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December 13, 2007

Reclaiming Disk Space: Windows XP

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Summary: Intro, Disclaimer, Apps, HowTo, Footnotes

If you have a computer with Windows XP, a hard drive less than 60 Gigabytes, and a tendency to use the system often, you may have wondered at one time or another, "What happened to my disk space?"

Granted, a quick google will give you hundreds of guides to freeing up disk space, but most of them either a) tell you to use the Disk Cleanup Utility, b) promote someone's software, or c) give no usable info. So, allow me to heap another little guide onto the pile.

DISCLAIMER: Unless you KNOW what you're doing, deleting files and folders is never 100% safe. Always search the web and ask those more knowledgeable than yourself if you're in doubt about something. That's what communities and forums are for, and the people there are (more often than not) ready and willing to give advice. Yes, even to computer-illiterate newbies.

Also, most (if not all) of the methods described here will require administrative privileges.

Alright, with that out of the way, prepare to get your hands dirty with the dark recesses of XP's filesystem.

First, an app to install that will be useful: WinDirStat. It's a nice little app that will analyze any drive attached to your computer, and show you, in a graphical format, the layout of your drive(s) in terms of filesize. To install, scroll past the Release Notes to the "Download and Install" portion of the webpage. You can download the installer package, but I prefer the standalone executable (go to the sourceforge page, dropdown the 1.1.2 section which contains all the zip files, and download "windirstat1_1_2-exe-unicode.zip". Extract this to a separate directory, and launch windirstat.exe).

We'll start with something simple: the Disk Cleanup Utility. Yes, there are a million and one guides out there on how to use this thing, but no XP cleanup guide would be complete without it*. We'll go through this quickly: Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Cleanup. Select your main windows drive (C: in most cases; if in doubt, use the letter that is there by default). Click OK, let it scan the drive, which could take several minutes. When it's done, go through the list and check out what there is to get rid of. What's checked by default should be sufficient, but there may be more that you're comfortable doing. Your choice. When you're done with the list, click "OK" again, then "Yes", and let it do its thing.

Next is an easy one, too. Pull up the "Add/Remove Programs" utility from the Control Panel. Then, go through each item in the list (you may want to uncheck "show updates" in the top right, if you have it, before doing this, for sanity's sake). If you come across anything that you know you never use (that game you installed last year and haven't touched since, for example), remove it. If you're unsure about something or the name sounds weird, check google for it before uninstalling. This list can contain important hardware drivers, and you don't want to delete those. But if you know what it is and you know you don't use it, remove it. This alone can save a decent chunk of space.

When you're done in the realm of apps, open Windows Explorer (or your preferred file manager). Navigate to "C:\Documents and Settings\". This is where the data for each user account is stored. On my computer, with one admin account and one limited user account, this directory contains seven subdirectories: 3 hidden "users" (Default User, LocalService, and NetworkService), an "All Users" directory, an "Owner" directory, and two other directories for my two accounts. We'll only be touching the users' accounts.
One by one, enter each user's home directory (referred to as "C:\Docs\User\"), and go to their Local Settings (C:\Docs\User\Local Settings\). This is a hidden directory, so make sure you can see it. Under local settings, go to the Temp directory, and delete EVERYTHING. This is where programs store files for temporary usage, and, as a general rule, neither windows apps nor the OS they run on are very good at cleaning themselves up. Once done there, head up and over to Temporary Internet Files (another hidden directory). This is the browsers' (plural, for those with more than one) cache and, normally, it's safe to delete everything here. The only reason you would want these files would be to work offline. The same is true of its sibling, the History directory, and C:\Docs\User\Cookies (though you may not be able to delete the index.dat file in the Cookies folder).

Once you've done that for every user, head to each user's Application Data directory (C:\Docs\User\Application Data\). This part is tricky. The directory you're now in is where applications hold their "permanent" data. Unfortunately, this data can be a little too permanent, since it even hangs around after you uninstall the corresponding program -- and it's found under every user's directory, whether the contents be unique or identical. Basically, you can go through this directory and delete any folder that relates to any program you've uninstalled. Programs which download or archive data (especially Google Earth and Google Desktop) seem to take a very large chunk of space in this area. Again, if you're unsure, google it. Once you've finished this directory, do the same for C:\Docs\User\Local Settings\Application Data. Fortunately, this second directory seems to be a less popular data-storage spot.

If, in your forray of deletions, you get an error saying "Cannot delete <foldername>: Access is denied", first make sure you're admin. Then, right-click the offending folder and select Properties. If the "Read-only" box is checked (or semi-checked, as the case may be), uncheck it and try again.

Once you've deleted all you want, make sure to empty all Recycle bins. Each user account has its own Recycle bin. They are all accessible at C:\Recycler (sometimes C:\Recycled). With admin privileges, enter into each subdirectory of C:\Recycler and delete all files (after checking in with the corresponding owners, of course!)

I've found the Application Data directories to be the more space-hungry directories. It depends on what kind of usage the system receives, of course. Altogether, using this method of cleanup, I saved about 2.7GB. That may not be too much in terms of today's hard drives, but it's 2.7 gigabytes I'd rather not have holding useless data ;)

As a last note, also run a defragmentation program once you've cleaned house. This can save a few more megabytes of space, as well as tidy up all your data. One program that I've found to be very good at this is JkDefrag. The downside is it doesn't have much configurability (automatically runs through all attached drives, last I checked), but it definitely compacts the data nicely.

* Unless, of course, that guide leads you to manually deleting everything that the DCU would do automatically.


shiok said...

Thank you very much for your article, it has helped me save a whopping 3.7GB of diskspace from the Local Setting/Temp folder alone.

The Star said...

ya thnx!!!!!!!!!!!! :) it was a gr8 help!!!