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Recover space from a full hard drive

What to do when your hard drive fills up? You can buy and install another hard drive, assuming you have space in both the case, and a IDE controller. Or, you can use a few software tools that are available to you on your XP computer to free up some more space.

This article assumes that you are using Windows XP. Windows 2000 can do some of these things, and Windows 98 or Me a few things to save space. We will be looking at a laptop, running XP Pro, but initially formatted with FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32) instead of NTFS (New Technology File System).

The Properties dialog box shown at the left shows that C Drive has been formatted for FAT32 and has approximately 883 MB of free space. This single hard drive has been partitioned into two logical drives.

One of the best free options you have to recover space on a full hard drive is to use the compress files and folders option in NTFS. Several nice features available in NTFS are not available in FAT 32, which Windows 98 or Windows Me uses, or FAT 16 which floppies use. So the first step in recovering space on this drive is to convert it to NTFS.

There are two basic ways to convert a drive from FAT to NTFS. The easy way is to use a partitioning tool like Partition Magic from Power Quest, which is what we used. The other way to convert for free is to use the "convert" utility that is built into Windows XP and Windows 2000.

To use Convert, you need to be at a command prompt, which is Windows XP's version of good ol' fashioned DOS. You can navigate All Programs | Accessories area to find the Command Prompt option, or you can just click on Start | Run, then type "cmd" (without the quotes), then press Enter. Or if you are a power user, press the Windows key and R.

Once at the command prompt window, type convert n: /FS:NTFS where n is the drive letter of the partition that you want to convert. To see all the options for the convert command, type convert /?.

After conversion to NTFS, we actually had a few Bytes fewer free space, due to the different way in which NTFS allocates space for partition tables and directories. Without being discouraged, we pressed forward with our space recover process steps in the following order.

  1. Disk Clean Up
  2. Defrag
  3. Disk Compression
  4. Reduce Restore Points

Disk Cleanup is from a button on the first screen of the drive's property dialog box. We selected every option presented, which included removing downloaded program files, temporary Internet files, empty the Recycle Bin, delete temporary files and delete webclient files. There are two tabs on the top of this dialog box as shown in the image at the left. Click on the tab labeled "More Options" to get three more options to recover space from. We ignored the Windows components and Installed programs options, since we wanted everything that was currently installed. This may be a good time for you to check over what you have installed that you may not need to want any longer.

The option we used was the last one, which removes all restore points except the most recent one. After everything else is finished, you can adjust the amount of hard drive space System Restore uses to keep the space for restore points small.

For Defragging the hard drive, we used Executive Disk Keeper from Executive Software. This program can be purchased online at, and is well worth the $19 they were charging at the time of this article. You can also download a trial version to see if you like it before purchasing. Or, you can cross your fingers and try the Windows Defrag utility.

Compression is a check box on the drive properties dialog box. When you check that option, and click on apply, you are presented with the dialog box on the left. You have the option to compress C Drive only, or C Drive, files and folders. You get a much better result of space spacing with the second option.

The compression process can take a while, so it is not something you want to sit and stare at, unless you are trying to recover the stupidity of Reality TV and are seeking a more intelligent alternative to watch. On our laptop, C Drive took about 45 minutes to compress.

After everything was finished and we looked at the Drive property box, we found a recovery of 2,749,963,264 Bytes, which was a recovery of approximately 40% of that partition's space. See the image at the right to compare the before and after property boxes.

The same process minus the system restore point yielded a 15% space savings on the D drive partition. System restore is a great option to have if you are frequently tweaking your system and need to recover from one tweak to many. However, for the casual user who wants to just use their computer the way it is, the System Restore option can be robbing you of a lot of hard drive space.

To change your System Restore option, you need to get to the System Properties box. You can right-click on "My Computer" and select properties, or like a good pwer user, press the Windows key and the Pause/Break key.

From the dialog box that appears, look at the tabs on the top, and click on the one labeled "System Restore." Once there, you will see something like the figure at the left, with your list of drives different from ours of course.

From this dialog box, you can turn off System restore for all or individual drives, which can save a lot of hard drive space. By clicking on a drive letter, then the settings button, you can adjust the amount of space used on each partition for the System Restore folder. A size greater than 2% is probably a great waste of space.






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