Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

If your disk is filling up it could be due to many causes. I'll walk through some of the techniques to free up space on a full hard disk.

I've had a laptop running Vista for about 5 years now and the hard drive is almost full. What should I do?

Sometimes it definitely feels like the longer you use your computer the less space is left on the hard drive.

That shouldn't really happen, but as a practical matter it does - or at least it feels like it does.

I'll throw out a few quick steps you can take to alleviate, or at least understand, the problem.

Remove What You Don't Need

If your hard disk fills up the solution in general is to simply find out what's taking up all the space, archive things you might want to keep, and delete those things that you don't need.

As always, be sure to backup first, just in case you delete something you ultimately decide you should have kept.

"... if there's only one copy it's not backed up and you're at risk of losing it."

I can't tell you how many times a good backup has saved me from over-aggressive cleanups.

Where's the Space Gone?

In Where's my disk space going? I describe a tool and a process to find out what's taking up large amounts of space on your disk.

This is useful for a couple of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that you may well be able to quickly identify something and say "oh, I don't need that!" and instantly free up the space by removing it.

However, it's also good to simply get an understanding of how the space on your machine is being used. You may find that applications you use are taking up more space than you expect. That information might lead you to research why and resolve an issue, or understand that things are working exactly as you expect.

The bottom line is that by simply seeing where disk space is being used you can delete files, archive files (more on that below) or simply understand that things are as they should be.

Clean Up (not so) Temporary Files

If there's anything that might accumulate on a system over time it's temporary files. The good news is that you can simply delete them. Can I delete the contents of my TMP folder? describes one way.

I've found that if my machine has a lot of unexplained disk usage just going in and deleting temporary files can often clean a bunch of it up.

Run the Windows Disk Cleanup Utility

Running the disk cleanup utility will also walk you through not only temporary file cleanup, but several other things that take up unnecessary space on your hard disk.

Right click on the drive in Windows Explorer, click on Properties, and you should see a Disk Cleanup button in the General tab. Click on that.

Disk Cleanup utility

The disk cleanup utility will actually examine several areas of your hard disk that contain things you might not need. Choose the ones that make sense and are taking up a lot of space, and let the utility clean up for you.

Archive Stuff Elsewhere

When I speak of "archiving" I mean simply that there's some data that you'll want to keep, but it doesn't have to be kept on your machine.

So, we archive it.

That means anything that moves the data elsewhere, perhaps storing it in ways that are less immediately accessible, but retrievable should you need it.

For example:

  • burn it to CDs or DVDs

  • copy it to an external hard disk used for this purpose

  • copy it to another machine or storage device on your home network

Basically, just about anything that copies the data somewhere else, so that you can then safely remove it from your computer.

And remember: any data (again: any data) that you keep in one and only one place is not backed up. An archive is not a backup if it's the only copy. That could mean that you need to burn two CDs, or get two external drives, or perhaps burn CDs and copy to an external hard drive.

It applies to data no matter where you keep it or use it: if there's only one copy it's not backed up and you're at risk of losing it.

Article C4675 - December 10, 2010 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

December 11, 2010 12:13 PM

One thing I've found taking up a lot of hard drive real estate is old restore points. If your computer is working fine, there should be no reason not to delete all but the most recent points.

December 14, 2010 9:36 AM

You did not include the most powerful tool available for free from Microsoft on their site:
It has essentially three options, one is very encompassing for all three and the others are to just clean your hard drive from such unwanted data or just simply compress them and it can clean Windows Registry which is the major cause of Windows operated computers to slow down and one to defragment the hard drives which is an excellent tool also AFTER DOING THE CLEANUP to speed its use.
I found that their encompasiibg iotion, although it tajes a long time, to be the most powerful malware removal, much better than any of the commercially available ones.

Matthias Dailey
December 14, 2010 11:47 AM

WinDirStat Portable is the way to go.. it scans a specific drive or directory and then provides a graphical representation of the sizes of each file so you can easily spot which ones are taking up all your space.

December 15, 2010 7:58 PM

Archive Elsewhere. Duh! Basic but extremely effective. Thanks Leo. Although I think most people would prefer the computer makers just go ahead and give us enough memory to last five lifetimes.

Bernard Winchester
December 16, 2010 3:56 PM

One possibility may be to fit an additional hard drive as a slave unit. BIOS limitations permitting, a modern hard drive may be much larger than the original and can host the "My Documents" folder with all of the user's data, together with a backup of the sytem drive.
I was told that placing the data on a different physical drive from the operating system can speed up a computer, and found it to be true. Moreover, when the old system drive fails, the data should be safe on a much newer device.

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