Quick tips on freeing up hard drive space on your Mac

What you’ll need:

  • Finder – all of these very simple tasks in this tutorial can be accomplished with Finder. No other software is required.

Running out of hard drive space on your Mac?

Uh-oh. This message always seems to show up right when you’re working on a massive project that you haven’t saved yet doesn’t it?

Running out of space on your hard drive can be disastrous and you don’t always have time to do a proper spring clean. Matthew J.C. Powell shows a few tricks for freeing up space fast.

Your hard drive never seems to pick a good moment to run out of space – not that there’s ever a good moment for such a thing. It’s never while you’re idly fiddling about with things that you can stop for a while so you can sort through iPhoto and delete all the photos of sandwiches. No it’s always when you’ve almost finished a huge project that you no longer have enough space to save. Time to panic? Yes a little bit. But when you’re done try this.

1. Empty the Trash

As you’re no doubt aware when you move an item to the Trash in OS X it isn’t deleted straight away. It sits on your hard drive waiting to be properly deleted when you empty the Trash (in the Finder go to the ‘Finder’ menu and select ‘Empty Trash’ or right-click the ‘Trash’ icon in the Dock).

If you’re a reasonably experienced Mac user you probably think you’re a pretty conscientious Trash manager right? When you put things in the Trash you then empty it straight away or at worst leave it a day or two to be sure you really don’t need that stuff anymore. OK a week maybe. Ish.

Right-click (or two-finger tap on a trackpad) on the ‘Trash’ icon in the Dock to empty it.

What about all the stuff in the Trash that you didn’t put there? For instance what about all the old versions of iPhone apps that you’ve updated? I’ll bet you didn’t know they don’t get automatically deleted or overwritten. In fact they’re just moved to the Trash waiting for you to empty it. There can be lots of them and they can be big – as I write this there’s 16GB of stuff in my Trash waiting to be deleted and most of it’s iOS apps. A simple click of ‘Empty Trash’ can mean the difference between a full drive and a usable one.

But wait there’s more. You see the Finder is only one of the applications on your Mac that has a Trash can. If you regularly delete photos in iPhoto or messages in Mail you’ll find that each of those applications also has its own Trash separate from the Finder’s. So does iMovie and there are a bunch of others.

In iPhoto and most other apps with their own Trash the ‘Empty Trash’ command is found in a similar place to where it’s located in the Finder: under the ‘Application’ menu. (‘Application menu’ is the generic term for the menu in any OS X application that bears the name of the application. So in iPhoto the ‘Application’ menu is the one that reads ‘iPhoto’ and so on.) Click on the name of the application and you’ll see a command like ‘Empty iPhoto Trash’ in the menu.

iPhoto along with some other Mac apps have their own Trash cans separate from the Finder.

In Mail it’s a little more confusing because each account that you set up has its own ‘Deleted Items’ folder which is essentially a Trash can. Click on the ‘Mailbox’ menu and then ‘Empty Deleted Items’. You can choose to empty the ‘Deleted Items’ folder for only one account or all of them at once.

Speaking of accounts if you have multiple user accounts on your Mac it’s worth noting that each user has their own Trash can. If space is at a premium ask every user of your Mac to ‘Empty the Trash’ from time to time.

When you delete messages in Mail they’re not really deleted. They’re kept in ‘Deleted Items’ folders in case you want them again. This is Apple’s very special meaning of the word ‘deleted’.

2. Still need more space?

Emptying the Trash(es) will usually free up some much-needed space in a hurry but there could still be some very big files lurking around your hard drive taking up space you need for other things.

To find out what the biggest things are on your hard drive press Command-F. That’s the ‘Find’ command. A window will open that looks much like any other Finder window except this one has ‘Search’ at the top of it and drop-downs for search criteria. Click on the button that says ‘Kind’ and then select ‘File Size’ from the menu. If ‘File Size’ isn’t already in the menu select ‘Other’ scroll down the list to ‘File Size’ and click on it. You might like to check the box for ‘In Menu’ to add it to the drop-down list so you can speed up future searches.

Then click on the button that says ‘equals’ and select ‘is greater than’. Finally click on the button that says ‘KB’ select ‘GB’ and enter a value in the text field; say 1 . That will list all the files on your Mac that are greater than 1GB in size. It’s really important that you change ‘KB’ to ‘GB’ before you type the 1 otherwise your Mac will then buzz and whirr for ages listing everything larger than a kilobyte on the drive. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Deleting items from your iTunes library doesn’t necessarily remove them from your hard drive. Make sure you move them to the Trash (and empty it) if you want them really gone.

The files may not be in any particular order at this point so to sort them out click on the task button (it looks like a little gear) and select ‘Arrange By > Kind’. That will separate applications from movies PDFs documents and so on. If you want even more guidance click on the ‘Size’ column heading and the files will be sorted by size but still arranged by category. If there isn’t a ‘Size’ column right-click in the column headers to add one.

Now you can see the largest files on your hard drive sorted by size and arranged by kind. Chances are you’ll find an app you no longer use a TV show you downloaded but don’t want to watch again or (more than likely) ZIP and DMG files you’ve downloaded and no longer require. Zap them.

Speaking of downloads when was the last time you looked in your ‘Downloads’ folder? It can be a scary place. All the installers archives disk images and so on that you download go in there probably assuming you’ll put it somewhere sensible eventually. Of course you won’t – it’s in a folder out of the way so that will do.

My ‘Downloads’ folder as I write this contains over 96GB of stuff. Some of it I want most of it I don’t. The top 10 largest items total over 30GB and I don’t need any of them. Go check your ‘Downloads’ folder and you may find you’re in a similar boat.

If you look in your Trash you may be amazed to see how many IPA files are in there. Those are old versions of iOS apps that iTunes has helpfully removed for you.

3. When you get time

The above are quick fixes for getting emergency space fast but there’s more you can do. We’ll explore some more advanced housekeeping tasks in future articles.

For now we’ll offer a tip. Move your iTunes and iPhoto libraries off your startup disk and put them on external drives. For one thing it makes them safer since corruption on your startup disk won’t damage these valuable resources. For another it makes them easier to back up since you can simply clone them to other drives.

Best of all it opens up vast swathes of your startup disk. Ah the wide open spaces.

The ‘Find’ command and skilful use of ‘Arrange By’ can help you locate the space hogs on your hard drive fast.



  • Pirate48

    For a full clean up it’s better to use space analyzers like Disk Expert