If you’re thinking about buying a new hard drive because you’re running out of capacity, you can quickly free up a lot of space by offloading large files to the cloud.

Cloud drive storage is cheap, really cheap, and it’s only going to get cheaper. Currently, the three major cloud space providers, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive all provide one terabyte of storage space for about $10 per month.

That said, no matter how much cloud storage you have, chances are you can fit a lot of stuff on it. Fact is, Google and Microsoft both give away 15 GB for free, which means that if your local hard drive is straining, you can easily buy yourself some breathing room by moving some stuff to the cloud.

Note: it’s important to keep in mind that if you do put your files in the cloud and they aren’t saved anywhere else, it isn’t considered a backup, and if that cloud hosting provider has a problem, you might lose the files. Best to upload important files to two places or keep a local copy on a backup hard drive.

To Sync or … No, Let’s Not Sync

Typically, when you use a cloud service, you can install a desktop client, which will create a group of local folders that sync every time you add, change, or remove a file. This is awesome because it means that wherever you go, your cloud files are always up-to-date. But, you may not always want every file on the cloud also on your computer, or you may not want a file on your computer but instead on the cloud.

RELATED: How to Save Drive Space by Offloading Local Files to the Cloud

The goal of this article is to show you how to store files remotely by uploading them to a folder on your cloud service, and then de-syncing them so they’re no long on your computer. We’re going to discuss how to do this with each of the three aforementioned cloud services: Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive.

It’s important to remember that, even if you do remove a folder or two from your local storage in favor of a cloud-based solution, you can still access and even share those resources. You will just have to access them through your preferred browser.


On Dropbox, the first thing we want to do is create a folder in our local Dropbox folder. Let’s make it something obvious like Big Files.

Next, move (don’t copy) the file or files you want to relocate to that folder. Here’s where patience comes into play. Uploading large files, or even many files, can take quite some time. If you’re on a basic cable connection, your upload speed will be a shadow of your download speed so even uploading a few gigabytes of data could take a few hours, or even days if you’re uploading tens or hundreds of gigabytes.

Caveats aside, once your files are uploaded, it’s time to turn de-sync that folder. Right-click on the Dropbox icon in the notifications tray, and click “Preferences…” to open the Dropbox Preferences.

On the Dropbox Preferences, click the “Account” tab and then click “Selective Sync… .” On the Selective Sync screen, uncheck the box beside the folder or folders you want to de-sync.

Dropbox will warn you that once you update your selective sync settings, the folder will be deleted from your computer, but they will still be available online and other devices. Note, make sure that when you use other devices with Dropbox installed, you update your selective sync settings because otherwise your Big Files folder will be downloaded.

Once your sync preferences are updated, the local folder will be deleted and that space on your hard drive will be reclaimed.

Google Drive

The procedure on Drive is similar to that on Dropbox, first create your new destination in your Drive local folder.

Next, right-click the Drive icon in the notifications tray, and then click “Preferences…” to open the Google Drive preferences.

The preferences window will automatically open to the “Sync options” tab. Make sure “Only sync some folders to this computer” is checked, and then uncheck the folder or folders you want to de-sync.

Click “Apply changes” and you will be shown a confirmation box warning you that your folder will be removed from local storage, but will be kept on Google Drive.

And that’s it, your folder and its space-hogging contents will be safely stored in the cloud.

Microsoft OneDrive

Finally, there’s OneDrive, which comes integrated into Windows 8.1 (but not Windows 8). Let’s cover the methods you want to use for Windows 8.1, and then for the OneDrive desktop client on Windows 7, which will be the same process on Windows 8.

OneDrive on Windows 8.1

On Windows 8.1, you can find the OneDrive folder in File Explorer. Like we said, it is incorporated into the system so you don’t need a separate client. As with all our other cloud services, we create a our Big Files folder and move our cloud-only files into it.

OneDrive on Windows 8.1 has a feature you won’t normally see on other cloud services. With OneDrive, you can make files available “online-only,” which means that you can still see them locally (you can even access them, but they will have to be downloaded first).

To make your Big Files folder online-only, right-click and select “Make available online-only” on the context menu.

As long as the folder is online-only, whatever files you move into it will be uploaded and physically deleted from your hard drive. You can also do this with individual files or a group of files. Simply select the files inside the OneDrive folder, right-click and make them available online-only.

The process for using the OneDrive Windows Store app is easy. Long-press (or right-click) the folder or folders so that it is selected.

On the resulting options bar on along the bottom edge of the screen, choose the “Make online-only” option.

Remember, all these features are already integrated into Windows 8.1 and the upcoming Windows 10, so you don’t need to install or configure anything. If you use Windows 7 or Windows 8 however, you will need to install the OneDrive desktop client just as you would Dropbox or Drive.

OneDrive on Windows 7 or Windows 8

If you use Windows 7 or are still holding out with Window 8, then you will need to download and install the separate OneDrive desktop client, which will integrate the service into your computer.

You’ll need to sign in with your Microsoft account to access your folders and files.

If you’ve already set up the Big Files folder elsewhere, you can choose which folders to sync. Otherwise, select “All files and folders on my OneDrive.”

Once installed, follow the same procedure as with the other services. Create your Big Files folder in your OneDrive folder and move your cloud-only files in there.

Next, right-click on the OneDrive icon in the notification tray and select “Settings” from the resulting options.

With the OneDrive settings open, click on the “Choose folders” tab and then click the “Choose folders” button.

On the next screen, click “Choose folders to sync” and uncheck the folder or folders you want to de-sync, then click “OK.” Same as with Google Drive and Dropbox, your folder will be kept safe in the cloud but removed from your local storage.

We’re almost done, let’s take a moment to check out how you can upload files to your chosen cloud service using their websites. This will be helpful for those times when you want to upload something to your online-only folder, but you don’t want to fiddle with your sync settings to access it locally.

The Websites

So here’s the scenario: you’ve successfully offloaded your big files to the cloud and the local folder has been removed. Later, you discover another file you would like put in that folder, but it’s no longer available.

You could go through all that rigmarole and re-sync your online-only folder, place the file in it so it is uploaded to the cloud, and then de-sync the folder again, but that’s not very convenient is it?

The better way, as long as it’s only one or two files, is to simply use the cloud service’s website to upload the file(s).

On the Dropbox website, you can either drag the file into the folder, or you can click the “Upload” button.

Using Google Drive, you can also drag files into the folder window, or you can click the red button with the white arrow, next to the Create button.

Finally, OneDrive too will allow drag and drop functions and similarly, there’s a convenient “Upload” button for you to click.

Keep in mind, you could always use the websites to perform your online-only file uploads, however, you have to keep the browser windows open. Closing your browser or turning your computer off could interrupt your operation, and you’d have to pick up where it left off later on. The preferred method is to use the desktop client for your service and de-sync such as we’ve described.

Regardless of the cloud service you primarily use, you should be able to perform this same kind of space-saving operation. Just take a moment to check your client’s settings to see how things are synced.

Do you already use the cloud to save local space? Has this article helped you? We’d love to hear your opinion in our discussion forum!


Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
Read Full Bio »