This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind. It is also the latest installment of Try Restarting, Slate’s IT-advice column. Got an IT question? Try restarting, and then email us.
When I bought my personal laptop—a MacBook Air—a few years ago, one of the few things I didn’t worry over was the hard drive. I’d been raised in the days of 5.25-inch floppy disks, and my new machine’s 256 GB capacity seemed like it would be enough to see me through. Before long, though, it was bursting at the seams, and the operating system absolutely wouldn’t let me forget it: Ever since I dropped below 20 GB of available space, the machine started popping up regular messages to warn me that I was running low.
Maybe I’m just old, but 20 gigs still feels like a lot of storage. Plus, it’s hard to figure out where all the storage went. Sure, I have a handful of uncompressed audio files that I could probably delete, but Apple’s weirdly obtuse file system doesn’t exactly make it easy to find the offensively large files that are jamming up the works. And, yeah, maybe I could uninstall a few games, but I don’t think I have that many. Ultimately, clearing things out feels like both a chore and a puzzle.
At what point do I absolutely have to stop ignoring those warnings? Is putting them off going to affect my system’s performance in any way? And if I do need to clear up room, what’s the best way to go about it? Are there secret files hiding somewhere that I should know about?
As the norm for photos becomes high-res images, as software becomes more complex, and as background tasks up their game to keep your computer running smoothly, it seems like we can never have enough storage. You buy a computer that says it has a 256 GB capacity, and yet when you go into Disk Utility and take a look at it, you see it’s actually 249 GB. Is it false advertising? Perhaps. But you need the operating system, which is taking up space, for your computer to be useful. At some point—probably sooner than you think—you’re going to run out of storage, and so there comes a day where we must manage our accumulated digital crap.
Is 20 GB a lot? The answer is relative to what you use your computer for. Say you want to upgrade your OS to High Sierra. The installer itself is more than 5 GB. That’s a quarter of your remaining storage. Add an iPhone backup with all your photos and some videos, and you’re starting to cut it close. Your cat GIFs, selfies, and local Outlook files—they may seem trivial but they eventually add up.
If you slip under 2 GB of storage, I hope you have a lot of RAM, because your machine will start to borrow from that. RAM is needed to run your web browser, your music app, and your email client, so expect those to slow to a crawl. When there’s no more RAM to borrow, running software will begin to crash. Your OS will enter a kind of stasis without room to maneuver and begin to act very weird. I’ve seen programs refuse to launch and files temporarily disappear. The worst case is that your computer will no longer boot because your OS has suffocated to death. You’ll need to remove your hard drive and sled it to retrieve your data. Doesn’t that sound like a chore?
How do you avoid this insanity? For starters, empty your trash. Just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean it’s not taking up a crapload of space. Then put your rubber gloves on and tackle the main offender: your downloads folder. Yes, you’ll relive some awkward experiences, like the seven times you downloaded Adobe Flash, your breakup with the Pandora desktop app, those drunken office holiday party photos, and that time your went through a very intense “font” phase.
Purge it all.
Once you’ve done that, download a third-party storage allocation app. I’ve used Disk Inventory X—an oldie but a goodie—since I first started using a Mac. Don’t be fooled by the retro interface, because it’s very intuitive. DaisyDisk does the same thing but is arguably better-looking, and for Windows there’s WinDirStat. It’s definitely worth mentioning that OS Sierra and higher now have a built-in space manager that you can access by clicking the Apple icon in the top left, then “About This Mac,” then the “Storage” tab, and then “Manage…” Not only does it tell you to do what I’ve already told you, but it also shows you how much storage is dedicated to which parts of your computer so you can isolate those culprits (which are presumably a slew of movies you torrented a few years ago for a long flight).
Last, invest in a sizable external hard drive, like 2 TB, because you clearly need the space. Then move all your archival stuff to it, put it in a drawer, and then forget that those pictures of Nana’s 74th birthday were ever important to you.
Remember that those insistent pop-ups are a friendly nudge. Cleaning and maintaining your computer feels like a chore because, well, it is. But once in a while you have to get down on your hands and knees and give it a good scrub. It’s not fun and the bleach fumes burn, but it’s gotta get done. You’re the only reason you can’t have nice things.
I recently moved into a new apartment and decided to get my own router and modem. I share the house with three others. Since my money went into the hardware, and we are not renting the modem/router combo from Comcast, should I be charging my roommates a monthly fee to rent it from me?
I see where you’re coming from. But no—100 percent—just no. First, do you really want to be like an ISP, charging stupid amounts of money for aging hardware just so your roommates can access Facebook? Honestly, establishing a fiefdom around the most important thing in the world—the internet—sounds like a terrible beginning to your cohabitation.
If you had talked about renting it out to them before spending your own money on said router and modem, and they knew what they were getting themselves into before they agreed to move in, then OK, that’s fair. But to me it sounds like you made a decision to not be swindled by your internet company and invest in your own equipment, and that was your decision and your decision alone. So now you should own up to it, collect your good karma, and allow your roommates to exercise their internet rights without paying an extra fee. Don’t be an internet-bridge troll.