WinDirStat knows what's eating your memory

What to do when your hard drive fills up? If you want to clear out unnecessary files, Seth Rosenblatt shows you why WinDirStat is an invaluable resource.

WinDirStat provides easy visual reference for your disk-space usage. (Credit: WinDirStat)

Over the weekend, I found myself on a digital precipice. My laptop's hard drive had maxed out its 90GB, there were less than 5 to go. My external hard drive, The Tank, was about to get tanked: Out of the 250GB it could hold, I was down to less than 4. I still needed to upload a bunch of RAW format photos, with each image closing in on 10MB. What to do?

I remembered a recent article we ran about good system utilities and identifying where your precious gigabytes are going. Sure enough, WinDirStat came up. I was hoping that there was some unknown cache taking up all my space, or at least enough to be able to save without fear of outrunning the hard drive's limits.

Well, it couldn't hurt to try, right? Based on the Linux application KDirStat, downloading WinDirStat was a snap, since it clocks in at a hefty 630 kb. Installation actually took less time than downloading. We're talking about less than 2 minutes from starting the download to running the system scan.

You can scan single or multiple drives, as well as local and networked devices. (Credit: WinDirStat)

The scan itself took a lot longer with nearly 5 minutes for the 90GB hard drive and, interestingly, just under 10 for the 250GB. Once finished, I have to say that I was fairly unimpressed with the color-coded map. It visualizes your hard drive as a rectangle filled with boxes and other rectangles of different colors, with each color assigned to a file type, such as MP3, ZIP, EXE, JPEG, and so on.

It's nice that if you click on any part of the colored grid, the file tree opens to the corresponding file. By default, the files that take up the most space are colored blue, the second heftiest are red, and the third largest green. After the first 10 color-labeled file types, the rest appear in gray--but you can change these settings and colors through the Options menu.

The options give advanced users command-line access, among other choices. (Credit: WinDirStat)

It's a nice trick, but it's not too useful for specifics. The right-side tree, though, lists each file type next to the color it's been given, with the largest at the top. Clicking on it didn't do much of anything, but it's useful for getting an idea of what kind of files are eating your storage. To really get going, you need to access the center file tree.

All folders are organized according to the amount of space their contents take up, so you're always looking at the largest ones first. After playing through the folder tree, just looking for large folders in unexpected places, I came across a bunch of old MSI files for programs that I no longer used, which were eating up a large chunk of space. I'd also sacrificed much to the Java gods, apparently, since I had installations going back to version 5, at nearly 150MB per. Clearing those out gave me back more than 1.5GB. Finally, I found a bunch of streaming video clips that were being stored but hadn't yet been cleared out.

Set the color map of your drive to colors you like. (Credit: WinDirStat)

WinDirStat is loaded with features for managing your files, but the one I wanted here was the ability to automatically delete files without even bothering with the Recycle Bin. The temp files and MSIs were gone in a flash, and after uninstalling the extra dozen Javas I didn't need, I had at least enough room to tide me over until I could order a new hard drive.

This is one of those tools that you didn't know you needed until you started using it, but once installed, it's hard to imagine life without it.