How to Clean a Hard Drive in Windows

Free up and secure space on your computer's hard drive

If you've owned a Windows computer long enough, the hard drive will fill up to a level where it starts to impact the computer's performance. The easiest solution for this is to clean your hard disk of all unnecessary files.

Cleaning a hard drive is not like completely wiping a hard drive. When you clean a drive, you're only removing files and folders you don't need.

But what are unnecessary files and how do you find them? By following the steps below, you'll be able to free up a significant amount of hard drive space and get your Windows system running at top performance again.

This guide can be used for Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP.

How to Clean Your Hard Disk With Disk Cleanup

The Disk Cleanup utility has been included with Windows starting with Windows XP. While the functionality enhanced slightly in newer versions of Windows, the process remains the same.

  1. Select the Start button and type Disk Cleanup. Select the Disk Cleanup app. When it launches, you'll see all of the files on your system and how much space clearing them would make available.

    Screenshot of disk cleanup utility
  2. Under Files to Delete, select all boxes. These include downloaded files, temporary internet files, cache files, the Recycle Bin, and more. You can delete all of these files without hurting your Windows system at all. Select OK to begin the cleanup process.

    Screenshot of all cleanup files selected.
  3. The Disk Cleanup utility will delete all of the unnecessary files in the locations you've selected, and then the utility will close.

Use Storage Settings and Storage Sense

You don't have to do a full Disk Cleanup every day or week, but you should be clearing your Recycle Bin, temporary internet files, and downloaded files on a regular basis.

If you are using Windows 10, then you have access to a utility called Storage Sense where you can do this in a more sophisticated way.

  1. Select the Start button and type Settings. Select Settings. In the Windows Settings window, select System.

    The Windows Settings dialog box.
  2. Select Storage from the left menu. This will display how your storage is currently being used and areas where you can clean your hard disk and free up space.

    Screenshot of Storage settings in Windows 10.
  3. You'll see the area that uses the most space at the top of the list. Select each of these to delete unnecessary files there. One area you should check often in this list is Temporary files. It may take a few minutes to load, but this contains things like the Recycle Bin, temporary internet files, Windows upgrade log files, and more.

    The Windows Storage dialog box.
  4. Select the boxes to the left of the items in the Temporary Files list and select Remove files at the top to clean all of these areas of your hard drive.

    Screenshot of Temporary Files area
  5. Back on the Storage screen, select Configure Storage Sense or run it now.

    The Storage dialog box in Windows 10.
  6. Set the toggle under Storage Sense to On. Select the checkbox under Temporary files, and select the frequency you'd like your Recycle Bin and Downloads folder to be cleaned automatically.

    Screenshot of setting up Storage Sense
  7. When you're finished adjusting the Storage Sense settings, you can select Clean now or you can close out of the window to let the system take over according to the settings you selected.

Storage Sense takes care of keeping your Recycle Bin and Downloads folder clean automatically so you don't have to remember to do it manually.

If you are running any version of Windows older than Windows 10, you will need to remember to use the Disk Cleanup utility to clean your hard disk manually.

Other Ways to Clean a Hard Disk in Windows

There are a few additional ways you can keep your hard disk clean in Windows for optimal performance.

Uninstall Unused Applications

Unused apps on your system can take up a lot more space than your realize especially if those apps are unused because you moved on to a different app (so now you have two apps which do the same thing but you are only using one). Follow these steps to clean them up.

  1. Select the Start menu, type Control Panel, and select the Control Panel app.

    You can see the amount of space you'll clean from your hard drive by installing an app by checking the Size column.

  2. Select Programs and Features.

  3. Select the Installed On header to sort by oldest installed application first. Now click on any application you no longer use and select Uninstall in the menu to uninstall it.

    Screenshot of removing programs in Windows

Make Sure Cloud Storage Backups Are One-Way

Online storage services like OneDrive and Google Drive have Windows apps which sync with your Windows folders and store their contents in the cloud. However, these services include an Offline Storage feature which saves files on your computer. Disable this to save space.

  • OneDrive: Right-click the OneDrive cloud in your Windows taskbar and select Settings. On the Settings tab, make sure to select Save space and download files as you use them.
  • Google Drive: Visit drive.google.com/drive/settings and make sure the Offline option is deselected.

Copy Entire Folders to an External Drive

To copy folders to an external drive, choose a high quality external hard drive and plug it into your Windows PC. Then, while holding down the Shift key, drag entire folders of files into the attached external hard drive.

This will move, rather than copy, the folder. This is a great way to move files like vacation photos or videos off of your computer, cleaning up a lot of space.

A Clean Hard Drive Works Better

The importance of regularly cleaning your Windows hard drive can't be understated. It leaves you with space to store important files, and it's also where the computer stores data for fast retrieval when you have a lot of applications open at once. Keeping it clean ensures your computer runs fast and efficiently.