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Performing Routine Maintenance - Managing Disk Space

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3/13/2011 9:49:42 PM
In the digital era, Parkinson's Law has an inescapable corollary: data expands to fill the space allotted to it. Gargantuan hard disks encourage consumption, and digital media files (not to mention Windows itself) supply plenty of bits to be consumed. It's surprisingly easy to run low on disk space, and the consequences can be deleterious to your system. If you run low on storage, Windows might not have enough room to expand its page file in response to system needs, or it might be unable to create temporary files. In addition, essential features such as Windows Search and System Restore might stop working properly. At that point, you start seeing ominous error messages and (possibly) degraded performance.

To pare down on disk space consumption, you can do any or all of the following:

  • Clear out temporary files that you no longer need.

  • Uninstall programs you don't need.

  • Uninstall Windows features you don't need.

  • Delete documents you don't need.

1. Cleaning Up with Disk Cleanup

The simplest way to make room on any drive is with the help of the Disk Cleanup utility, Cleanmgr.exe. If you click a "low disk space" warning, this tool opens automatically. To begin working directly with a single local drive, right-click the drive icon in the Computer window, choose Properties from the shortcut menu, and then click Disk Cleanup on the General tab of the properties dialog box. Alternatively, you can click All Programs on the Start menu, then Accessories, then System Tools, and then Disk Cleanup.

Disk Cleanup begins by calculating the amount of space it can recover. Then it presents its findings, categorized, in a dialog box similar to the one shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Disk Cleanup displays the categories of files it can delete and the amount of space per category that it can reclaim.

You can see at a glance how much space you can recover by deleting a category of files. If you're not sure what's included in a file category, select it in the list and read the descriptive text. For some file categories, a View Files button is available; click it to open a folder containing the file category.

With the assistance provided by the Description box, Disk Cleanup options are fairly self-explanatory. For the most part, these options merely consolidate functions already scattered throughout the Windows interface. For instance, you can empty the Recycle Bin, clear out the Temporary Internet Files folder, and purge files from the Temp folder. (Avoid cleaning out the Downloaded Program Files folder, which contains generally useful ActiveX and Java add-ins.) Removing the Hibernation file can save a large amount of disk space—an amount equal to the amount of RAM installed on your computer; choose this option only if you never hibernate your system.


Disk Cleanup includes one confusing option that can leave an inordinate amount of wasted space on your hard disk if you don't understand how it works. When you run Disk Cleanup, one of the available options offers to delete Temporary Files; the accompanying Help text explains that these are unneeded files in the Temp folder. Unfortunately, this option might display a value of 0, even if your Temp folder contains hundreds of megabytes of useless files. The reason? Although the Help text hints at the answer, it doesn't clearly explain that this value lists only files in your Temp folder that are more than one week old. If you want to completely clean out this folder, you'll need to do so manually. Close all running programs and type %temp% in the Start menu search box; from the resulting Windows Explorer window, delete everything you find. You might discover that some files are not available for deletion until you restart your computer.

1.1. Cleaning Up System Files

Provided you have administrative credentials, you can add a few potentially large file categories to the initial list of deletable items by clicking Clean Up System Files. For example, if you performed a clean install of Windows 7 on a partition that you previously used for an earlier version of Windows, you might be able to reclaim gigabytes of disk space by eliminating the Windows.old folder. These files appear under the heading Previous Windows Installation(s). If you upgraded Windows Vista to Windows 7 (as opposed to performing a clean install), you might be able to recover a sizable chunk of disk space by deleting files under the heading Files Discarded By Windows Upgrade.

Clicking Clean Up System Files also adds a More Options tab to the Disk Cleanup dialog box, as shown in Figure 2.

The Clean Up button under Programs And Features takes you to the Uninstall Or Change A Program dialog box in Control Panel, where you can remove Windows features and programs. The Clean Up button under System Restore And Shadow Copies lets you remove all but the most recent System Restore checkpoints, shadow copies (previous file versions), and Complete PC Backup images. This option can recover a significant amount of space, but you should choose it only if you're certain you won't need to restore a backup or roll back your configuration to one of the saved versions you're about to delete.

Figure 2. The More Options tab appears only if you click Clean Up System Files.

While getting rid of programs you no longer use is always a good idea, the option to eliminate all but the most recent restore point should be considered a desperate measure. Restore points can sometimes provide a way to restore stability to a system that has become unruly. Keep them if you can.

1.2. Cleaning Up at the Command Line

Disk Cleanup offers some cool command-line switches that are documented only in a pair of obscure Knowledge Base articles. Through the use of these switches, you can save your preferences and rerun the cleanup process automatically using those settings. To do so, you need to use the following switches with Cleanmgr.exe:

  • /Sageset:n Opens a dialog box that allows you to select Disk Cleanup options, creates a registry key that corresponds to the number you entered, and then saves your settings in that key. Enter a number from 0 through 65535 in place of n.

  • /Sagerun:n Retrieves the saved settings for the number you enter in place of n and then runs Disk Cleanup without requiring any interaction on your part.

To use these switches, follow these steps:

  1. Open a Command Prompt window and type the command cleanmgr /sageset:200. (The number after the colon is completely arbitrary; you can choose any other number from 0 through 65535 if you prefer.) You must supply credentials from a member of the Administrators group to begin this task.

  2. In the Disk Cleanup Settings dialog box, choose the options you want to apply whenever you use these settings.

  3. Click OK to save your changes in the registry.

  4. Open Task Scheduler from Control Panel, and start the Create Basic Task wizard. Follow the wizard's prompts to name the task, and schedule it to run at regular intervals. When prompted to select the program you want Windows to run, type cleanmgr.exe in the Program/Script box and type /sagerun:200 in the Add Arguments box.

  5. Repeat steps 1–4 for other Disk Cleanup options you want to automate.

Inside Out: Make the most of Disk Cleanup shortcuts and tasks

Disk Cleanup shortcuts can be tremendously useful for routine maintenance. For instance, you might want to create a shortcut for Cleanmgr.exe with a saved group of settings that automatically empties the Temporary Internet Files folder and Recycle Bin and another that purges installation files and system dump files. If you create a shortcut that empties the Recycle Bin, it's best not to add it to your list of Scheduled Tasks, where it can inadvertently toss files you later discover you wanted to recover; instead, save this shortcut and run it as needed.

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