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.


On a desktop PC with a dedicated data drive, the most important change you can make is to get your everyday data files off your system drive. The difference in performance will be minor, and the savings in disk space can be extreme, especially if you have a large collection of digital media files.

Yes, it would be lovely if Windows was designed like other operating systems (cough, Linux, cough) and you could simply relocate an entire user profile to a different volume. But that’s not how Windows works, and in my experience trying to make this sort of radical change is unnecessary and dangerous. (Caution: If you search the Internet, you can find registry hacks that allow you to move an entire user profile. I strongly advise against doing this.)

You’ll find your data files in a subfolder of the Users folder, which is located by default in the root of the system drive. Each of the folders in this location is dedicated to a different type of data. To open this folder, click Start and then click your user name, at the top of the right column.

Each of the folders in your user profile is a shell folder that is associated with a physical destination. When you move one or more of those data folders to your dedicated data drive, you also inform Windows of the new location for that shell folder. Once that’s done, any modern Windows program will automatically find the correct locations for opening and saving files, and you can open those locations in Windows Explorer by just double-clicking the folder icon in your profile.

Although it’s possible to move every folder from your user profile, that isn’t necessary. The real space savings come from moving the Downloads, Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos folders. Here’s how the procedure works:

1. Open your data drive in Windows Explorer and create a new, empty folder for each of the data folders you plan to move. This step isn’t required, but it will make the remainder of the process easier. In the examples here, I’ve assigned the drive letter X: to my data drive.

2. Open your user profile in Windows Explorer, right-click the folder you want to move, and click Properties.

3. Click the Location tab, and then click the Move button. Browse to the folder you created in step 1 that corresponds to the folder you want to move, and select it.

4. Click Apply or OK. A dialog box will ask whether you want to move all files from the current folder to the new location (and delete the existing location). Click Yes.

Repeat steps 2-4 for the other folders you want to move. (Update: Some people prefer the drag-and-drop approach to moving these shell folders. If that describes you, then follow the steps I outlined for Windows Vista in this post from four years ago. The basic procedure is the same.)

After you make this change, there’s one additional setting you’ll want to tweak. As every Windows user knows, files you delete are actually moved to the Recycle Bin, where you can recover them in the event of an accidental deletion. Windows reserves space on each drive for the Recycle Bin. You can specify the maximum amount of space that Windows is allowed to use by right-clicking the Recycle Bin and choosing Properties.

If you have a single drive, as is the case with this notebook, you’ll have to decide how much space you want to allocate for deleted files. If you have two drives, you’ll want to set a low number for the system drive and a relatively high number for the data drive. Again, there’s no right number to choose here. Your setting should be based on your usage patterns and comfort level.

That takes care of your user data. On to Windows itself.

Page 3: Tweaking Windows system settings

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


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

        I use imagex to capture/apply images to over 60 machines daily.
        Sounds more like a missing controller driver in your WinPE.
      • 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
        IIS 7.5 Express
        Adobe Flash Player, Reader, Photoshop & Premier elements
        Debugging tools for Windows
        Windows Live Essentials 2011
        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$.
      • 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.
      • RE: Windows 7 and SSDs: Cutting your system drive down to size


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


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


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

        @magnusak Hmm doesn't sound great. Thanks for the tip off.
      • 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.
    • 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.
      • 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 . 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.