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Does a Full Hard Drive Slow Down Your Computer?

I hear this all the time. People are under the impression that having a lot of files on their computer makes their computer slow.

hard drive low disk space error message slow computerUnless you’re within a small percent of completely filling up your hard drive, you don’t have anything to worry about.  Your system will be giving you warnings well in advance of there being a problem. (However, if you’ve been seeing that message for a while now… you need to do something about it!)

Its true that merely using your computer (especially bouncing around the internet) will cause it to slow down over time. But this is due to your computer picking up adware and spyware and internet browser toolbars, etc along the way. Its just that all during this time, people are saving files to their computer – and they know it. So its natural for people to draw the conclusion that the act of their downloading files, pictures, music, watching YouTube, etc is what causes their computer to slow down and become sluggish and respond slowly. But that isn’t the case.



Think of your dog for a minute. When you let it out – it is excited and jets out across the yard and gets into everything. When it comes back, you find it has ticks and fleas and burrs. Was the dog doing anything “wrong?”

No – your dog was just being a dog!

The same is true of your computer.

You don’t have to be doing anything “wrong” on the computer for your computer to pick things up that eventually cause it to respond slowly and act sluggishly. Its actually parasitic software that gloms onto your computer – not the files you’ve been downloading – that is weighting it down.


Another Example…

Consider a housewife at home with a pot of spaghetti boiling, the phone ringing, the baby on the floor crying and the husband poking his head around the corner yelling “Honey, I’m home!” Is she going to do any of those tasks well? Now think of all the things your computer is being asked to do!

But its not because her house is full of furniture that she’s overloaded – its all of the things trying to happen all at once that boggles her mind.

(Note: Viruses can also cause a computer to seem “bogged down” and make it slow to respond. And yes, it *is* doing “things” in the background. In that case, my best advice when you suspect you have a virus is to turn off your computer – just press-and-hold the power button until the screen goes black – and call a competent computer repair service. Different viruses require different measures – its very difficult to give general advice when it comes to viruses.)



…this idea of a full hard drive slowing down your computer does have “some” basis in reality. You may be aware of something called a system cache, pagefile or superfetch. You may have also heard it called “virtual memory.” Here’s what that’s all about…

The RAM memory chips in your computer are fast, but they don’t hold enough to do everything the computer needs to do, so the “overflow” that the RAM chips can’t support gets sent to the hard drive.

A certain portion of your hard drive (literally, about 1% – maybe even less) needs to be reserved for this function.

If your personal data begins encroaching on this space that is reserved for system files (the “prefetch” or “cache”), your computer most certainly WILL get slower and slower – very noticeably so. But that isn’t going to happen until your computer’s hard drive is SOLID BLUE, you won’t run into any problems.


Imagine a Juggler

Let me share with you a brief analogy to help you understand this another way…

Imagine a juggler. His hands are like your computer’s CPU – that’s the part that’s actually doing “work.” Moving things around.

He’s a good juggler, he can keep six balls in the air, maybe eight balls on a good day. Tossing the balls in the air and getting them back again is like the RAM memory chips in your computer. (Hey, tech guys reading this and snickering… ITS AN ANALOGY!lol)

One day the boss comes in and tells him he’s going to need to keep twenty balls in the air that day. He objects, saying that the best he can *ever* do is eight! Boss says, “Not my problem,” and walks out the door.

So the juggler gets an idea – and he builds something we’ll call a “table.” He can put a LOT more than twenty balls on the table. The only down side is it takes extra time to put balls on the table and get balls from the table. But he CAN manage the required amount of balls. And thus keep his job.


Hard Drive vs RAM

And this is one of the functions of the hard drive – as well as storing your email and your documents and pictures and movies, it acts as “virtual” memory in support of the limited amount of RAM.

RAM is good for a computer because it is a temporary holding place for the data being manipulated by the CPU – and it is *very* fast (the CPU can send data to it and retrieve it back very quickly) but the flip-side is, it can’t hold much.

Hard drives on the other hand can hold a LOT , but they are comparatively very slow.

As an example, these days a “lot” of RAM is 8GB, but a “small” hard drive is 100GB.


So… What Does This Mean To You?

Now, what does this all mean to you? I’m here to tell you… practically speaking, if the hard drive in your computer has less than a quarter of the hard drive free, you might want to start paying attention. If you’re less than 10% free, we need to talk. We need to figure out what we’re going to do because you are getting close to filling up your hard drive.

Here’s how to tell… Double-click on My Computer, right-click on C-drive, select Properties – you’ll see a pie shape indicating how much of your hard drive is in use. If you have less than 3GB free – you’re on really thin ice and you’re probably feeling your computer getting sluggish. If you have less than 1GB – we need to take immediate action.

Just to alleviate any fears, the resolution doesn’t necessarily have to be drastic or expensive. Some of the things you might do include… utilize some tools that automate the clearing of temp files and various caches and thus give you some breathing room. You’re also probably in line to start picking and choosing what pictures in your collection are “keepers” and which ones are the result of having a digital camera and just having fun clicking away! :) You might also be able to move some files around (if your computer manufacturer gave you a small”ish” C-drive and a much larger data partition, often appearing as a D-drive). Additionally, you might consider purchasing an external hard drive for extra storage space.

Worst case scenarios include buying a new computer (it took a long time to get to 90% capacity, therefore your computer is likely getting “long in the tooth”) and replacing the hard drive (quite a drastic measure – I’ve actually never done it “just because the hard drive was getting full”). But there are a *lot* of things we can do before we seriously consider these options.



That’s All!

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If you are getting the “low disk space” error message and you’re worried about the integrity of the data on your computer, please call All San Diego Computer Repair at the number at the top of this page. We’ll take a look at your system and give you a straight answer about what options are available to you.


“Have a great day!”


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