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Slim Down Your Windows 7 System Drive for Notebook SSD Migration

What with the great benefits you can get from an SSD on a notebook PC, there's no reason not to make the switch these days. And with more than 100 SSDs going for between $100 and $200 a pop right now, there's no reason not to give yourself a major notebook boost for a relatively small overall investment. Ed Tittel shows how to make the switch.
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What with the great benefits you can get from an SSD on a notebook PC—which include faster boot, start-up, and shutdown; faster overall response time for applications; and improved battery life—there's no reason not to make the switch these days. And with more than 100 SSDs going for between $100 and $200 a pop on Newegg right now (similar deals are available at other online e-tailers such as Amazon, Provantage, eWiiz, and so forth), there's no reason not to give yourself a major notebook boost for a relatively small overall investment.

Sure, you can buy a bigger SSD if you like and save yourself this trouble, but you'll spend $400 or more for that privilege. Right now, $160 for a pretty fast SSD (such as the OCZ Agility 3) represents the "sweet spot" in trading speed and performance against cost.

If there's one fly in this particular ointment, it has to be the bloated file systems that you'll so typically find on modern notebook PCs. With hard disk sizes of 250–500 GB most common on machines nowadays, it's not at all unusual to find 100–150 GB of material on those drives, either. Because you want to leave at least 25 percent of the drive space unoccupied to give Windows room to work and breathe, that means you need to trim your holdings down to no more than 80 GB to move them onto a 120 GB SSD.

Secrets of Slimming Down a Windows Disk

I've converted half-a-dozen systems from conventional spinning hard disks to SSDs now, and have learned the drill involved in bringing Windows 7 installations down to a reasonable size. There are lots of tricks and tips I'm about to dispense but they all boil down to two ultimate principles:

  • Find the biggest files, and either get rid of them or cut them down as much as you can.
  • Get rid of anything you don't need or don't use in your Windows file system.

When inspecting your disk drive to see what's big and bloated, nothing beats the Sourceforge tool WinDirStat. I'll use my trusty Dell D620 Latitude notebook as an illustration as we work through the various techniques you can use to make a machine ready to switch from a conventional HD to an SSD.

Figure 1 shows what its drive looks like as I fire it up to begin the process of inspection and reduction to prepare its internal 500 GB HD (putative, 465 GB actual) to move over to an SSD

Colored boxes in Figure 1 represent files, themselves enclosed in boxes that represent folders. You can click any file to jump to its listing info in the upper-left pane or click any item in that listing to highlight its corresponding colored box (files, folders, and even drives).

Figure 1 The biggest boxes are the yellow "Unknown" item plus pagefil.sys and hiberfil.sys (the two red boxes to its right).

As you look at this display, you can concentrate your efforts on the biggest boxes to bring disk size down in a hurry. As it happens, the big yellow box represents a whopping 15 GB reserved for restore points, and the red boxes represent the paging file that Windows uses while it is running and the system image used to hibernate the system when it's sleeping. You can reduce the size of the yellow box, but unless you want to turn hibernation off, there's nothing you can do about the red ones.

Clean Up That Drive!

Following inspection, the first thing you should do is to clean up your drive. I like the great, free Piriform CCleaner software for this task. Immediately, this tool finds 233 MB to trim off the drive (see Figure 2). Let's do it!

Figure 2 Piriform CCleaner is good at finding and cleaning up file system trash.

The results: Disk size before clean-up: 45.3 GB; after clean-up: 44.9 GB (1%).

Toss Out Unused or Unwanted Applications

Nothing sucks up space like Windows applications (ignoring those ginormous system files I've already mentioned for the moment). A quick jump back into WinDirStat on the Dell D620 shows that the Program Files and Program Files (x86) folders together account for 2.5 GB of disk space.

For application clean-up I use another free program called Revo Uninstaller, as shown in Figure 3 (and also its commercial cousin, Revo Uninstaller Pro).

Figure 3 Revo Uninstaller lists all installed apps and supervises de-installation/removal.

This system is already pared down to the bare bones, so there are no savings to report from this technique for this particular machine. In other SSD preparation jobs, I've recovered 10–15 GB of disk space by removing unwanted applications. What I like about Revo Uninstaller is that it always makes a restore point before it removes anything (not all application uninstallers are that careful) and it also goes through the Windows registry to remove "dangling references" (of which there can sometimes be hundreds) after the uninstall process for any particular application completes.

The results: Disk size before clean-up: 44.9 GB; after: no change (44.9 GB, 0 percent). This is unusual. Expect at least 1–2 GB, if not more, on most machines.

Rooting Out Redundant Drivers

Over time, as you update drivers on a Windows PC, all of them start to accrete in the C:\Windows\System32\DriverStore\FileRepository directory. There's really no need to keep more than one generation back (it's always a good idea to have an older working drive to roll back to, in case the current driver you're using starts getting wonky).

For this purpose, I use a great free Codeplex utility called Driver Store Explorer (aka RAPR.exe). In Figure 4, you can see that the oldest of three Broadcom network adapters is selected for subsequent removal, as will be the case for all "third or more generations back" versions of drivers in the store. In some cases you'll also find duplicates (look at the two entries above the highlighted item); they can go, too.

Figure 4 Careful examination of drivers often finds a dozen or more for removal.

On the D620, I was able to remove seven driver packages from the Driver Store. Net savings: 100 MB in this case. On other machines, I've seen savings as high as 1–2 GB.

The results: Disk size before clean-up: 44.9 GB, after: 44.8 GB (0.3 percent). Nothing major in this case, but on some machines it can be substantial.

Resize Your Restore Point Allocation

By default, Windows 7 allocates 5 percent of the drive for restore points. For a putative 120 GB SSD (112 GB actual, in round numbers) that's 5.6 GB. Currently, this drive has 16.72 GB allocated for restore points (with a maximum ceiling of 18.63 GB). I'll tweak the slider on the System Protection for Local Disk window to set it to 5.6 GB for the pending move.

To access this window, type Restore Point into the Start menu search box, then click the Configure button on the System Protection tab of the System Properties window. This opens the System Protection for Local Disk window, where you can move the slider (as shown in Figure 5). I set it to 4.66 GB because that's as close to 5.6 GB as the controls would let me get.

Figure 5 At left is System Properties; at right the slider that controls restore point space.

The results: This is where savings really accrue; by trimming the restore point allocation, we dropped total disk size from 44.8 GB to 32.3 GB, a savings of 11.5 GB (almost 28 percent).

In Figure 6, WinDirStat tells us that the big yellow Unknown box is no longer the single biggest holding on the drive.

Figure 6 The yellow Unknown box drops to the lower left after resizing restore point space.

Other Space-Saving Techniques

Some applications use data files that consume enormous amounts of disk space (think Microsoft Outlook and PST files, or Adobe Photoshop and various media files, for example). You can look for ways to trim or move these files to get them off your primary drive. For under $20, you can purchase a compact, portable USB drive enclosure for the old conventional HD you'll be removing from your notebook and use it to house that drive after you make the switch. Then, you can use that bigger drive to back up your SSD, and move files that you don't always need on hand to that other drive to reduce crowding and space consumption.

As an example of a space-saving technique, see my blog post "Interesting tips and tweaks for PST file cleanup & optimization." In that post, you learn about a repair tool called ScanPST.exe for Outlook that fixes issues with Outlook's Personal information Storage (PST) files and enables you to use the compaction tool built into Outlook with greater success. I've been able to reduce file sizes by 2 to 3 GB for such files (Outlook.pst and Archive.pst) on my systems, so if this applies to you, you can do likewise.

Similar savings can accrue from researching compaction and cleanup tools for other applications. And if such tools aren't available, you can always recover drive space by moving files to your new external USB drive enclosure and then deleting them from your SSD. This can produce substantial space savings from 1, 2, to 5 GB and up.

The results: Overall, we started at 45.3 GB on the Dell D620 I picked as an illustration, and would end up at 32.3 GB after performing all these tasks. The 13 GB we saved represents nearly 29 percent savings on disk space. Not bad for an hour's work.

If you're planning to move to an SSD on a notebook yourself, please go and do likewise!

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