Windows and macOS can free up storage space for you—here’s how

If you start to run out of storage space on a desktop or laptop computer, you’ll soon know about it: Not only will you run into trouble finding room for new files, you’ll also notice Windows or macOS slowing down, as the operating system struggles to find space to carry out its day-to-day actions.

Even in our cloud-connected age, local storage remains important for photos, music, movies, documents, applications, and more—so you want to keep a healthy amount of space in reserve at all times.

To help you in your mission, both Windows and macOS have built-in tools for managing file storage and maximizing the amount of free space you have. Beyond these tools, there are some other ways you can make sure you don’t run out of room.

Free up space on Windows

Before you start clearing out the clutter from Windows, it helps to know what’s currently taking up room on your PC.

  • Click Settings on the Start menu.
  • Open the System page.
  • Choose Storage to see a system overview.

You’ll see storage space use split up into categories, including installed apps and temporary files. Click on any of these categories for a more detailed breakdown, like which apps are the biggest storage hogs.

Storage Sense can free up room in numerous ways. Screenshot: Microsoft

The built-in Windows tool for freeing up space is Storage Sense, which you can click on the Storage page to turn on and configure. Check the box at the top, Keep Windows running smoothly by automatically cleaning up temporary system and app files, to have Storage Sense regularly tidy up Windows. Then:

  • Toggle the Automatic User content cleanup switch to On.
  • Use the Run Storage Sense dropdown to set how often the tool runs.
  • Open the next drop-down to set how long deleted files stay in the Recycle Bin.
  • Select the next drop-down to automatically clean up the Downloads folder.

The final dropdown, under Locally available cloud content, will delete local copies of files you’ve backed up to OneDrive in the cloud if you haven’t accessed them lately. You can always download them again if you need to. The default is to remove files after they haven’t been accessed for 30 days, but you can adjust this to one, 14, or 60 days, as well as turning the feature off entirely.

You’ll also see the Run Storage Sense now button to run the program manually. It’s up to you how often you want to run it, but the default setting, During low free disk space, makes sense for most people: It’ll kick in as soon as you start to run out of room.

google drive menu options for syncing drives
Syncing options for Google Drive on Windows. Screenshot: Google

Most cloud storage services can do what OneDrive does and remove local copies of files if they’re backed up online—in other words, only downloading files that aren’t available anywhere else. If you’re using the Google Drive client for Windows, for example, on the Preferences screen you’ll see you can Stream files (download them as and when needed) or Mirror files (always keep local copies in place).

Beyond these tech tools, staying organized in your digital filing can help maintain a healthy amount of storage space on your system. Clean up places like the desktop and the Downloads folder when you’re done with files you no longer need, and uninstall applications you’re not using regularly (via Apps > Installed apps in Settings).

Free up space on macOS

Over on macOS, you can see how your system storage is being used by opening the Apple menu, then choosing System Settings > General > Storage. Scroll down for a more detailed breakdown of how storage is split between apps, photos, documents, system data, and everything else that’s on your Mac.

storage settings menu on macos
macOS will recommend ways to free up disk space. Screenshot: Apple

Under Recommendations you’ll see some built-in tools for freeing up space, which may vary depending on how your computer is set up and how your storage is currently being used.

  • Click Store in iCloud to keep most of your files online in iCloud, downloading individual files as and when needed.
  • Choose Optimize Storage to delete Apple TV movies and shows you’ve already watched—they can be downloaded again if required.
  • Click Empty Trash automatically to put a 30-day time limit on how long files will stay in the Trash folder before they’re wiped completely.

You will find some settings in other Apple apps on macOS, such as Photos. From Photos, open Photos > Settings > iCloud, and you can Optimize Mac Storage: This means that when you’re running low on disk space, the app will keep lower-resolution images and videos locally while backing up the full-resolution versions to iCloud on the web.

dropbox menu options for syncing folders
You can choose how Dropbox syncs files to your system. Screenshot: Dropbox

Other cloud storage tools offer a similar set of tricks. If you’re using Dropbox on your Mac, for example, you can head to the Preferences dialog, then click Sync to manage whether or not files are stored locally on your computer by default. If you keep files online-only, they can be downloaded whenever macOS or your apps need them.

You can do plenty of manual tidying up too, of course—clearing files off the desktop and out of the Downloads folder when you’re done with them, for example, or uninstalling applications that you’re not using regularly (drag a program icon down from Applications in Finder to the Trash icon in the dock to do this).

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