Running out of laptop storage? Try these three solutions





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Getty/Jay Yuno

Laptops are miracles of modern miniaturization. Unfortunately, that trend toward making things smaller applies to the system drive, too.

Even cheap laptops these days have solid-state drives, and because SSDs cost significantly more than conventional hard drives (and take up more precious real estate inside the laptop case), there’s a powerful incentive on the part of PC makers to cut the price tag by offering options with smaller SSDs.

It’s a false economy. That’s why I’ve always recommended choosing the biggest storage option you can afford. You will probably regret the decision if you try to save a few dollars by skimping on the system drive.

So what do you do if you have an SSD that’s too small for comfort? Ask yourself three questions to decide which option is best.

Can I move files to the cloud?

The easiest quick fix is to shift as many data files to the cloud as possible, using on-demand options like those available from OneDrive and Dropbox. (OneDrive calls this feature Files On-Demand; Dropbox calls it Online-Only, and offers it only for paid plans.) Using this feature lets you move all your data files to the cloud but still see them in File Explorer or the Mac Finder. Download only the files you need and keep everything else online, where it’s available when you need it but doesn’t use up storage space.

This option works best if you have at least 128 GB of storage on your system drive. On budget systems with 64 GB of storage, this strategy might still lead to times when available storage space is too tight for comfort.

Can I upgrade the drive?

In general, laptops aren’t designed for expandability, which means you’ll need expert help and the steady hands of a Swiss watchmaker just to open the case. And even then you might find that the system drive is soldered in place and can’t be swapped out.

But it’s worth checking your laptop model to be sure. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 and Surface Pro X, for example, have a nifty little pop-up door that allows you to replace the system drive. (This option is also available on Surface Pro 7 models sold through business channels.) Some business-class models from other OEMs have system drives that can be replaced if you’re willing to take the laptop apart to get to the drive slot (some models even have a second drive slot, so you can expand storage without losing your existing drive).

Replacement SSDs can be surprisingly economical. Just make sure you get a drive that is compatible with your system. (Some even come with backup software that allows you to transfer the contents of your current drive to the new one.)

I’ve successfully upgraded the drive on Dell laptops that only required removing a few screws on the bottom of the system to access the drive slots. I’ve also seen systems that required removing the keyboard and disconnecting multiple internal components to get to the drive bay, which is a much more challenging task.

You’ll need to find the service manual for your laptop to see if expansion is an option. YouTube videos from other owners of the same model as yours can also be useful. If you’re the DIY type, it’s worth checking out.

Is an external option good enough?

If the cloud isn’t practical and an upgrade isn’t possible, external storage might be a useful alternative strategy.

Does your system have a slot for an SD or MicroSD card? You can add hundreds of gigabytes of storage for a pretty low price. That form factor is too slow to run apps from, but it’s great for storing digital media and other data files. And it’s extremely portable.

If you have a fast USB port (USB 3.0 or USB 3.1, which are now confusingly known as USB 3.2 Gen 1 and Gen 2, respectively), an external SSD might be a useful addition. This option can be fast enough to run programs; you can even install and run virtual machines from an external drive, as I do with an external SSD on a Thunderbolt port. 

The downside is that this option makes your laptop considerably less portable. But if you mostly use your laptop at a desk, you can always connect an external SSD like the Crucial X6 or Samsung T7. Those drives aren’t terribly expensive, and they’re fast enough to handle just about any task you throw at them.




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