Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

Summary: Solid-state drives are wicked fast. They’re also expensive. One high-performance, low-cost strategy: Use a fast SSD as a Windows 7 system drive with a conventional hard disk for data. Here's how.

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Solid-state drives are wicked fast. They can breathe new life into a PC whose performance is being dragged down by a slow conventional hard drive. They’re also expensive and (at least for now) limited in total capacity. So how do you get the performance benefits of an SSD upgrade without breaking the bank?

With a notebook, you’re generally stuck with a single drive. But with desktop PCs (and with large notebooks that support the installation of a second disk drive), you can do what I’ve done: use a fast SSD as a Windows 7 system drive and install a conventional hard disk for use as a dedicated data drive.

In that configuration, your goal is to use just the right amount of space on the relatively small, expensive system drive. That doesn’t mean playing “How low can you go?” and ruthlessly deleting as much as possible. Instead, the smart strategy is to look at the total amount of space available on the system drive and then make intelligent, case-by-case decisions on where to store different kinds of files.

In this post and the accompanying gallery, I go through three big buckets of files that potentially consume large amounts of disk space, and I list the strategies you should follow for sizing and, if possible, relocating that data.


Don't miss the rest of this series:

Part 1: Windows 7 and SSDs: Just how fast are they?

Part 2: Windows 7 and SSDs: Setup secrets and tune-up tweaks


First, an overall question: How big should your system drive be? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question; the correct choice depends on your needs and your budget. But in general, I recommend choosing a system drive that will allow you to keep at least 20% of total disk space free at all times. That translates into the following general recommendations, organized by PC type:

Netbooks: 30 GB minimum, 60 GB recommended

If you’re using a small notebook or netbook almost exclusively for web-based applications and you don’t plan to install more than a handful of lightweight Windows programs or download and save large data files, you can probably get by with a 30GB drive. But you’ll spend much less time and energy monitoring disk space if you can afford a 60GB drive instead.

Workhorse desktop PC: 60 GB minimum, 120 GB (or more) recommended

I define this class of PC as one where you install and use multiple applications, including large programs like Microsoft Office. Windows 7 uses less disk space than you might think in a default installation; I have a 60 GB system drive on the PC I’m using to write this post, and it’s currently showing about 25 GB of free disk space. If you can afford a larger drive, you’ll spend less time fretting over free disk space.

Business-class notebook: 120 GB minimum, 256 GB recommended

For a high-end, single-drive notebook that you use as your primary PC, don’t skimp on storage. That’s especially true if you use it to store, convert, and play back digital media files. HD video and high-resolution digital photos can use a lot of disk space, and you want to make sure you have enough space for them.

In the following pages, I’ll go through specific configuration steps for two different categories of data and system files.

Page 2: Data files This is the largest of the categories and potentially the biggest space-saver. By relocating default data folders to a different drive, you prevent them from consuming space on the system drive.

Page 3: Windows system settings Among the biggest consumers of space on a Windows 7 system drive are hidden files used by the operating system itself—paging files, indexes, and so on. Here’s how to safely resize and/or move them.

Page 2: Relocating data folders

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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  • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

    Great feature, thanks Ed. Also your timing is perfect as I just bought a new desktop with an SSD as the main drive on your articles have condensed the info I found in 10 separate articles into one easy to follow guide.
    ernonewman@...
    • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

      I agree, thanks for this write-up, Ed. I'm a very experienced user (and a programmer) but I'm still looking for advice prior to my upgrade from XP to win7. My biggest question right now is the proper size for my system drive (partition). I've been storing data on a separate drive for many years. I don't even install software on the system drive, usually.

      I'm quite excited that win7 has built-in disk imaging. I can finally get rid of the expense of buying 3rd party imaging software.
      ken@...
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @ken@... Don't rely on the Win 7 disk imaging software. If your system hard drive fails and you try to restore an existing image to a new disk, Windows always seems to complain that it cannot find any suitable device to restore to. Personally, I think you're better sticking to third party imaging software instead.
        Euhemerus
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @Euhemerus...I disagree with statement. I have used it a couple of times (changing HDD's) and it has worked flawlessly for me.
        bvonr@...
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @ken@...

        dd is free.
        tkejlboom
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @ken@...
        I use imagex to capture/apply images to over 60 machines daily.
        @Euhemerus
        Sounds more like a missing controller driver in your WinPE.
        TechNickle
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @ken@... Like you, I am a professional dev so I feel your concern about how big a partition to use for your system drive.

        I have been partitioning my machines' storage in the manner Ed describes here since 2001. Most of my machines have a single HDD which I'd split into C: and D:. C: is where the OS and all my apps go. D: is where all my data goes. This way, if and when I do need to reinstall a new OS, I don't have to move all my data to external storage and back again.

        On my C: drive, I have:
        Win7 x64
        Office 2010 Professional + LiveMeeting & Communicator
        Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate + various SDK's (WinPhone7, Azure, RIA, etc)
        Expression Studio 4
        SQL Server
        SQL Server Express
        SQL Server Compact
        MySql
        IIS 7.5 Express
        WebMatrix
        Adobe Flash Player, Reader, Photoshop & Premier elements
        Debugging tools for Windows
        Evernote
        IE9
        Chrome
        Windows Live Essentials 2011
        VirtualBox
        Microsoft Security Essentials
        Many drivers & utilities
        Usual tools (7-Zip, BeyondCompare, Filezilla, Fiddler, GIMP, etc).

        My C: partition is 100GB and has 38GB free.

        I could install several (less-frequently used) apps to D: to free up room on C:, but I'd prefer to have all my apps on C: - the perf is worth the SSD$.
        bitcrazed
      • System partition size

        @ken@... <br><br>Ken,<br><br>Awhile back, in response to a Robin Harris article and planning to eventually get an SSD I bought a 1.5TB drive and reconfigured my system. Harris pointed out that with a high capacity HD drive in some cases the transfer rate from the outer edge (where data is stored first) can actually exceed that of an SSD. The configuration I have is 100GB C: with Win XP, 1.4TB as D: for data, and an old 80GB Western Digital with Win7. I choose which drive will boot from Setup--neither drive has a dual-boot loader.<br><br>I have LOTS of programs--generally at least 4-5 of each type: Office 2007 Pro, WordPerfect X4, OpenOffice; FoxPro 9 Pro database, Visual Basic 2008, Adobe Elements 7, Paint Shop Pro X3 <i>and</i> 9 (9 loads much faster), Artweaver, Photostudio 5.5 & 6, Dragon Dictate 10, Namo Webeditor, Acrobat 9, Nuance PDF Professional (Acrobat competitor), several high-quality synthesized voices, several genealogy programs and logo-creation software, Google Chrome. 3 programs over 1.1GB, 3 over 700MB, 4 over 400MB, 8 over 200MB, and several dozen others. With that huge amount my XP 100GB C: partition has 55 GB free.<br><br>I did move My Documents and my emails to the data drive.<br><br>Something that is EXTREMELY important is that pretty much all office suites and graphic-editing programs include a TON of fonts, border, clipart and stock images. ALL of that needs to be moved to the data drive or not installed. One particularly useful tactic is to use hard links. Each graphics-editing program tries to install the sample graphics and fonts in C:\Program Files\ProgramName\graphics\wherever. Once it is installed, exit the program, move the data to your D:\Graphics folder and then hard link to it. The program will still see the original location. An added benefit of this is that each program has access to the stock graphics of ALL the programs.<br><br>Regarding Fonts, I have found that most applications wind up with either Arial, Times New Roman or Courier (I'm a lawyer), which are part of Microsoft "core" fonts. The average person simply doesn't need 1,000 fonts. Acrobat and Java install the Lucida family. Various other Microsoft programs install Tahoma and Verdana, which are widely used on the Web. Almost everything else isn't needed--when installing wordprocessors, I routinely deselect all fonts except possibly wingdings.

        Just to make it clear ... both the XP and Win 7 installs share all the data folders.
        Rick_R
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @bitcrazed,

        On a HDD, partitioning to separate information that will be used simultaneaously (like OS, data and programs) will practically excessive head travel and its consequent slowdown. Basically, the further the heads have to travel, the less time they have to actually read or write data.

        On an SSD, thre is no penalty because it is a truly random access device with no head-position-dependent delays.
        Patanjali
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @Patanjali - many HDD's these days intermingle data sectors from different partitions. Rarely is your HDD physically split between two or more regions of your HDD.

        Dividing your storage into a system and data partitions has little to do with performance - it's more about ensuring that you can choose to re-install your OS and apps without having to copy all your data from/to your machine each time. As a hardcore developer, I tend to run at the bleeding edge of things and run LOTS of betas which necessitate more frequent reinstalls than most computer users.
        bitcrazed
    • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

      @ernonewman@... <br><br>Last week I bought a Dell Alienware M11 with a hybrid drive 50 GB SSD and 450 GB conventional. All in a tiny laptop and pretty fast loading. But, Dell doesn't offer them everywhere. It was unavailable in Germany, so I bought it from Spain.
      Bernard61
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @Bernard61

        HP had them available in their Envy line for a year, but couldn't move them, I guess. The new 14" and 17" Envy's aren't nearly as nice as the 13" and 15" were.
        tkejlboom
  • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

    Configuring Windows to use your big traditional hard disk for the Users folder during a clean and 'unattended' installation is a fairly popular option. Much better than mucking around in the registry.

    Naturally, it's still not something I'd expect civilians to be doing.
    simonneedham
    • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

      @simonneedham I advice against this approach in a normal desktop environment. If the entire Users folder is placed on a different drive, a failure on this drive (temporary or permanent) will unable you to even log on to the computer (you will get a message saying "Unable to load profile" or something like that). That is very different from, say, not being able to load your documents because the drive is down. It makes debugging and error correction much more complicated.

      I say this based on first hand experience.

      In my opinion, the reason to have data on a different drive is not only to save space (on SSD or whatever) but also to make it simple to reinstall. And after a reinstall you usually don't want all the data stored in Users\Appdata anyways, since reinstalling applications will re-create this.

      One big caveat, though. Be careful where Outlook files are placed, if you ever need to reinstall.
      magnusak
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @magnusak:

        I've come across this exact problem. A friend had a hard disk partitioned in two. I was going to wipe and reinstall Windows but didn't want to delete partition two (it had a recovery partition on it, which would be difficult to recreate).

        The Users folders was stored on partition two and I wanted to move it to partition one (there is no benefit having it on a second partition if it's part of the same physical drive anyway). I deleted the majority of the Users folder (Vista let me delete a surprising amount of it, given that I was logged in as that user. About the only thing I couldn't delete was NTUSER.DAT, obviously).

        I did this, rebooted and got the "Unable to load profile". I literally could only then log in using Safe Mode. This wasn't a problem (more an observation) because like I said, I was about to reinstall Windows anyway.
        bradavon
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @magnusak Hmm doesn't sound great. Thanks for the tip off.
        simonneedham
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @bradavon - not sure you're describing your scenario sufficiently accurately. Here's what I think you're describing:
        Partition 0: Recovery
        Partition 1: System
        Partition 2: Data

        There are VERY good reasons to separate your data from your OS & App files:

        1) When it comes to reinstalling your OS, you don't have to copy all your data off your PC and back again afterwards.

        2) Backing up your data is now simpler as there's less confusion about what is your data and what is the data that your apps will re-create when they're reinstalled.

        3) If you have a primary system drive which is limited in space (e.g. you can only afford to buy a 60GB SSD), moving all your data to your data partition/drive will free up a lot of room on your primary system drive.
        bitcrazed
    • Very little reward, high risk

      @magnusak @simonneedham

      This is why I do not recommend this approach.
      Ed Bott
    • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

      @simonneedham my question is how do u create a windows install that will do that, i've googled my head off and nothing comes up in understandable english. I always end up using windows profile relocator to move everything over after the clean install is done.
      veer01
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size

        @veer01 It's an option that's available when your perform a Windows 7 Unattended installation. Here's the entry point to the documentation http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd349343(WS.10).aspx . Basically you write an xml config file that answers all the questions one usually answers during the install process.

        However, I'd take @magunsak and Ed's advice on this one. I agree with them that the results when the D drive blows up outweighs the cleanliness of having a D:\Users folder.
        simonneedham