Before You Hit Delete

(NOTE: Significant Computer Part Failure has delayed my ability to create these graphics I want to add to this post. Please check back. It may be awhile.)

What do you do if you are running out of space on your computer? In my last post, I said I often find that people start deleting files and sometimes delete the wrong ones. Then, their computer no longer works properly.

I want to provide some guidance, before you hit “delete.”

“Why do you think you are running out of space?” Are you really?

You may indeed be. But sometimes, that is not the issue at all. To explain this, I need to talk about the different kinds of file storage on your computer. Before you think this is getting too technical, take note: It’s not important that you remember all the details. I only want you to understand that there are different kinds of storage and that running short of space may not mean you need to delete files from your computer. (And if you get lost in the details, at least read the summary at the bottom.)

The three main types of storage that computers most regularly rely on are:

1) Disk space. This is the space on your disk drives. This holds all the files that run the computer and that hold your data. This is the area that people start deleting files from.

2) Memory (also known as RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory). This is temporary storage space that the computer relies on while it is processing information.

3) Virtual memory. Depending upon your computer, this might be called a pagefile, a swapfile, or a scratchfile. It is a file on your disk drive (#1 above) that is used when extra “memory” (#2 above) is needed. It may also be used while processing information in certain situations.

Again, it is not necessary that you understand the difference between all of these. Just realize that “running out of space” might really mean that #2 or #3 above is less than desirable for the current situation, and that you do NOT need to delete files from your computer.

Let me explain further. Memory (or RAM, #2 above) is used for processing information. Whenever you open a new program or application on your computer, information uses some of that memory. When you stop using that program, the memory used by that program is supposed to be made available to other programs. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

The more programs you have open at one time, the more memory is used. Some programs use a LOT of memory. When you are looking at web pages, memory is used. Some web pages use an enormous amount of memory. If you have a lot of tabs open on your web browser, you may end up using an incredible amount of memory.

If you run low on memory, your computer will slow down. It may even seem to come to a halt.

When memory (#2 above) gets low, computers typically put some of the information into “virtual memory” (#3 above). This is a file on your disk drive (#1 above). In other words, when memory runs low, more “memory” is “created” by using space on your disk drive (#1). What is really happening is that information is moved from memory (#2) to the file on the disk drive (#1). Then, when it is needed again, that information is moved back from the disk drive (#1) to memory (#2). The computer is “pretending” it has more memory than it really has; it does this by using space on the disk as memory.

The main problem with this is that it is a much slower process than using memory. Consider a “real world” example. Suppose you were sending invitations by regular mail (“snail mail”) to all your friends to invite them to a party. If you knew all the addresses by heart, you could just address all the envelopes, one after the other. But, if you didn’t, you would have to look each one up before you could address each envelope. Suppose you didn’t have an address book with all their addresses, and you had to search for each address before you could address the envelope. That is similar to the situation where the computer uses the disk drive as extra memory. It has to stop and locate the information and transfer it from the drive to memory before it can return to what it needs to do. This can really slow down the computer if it has to do a lot of swapping of information back and forth.

Let’s return to the question of the need to delete files. “Running out of space” could mean that any of the three types of storage are low. If either memory (#2) or virtual memory (#3) are low, then you do NOT need to delete files. Deleting files will not help you in those situations. Very often, when you think you need to delete files, it is really a case where something else (memory or virtual memory) is running low.

Today’s computers generally come with a lot of disk storage. The way many people use their computers, they don’t use up much of that disk space. (It depends upon how you use your computer. I work with a lot of very large files. Most people don’t.)

You could save tens of thousands of books plus copies of all the volumes of all the major encyclopediae onto the hard drive of most computers purchased in the last few years and still have plenty of space available. While it is possible that you may use up your hard drive space, people often have plenty of space available when they think they are running out of space.

Let’s look at some reasons you may think you are running out of space.

Your computer is running slowly. Most often this is NOT because you are running out of space. If this happens to you, some things you can do are:

*   Reboot your computer.

*   If you are running a lot of programs or have a lot of web pages open, that can cause your computer to run slowly. Close most of them. Or close them all and reboot your computer, then don’t open so many things. (If you need to run a lot of different programs or have a great number of web pages open simultaneously, evaluate whether adding more memory to your computer may help. It might simply be a matter of running out of memory, #2 above).

*   If that doesn’t help, it may be because of “clutter” on your hard drive. (See below on recommendations about this.) You are probably not running out of space, but instead have a lot of junk left behind that should have been cleaned up when you closed programs you were running or web sites you visited, but that cleanup process didn’t occur.

You get a message that you are running low on virtual memory. This means that #3 above is low. It does NOT mean that you need to start deleting files. You are getting that message because what you are doing is putting a strain on your memory (#2) and virtual memory (#3) and the computer wants to increase the amount of virtual memory (#3) to handle the load. It typically does this automatically. If it happens frequently, you can manually adjust the amount.

You get a message saying you are running out of space on Local Disk …. This may mean you are running out of space. But it may also be a temporary condition. It is also important to note that today’s computers divide the disk into multiple segments, called volumes or partitions. That message would apply only to one partition. If the space is low on one partition, you wouldn’t help the situation by deleting files from a different partition. If this situation occurs, look below for general guidelines to address it.

There could be other reasons you think you are running of out space. Regardless of why you think that may be a possibility, here is the approach you should take:


Evaluate whether your hard drive is actually running out of space. You may need to call someone who really understands computers to evaluate this.

If you have enough space available, it may be that you need to:

Reboot your computer. This means shutting it down. Simply “putting it to sleep” or “hibernating” it does not help.

Stop opening so many programs and/or web pages at the same time (if you do that).

Add additional memory to the computer (have someone evaluate the need to do that).

Clean up “clutter.” Get a well-known brand of security software that has disk cleanup features and use that to clean up the “clutter.” Do NOT rely on programs that say they will clean up your computer if you are finding out about them because of warnings, pop-ups, or similar techniques that hackers, criminals, and aggressive marketers use to get you to buy (or try) their stuff. Responding to those may cause you even more problems, including the possibility of getting hacked. Instead, go the the website of a reputable security software company, or buy their product at a local store.

If you still decide you need to delete files, use the following guidelines.

If you use Windows, look for your “My Documents” or “Documents” folder (depending on your version of Windows). Much of your data, although not all, is stored there. If you have a lot of files there (AND they consume an enormous amount of space), you can transfer them to another storage medium, like an external drive or a flash drive. Just be sure you have a good copy of them before you delete them.

You may be able to clean up “clutter,” including temporary files. I recommend using some well-known brand of security software for this. However, if you decide to do this manually, follow the next recommendation.

If you are deleting files from your hard drive, even files you believe you don’t need, you should move these files to another location before deleting them. You could move them to an external drive or flash drive. That way, if you delete the wrong files, you can get them back. In the event that you delete the wrong file so that your computer no longer starts up, you could call a computer expert to replace the files for you. Having the files that you moved (instead of deleting them) would simplify the process considerably, and may save you a significant expense as well. In moving them, it would be best to keep track of where they came from. This is best done by putting them into a new directory with the same name as the directory they came from. When it comes time to replace them to fix a problem, it doesn’t do much good to have lots of files if you don’t know which directory they came from. If you don’t understand this or know how to do this, you should probably call someone else instead of deleting them yourself.

Don’t delete files if you don’t understand what you are doing. Either call someone else or don’t do it. Many people have “broken” their computers by deleting the wrong files. (Many of these people thought they knew what they were doing.) The result of deleting the wrong files might simply cause a problem with a single program. Or, it could mean that you will no longer be able to use your computer and that nothing will happen when you turn it on.

There are other things you can do as well, such as some that enable you to add more space. That is beyond the scope of this particular article.


There are three main types of storage for files on your computer.

You may not need to delete files from your computer to resolve the problem you are facing. If the issue is insufficient memory (#2 above) or virtual memory (#3 above), you do NOT need to delete files.

Several situations that may cause you to think you need to delete files may be the result of other things. Some of these are: running too many programs or too many web pages, needing to reboot your computer, having clutter on your system, etc. These do not require you to create extra space.

If you do need to delete files, make a copy first, in case the wrong file gets deleted.

DO NOT start deleting files if you don’t know what you are doing or if you are not certain that those files are unneeded.

Consider calling an expert for help.

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