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How to get rid of old files and clean your Windows PC

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Finding and deleting unwanted files on your PC is a task that everyone thinks is going to take hours, when in reality it only takes a minute or two. Just don’t think it’s as easy as using Windows 10’s File Explorer. 

The Storage menu in Windows Settings was designed to eliminate digital file clutter. It is the DIY kit of the most sophisticated WinDirStat tool (which we recommend if you want to dive deeper). 

The need is growing: Laptops with 128 and 256 GB SSDs are still the norm, but photos and videos already take up a lot of space. If you’re a fan of classic game reboots like Flight Simulator, you should know that they can take up to 150GB of storage, just for their loneliness. We will tell you below how to recover part of that space. 

How to use Windows 10 storage settings

In the Windows 10 settings menu, go to ‘Settings> System> Storage’. At the top, you will see a toggle to turn the ‘Storage Sensor’ on and off. We will talk about that later.

In the center of the screen, you will see your local hard drive (or disks) with an easy-to-read menu that explains how the storage is divided within your PC. Notice how the subtext tells you the task at hand: “Uninstall unused or unwanted apps and features,” “Remove unused cloud-backed content,” and so on. Each category tells you how much of your PC storage is taken up with apps, videos, etc.

Traditionally, applications take up the most space on a PC. You may find that a “small” game you downloaded takes up a few gigabytes that you want to recover. 

 

Click on the ‘Applications’ menu, which will take you to a page where Windows will show you the applications stored on your PC. Rearrange the list by file size to see which apps are consuming the most space, then click on the app and select ‘Uninstall’ to get rid of it. Please note that some native Windows applications, such as Photos, cannot be uninstalled.

“Temporary files” and “OneDrive subtitles” are typically the mother lode of junk files. Clicking the Temporary Files subtitle opens a host of files that even Windows deems unnecessary, from temporary Internet files to the Recycle Bin. Click the ‘Delete files’ button at the top to delete everything.

The OneDrive caption is a bit more subjective. By default, Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage service backs up your documents, pictures, and even your desktop folder. 

But it does keep a placeholder, a kind of file marker on your local hard drive. Files that you have stored locally are kept on your local hard drives, but a copy is also kept on OneDrive (as long as you have the space). 

Windows is smart enough to know if such a copy exists, and it can delete the local copy, keeping the bookmark and keeping the copy in the cloud. (Note: don’t expect this option to just copy your hard drive to the cloud. It won’t! It will just clean up local files that have been previously copied, which won’t be all on your PC).

A file that is backed up to OneDrive can be accessed by clicking in File Explorer, just like a local file. However, before it can be accessed, it must be downloaded from OneDrive, which can be undesirable for users with slow or unreliable Internet connections. It can save space, sure, but it may not be worth the inconvenience.

Similarly, you may find that the remaining storage categories are not worth analyzing as part of your digital cleaning routine. The Desktop and Videos folders probably contain the content you want to keep, and even if you select the Show more categories link at the bottom, it will simply open folders like Documents and Music that you may want to leave intact.

How to use Storage Sense, your digital housekeeper

Remember “Temporary Files” was such a great place to find files that you can get rid of? Why not let Windows do it for you? That’s the reasoning behind Storage Sense, the switch at the top of the Storage page of the settings. If you turn it on, it will automatically delete files from the Recycle Bin after 30 days and delete other temporary files as well. 

But do yourself a favor and open the Storage Sense settings / options page, which has been tweaked since the feature debuted early in the Windows lifecycle. Our previous Storage Sense instruction manual is still current, but Windows has added controls to optionally remove files from the Downloads folder. I don’t want that to ever happen, and you might not want that to happen either.

Note that Storage Sense kicks in only when you are low on disk space. If you download a massive game like Flight Simulator, it can cause Windows to fire – there’s too much empty space to run Storage Sense, but not enough to download the game. You can always go to the bottom of the Storage Sense configuration page and launch Storage Sense manually.

WinDirStat: The Tool for Steam Gamers

The only key limitation that I have noticed in the Windows storage settings is that they have blinders when it comes to other app stores. If you have downloaded some games through Steam, for example, Windows cannot recognize how much space they take up. 

As my colleague Brad Chacos explains, WinDirStat solves this problem by offering a top-down view of your hard drive, with a graphical representation of the size and type of your files. Do you want to know how much space the .MP4 video files consume? WinDirStat can tell you. 

It presents this information to you in a File Explorer-like interface along with a graphical interface, so you may have to dig around and find any hidden Steam games, for example, that may have escaped your attention.

The combination of Windows’ own Storage settings and WinDirStat may not magically clean up your hard drive, but it will help you make an informed decision about what to save and what to delete. And if you don’t have enough storage space yet, you might want to check out our roundup of the best external hard drives to find a few more. 

Note: When you buy something after clicking the links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our Affiliate Link Policy for more details.


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