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Losing precious hard drive space on your Mac? Here’s how to fix that.

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As Apple(s AAPL) starts to make more and more Macs with solid state drives by default, like the new MacBook Airs, and not yet available Mac Pro, storage space on your Mac is becoming a premium once again.  This is especially true when you only have 128 GB of storage on your new 11-inch Air, which is the only size option you have at the $999 price point.

While the performance gains of having an SSD inside your Mac instead of a SATA drive are worth it, managing your free space will still be a task that you need to keep on top of.  And while you may think that the cloud will come to your rescue and free up some of that space, you will find that behind the scenes many of the cloud-based services are just managing a local synced copy of the files you thought were being stored in the cloud.

Here’s how you can identify where all of your hard drive space is going, and a few techniques for managing your free space more effectively.

Locating Large Files

Locating Large Files. Finding out which files and folders on your Mac are taking up all of your hard drive’s space is half the battle.  A good drive space utility that is among the first apps I install on every Mac I own is DaisyDisk ($9.99, Mac). It’ll let you quickly scan your Mac’s hard drives, including attached external drives, and see which files and folders are taking up the most space. The user interface starts out at the top-most folders, and allows you drill down and see exactly where the largest amount of storage is being used.

Sleep Memory Cache

Sleep Memory Cache. One of the larger files you will find when using DaisyDisk is what is known as the Sleep Memory Cache file located in the /var/vm folder. Whenever your Mac goes to sleep, it saves the state of the system’s memory into a file on the hard drive. This file will be approximately the same size as the amount of memory you have installed on your Mac. So if you have a MacBook Air with 8GB of memory and a 128GB SSD, that 8GB Sleep Memory Cache file will take up a little over 6 percent of your available hard drive space. There is not much to do about this. There are techniques for preventing your Mac from ever going to sleep, but that is not recommended and will challenge any battery life optimizations you may have made. Not to mention it could also result in lost data if you happen to run out of power when your files are still open.

Clearing Other Caches

Clearing Other Caches. There are, however, caches that you can clear out on a routine basis without much to worry about. A great utility that can help expedite this process is MacCleanse ($19.99, Mac).  This will help you locate and remove temporary files like browser caches, emptying the trash, history, log files, recently accessed files lists, user logs, the list is quite extensive. MacCleanse has a series of profiles that you can use that will first scan your hard drive looking for known caches to delete. You can then select which caches you want to delete.  It even has the ability to create your own profile of files and caches to keep clean.  There is a convenient status page that will display upon startup of the app that will tell you how much space you can save before running the delete.

Local iCloud Files

Local iCloud Files. Like the Sleep Memory cache there are other files that you will find that take up space that you best leave alone.  One thing you need to know about iCloud data for your Mac apps is that the data is not all located in the cloud. In fact, many of the data files are replicated on your Mac. Each user account on your Mac will have these files stored locally in their ~/Library/Mobile Documents/ folder. Do not remove these files from your Mac, if you do, they will also be removed from iCloud.

Photo Stream

Photo Stream. Like your iCloud data files, your Photo Stream is stored locally on your Mac. And if you happen to have several shared photo streams, with up to 1,000 photos each, this can quickly start to consume your entire drive. These images will be stored inside of your iPhoto or Aperture library. When you option-click on your library bundle and select show package contents, you will find where these files are located.  Turning off Photo Stream in your iCloud System Preferences on your Mac is about the only way you can clear up this space.  Otherwise, your Mac will just keep trying to update your Photo Stream files. But be aware: turning this feature off will mean that your Photo Streams will not show up on your Mac.

iOS Device Backups

iOS Device Backups. If you are still managing backups of your iOS devices on your Mac, you may find that the backup files are taking up an increasing amount of space, especially if you have been keeping up with your device upgrades over the years. You may now have several backup files for older iOS devices that you no longer care about.  These device backup files are located in each user’s “~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup” folder.  You can select which ones to delete from within iTunes.  Open the iTunes Preferences and click on the Devices tab.  Here you will see a list of all of the iOS device backups you have stored on your hard drive. Just be sure not to delete your most recent device backup.  If you do, just be sure to make another one right away.

iOS Device Updates

iOS Device Updates. Now that you can update your iOS device over the air, you no longer need to download and tether your device to iTunes to get the latest iOS updates on your devices.  If you still do update your iOS devices from iTunes on your Mac, or you used to, you may find that several versions of the update files are still on your hard drive.  These files would be located in each user’s “~/Library/iTunes/iPhone Software Updates” folder.  Unless you are in the middle of performing an update, you can remove these files from your Mac.  If they are ever needed again, iTunes will re-download them as needed.

iTunes Downloads

iTunes Downloads. The media stored inside of your iTunes Library is another location where you may find a lot of space being used up. Depending on the size of your library, keeping it located on your Mac may no longer be an option. You can opt to subscribe to iTunes Match, and keep your music in iCloud. That way you only download the songs you want to listen to, when you want to listen to them.

iOS App Downloads

iOS App Downloads. It’s not just media files that are located in your iTunes Library. Your iOS apps may also be located there as well. This is especially likely if you have requested your local iTunes Library to download all app purchases automatically. This is not as necessary as it once was, as you can now access all of your purchased apps on iTunes in the Cloud directly from your iOS devices.

Podcast and iTunesU Subscriptions

Podcast and iTunesU Subscriptions. If you subscribe to several different podcasts, there are options available to you to help keep the space allocated to your podcasts at a minimum.  If you do actually listen to or watch all of the podcasts you subscribe to on your Mac, at least consider configuring iTunes to keep only the most recent unread episode of your favorites.  That way you are not wasting space with episodes that you have already reviewed.

Archive Your Downloads

Archive Your Downloads. Like emptying your trash folder, archiving your downloads folder to an external drive should become a routine practice.  Unfortunately, this is a manual process.  Your best bet is to use a folder sync utility like the one that comes with LaCie drives and is also available in the Mac App Store called Intego Backup Express ($7.99, Mac).  This utility will allow you to quickly move your downloads folder to an external drive.

10 Responses to “Losing precious hard drive space on your Mac? Here’s how to fix that.”

  1. Rayban

    I knew most if not all of the above cited ways to lose precious real estate. What baffled me after I finished reading this long piece is that I didn’t benefit in any way. The writer even suggests paid apps as solutions while there are great free apps that does the job. It was a useless read. Before citing an area you might consider why the effort if its something you cannot override in the first place to win back done HD space

    • There may be free and/or open source apps that perform similar to the ones mentioned, that is true. There are also command line alternatives via the terminal that do not require any tools at all to perform exactly the same tasks. As I mentioned in an earlier reply, I do tend to lean more towards paid apps than open source apps, particularly apps available via the Mac App Store.

      In regard to pointing out files that should not be removed, I felt that this was valuable advice. When one starts to look around and take control of the space being used on their Macs, these locations in particular will typically show up as as some of the larger storage areas on your Mac. Knowing which locations are safe to remove, and which locations are not was kind of a main point that the article was meant to convey.

  2. Hi,

    Great article on where does my drive space go!
    The only caveat is that i need almost 40 bucks to do it?
    Come on, there are lidas of opensource Solutions for that, even though not as pretty!

    • I do tend to lean more towards paid apps than open source apps, that is true. One reason is that I typically search for solutions in the Mac App Store first. I am also a sucker for software bundles. Between the two habits, I almost always have a solution via a paid app.

  3. Jon Henshaw

    I own DaisyDisk, which is an awesome visualization tool. However, the absolute best tool I’ve ever used is CleanMyMac. Not only does it find and remove old cache files, and detect large and old files, it also helps you fully uninstall apps. For example, when you delete an app from the Application folder, it will prompt you to also remove all of the related preference and system files related to it. I was actually using it this morning :) More details here

      • Two votes for CleanMyMac, I will have to try it out. I do have one license via a recent bundle purchase. I wonder why MacPaw does not offer CleanMyMac on the Mac App Store as they do other titles they have developed.

        I have been a long time Koingo Utility Package owner, and have slowly been upgrading licenses of my favorite titles from that package with Mac App Store purchases. One such title is Koingo’s MacCleanse. Via a Mac App Store purchase, I can install MacCleanse on all of my Macs.

        Seeing as how this is the sort of utility that I install on every Mac I own, a Mac App Store purchase is preferred over individual licenses. Keeping that in mind, going the MacPaw CleanMyMac route would be quite a bit more expensive than going the Koingo MacCleanse route.

        • Philip Struchkov

          Jon, Brian, thanks for mentioning CleanMyMac :)

          We would love to be on the Mac App Store with CleanMyMac but it doesn’t allow apps which require root access. Some of CleanMyMacs’ features like iPhoto Cleanup or Uninstaller do need such access so there is no chance us to be there.