With modern versions of Windows taking up more and more storage space, it’s becoming increasingly important to clear out old and unnecessary files to free up disk space. However, finding files that are safe to delete can be a challenge, especially if you don’t know where to look. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through the various methods and tools you can use to locate and remove dispensable files from your Windows PC or laptop.
Why Do I Need to Delete Files?
There are several reasons why you may want or need to delete files on your Windows computer:
- Free up disk space – By deleting unused programs, temporary files, downloads, and other unnecessary data you can regain precious storage capacity on your main hard drive or other disks.
- Improve performance – Getting rid of files reduces the amount of data your PC has to index and process, which can speed up general system performance.
- Remove clutter – Deleting old files, downloads and other items you no longer need makes your system tidier and easier to navigate.
- Erase sensitive data – You may want to permanently remove private or confidential files to prevent others from accessing them.
- Resolve issues – Deleting problematic files can sometimes resolve strange PC behaviors or error messages.
Regardless of your specific reasons, regularly removing unneeded files is an important part of Windows computer maintenance. Doing so will ensure your system runs smoothly while freeing up valuable storage capacity.
Where to Look for Files to Delete
There are a number of common locations where unused and disposable files tend to accumulate on Windows PCs and laptops. Here are some key places to check when searching for items to delete:
The Downloads folder (typically located at C:\Users\[UserName]\Downloads) is where all files downloaded from the internet are saved by default in Windows. This folder can quickly fill up with installation files, disk images, zipped archives, documents and media files you no longer need. Sort by size and date modified to identify items that can be deleted.
Over time, your Documents folder can become cluttered with files you no longer use. Open it up and review each subfolder carefully to spot redundant or unnecessary documents, spreadsheets, images and other items. Any work-related files should be backed up before removing.
Pictures, Music and Videos Folders
Media files like photos, songs and videos can consume a large amount of drive space. Check these folders for any files that can be archived to external storage or deleted outright. Sorting by size is an easy way to identify large files you may no longer need.
The Recycle Bin is the holding place for files you’ve recently deleted. Emptying it on a regular basis can recover significant space. Make sure to double check for any important files that may have been accidentally deleted first.
Temporary folders are where Windows stores temporary files used by different apps and processes. These can usually be deleted safely. Common temporary folders include:
- C:\Users\[UserName]\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files
System and Program Files
Deleting files inside Windows system folders or program installation directories can cause serious issues. Avoid removing anything from C:\Windows or C:\Program Files unless you know exactly what you’re doing.
What Kinds of Files Can Be Deleted?
When deciding what to delete, focus on file types that are safe to remove and less likely to be needed in the future. Some examples include:
- Temporary files – Files ending in .tmp can usually be deleted.
- Log files – Files ending in .log are typically safe to remove.
- Downloader files – .old, .dl, .crdownload, and other downloader file extensions can often be deleted.
- Installation files – .msi and .exe setup files are OK to remove once a program is installed.
- Compressed files – .zip, .rar, .7z, and other archived files you no longer need.
- System files – Files like pagefile.sys and sleepimage.dat can be deleted but will be automatically recreated.
Types of files to avoid deleting include personal documents, media files, installed programs, and anything located in Windows or Program Files folders. When in doubt, do not delete if you are unsure of what the file is.
How to Find Files Using Windows Search
The Windows Search function provides an easy way to locate files on your system based on specific search criteria. Here is how to use it to find files to delete:
- Type “Indexing Options” into the Windows Start menu and open the Indexing Options control panel.
- Click “Modify” and ensure all disk drives are selected for indexing.
- Open File Explorer, click in the search box, and type * to list all files on indexed locations.
- Use the available filters to narrow your search by file size, type, date modified and other attributes.
- Once you locate unnecessary files, delete them by selecting and pressing Delete on your keyboard.
Using the search tools and filters helps isolate the types of files you likely don’t need anymore based on specific criteria. Make sure to also search external drives and network locations.
Find Large Files
To find your largest files using Windows Search:
- Open File Explorer and click in the search box.
- Type “size:gigantic”
- This will display all files larger than 128MB in size. Other options include huge (64MB), large (32MB), medium (16MB) and small.
- Browse the results, select any unnecessary large files, and delete them.
Use Disk Cleanup to Remove System Files
Disk Cleanup is a built-in Windows tool that scans for unnecessary system files and provides an easy checkbox interface for removing them. Here is how to use it:
- Type “Disk Cleanup” into the Start menu and select it.
- Choose the drive to clean up (usually your main C: drive).
- Disk Cleanup will scan the drive and show you how much space can be saved with each option.
- Check the boxes next to any items you want to delete.
- Click “OK” and then “Delete Files” to permanently remove the selected items.
Some of the common system files Disk Cleanup finds include temporary internet files, offline webpages, old Windows update files, cached memory dumps, and more. Use Disk Cleanup regularly to keep your drives free of system debris.
Delete Files Using the Command Prompt
The Command Prompt provides access to powerful file management commands and allows you to delete files you may not be able to through the standard Windows interface. Here is how to use it to find and delete files:
- Type “Command Prompt” into the Windows Start menu to open it.
- Type “CD \” and a file path to navigate to the folder you want to search, like:
- Once in the folder, type “DIR” to list its contents.
- Identify any files you want to delete.
- Type “DEL” followed by the file name to delete it, like:
You can combine DEL with wildcard operators like “*.*” to delete all files of a certain type. Just be careful, as deletions in the Command Prompt are permanent.
Use Third-Party Cleaners and Optimizers
Third-party system utilities like CCleaner and Wise Disk Cleaner provide advanced tools for finding and deleting unnecessary files Windows may miss. Benefits include:
- Bulk deleting temporary and cached internet files
- Uninstalling orphaned program files
- Finding duplicate files and photos
- Shredding sensitive files to prevent data recovery
- Improved deletion of stubborn malware and bugs
Be sure to only download optimizer software from reputable vendors. Carefully review what files it flags for deletion before cleaning to avoid removing anything important.
Securely Erase Sensitive Files
When deleting private, financial, or other confidential files, simply sending them to the Recycle Bin may still leave them recoverable. For truly secure deletion:
- Use a third-party file shredder that overwrites sensitive data to make it unrecoverable.
- Encrypt confidential files before deleting to scramble their contents beyond recovery.
- Use a wipe free space tool to overwrite deleted file remnants still on your drive.
This helps ensure no trace of sensitive information remains on your PC or storage device, preventing identity theft and security breaches.
Free Up Space on Large Drives
If the drive you want to clean up is very large, like a multi-terabyte hard drive, using the above manual methods to locate space-wasting files can be tedious. In this case, a disk usage visualization tool like WinDirStat or TreeSize can help.
These programs scan your drive and generate interactive visual maps, allowing you to easily spot which folders and file types are consuming excess space. You can then directly open and delete them from within the program.
Know How to Permanently Delete Files
When deleting files in Windows, it’s important to know the difference between removing items normally by sending to Recycle Bin versus permanent deletion. Here are some tips:
- Deleted files in the Recycle Bin can be recovered until it is emptied.
- To permanently delete files instantly without using the Recycle Bin, press Shift + Delete when deleting.
- Deleted files on solid state drives (SSDs) cannot be recovered once trimmed due to how SSDs work.
- Overwriting a file’s data entirely can make it unrecoverable even from the Recycle Bin.
So when you need a file gone for good, make sure to use permanent delete methods instead of just deleting normally to the Recycle Bin.
Clear Browser Cache and History
Cached webpage files, cookies, and browsing history data can accumulate over time and take up megabytes or even gigabytes of drive space. Here’s how to clear these browser storage items:
- Chrome – Settings > Privacy and Security > Clear Browsing Data > Clear Data
- Firefox – Options > Privacy & Security > Cookies and Site Data > Clear Data
- Edge – Settings > Privacy and Services > Choose what to clear > Clear
Be aware this will sign you out of websites and remove saved passwords. Only clear browser data if disk space is highly constrained.
Disable Hibernation File
The hibernation file (hiberfil.sys) can grow very large, consuming around 80% of your RAM size. To remove it and reclaim that space:
- Type “Command Prompt” into the Start menu.
- Run the command:
powercfg -h off
- Restart your PC.
This will disable hibernation and delete hiberfil.sys. Just know it will take longer to boot up from a fully powered down state.
Disable Restore Points
Disabling System Restore can reclaim a significant amount of space from restore point files. To do so:
- Type “System Restore” into the Start menu and open it.
- Click Configure, Disable System Restore, and confirm on any warnings.
- Restart your PC.
This will delete existing restore points and stop new ones from being generated. Understand this means you lose the ability to roll back system changes.
Clear Thumbnail Cache
Windows generates thumbnail previews for images, videos and other files. To clear this cache:
- Open File Explorer and click “View” > “Options” > “Change folder and search options”.
- On the General tab, click “Clear” under “Thumbnail cache” and confirm.
This will wipe all existing thumbnails and thumbnail cache files to recover wasted space.
Remove Windows Previous Installation
If you recently upgraded Windows or reinstalled on the same PC, the old Windows directory is left behind taking up space. To remove it:
- Open File Explorer and go to This PC.
- Locate the Windows.old folder, right-click it, and select Delete.
- Confirm deletion on any warnings.
This reclaims all space from your previous Windows installation’s system files.
Uninstall Unused Programs
Old and unused applications that are still installed can consume both drive space and memory. To uninstall them:
- Type “Control Panel” into the Start menu and open it.
- Click “Uninstall a program” under Programs.
- Sort programs by size to easily identify large ones you don’t use.
- Right-click any unnecessary programs and select Uninstall.
You can also sort by last used date or simply browse the full list looking for apps that look outdated or that you can’t recall ever actually opening.
Delete Restore Points through Disk Cleanup
As mentioned before, System Restore points can take up significant storage over time. An easy way to delete them is through Disk Cleanup:
- Open Disk Cleanup from the Start menu.
- Select your system drive, usually C:.
- Click “Clean up system files”.
- Check “Previous Windows installation” and “System Restore and Shadow Copies”.
- Click OK and then Delete Files to clear them out.
This clears out all restore points and recovers that used space instead of fully disabling System Restore.
Check Hard Drive Health
If your hard drive is failing and accumulating bad sectors, Windows will isolate them which takes up space. To check drive health and error status:
- Open File Explorer, right-click your hard drive, and select Properties.
- Click the Tools tab > Click Check.
- Use Check Disk to scan your drive and repair errors.
This can fix bad sectors and free up space reserved for isolating drive errors. Just know the scans can take several hours on large, nearly full drives.
Finding and deleting unnecessary files is key to maintaining your Windows PC’s speed and storage space over time. Make it a habit to regularly browse your folders, run storage utilities like Disk Cleanup, and clear browser caches to keep your system lean. Using the steps and tips covered in this guide will help you reclaim valuable drive capacity and keep your computer running smoothly.