Seven ways to free up drive space

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For most of the past decade, many people had more drive space than they knew what to do with. Hard drives got bigger and bigger while prices went lower and lower. So it probably comes as a surprise, as you prepare for spring cleaning, to realize your drive may be getting full. The popularity of digital media means that many people are storing huge video files and thousands of photos and music tracks. Just as significantly, a growing number of computers are using solid-state drives (SSDs), which, while speedy, offer considerably less capacity than traditional hard drives. Even a modest iTunes or iPhoto library can quickly fill up a MacBook Air’s 64GB or 128GB SSD, leaving little room for anything else.

So how can you give your data some breathing room? Here are seven tips Macworld editors use to slim down our own drives.

1. Clear out your downloads

Every time you view a photo or open a PDF in an email message in Apple's Mail, that file gets saved in a folder called Mail Downloads. If you don’t receive many attachments, this folder will remain relatively small, but if you’re a frequent file exchanger, it can quickly siphon away hundreds of megabytes from your drive—much of it for files you’ve likely already saved somewhere else. Thankfully, emptying this folder is easy once you know where it is. In the Finder, choose Go -> Go To Folder, and then paste or type ~/Library/Mail Downloads—select everything in the folder that appears, and then move the lot to the Trash.

Along those same lines, chances are you’ve got a bunch of stuff downloaded from the Web that you no longer need. These files are stored in your main Downloads folder, which is a little bit easier to find—it’s sitting directly in your home folder, so you can just open it and start cleaning. Unlike with the Mail Downloads folder, however, you probably haven’t saved your Web downloads elsewhere, so it’s good to give them a good once-over to make sure you aren’t deleting something you might need later.—Serenity Caldwell

2. Delete unused video versions

Whenever you purchase the high-definition (HD) version of a movie or TV show from the iTunes Store, iTunes downloads two versions of that title: the HD version and the standard-definition (SD) version—the latter for playing on devices that don’t support HD video. (As of March 2012, whether the HD version's resolution is 720p or 1080p depends on your iTunes settings and whether or not the video is available in 1080p.) This means that downloading the two-hour Hugo, for example, uses up a whopping 6GB to 7GB of drive space: roughly 1.9GB for the SD version and another 4.3GB or 5.2GB for the HD version (720p or 1080p, respectively). Similarly, even if you opt for the 720p versions of TV shows, a 45-minute episode requires around 2.2GB of space: roughly 1.5GB for the 720p HD version and 650MB for the SD version.

Deleting the standard-definition version of Hugo will free up nearly 1.9 GB of space; deleting the HD version will free up 4.3GB (for 720p) or 5.2GB (for 1080p).

If, like me, you rarely watch both versions of a video, you can cut down the size of your iTunes library—perhaps dramatically—by deleting the version of each, HD or SD, that you don’t need.

For TV Shows, first select the TV Shows list in iTunes and then look for TV episodes that have an HD/SD icon to the right of the episode name. Select an episode, choose File -> Show In Finder (or press Command-Shift-R), and then delete the unwanted version (the one with (HD) in the name for the HD version, or the other for the standard-definition version). Repeat for each episode. If you ever need to re-download the deleted version of an episode, go to the iTunes Store’s Purchased screen, click TV Shows, find the episode, and click the Download button.

For movies, you can select the Movies list in iTunes and perform the same procedure. But before you do, a warning: Due to licensing issues, you can’t currently re-download movies from Fox and Universal—deleting a version of a Fox or Universal movie means that version is gone forever unless you make a backup somewhere else first. [Update 7/25/12: In the time since this article was published, Fox and Universal began allowing iTunes users to re-download each studio’s movies.]—Dan Frakes

3. Match your music

Speaking of iTunes, media libraries have a way of swelling over the years. But a little help from Apple’s iTunes Match service can save you a bundle in disk space. With an iTunes Match subscription, you can store your music in the cloud (read: on Apple’s servers), while still being able to stream those songs to your Mac, as well as to any iOS devices configured with the same account.

Once you’ve gone through the process of matching your music library, you can banish the local copies of your music tracks to the Trash. (Of course, as always, it’s worth backing them up somewhere, just in case.) Simply select all the tracks you want to remove and press the Delete key. iTunes will confirm that you want to remove them, and will then ask if you want to delete the files. Click Move To Trash and the files will be gone from your drive, but remain in your library. If you ever need local copies of particular songs—say, for a trip where you won’t have access to the Internet—you can re-download them with a click.

While the iTunes Match service does cost money, to the tune of $25 per year, that may be a small price to pay if you need to free up some disk space without losing access to your music.—Dan Moren

4. Selectively sync Dropbox

If you’re like most of the Macworld staff, you use the free Dropbox service to keep documents and data synchronized between your Macs. You may have even ponied up for a Dropbox upgrade to increase your storage from the 2.0 GB you get with a free account. If you don’t need all of your Dropbox-synced files with you, however, you’re wasting space on your drive—not to mention battery life if Dropbox is syncing changes to unnecessary files while you’re working on the road.

To exclude particular files from syncing with your laptop, click the Dropbox icon in the menu bar and choose Preferences. In the resulting window, click Advanced, and then click Change Settings next to Selective Sync. You’ll see a column-view file browser displaying the contents of your Dropbox folder. Uncheck a top-level folder to stop syncing that entire folder, or click a folder name to view that folder’s contents—you can disable syncing for just particular sub-folders. Click Update, and Dropbox will ask you to confirm that you want to stop syncing unchecked folders to this particular computer (which will remove them from this computer, though not from Dropbox’s servers or your other computers). Click Update to confirm.

You can of course use this procedure to free up space on any of your computers, not just laptops. And here’s a bonus Dropbox-related tip: You can also reclaim some space from Dropbox’s hidden cache.—Dan Frakes

5. Remove old iOS cruft

If you sync your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to your Mac, iTunes—are we sensing a pattern here?—is likely still hanging on to older device backups and OS updates that can fill up huge chunks of your drive.

To find the old backups, launch iTunes, choose iTunes -> Preferences, and then click the Devices icon in the window toolbar. You’ll see a list of backups for your various synced iOS devices—likely multiple versions for each device—along with the date each backup was made. You definitely don’t want to delete all these backups, but if a particular iOS device has been running smoothly for a while, you can safely delete older backups for it, keeping only the most-recent version.

To do so,, select a backup (or Command-click to select multiple backups), and then click the Delete Backup button. After you confirm your intentions, iTunes will erase the unneeded backups, freeing up plenty of space. Each of the local backups for my iPhone 4S, for example, weighs in at over 4GB.

While you’re reclaiming disk space selfishly claimed by iTunes’s behind-the-scenes data, there’s one other set of files you can probably remove: old iOS and iPod software updates. iTunes downloads these updates to install them, but it doesn’t delete them after installation. Getting rid of them can free up a good amount of space, and if you ever need one again, iTunes will just re-download it. In the Finder, choose Go -> Go To Folder, paste or type ~/Library/iTunes/, and then look for folders called iPhone Software Updates, iPad Software Updates, and iPod Software Updates. Delete anything in those folders to salvage a few more precious gigabytes of drive space. In a test computer here, deleting just two iPad updates and a single iPhone update regained 2.4GB.—Lex Friedman

6. Find other big stuff you don’t need

Among the biggest wasters of drive space are files and folders you’ve forgotten about or that have simply ballooned without your knowledge. A variety of utilities help you find such candidates for deletion; my personal favorite is Id-design’s WhatSize ($13 from the company’s website or $15 on the Mac App Store).

With a utility such as WhatSize, you can view your files and folders—and even packages such as iPhoto and Aperture libraries—sorted by size, in a variety of different ways. Doing so makes it easy to identify the largest items on your drive, or even to just get a sense of how much room certain things take up. (Your Steam game library takes up how many GBs?!) Once you’ve identified those items, you can decide which ones are really necessary, and delete those that aren’t. As an example, I recently used WhatSize to find and remove more than 6GB—not exactly chump change—of GarageBand Jam Pack loops that I never use and, in fact, had forgotten I’d installed.

WhatSize lets you figure out what’s monopolizing your drive’s space.

Of course, you’ll want to be careful when removing files from inside /Library and /Users/yourusername/Library, as deleting the wrong files can cause applications, and even the OS, to misbehave. WhatSize and similar utilities can also “slim down” applications by removing PowerPC code or unnecessary language localizations, but I don’t recommend doing so—these files don’t take up that much room, and removing them can cause problems, such as apps that can no longer be updated.—Jonathan Seff

7. Use network storage

One of the best ways to free up room on your computer is to refrain from storing unneeded files on it. You can do this with the help of network-attached-storage (NAS) devices. Such devices are generally connected to your network via an ethernet cable, although a few can connect via Wi-Fi. Those that sport gigabit ethernet can move data reasonably quickly across a gigabit network. (If you’re connected to your network via Wi-Fi, your computer’s Wi-Fi connection will determine overall performance.) You can get NAS-like features from a dedicated NAS drive, a USB hard drive that you’ve attached to an AirPort Extreme Base Station or a Time Capsule, or a gadget such as those from Pogoplug, which accommodate multiple USB storage devices and let you access them on a local network as well as via the Internet.

What kind of data would you put on one of these devices? If you have a dedicated NAS, your iTunes library is a good place to start, as it can take up a lot of space—such a setup can even let you play the contents of that iTunes library from any computer you own, thus turning the NAS into a music server. (Some NAS devices can be set up to serve that content over the Internet, as well.) You can also offload any files that you don’t need to take with you when traveling, such as older iMovie projects or big folders of older documents. Just be sure important data is backed up somewhere else—the NAS shouldn’t be your only copy.—Christopher Breen

Updated 7/25/12 to add note about Fox and Universal now letting users re-download movies.

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