD. Perhaps downgrade to a less powerful video card, or get a slower processor (or, better yet, a processor from a previous generation). Getting the latest and most powerful processor doesn't really make a huge difference, and an SSD will bring much more noticeable benefits in your everyday computing — so buy a cheaper processor and upgrade to an 80GB or 100GB SSD. You'll be glad you did.

The Extreme Option: Install a Lightweight OS and Use Cloud Services

All this assumes that you have a second internal drive that houses your user folder, media and other big files. If that isn't the case — if you only have a 60GB SSD — you're going to have to take a more extreme approach. This won't work well for your main computer, necessarily, but for a laptop or netbook you could install a super lightweight operating system like ArchBang, which will take up far less space on your SSD and leave you more room for programs and files. You can also make use of cloud services like Google Apps and Dropbox to get everything you need without storing it all on your computer. Another great option would be to install Chromium OS, which is very cloud-focused and perfect for a computer with a tiny SSD (you could probably go even smaller than 60GB in that case). Again, you may not be able to use this as your primary machine, but it's another option depending on what kind of computer you're looking to get.

Hopefully these tips are all you need to make a 60GB SSD (or smaller) doable, but if not, you're definitely going to have to compromise on the cost of your system or skip the SSD altogether. Remember, you can always use a regular hard drive and then upgrade later when you have more cash too — hard drives are one of the easiest things to upgrade in any computer, so there's no harm in holding out a bit longer.

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Got any other tips for living on an absurdly tiny hard drive? Share them with us in the comments.

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Comments

    A great article. :)

    One point: "I’d also just poke around C: manually". I have seen people waste a lot of time on this as they right click on folders and check the properties to see the folder size. Often the offending folders are many layers deep.

    I think people are much better off using a dedicated program for this such as treesize or windirstat - there are probably others - which take the guess work and hassle out of finding large files and folders. A tool such as these is useful for anyone trying to get by with a small hard drive that frequently fills up.

      I've had a 60gb SSD for the past year and would recommend going higher, 120gb being the sweet spot. Although I've survived. I have 15gb free space with Windows 7 and all the applications I use Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 4 etc. on the SSD. Only thing I have moved to my HDD is my Steam folder which contains GB's of all my games. If you go with a 60gb SDD as long as you have a HDD for data, you'll be fine.

    One very important thing is to make sure the drive starts with the correct block count, preferably in multiples of 1024. If your SSD's OS starts on the wrong block it will slow the drive down considerably. I generally try to get it to start on 3072 which is three megabytes.

      Oh, you can use a program like "AS SSD Benchmark" to check it and test your SSD speed.

    Best advice would be to run Windows XP. It only requires 300Mb or so of disk space, as opposed to Win 7's 10Gb or more (Win 8 is even worse). But I've had no problems with my Dell M4400 running a 120Gb SSD for the past 4 years or so. You just need to be ruthless with what you store on board and what you can conveniently keep on an external drive. Of course, it helps that the M4400 has an eSATA port, although my new Ultrabook's USB 3 port is even faster.

      How is using an OS that is on it's way to the non support shelf the best advice..? Windows 7 & 8 both run perfectly well on a 64gb SSD without even using a second drive, I know this because I've tried it. However if you are running games or Photoshop or whatever, that is too large, the Secondary HDD is the best way to go. I personally put the desktop and downloads folders on the second drive.

        If it still works, who cares about support? I've never required a moment's support for any version of Windows and if they haven't got it right after three Service Packs, then no amount of additional support is going to make a difference.. The "Windows" folder on my old laptop, running WinXP, is 2.9Gb. The "Windows" folder on my new Win8 Ultrabook is 15.4Gb. That's 12.5Gb of storage space that could be used to store thousands of mp3s, dozens of movies or a year's work. I had a 64Gb SSD in my M4400 for a few months and it was completely unworkable with Vista. By the time I loaded on all the software I need, I had no space left for any data. If it hadn't have had eSATA I simply could not have used it for the purpose I bought it. I upgraded to a 120Gb SSD as soon as I could and that's what I have now with my Ultrabook. It is the absolute minimum size I could possibly manage with Win 7 or Win 8.
        How do you put a second drive into an Ultrabook or Netbook?

          Who cares about support? You miss the point totally Motor mouth and show your complete lack of understanding of the bigger picture. When Microsoft stop supporting XP and they stop providing the patches on the second Tuesday of every month then I suggest you use XP at your own peril. The lack of security patches will leave your system seriously vulnerable to hackers and viruses. You are an idiot.

          agree with Ben, stop giving crap advice MotorMouth

    Great article, I being a tight ass have gone this route.

    Being a non-believer, I put a 60Gb drive in my work computer and saw such a great increase in speed, I have now gone for two 60Gb drives in stripe raid on my personal workstation. I use a standard 1Tb drive for all my day to day stuff (system temp folders have been re-directed there, programs that are rarely used are on there, even my internet downloads have been re-directed there).

    I honestly think 60Gb is more than enough for most users, it's just sloppy house keeping (leaving old programs installed that are unused) that lets most OS installations blow out in size.

    I know it is a hard comparison but I still remember when I had a 20Mb HDD in my XT, and I thought I would never fill it. We have just been spoilt with the capacity race between HDD manufacturers.

    I'd suggest leaving the pagefile on the SSD, don't move it to a different drive. The whole point of upgrading to an SSD is to speed up your computer - moving the pagefile off the SSD defeats that purpose. It'd be like suggesting installing the OS to a non-SSD drive.

    I dare say that if you had to choose between the two, move Photoshop to the non-SSD drive and keep the pagefiles on the SSD. Photoshop will take longer to load up initially, but after it's loaded it will be lightning fast even under heavy use. If you did it the other way around (moved pagefile to non-SSD, left Photoshop on SSD), it would load up initially lightning fast, but may "bog down" when in heavy use (depending on how many files/programs you have open, and how much RAM you have)

      Of course, you *could* go out and install a ridiculous amount of RAM into your computer (16GB?) and disable your pagefile completely. But then you have to ask yourself which is cheaper - ridiculous amount of RAM, or upgrading to the next size up of SSD

    One of the big space users in Windows 7, is the Winsxs folder, which grows over time as it keeps backups and duplicates of DLL's and things. To help keep it smaller you can remove old software you dont need, and use portable versions of software were suitable, as these don't need to register files, and so windows wont back them up in the Winsxs folder.

    well, for my new Asus Laptop, with its 120GB SSD.
    an upgrade to 16 GB of RAM wasn't too expensive.
    i found a drive bay to remove the optical drive, and have the 500GB hard drive there, i also have a 500gb USB3 external hard drive.

    laptop is faster than fast.

    Im running VMWare and many virtual machines, and haven't had RAM issues yet...

    Sam, talk to me about your laptop (the model) and how you "found a drive bay to remove the optical drive"? I rarely use my optical drive, and would definitely rather have a second high capacity drive than a DVD-RW in my machine.

    My Win7 C: partition is 65Gb and half empty, with enough software installed to fill three columns of Start Menu on a 22" monitor... that's including a couple of offline servers, two versions of Office, hibernate/pagefile data, etc. Non-gamers are unlikely to have any problems with a 60Gb SSD for apps.

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