There's hope for cluttered hard drives

January 22, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

There's an old saying about closets - no matter how many you have, you'll inevitably fill them up. For many years the same shibboleth held true for disk drives. Bloated programs, graphics and more recently, digital music and photographs have always threatened to overflow our computers' storage capacity.

If you bought a PC in the last year or so, consider yourself lucky. Competition and technology have made storage so cheap that it's hard to find a computer with less than 10 gigabytes of space available, and 20-gig drives are common on all but the cheapest models. You can store 2,000 digital tunes and 1,000 high-resolution photos on one of these monsters and still use up less than half its capacity.

Unfortunately, the revolution came too late for folks who bought their computers two or three years ago and now find themselves running out of space. If you have an older machine, you may not even notice this is happening - one warning sign is a sluggish computer and a hard drive that thrashes constantly as Windows tries to find space for the temporary files it needs to keep itself running.

But if you keep installing new programs and downloading files from Napster, one day you'll get an error message telling you the closets are full. In the worst-case scenario, your computer could crash.

How do you find out what space is available? Double click on the My Computer icon on your desktop, then right click on the icon for Drive C: and choose Properties from the menu that pops up. You'll see a box that tells you how large the drive is and how much free space you have. If there's less than 200 megabytes, your machine may be a disaster waiting to happen.

Let's say your PC is otherwise adequate for your needs - a 3-year-old machine is still fine for word processing, record keeping and Web browsing. You have two options.

The first is to clean out the stuff you don't need, which costs nothing but a little time.

The second is to add more storage capacity, which is harder but far cheaper than buying a new computer.

Before you start your cleanup, be aware that Windows and the programs you run every day are sloppy housekeepers. In the normal course of business, they create hundreds of files that you don't need.

You can free a lot of disk space - often hundreds of megabytes - by getting rid of this detritus. The problem is separating the junk from the files you do need.

Don't use guesswork here. A teen-ager I know had a near-death experience because he decided to get rid of unnecessary stuff and inadvertently deleted critical Windows system files.

It took his father a week to get the computer running again, and if the kid hadn't been a lot faster than the old man, he might not have survived.

Fortunately, there's a safe way to throw out the bath water and spare the baby. It's a program called Disk Cleanup that Microsoft tucked away under System Tools in the Accessories menu that you'll find when you click on the Start Menu and choose Programs.

Disk Cleanup will get rid of Temporary Internet Files, Web pages that you've stored for offline reading, downloaded program files, and temporary files created by programs that don't clean up after themselves.

It will also empty your Recycle Bin, which stores backups of files that you thought you'd deleted (more about that later). If you upgraded from an earlier version of Windows, it will give you the option of deleting the huge backup files that the new installation created. There's no need to keep them if your computer has been running well for a couple of months since the upgrade.

That done, you can keep Windows from gobbling disk space in the future by changing a few simple settings.

Temporary Internet Files are among the biggest wastes of real estate. These include copies of graphics from Web pages, "cookies" and other information that Windows stores to speed up surfing when you return to a page you've already visited. They're not necessary, and they don't speed up Web browsing all that much.

To see how much space Windows reserves for them, click on the Start Menu, then choose Settings, Control Panel and Internet Options.

You'll see a slider with a window that shows you the maximum amount of space Windows sets aside. Whatever your setting is, try cutting it by a third or a half. If Web browsing slows down too much, you can always restore the original setting.

The Recycle Bin is another offender. It was created to protect you against the "oops" factor - the feeling you get when you accidentally delete a file you didn't mean to kill. When you delete a file, it will disappear from its original folder, but a copy will be stored in the Recycle Bin, where you can find it if you realize you've made a mistake. Only when the Recycle Bin fills up will Windows actually start deleting those files, taking the oldest first.

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