This post was originally written in 2013, it’s updated here to reflect new apps, new settings and services.
Since this post was first written in 2013, solid-state storage has become ubiquitous in all of Apple’s laptops and a relatively affordable option in their iMacs. In is nascent years, abundant flash storage was prohibitively expensive. Now most people can afford the storage they need in Apple’s base models, and those with the means and the need can go as far as dropping an extra $2,200 to upgrade their 16″ MacBook Pro to a previously unimaginable 8TB of storage.
Of course, as SSD capacity has increased, so has the amount of data many of us are storing. iPhone 4K videos can easily be multiple gigabytes in size, and we’re all storing more photos than we were seven years ago. So here we are yet again with our storage filling up.
It’s time to recover some space on your drive with a few relatively simple maintenance activities. As with all our guides, and Mac ownership in general, it’s best to make sure you have a complete backup before you start deleting things, to insulate yourself from any accidental deletions.
1. Delete Unnecessary Languages
This is an easy one: chances are you’re only using your Mac in one language, maybe two – you’d be surprised to learn that OS X and individual apps install a bunch more languages than that. Those extra languages, many of which you’ve never even heard of, are all unnecessary and take up space on your hard drive. Solution: delete those extraneous languages using the free app Monolingual (download link). All you do is select the languages you want to delete making sure to keep English (or any languages that you use) and then click Remove.
Monolingual’s initial run can reclaim as much as 2 gigs of data if you have a bunch of apps installed. While that’s not all that much space in the world of 3TB drives, if you’re living with a 128GB MacBook Air, each GB counts. Something else to keep in mind is that the deleted languages get reinstalled every time you update your system software or individual apps. That being the case, it’s worth running Monolingual again after a system update or after a big batch of app updates if you’re hard pressed for storage space.
2. Clean Up Your Downloads Folder
Here’s a potential sprawling mess of a folder that a surprising number of users are oblivious to: your Downloads folder. On many (if not most) of the Macs we work on, we find that the Downloads folder has become a dumping ground of old installer files, duplicate photo collections, and multiple copies of documents that were re-downloaded from the web or mail applications. Cleaning out this folder is a manual process, and could take some time to wade through if you have hundreds of files in there, but there are a few quick things you can do to reclaim space without having to open each individual file to see what it is.
If you click at the top of the Size column, the Downloads folder will sort by file size, with the largest items at the top. Look at the larger files first for potential deletion, as deleting those will yield the most space recovered. Note that these are all files you downloaded, so it’s safe to assume you can delete anything in the folder without disrupting your Mac’s stability. That said, if you’re unsure if you need a something personal for later use, just keep it. Next up, move all the files you want to keep to their appropriate folders (Documents, Photos, Videos, etc.), and you’ll have a clean Downloads folder for the next time you do your storage capacity maintenance.
One thing you may notice in your Downloads folder is a recurrence of similarly named and dated files like you see above with the Statement_201406.pdf sequence, with a hyphen and number appended to the end of each file name. Those files are all the exact same file, only I downloaded it fifteen times. Many of our customers aren’t sure how the Downloads folder works, so ultimately they just re-download a file when they want to see it again. End result: space hog! Take some time to go through your Downloads folder and weed out all those duplicate files.
Here’s a useful Finder tip: When you’re looking at your Downloads window, or any window for that matter, single-click on a file to select it, then tap the space bar. QuickView allows you to see the file without taking the time to launch any apps or having to open each document. Best of all: tap the Down arrow, and QuickView will automatically show you the next file down the list. This allows for exceptionally fast housecleaning, because you can quickly and easily see what’s duplicated, what’s junk and what’s worth keeping.
Another easy thing to delete are .EXE, .PKG and .DMG files, as those are all likely previously used installer files from old versions of Flash, assorted plug-ins or even some quirky Windows installer files you managed to download. One you’ve installed an app, you no longer need the installer, and you can delete it – assuming you can always download the installer again if you need to reinstall the app. With any purchased software should be able to download the installer files again if you retain your purchase and login information.
During regular operation, OS X and numerous applications use your hard drive for temporary storage. All those temporary files can grow to occupy multiple gigabytes of space if you’re the type of person who never reboots your Mac. This being the case, a good guideline is to restart your system now and then (every other week) to free up all that space. If you find storage space is truly at a premium, restarting more often could be helpful in the short term, but ultimately you need to clear out more space ASAP for a smoothly functioning system.
4. Grand Perspective
Here’s one of the more complicated housekeeping steps you can take, but also the most informative. Grand Perspective (download link) is a free app that analyzes your entire hard drive, your user folder, or even a specific folder, and creates a graphical representation of the files and the space they occupy. This allows you, at a glance, to see just what files are taking up the most space on your drive.
In the case of the above scan, my massive Photos library occupies about a quarter of the entire storage space on my drive. The pinkish square and rectangle on the right are installers for Adobe Creative Cloud and OS X Mavericks. Grand Perspective allows you to mouse over individual “boxes” on the graphical display, and reveal the name and size of each file. Additionally you can Control+Click on a “box” to pull up a menu that gives you the option to Reveal In Finder any visual file that you click on. This makes for simple deletion of the larger files you might no longer need, or are willing to offload onto an external drive. Be aware that using Grand Perspective in this fashion is for advanced users only, it’s crucial not to delete a file just because it’s big, unless you know what you’re deleting. The operating system itself generates several very large files, and deleting them will prove catastrophic. Restrict your deletions to your user files (Documents, Music, Photos, Downloads, Videos) and you should be safe. You’ve been warned.
5. Clean Up Your Music/iTunes Library
Well worth a post of its own, Music (formerly iTunes in older MacOS installations) can be one of the ultimate space hogs on your Mac, and cleaning it up can yield many gigabytes of free space. If your Music library is a mess, with untitled songs, duplicate media, and long since forgotten iOS apps, you’ll want to devote time during your grand cleanup to getting your library in order and deleting all extraneous files. Number one target: HD TV shows and movies. If you’ve purchased movies or shows through iTunes, and never deleted them off your Mac – guess what, they’re still on there, taking up space. What’s cool now is that since the advent of iTunes in The Cloud, you can re-download most previously purchased items for no charge. Do take note of that “most,” because while most media can be downloaded again, every now and then, due to licensing or other restrictions, Music will stop selling a song, movie or show. In that case, you’ll want to keep a backup of those purchases. Apple has a useful guide for how to delete each type of media from your Mac, as well as how to confirm that it can be re-downloaded in the event you want to hear/read/play/use it again.
6. Correctly Delete Unused Apps
Straightforward: if you don’t need an app on your Mac, delete it. We’ve all downloaded apps to test them out, only to never launch them again. That being the case, delete them and get back the space they’re taking up. When an application is installed, the installation process often leaves components of an app in various places on your system. This means that completely deleting an app isn’t as simple as merely dragging the app icon to the trash. To completely wipe an app from your machine, you’ll want to use an uninstaller app like AppCleaner (free download) or AppZapper (paid download). These two apps track down all those stray files associated with the app being deleted, and makes certain that they all get deleted too.
7. Delete obsolete device backups
If you backup your iPad or iPhone to your Mac (and you should now and then) you might have some obsolete device backups stored on your hard drive. If you got a new iPhone or iPad, it’s possible you have backups of your old devices in there. In fact, if you purchase every new iOS device as it’s released, you could have a bunch of old, irrelevant backups in there taking up 20GB- 30GB of space. Take a look at the list and see what’s still relevant and what isn’t, and if it’s an obsolete backup, click on it in he list and then click on Delete Backup. If you’re confused about which backups are relevant, here’s a trick: backup all your iOS devices now, and then any devices showing backup dates before today can safely be deleted because you know all your devices were safely backed up today.
8. What’s Happening in Dropbox?
Aaaah Dropbox you mischievous little scamp. In the event you have any Dropbox folders shared with other users, it’s possible that they can load up the shared folder on their end with a great many gigabytes of data – which will then all be synced to the Dropbox folder on your Mac, consuming valued drive space in the process. Naturally there are a few options for how to solve this problem. First, if the shared folder is no longer relevant (completed project, event that’s passed, etc.) you can leave the shared folder then delete the shared files. Second, if you do still need access to the shared files, perhaps it’s possible to to store the files on an alternate cloud service like Box, Google, iDrive or even an alternate Dropbox account – and then don’t sync the account to your Mac. Instead you can access the files either via the web, or ideally via an app like ExpanDrive that can link to numerous cloud storage services without having to sync them to your desktop. This way you can access the files as needed, without ever having to commit to sacrificing your precious storage space.
9. Empty Trash
This might seem obvious, but again you’d be surprised how many of our clients never empty their trash. Never. A simple Empty Trash command can recover significant drive space if the Trash has been accumulating over a long time. In the event you don’t know how to empty your trash, there are a few ways. One is to Click+Hold on the Trash icon in the Dock. This will bring up a menu with the option to Empty Trash. Alternately you can go to the Finder menu in the Menu Bar and select Empty Trash. Depending how pressed for space you are, it’s worth keeping tabs on your trash and emptying it every now and then. Also, many of these storage recovery methods result in deleting files into the trash, so make sure you empty the trash at the conclusion of your cleanup project to realize the maximize savings.
10. Buy An External Hard Drive
If after all of this cleanup, you find you’re still strapped for space, your best bet is to pick up an external hard drive. Grab a drive with 1TB of storage, and you’ll wonder what to do with all that space. Guess what: you’ll fill it before long. For newer Macs, get a drive with USB 3.0 connectivity, or if your budget allows, go for a drive with ultrafast Thunderbolt connectivity. We’re big fans of LaCie’s line of Rugged drives, because they’re built tough and can easily be tossed into a bag when it’s time to hit the road. Here are three favorites: Thunderbolt 1TB, USB 3.0 1TB, FW800/USB 3.0 1TB.
Next up is simple: just plug in your external drive and copy over the files you want to store there. Once the copy has completed, you can delete the copied files from your internal storage. Note that iTunes, iPhone and Aperture libraries generally are best suited to live on the internal storage. While these libraries can safely be stored on an external drive, launching the related apps might not automatically connect to the external libraries. There are some utilities and tricks to resolve this problem, but they’re occasionally complex and for more advanced users.
Add Status Bar to Finder windows to keep up to date on space
With all of these cleanup tasks complete, you’re now ready to keep ongoing tabs on your available storage space so you know when to do your cleaning rituals again. Remember, you want roughly 5% to 10% of your storage space free for system activity, so that’s what you’re shooting for with your newfound knowledge. To get the Status Bar to appear at the bottom of an active window, go to the View menu in the Finder and select Show Status Bar.
As always, any questions about anything I’ve presented here, or if you feel you’re over your head, don’t hesitate to reach out via email, phone or in the comment section below.