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6 Ways to Free Up Hard Drive Space Used by Windows System Files

small-ssd

We’ve previously covered the standard ways to free up space on Windows. But if you have a small solid-state drive and really want more hard space, there are geekier ways to reclaim hard drive space.

Not all of these tips are recommended — in fact, if you have more than enough hard drive space, following these tips may actually be a bad idea. There’s a tradeoff to changing all of these settings.

Erase Windows Update Uninstall Files

Windows allows you to uninstall patches you install from Windows Update. This is helpful if an update ever causes a problem — but how often do you need to uninstall an update, anyway? And will you really ever need to uninstall updates you’ve installed several years ago? These uninstall files are probably just wasting space on your hard drive.

A recent update released for Windows 7 allows you to erase Windows Update files from the Windows Disk Cleanup tool. Open Disk Cleanup, click Clean up system files, check the Windows Update Cleanup option, and click OK.

If you don’t see this option, run Windows Update and install the available updates.

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Remove the Recovery Partition

Windows computers generally come with recovery partitions that allow you to reset your computer back to its factory default state without juggling discs. The recovery partition allows you to reinstall Windows or use the Refresh and Reset your PC features.

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These partitions take up a lot of space as they need to contain a complete system image. On Microsoft’s Surface Pro, the recovery partition takes up about 8-10 GB. On other computers, it may be even larger as it needs to contain all the bloatware the manufacturer included.

Windows 8 makes it easy to copy the recovery partition to removable media and remove it from your hard drive. If you do this, you’ll need to insert the removable media whenever you want to refresh or reset your PC.

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On older Windows 7 computers, you could delete the recovery partition using a partition manager — but ensure you have recovery media ready if you ever need to install Windows. If you prefer to install Windows from scratch instead of using your manufacturer’s recovery partition, you can just insert a standard Window disc if you ever want to reinstall Windows.

Disable the Hibernation File

Windows creates a hidden hibernation file at C:\hiberfil.sys. Whenever you hibernate the computer, Windows saves the contents of your RAM to the hibernation file and shuts down the computer. When it boots up again, it reads the contents of the file into memory and restores your computer to the state it was in. As this file needs to contain much of the contents of your RAM, it’s 75% of the size of your installed RAM. If you have 12 GB of memory, that means this file takes about 9 GB of space.

On a laptop, you probably don’t want to disable hibernation. However, if you have a desktop with a small solid-state drive, you may want to disable hibernation to recover the space. When you disable hibernation, Windows will delete the hibernation file. You can’t move this file off the system drive, as it needs to be on C:\ so Windows can read it at boot. Note that this file and the paging file are marked as “protected operating system files” and aren’t visible by default.

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Shrink the Paging File

The Windows paging file, also known as the page file, is a file Windows uses if your computer’s available RAM ever fills up. Windows will then “page out” data to disk, ensuring there’s always available memory for applications — even if there isn’t enough physical RAM.

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The paging file is located at C:\pagefile.sys by default. You can shrink it or disable it if you’re really crunched for space, but we don’t recommend disabling it as that can cause problems if your computer ever needs some paging space. On our computer with 12 GB of RAM, the paging file takes up 12 GB of hard drive space by default. If you have a lot of RAM, you can certainly decrease the size — we’d probably be fine with 2 GB or even less. However, this depends on the programs you use and how much memory they require.

The paging file can also be moved to another drive — for example, you could move it from a small SSD to a slower, larger hard drive. It will be slower if Windows ever needs to use the paging file, but it won’t use important SSD space.

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Configure System Restore

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Windows seems to use about 10 GB of hard drive space for “System Protection” by default. This space is used for System Restore snapshots, allowing you to restore previous versions of system files if you ever run into a system problem. If you need to free up space, you could reduce the amount of space allocated to system restore or even disable it entirely.

Of course, if you disable it entirely, you’ll be unable to use system restore if you ever need it. You’d have to reinstall Windows, perform a Refresh or Reset, or fix any problems manually.

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Tweak Your Windows Installer Disc

Want to really start stripping down Windows, ripping out components that are installed by default? You can do this with a tool designed for modifying Windows installer discs, such as WinReducer for Windows 8 or RT Se7en Lite for Windows 7. These tools allow you to create a customized installation disc, slipstreaming in updates and configuring default options. You can also use them to remove components from the Windows disc, shrinking the size of the resulting Windows installation.

This isn’t recommended as you could cause problems with your Windows installation by removing important features. But it’s certainly an option if you want to make Windows as tiny as possible.

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Most Windows users can benefit from removing Windows Update uninstallation files, so it’s good to see that Microsoft finally gave Windows 7 users the ability to quickly and easily erase these files.

However, if you have more than enough hard drive space, you should probably leave well enough alone and let Windows manage the rest of these settings on its own.

Image Credit: Yutaka Tsutano on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 10/14/13

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