Can I delete it? How to save disk space

A few years ago, it seemed disk space woes were firmly behind us. Desktop drives offered terabytes of storage for almost-pocket-money prices, and even mid-range laptops came with hundreds of gigabytes of capacity.

Yet today many of us are feeling the squeeze. We’re building up ever-larger libraries of photos and movies, and at the same time, PCs and tablets have moved from mechanical drives to faster – but much smaller – solid-state disks. Modern desktop systems tend to come with a secondary mechanical disk for data storage, but compact laptops and tablets simply don’t have the space for a second hard drive. You’re left with as little as 64GB of solid-state storage in total, which in practice leaves very little room for your data (see Where have my gigabytes gone?, below).

There are ways to make space, however, by finding and eliminating unnecessary files, and reducing the amount of space Windows itself demands. You may be surprised at how much space can be freed up with a bit of smart housekeeping.

Finding spare disk space

Before you start to delete files, it’s worth seeing whether you can make more of the capacity of the drive itself. A system that’s been in use for some time could well contain one or more unneeded partitions – perhaps an old Ubuntu installation, or, if you’re using a MacBook, a Boot Camp partition. Such partitions can be easily deleted, and their space reclaimed. Many devices also come with a recovery partition, which you may choose to remove. This isn’t a decision to take lightly, though.

To delete a partition, you’ll want to use the Disk Management console. To find it, search Windows for “Create and format hard disk partitions”: in the window that opens, click on your system disk in the top pane and look at its layout in the bottom pane. If you see an unwanted partition, simply right-click and select “Delete volume…” to remove it. Then, to assimilate the space you’ve just freed up into your main Windows disk, right-click on your system partition, select “Extend volume…” and choose the maximum extension available.

It goes without saying that before deleting a partition you should make absolutely certain you don’t need its contents. Once you’ve subsumed the space into your main system partition, there’s no easy way to recover the data it contained. We should also point out that all partition operations carry a tiny element of risk: you might want to check your disk for errors before reorganising the partitions, and if you’re using a battery-powered device, make sure it’s connected to the mains before embarking on any repartitioning tasks.

Remove unneeded applications

Now you’ve maximised your available space, the next step is to clear out any programs you don’t need. To do this, go to the control panel and open the Programs And Features window to see a list of installed software. The Size column shows the total size each application takes up across your disk – something that may not otherwise be easy to work out, as program files tend to be spread across several disk locations.

By glancing down the Size column you can easily see if an application is taking up an inordinate amount of space, and decide whether to uninstall it – or perhaps, if it’s a modular installation, simply remove some components. Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite are examples of packages where a full installation can take up several gigabytes of space, but requirements can be slashed if you pare down your installation to the components you need. Ideally, of course, you should remove all unneeded applications, however large or small. Even if the space saving is minimal, removing surplus software makes it less likely you’ll be affected by security vulnerabilities.

Can I Delete It?

At the left of the Programs And Features pane, you’ll also see a link inviting you to “Turn Windows features on or off”. This may sound like a promising way to squeeze more space out of your system, but sadly there’s no space to be saved here: turning off a Windows feature doesn’t actually remove it from the disk (this is so you can easily turn it back on again if you change your mind later).

Cleaning up leftover files

The next step is to clear out any unneeded files that may have left been hanging around on your disk, either by applications that have now been removed, or by Windows itself. You can do this by hand, but we don’t recommend it. A more efficient approach is to use Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup tool (or Disk Clean-up, as it’s called in some versions of Windows): this can free up gigabytes of space by automatically removing all sorts of digital detritus, including log files and Windows 8 File History items.

When you first launch the program (simply search for its name), you’ll see that not all of these options are activated by default. You can enable them by simply ticking the relevant boxes in the interface – click on the name of an option to see a description of what it does. If you click the “Clean up system files” button, additional administrator-only cleanup options will become available.

You can’t break your PC by using Disk Cleanup, but there are options that should be used with care. One example is the “Previous Windows installations” option: if you’ve upgraded from an older version of Windows, selecting this option tells Disk Cleanup to remove the Windows.old folder that contains your old system files. This may sound like a good idea, but the folder also contains your old desktop and personal folders. If you haven’t already copied all your old data, check the user directories inside the Windows.old folder to rescue anything you might still want before you allow Disk Cleanup to erase it.

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