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What to Do When Your Mac’s Hard Disk Runs Out of Space

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Your hard drive once seemed impossibly huge, but now you’re running out of room. What can you delete safely? Maria Langer helps you decide how to perform triage on both data and Mac system files.
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It’s happened to all of us. We buy a new computer with a hard disk so big we’re convinced we could never fill it up. Six months or a year later, we wonder where all that free space went and we worry about having enough space for the next six months.

Before you run out and get a new hard disk, you can do a few things to free up space on the hard disk you already have. If you offload the things you really don’t need, you might wind up with enough room to put off that new hard disk purchase until you’re ready for a whole new computer.

In this article, I explain how to find and delete files that are unnecessarily filling up your hard disk so you can free up space for new files. I start with the easy stuff — the document files you can archive and take off your hard disk because you really don’t need them there — and work my way up to unused application and system files that probably shouldn’t be on your hard disk in the first place.

Take Out the Trash

If you’ve used a Mac for any length of time, you should know that items you put in the Trash stay there – and on your hard disk – until you empty the Trash. This is pretty basic stuff and I shouldn’t have to tell you.

If you’re brand new to a Mac and don’t know how to do this, it’s easy. Here are three different ways to get the job done:

  • In the Finder, choose Finder > Empty Trash (Figure 1).
  • Figure 1 To empty the Trash, choose Finder, Empty Trash.

  • In the Finder, press Shift-Command-Delete.
  • With any application active, point to the Trash icon in the Dock, hold down the mouse button, and choose Empty Trash from the menu that appears (Figure 2).

Figure 2 You can also use the Trash’s shortcut menu to empty the trash.

What you might not know, however, is that some programs maintain their own separate Trash. iPhoto is a good example. When you delete a photo in iPhoto, it goes into iPhoto’s Trash “folder.” You can view the contents of its Trash by selecting the Trash item under Recent in the sidebar. As shown in Figure 3, when the Trash is selected, the total number of items and the disk space they occupy are shown at the bottom of the sidebar. When you empty iPhoto’s trash, you permanently remove these items from disk.

Figure 3 iPhoto has its own Trash.

To empty iPhoto’s trash, choose iPhoto > Empty iPhoto Trash (Figure 4) or press Shift-Command-Delete. Click OK in the dialog that appears. The items are permanently removed from iPhoto – and your hard disk.

Figure 4 Choose iPhoto > Empty iPhoto Trash.

iPhoto isn’t the only application with its own Trash. Check the documentation for the applications you use, or just peek under the application or File menu. That’s usually where you find commands related to an application’s internal Trash.

Clear Off Your Desktop

If you’re like me, your Mac’s desktop is a minefield of file and folder icons. What is all that junk? Do you need it all? Go through it all, file the keepers, and delete the junk. Then empty the Trash.

Don’t do what I do, which is to wait until there are too many icons to actually find new ones that arrive and then file them all in a Desktop Junk folder on the Desktop. That just shuffles the junk around; it doesn’t eliminate it and clear out disk space.

As I type this, almost 1 GB of disk space on my main Mac is taken up by 539 files on my Desktop, most of which are in a Desktop Junk folder I created to keep them out of the way. Very dumb!

Clear Out the Downloads Folder

In the most recent Mac OS X versions, files you download from the Web are usually saved to the Downloads folder. You can find this folder inside your Home folder. You may even have an icon for it in the Dock.

Have you ever looked inside this folder? It contains all the files you downloaded, even the ones you didn’t think of as downloads at the time. For example, when you click a Web page link that displays a PDF file, that PDF file is downloaded to your computer and stored in – you guessed it – the Downloads folder. You’ll also find Quicken or QuickBooks account download files (if you use the Web connect feature), image attachments to e-mail messages that you may have saved by clicking the Save button in Mail, and countless other files you may not realize are on your computer.

As I type this, there’s 2.72 GB of disk space taken up by the 112 files in my Downloads folder (Figure 5) – and I routinely weed out the junk.

Figure 5 Is your Downloads folder full of junk you don’t need?

Roll up your sleeves and dive into that folder. Delete the files you don’t want or need. Move the ones you do want to a more appropriate location on your hard disk or back them up to a CD or other media. Then empty the Trash.

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